THE phrase ‘A week is a long time in politics’ may be one of the most hackneyed — but is no less true for that.
Its first use is most commonly attributed to British Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1964, although the man himself couldn’t pinpoint its precise origins when he retired.
However, as far back as 1886, when the world lived at a far slower pace, another British politician, Joseph Chamberlain, stated somewhat ruefully: “In politics, there is no use in looking beyond the next fortnight.”
Cast your minds back to just eight weeks ago today. Did you head off to vote in the General Election? And, like many that day — some would argue the majority — did you vote for change?
Well, we certainly got that in spades, didn’t we? And in double quick time.
Except the devastation of the coronavirus — the daily toll of tragedy, the lockdown of the vast majority of the population, the death blow to our thriving economy, the effect on the outside world — that wasn’t the change we wanted at all at all.
Back then, in a voting booth in another time and another place, we were preoccupied with change of a different kind: A housing market that was fit for purpose and fit for the people; a society that threw an arm around its homeless instead of holding them at arm’s length; and a health service where hundreds of citizens weren’t left floundering on trolleys as they queued up to be treated.
We got the last request, didn’t we — but my god, we would go back to the problems of February 8, 2020, now in a flash.
Those eight weeks since the general election have seen some of the most momentous events in the history of our nation: snapshots in time that will make it not just on a half-hour episode of Reeling In The Years, but in a half-hour episode of Reeling In The 21st Century.
Remember in the wake of the election, when Sinn Féin sought a mandate to govern on the back of the fact they had received more first preferences than any other party? Few argued with that logic.
As for Fine Gael, they were a beaten force, resigned to five years in opposition.
History will judge Michéal Martin and Fianna Fáil as the potential kingmakers of a new government — and history may not judge them kindly.
Imagine if the party had acted quicker in striking a deal with Sinn Féin or Fine Gael. Imagine if they had forsaken the usual dancing around the head of a pin that accompanies the formation of a coalition government, and grasped the nettle in those early days.
It would probably be Mary Lou McDonald or Michéal Martin who would now be taking the war to the coronavirus.
Of course, nobody could have had a clue what was coming down the tracks. On February 8, the outbreak had not yet been declared a pandemic, nor had it reached Europe’s shores. But, as another Irish politician famously said during another existential crisis: We are where we are. And, politically speaking, where we are is in a very strange place indeed.
The Taoiseach remains Leo Varadkar, who recently passed 1,000 days in office — despite the fact that, since taking over from Enda Kenny, the only election he has ever won is the one to lead his party. He remains unanointed by the people.
The same ministers are in place — the very ones, including Health Minister Simon Harris, who the electorate wanted bundled out just eight weeks ago. Transport Minister Shane Ross doesn’t even have a seat any more.
Moreover, it is looking more likely by the day that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will form a coalition government, perhaps with Labour or the Greens, once this virus nightmare has abated.
But the coronavirus will shift the sands of politics not just in Ireland but across the world.
Although it is too early to call, current signs are that it may well do for Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, while it could be the making of Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris.
An opinion poll last week indicated the Irish people were uniting behind their leaders at a time of unprecedented national turmoil. Fine Gael topped the poll with a surge to 34%, while Sinn Féin remained popular at 28%. Fianna Fáil, the party with most seats in the Dáil, is now floundering at 18%.
Even Sinn Féin’s most ardent enemies would have to admit that this crisis has come at a terrible time for the party: from riding the crest of a wave in the days after the election, to meeting head on the tsunami of the coronavirus.
If I may go off at a tangent here, I am no fan of Liverpool Football Club, but anyone who doesn’t believe they deserve to be crowned champions of the 2019-2020 season really is not familiar with the word ‘sport’ in any way.
Similarly, it is hard to deny Sinn Féin their tilt at running the country for five years.
There is only one way to fix this political mess: We simply must hold another General Election, as soon as people are permitted to enter the polling booths without risk of infection — or could we all even use postal votes?
The political landscape has changed, changed utterly since February 8. The manifestos are meaningless, the priorities have totally shifted.
Will there be a crash in the housing market now, making property more affordable?
Will the public-private link-up in the health service remain, fixing many of the problems therein?
And what of the economy? How will we get that back on track?
Eight weeks ago, in the election exit poll, jobs and the economy were a priority for only 6% of voters. Could that be 96% now?
The people had their say on February 8, they must be given the chance to have their say again at a later date. The world has changed, and we must change with it.