As this horrific and frightening year comes to an end, it may be difficult to fully comprehend how bad 2020 has been for our communities, our country, and the world at large. Such descriptions sound melodramatic, and yet in 2020, we have experienced a pandemic that has not been seen since the Spanish Flu over a hundred years ago. For a small country, we pride ourselves on our tight-knit community spirit, where even urbanites rally together to support one another when needed. It’s no exaggeration, in that case, that over 2,000 deaths in Ireland feels like a traumatic event, especially when that has affected every county, city, and community.
When such a global event takes place, one can be forgiven for dismissing political differences as fairly unimportant. “We’re all in this together”, we were told by our leaders and local representatives, yet the reality seemed to be quite different at times. Many who died from COVID-19 had only a hospital nurse to hold their hand at their deathbed, while funerals were viewed via webcast for those who weren’t able to attend or travel, even if they were in the same town. Those who took tests ended up waiting weeks for a result, thanks to a backlog which developed from poor planning, but also a vastly under-resourced health system.
When a brief return to normality seemed possible, we dropped that community spirit for a series of bickering over which industry was the most important, the most fragile, or the most in need of reduced restrictions. It didn’t help, of course, that those same political leaders who called for support and solidarity were the same ones who ended up not only arguing with their own health advisers, but also publicly undermining their authority. Meanwhile, displays of partying and joy were demonised, either for being reckless or simply selfish in the face of a global health crisis, yet others were keen to shut the critics up as being uptight do-gooders. In other words, our resolve and community spirit broke down when we could take no more, snapping at one another in exhausted frustration.
Experience in Scandals
It is safe to say, therefore, that this year has brought out the best and worst in us all. While no-one can be held responsible for the emergence of a new viral strain, how our nation has reacted to, and acted in, a pandemic is very much down to the decisions made in Leinster House. We have seen our new government fumble at each hurdle, from a viral test backlog of 40,000, to the horrific abandonment of Debenhams workers, to the cohort of government representatives ignoring their own health advice by congregating for a golf tournament. Indeed, with each fall, we have lost our faith in the competence and integrity of our supposed leaders. Despite the long-standing experience of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil taking turns in power, and the potential for positive social and environmental change that the Greens promised, the 33rd Dáil we waited so long for has only added to the difficulties and disappointments we feared would happen, despite coming into power during the height of the Coronavirus situation.
As a republic, however, we must ask ourselves how we’ve chosen to make ourselves suffer like this. These men and women are elected by us, and they are therefore from us. Yet when parties like Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael may seem like the tried and tested choice for business owners like publicans or retailers, the experience of those industries this year has been nothing but devastating. Smaller business owners, sole traders, or casual workers, meanwhile, don’t always have the same political ‘go-to’ choice, and yet they have been exposed to even more economic hardship, with the Pandemic Unemployment Payment being thrown out like an unreliable lifebuoy. Sometimes it just about keeps the endangered afloat, sometimes the air has been let out of it, and sometimes it’s not within reach at all.
Heart and Head
How we, as voters, are motivated by both logic and emotion is at the core of our politics, yet the latter is often portrayed as unintelligent. I argue, instead, quite the opposite: Our compassion for our family, friends, and wider community should drive us to want a better world, and our logic should settle on the best proposal to bring that into effect. Instead, our principles are based on the remnants of Thatcherite politics: Focus on oneself first and foremost, economy over ecology, and portray those who rely on the State as welfare-cheating scroungers. Caring for anyone else has been, for decades now, portrayed as some form of expensive weakness in our civic character, but we can only change that tune for the better if we recognise and admit it first. Ireland is not as warm, as caring, or tolerant as we make it out to be.
That can change, and there have always been organisations and societies in this country that campaigned for better socio-economic conditions. We must ask ourselves why many of us have lost faith in the power of their vote, even despite the reports of Green Waves or the impact of the most recent “Vote Left, Transfer Left” trend. We have seen parties like the Greens be almost torn apart while deliberating over whether or not to enter government, and whether they made the right choice or not is for others to decide, but I wonder what is truly needed to make a change.
I believe your own voice needs to be heard, but how you make that decision is up to you. Do you want this country to be led with principles in practice? Do you want to see a green economy come to life, like previously shown to work in countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, or Germany? Do you think our current state of affairs in housing, healthcare, and community support are severely out of kilter? As this annus horribilis finally comes to an end, make yourself a New Year’s resolution to find the optimist in yourself once more, and find a way to make your voice heard, to prove that we really should be all in this together.
This article was originally published in the print edition of Cork’s Echo newspaper on 9 December 2020, under the title “Find a way for your voice to be heard”.