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Fine Gael’s choice to replace a property-owning democracy with a rent-paying one has unsettled a generation

And that’s just one of the big problems Simon Harris will face as taoiseach

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It is no great insult to Simon Harris to say that he is very unlikely to be up to the job of rescuing Irish political conservatism. It’s not clear that anyone else could do it either. There are five big problems for an Irish centre-right party such as Fine Gael. Any one of them would present a formidable challenge. Together, they make the challenge look insurmountable.

First, there’s what we might crudely call the religion problem. The conservative nexus that governed independent Ireland for most of its history was formed by the fusion of nationalism and Catholicism. The combination of political machines with spiritual force was what made it so successful. But that double act has now been sundered.

There is still a large body of socially conservative Catholic opinion. The referendums of the last decade would suggest that it probably makes up as much as a third of the electorate. And it doesn’t really have a political home.

So it might seem obvious that Fine Gael should just make itself that home – put the Christian back into Christian Democrat. But how do you so that without alienating urban liberal voters? Could Harris, who was at his most popular with those voters when he was one of the faces of the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, become the face of a Catholic party? Computer says no.

It is possible to imagine an Irish version of Poland’s Law and Justice Party that successfully fused reactionary Catholicism with expansive social welfare provision – but very hard to imagine how you might get there from where Fine Gael is now

In other countries, conservative parties have tried to solve this problem by becoming culture warriors – manipulating “wedge issues” such as trans rights to consolidate a conservative religious tribe. But there’s not much evidence that such issues have any purchase on Irish electoral politics.

And the deeper dilemma of conservative Catholic opinion is that much of it may be “conservative” only on issues of family, sexuality and reproduction. It may actually be left of centre on economic issues. It is possible to imagine an Irish version of Poland’s Law and Justice Party that successfully fused reactionary Catholicism with expansive social welfare provision – but very hard to imagine how you might get there from where Fine Gael is now.

Second, there’s the agrarian problem. Fine Gael has deep roots in farming communities. And farming is under huge stress because it has to adapt rapidly to a system of food production that can sustain itself in the era of climate crisis. There’s a disgruntled constituency there, one that has been increasingly radicalised across Europe. So go back to the grassroots.

But then you face the question: how ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Pfizer? We have 165,000 people employed in agriculture. That’s about 4 per cent of the labour force. And those farmers are very heavily dependent on subsidies from the European Union, which has to meet massive carbon reduction goals. There are severe limits both to how potent the farming vote now is and to the political sustainability of an agrarian, anti-green movement.

Third, there’s the tax problem. Cutting taxes is always the first resort for right-of-centre parties looking to make a simple and direct appeal to the apparent self-interest of voters. “Making work pay” is the euphemism of choice, and Harris has already cited it as a core value to which Fine Gael will return.

Shifting revenue away from taxes on income is indeed a very good idea. The difficulty is that in order to do so, you have to move much more of the tax burden on to wealth and property and increase the social contributions by employers that are, by international standards, very low. To which one can only say: good luck with that. Fine Gael’s base among property and business owners would be quick to reach for its gold-plated pitchforks.

Fourth, there’s the Big State problem. A rapidly rising population and a vastly expanded private economy mean that the State must keep growing for the foreseeable future. The demand for public services and infrastructure can’t be turned off. Even if you think the private sector is the source of all virtue, it can’t survive without more and more State investment. Small-state rhetoric just doesn’t work in the Irish here-and-now.

For reasons that are still hard to fathom, Fine Gael abandoned, after it came to power in 2011, the basic trajectory of middle-class formation: get a good education and a decent job and you should then be able to buy a home

Fifth and most fatal, there’s the housing problem. One of the big reasons why traditional conservatism is in trouble in Ireland is that it has turned off its own generator. What do you do if you want to create a stable middle class with a stake in society it wants to defend as it gets older? It’s home ownership, stupid.

This really is conservatism 101. Since the 1920s, the touchstone of modern conservatism has been the idea of the “property-owning democracy”. For the vast majority of voters, by far the most important pieces of property they will ever own are affordable houses. Build them and the cautious voters will come.

But Fine Gael somehow managed to skip that introductory class. For reasons that are still hard to fathom, it abandoned, after it came to power in 2011, the basic trajectory of middle-class formation: get a good education and a decent job and you should then be able to buy a home. It decided, without a mandate or even an explanation, to replace the property-owning democracy with a rent-paying democracy.

This has not created stability – it has created a literally unsettled generation. There are European countries in which renting is secure and predictable. Ireland is emphatically not one of them. Fine Gael consigned a generation to precarious housing – and broke the link between conservatism and home ownership. That link can’t be mended quickly.

How do you deal with this multidimensional crisis of the centre-right? Leo Varadkar realised that he couldn’t and his obvious successors in Fine Gael (most strikingly Paschal Donohoe) seem to have tacitly accepted that they couldn’t do it either.

Which leaves the big question. Is Simon Harris left holding the baby because he is the only one smart enough to know how to feed it and calm it? Or because he was the only who doesn’t know that the mother’s name is Rosemary and the baby is called Damian?

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