Stirring up class division could backfire on politicians

Both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil are trying to score points by accusing Fine Gael of being too middle-class. Such reverse snobbery is a dangerous game

9th February, 2020
Stirring up class division could backfire on politicians
Class was a central issue in this election. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The euphemism being used to explain Sinn Féin’s success is that this is a “change election”, but make no mistake about it: class politics dominated the Election 2020 campaign.

The educational achievement and professional background of candidates’ parents must now, it appears, be publicly declared.

“Your personal attacks about FG being born into privilege @MichaelMartinTD are pathetic. Son of a taxi driver and an SNA. Proud of my family and my upbringing,” tweeted Minister for Health Simon Harris, last week.

Indeed, the Taoiseach felt it necessary to tell the country during a televised debate that Fine Gael TD Noel Rock was raised by a single mother in the Ballymun flats in Dublin. Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty has told us, on many occasions, that she lived in a Ballymun council house before moving to Finglas, an area with a high level of economic disadvantage. She has described her family as “normal, working-class people”. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald regularly refers to the “ordinary working class”.

I have always been perplexed about what it is meant by normal or ordinary people. If you are not working-class, are you by implication abnormal and extraordinary?

The undertone is clear. It is okay to express public pride when it comes to certain socio-economic backgrounds but being middle-class can be a political liability.

In the summer of 2018, Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy felt it necessary to defend his privately funded education on national radio. “Posh boy” was the jibe used by opponents to suggest that his Dublin 4 upbringing was not gritty or roughhouse enough for him to understand the housing crisis.

Sinn Féin ramped up the reverse snobbery in 2019. “What we have are the posh boys and girls of Fine Gael developing policies for people who are struggling,” proclaimed Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty.

In January of this year, Doherty, who is Sinn Féin’s Dáil deputy leader and director of elections, went further. At the party’s candidate launch, he gave an impassioned speech saying: “Leo’s cabinet of posh boys has shown a heartlessness, a complete lack of empathy, and a detachment from the reality of life for most people.”

In other words, not only is being middle class regarded as negative, if not shameful, it implies an element of cruelty, callousness and cold-bloodedness in one’s character.

Moral superiority

It is, of course, entirely legitimate to criticise Murphy’s record on housing. Questioning why Fine Gael appears to be ideologically opposed to social housing is fair, but wide-sweeping generalisations about an entire class of people are not.

What kind of democracy will we have if the “right” social background is the deciding factor when it comes to who can and cannot hold ministerial office?

There is an unhealthy moral superiority doing the rounds. This holier-than-thou attitude has infected politics, with those who hold it attempting to dictate who has the legitimacy to govern by virtue of their educational attainment and their parents’ economic background.

Perhaps Ireland should commission the genealogy documentary series Who Do You Think You Are? to examine the socio-economic background of every possible ministerial candidate. Using this logic, if an individual earns more than the average national wage, they are eligible for demotion, regardless of their policy proposals or work record.

Let’s examine the relationship between social background and policy formulation a little more closely. First up: Fianna Fáil and social housing. In November last, the Fianna Fáil leader adopted the same class caricature approach as Sinn Féin. In an interview with the Opinion Line on Cork’s 96FM, Micheál Martin excoriated the government’s attitude to the housing crisis.

“We built massive housing schemes in the 1930s and 1950s when we had far less money than we have today. Fine Gael have a problem with this. It’s the milieu from which some of them come – they don’t understand it, they don’t get it. I’m not going to label people but it seems to me that it’s a class thing,” Martin said.

Seán MacEntee was a superb Fianna Fáil minister. He served in every single Fianna Fáil cabinet from 1932 to April 1965. He held the purse strings for Fianna Fáil as finance minister for most of the 1930s and 1950s when the party embarked on the most extensive social housing building programme ever undertaken in Ireland.

MacEntee lived in the leafy south county Dublin suburb of Booterstown. In Tom Feeney’s book Seán MacEntee: A Political Life, the picture painted is of a politician born into a decidedly middle-class family who had a particular fondness for high tailoring, gold watch chains, good food and fine wine. But MacEntee’s class, his “milieu”, did not prevent Fianna Fáil from being radical when it came to housing.

Profound impact

Exhibit B: Fianna Fáil and education. In an interview with the Sunday Independent last week, Martin used that murky but calculated word “milieu” again.

“I came from a working-class background. My father was a bus driver . . . I don't think Fine Gael come from that milieu. They come from a more privileged background and they never really had that feel for working-class people.”

The Fianna Fáil leader evoked the memory of the radical minister for education Donogh O’Malley, who introduced free second-level education to Ireland in 1967.

“To me, that sums up Fianna Fáil,” Martin said of O’Malley’s radical policy, now widely regarded as a milestone in Irish history. “The working-class person who wants to aspire and get on in life. To create opportunities – no matter what your background.”

O’Malley’s educational policy had a profound impact on Martin and enabled him and his siblings to be the first in the family to make it to third-level. But how does this working-class, rose-tinted image of Fianna Fáil marry with Donogh O’Malley’s wealthy middle-class upbringing and private-school education at Clongowes Wood College?

Sinn Féin, and latterly Fianna Fáil, have very deliberately used class as a defining characteristic of their party narrative. Working-class is good, middle-class is bad.

A deep dive into last week’s Business Post/Red C opinion poll reveals why. All three parties – Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin – attract similar levels of support among the upper and lower middle classes, with 19 per cent for Sinn Féin and 22 per cent each for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. This category of socio-economic grouping captures employers, managers, higher- and lower-level professionals.

The real competition for voters is among what market researchers refer to as the C2, D, E and F social classes. In the C2, D and E category, which captures those in junior level jobs, as well as skilled manual workers, Sinn Féin rules the roost, with 29 per cent of that social class choosing a Mary Lou McDonald-led government as opposed to 23 per cent for Micheál Martin and 18 per cent for Leo Varadkar.

Class battlegrounds

Class again becomes the defining feature in the F category of semi-skilled workers where Fianna Fáil are streets ahead at 48 per cent with Fine Gael on 32 per cent and Sinn Féin lagging at a surprising 11 per cent. The Irish Times Ipsos MRBI Poll has similar findings on voting intentions by social class.

The success of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin lies in the voting intentions of these two categories of voters, which could broadly be defined as working class. Fianna Fáil is targeting Sinn Féin’s dominance in the C2DE category while Sinn Féin also seeks to win back voters from Fianna Fáil within the F category.

These social class battlegrounds have made class a central issue in this election, articulated chiefly through the policies of housing and tax. The late Professor Peter Mair, a political scientist, attributed the lack of class politics in Ireland to the failure of the Labour Party, which stepped back from mobilising a political alternative to mainstream Irish politics by instead focusing on the safer option of coalition government.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s absolute refusal to contemplate coalition with Mary Lou McDonald has served the Sinn Féin strategy well. She has positioned Sinn Féin as the alternative, the outsider, the anti-establishment party. Sinn Féin has never been part of the governing class. They are the other, the working class as opposed to what they, and belatedly Fianna Fáil, describe as the entitled, privileged, Fine Gael middle class. Somewhat ironically, McDonald herself was privately educated and grew up in the wealthy Dublin neighbourhood of Rathgar.

This deliberate stirring up of class politics has served a purpose for both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil. But it is a blunt instrument with the potential for unintended consequences for both parties. Be careful what you wish for.

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