You may not remember the name Muntadar al-Zaidi, but I’m fairly certain you’ll remember the incident which made him famous all around the globe. Just over two years ago, the Iraqi television journalist earned an unusual place in history when he flung his shoes at the then-American President, George W. Bush, who was making a farewell tour of the war-ravaged Middle Eastern country. In Arab culture, showing the soles of your shoes to someone is apparently a sign of contempt, and what Mr al-Zaidi did was a deliberate, calculated insult – the Arab equivalent of throwing eggs at President Bush. As befitted an experienced hack, though, Mr al-Zaidi added a nice line in invective as well, shouting at the startled ‘Commander-in-Chief’, “This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog.”
Last week, the voters of the Irish Republic delivered a ‘goodbye kiss’ of their own to Fianna Fáil, casting the ‘Soldiers of Destiny’ from power with withering contempt; so dire are their financial circumstances, though, and such is the parlous state of their economy, the voters held onto their shoes.
The main benefactor from the electorate’s fury was Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, who – swept into power on a tsunami of anti-government sentiment - likened his opponents’ defeat to a democratic revolution, unlike the violent overthrows occurring elsewhere. Fianna Fáil’s downfall may, indeed, have been bloodless, but it still made for a brutal spectacle, as live television recorded the monolith’s toppling, constituency by constituency, count by count. The former British parliamentarian, Tony Benn, shared his enthusiasm for democracy when he toured with his one-man show after retiring from front-line politics: “When I go into a polling station and I see an old lady on crutches come in and - with a pencil - destroy a government without killing anyone, for me that’s almost a religious experience…even if it’s the government of which I’m a member.”
I don’t know about religious experiences, but many of the vanquished Fianna Fáilers – who behaved as if they governed by divine right – must now be undergoing some kind of crisis of faith, wondering whether there is indeed an afterlife for their wretched party.
The voters’ cold revenge will be seen in its immediate aftermath simply as a rejection of the out-going government (its minor partner, the Green Party, was put to the sword even more ruthlessly than Micheál Martin’s army); but it should serve as a salutary reminder to those of all political creeds that you take the electorate for granted at your peril.
In this there is a clear lesson for those parties still preening themselves on their successes in last week’s poll. When the dust from the seismic tremors dies down, all the ‘winners’ will require considerable political dexterity to pick their way through a devastated, post-election landscape.
The extraordinary success of independent candidates – who collectively took over 15% of first preferences – betokens considerable dissatisfaction with what the main parties have to offer. And it’s far from clear what signal the voters were sending out about tackling the debt crisis: do they favour the kind of tough love proposed by Fine Gael and, to a lesser extent, Fianna Fáil; or do they prefer the gentler approach advocated by the left wing parties, including Labour and Sinn Féin?
The one certainty which is reinforced by last week’s result is that in a democracy no political party, no matter how powerful it may appear - or feel - is invincible. The Ulster Unionists found that out north of the border over a decade ago (and still haven’t recovered); Fianna Fáil is learning the same harsh lesson now. Two parties once thought untouchable are now revealed as mortal after all. Would-be successors should take note.
Tony Benn suggested that - of all those who held power over our lives - there were five questions that we should ask: how much power do you have; how did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and how can we get rid of you? The latter question, he ventured, was the most important test of a democracy.
Last week, the Irish Republic passed that test. Its demoralised citizens felt sufficiently angry to get off their backsides and cast their ballots. Amid the pervasive economic gloom, a chink of light appeared, indicating that democracy, at least, was alive and well. The electorate blew a goodbye kiss from the Irish people and – with the flourish of a pencil – destroyed a government.
Read more from Paul McFadden in the Journal every Friday