2016 has made manifest the growing popular dissatisfaction that exists across large parts of the Western world with the manner in which countries and economies are being run, and with the high levels of dislocation, decay and deprivation that are the price of the large rewards being gained by a relatively small minority. There is reasonable prosperity for a lot of people, but across countries it is unevenly spread.
While the election of Donald Trump as the next US President and the vote for a UK Brexit are the main manifestations of dissatisfaction to date, other elections and referenda are due in Europe over the next few months that may push the consequences out further.
In Austria’s presidential election, the hard right candidate has been defeated, to the benefit of a country many of us love well. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s resignation following a heavy referendum defeat on reform of the Senate threatens EU-wide instability. People rarely support proposals to weaken parliamentary institutions.
The French presidential election takes place in two rounds. So, French voters can be clear about the consequences of their choice, lessening the likelihood of a surprise outcome. The emergence of François Fillon as the presidential candidate on the centre-right, who is a Catholic, was an interesting and unexpected development. His election may in practice help to soften the doctrinaire separation of Church and State. France is also badly in need of economic reforms that would end a period of prolonged stagnation.
Our Republic is not immune from wider trends. The February General Election resulted in the same phenomenon here, albeit more muted.
The main Government party, Fine Gael, did well in South Dublin, where the recovery was most strongly felt, but less well elsewhere. There are many parts of Ireland, where industrial jobs are long gone, where many shops in main streets are closed down, and where public services like Garda stations, post offices, hospitals, and transport services have either been withdrawn or are under threat. It often feels in rural Ireland that the blanket is constantly being pulled to the other side of the bed. The political centre holds, just about.
It is an ill wind that blows no one any good. The forthcoming Trump presidency, and now the Italian result, have resulted in some sterling losses since the Brexit vote being clawed back, which eases pressure on the indigenous sector and businesses south of the border. Secondly, scrapping of the proposed TTIP trade agreement will ease one threat facing agriculture. Unfortunately, there are too many decision-makers willing to subordinate the interests of agriculture to those of the multinational corporations, who may employ as many people, and produce more wealth, but who contribute less to a balanced regional economy outside a handful of large centres.
Another manifestation of indifference to agriculture is the pressure on the sector to reduce emissions, despite grass-based beef production being far more environmentally friendly and healthy than the industrial methods employed elsewhere. Countries like the US, like India, which rejected the Doha Round deal many years ago, have a firmer bottom line than we seem able to adopt. Post-Brexit, we may not be able to rely so much on the British market, if they find cheaper sources of supply, in South America.
There is a religious dimension as well to the feeling of alienation. Whereas anti-globalisation protests generally come from the political left, they are the champions of globalisation and the extension of human rights far beyond the core freedoms contained in international human rights accords. One of the main reasons for seeking independence 100 years ago was to have the opportunity for the first time of adopting our own social and cultural norms. While, as we know, some aspects of this did not turn out well, Ireland was and is entitled, within wide limits, to decide on its own social and moral standards.
While Amnesty International is a charity widely supported for its work on behalf of the victims of repressive régimes, it should not be campaigning domestically in a one-sided way on the contested rights surrounding abortion, an issue on which there is no consensus.
While secular forces seem to think they are on a roll here, they would do well to be wary. The pronounced anti-clerical stance of the Labour Party in the last Government 2011-6 was one factor, even if not the main factor, in its heavy defeat in February. It remains to be seen if the people will easily be persuaded to surrender their constitutional right to decide the overall parameters of issues relating to the family.
As we draw to the end of the year, there is a lot of uncertainty as to what Brexit will involve, and how much of Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric was meant literally. There would be a lot of concern in Europe that his victory will encourage imitators in Europe to engage in similar electoral tactics.
The American Constitution was devised to prevent presidential despotism, however enlightened, and there are a lot of checks and balances. Governing, like business, is conceived to be about making deals, and making threatening noises is the route to a better deal.
Regarding Brexit, the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s autumn statement signified that the short- to medium-term economic effects, in terms of debt, growth, employment and living standards, will leave UK residents significantly worse off. Brexit is at best a long shot. It is Nigel Farage’s generation chiefly that decided to kick over the traces. The Liberal Democrat by-election win in Richmond could signal a real fight ahead, as the British people begin to face the hard reality that they probably made a bad decision.
Given all the uncertainties and challenges, a more united Government here giving clear leadership would provide reassurance. In Europe, the steadiest hand is that of Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the religious sphere, Pope Francis is providing good leadership. There is no need to be timorous. The willingness of the Republic and Northern Ireland to work together is positive.