Simon Harris meeting punters at the Fairyhouse Easter Festival. PHOTO: GERRY SHANAHAN.

Gavan Reilly: Simon says: the not-so-simple question for the new Taoiseach

Given this summer marks two decades since your rapidly ageing columnist did his Leaving Cert, I’ve been reflecting on the few classroom lessons I can still remember. Alongside Shylock’s soliloquy, the formula for the roots of a quadratic equation and the sixteen (16!) ways of saying ‘the’ in German, is Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs.

For those unfamiliar with a core element of the old Business Studies curriculum, the idea is that not all human priorities are equal. Before the fulfilment of a successful career, for example, there is the need to have a circle of friends. Before compassionship is financial security. Before having a good job, there is the need for a roof over your head. Societal recognition and esteem is useless if you’re going to bed hungry.

It’s been in my mind of late because it’s central to the fallout from the referendums and the navel gazing about the future of Fine Gael - with Simon Harris now conducting a listening tour to figure out his priorities for his year in office, and several TDs demanding a ‘back to basics’ agenda. For many that seems to mean focusing on housing (not a Fine Gael brief) and crime, and on fewer cerebral issues like laws against hate speech.

I remember having similar thoughts about Maslow in late 2010 and early 2011, in the dying days of the last Fianna Fáil government. After 13 and a half unbroken years in office, it struck me that the Ahern-Cowen era had stopped thinking about the basic bread and butter stuff, and that in trying to keep government interesting for itself, it had stopped thinking about bread and butter issues. It seemed from the outside that they’d become complacent about the money the State was taking in, and while spending time thinking about grand capital projects and academic research, they’d forgotten to make sure that banks were lending stably.

Is the same happening now? After 13 years in office, is Fine Gael thinking too much about cerebral issues and taking its eye off the basics? Some would argue so, and would draw parallels between Cowen’s reliance on property stamp duty, and Varadkar/Martin’s increasing expectation of massive corporate tax revenue.

But clearly there are some within the coalition who have the same view, and think that laws against incitement to hatred are pandering to the ‘wokerati’ (whatever that is) are pointless when there’s a generation of people with no prospect of owning a home.

The unspoken mantra of the Cold War and the whole point of post-GFA Northern Ireland is that democracy simply had to work, and be seen to work. Yet there’s a whole generation for whom the basic necessities of life are increasingly out of reach: the security of a permanent home, the financial capability of marriage and children, the capacity to leave income aside for the future. Today’s twentysomethings have such a cynical view of living that a mere glance of an Instagram feed, where former classmates are enjoying a higher/cheaper standard of living rent on foreign shores, is enough to breed a higher class of nihilism. It’s rent, or save a deposit, but never both and sometimes neither - so what’s the point of trying?

Many within Fine Gael have already silently thrown in the towel on winning the support of that generation – or, at least, had done so. On the night of Leo Varadkar’s resignation, one TD told me that they were amazed at the reception afforded to Harris on a recent joint visit to a college campus. Whether it was because of his seeming approachability with Instagram Live Q&A sessions during Covid-19, or his status as the minister for refunding €1,000 to college students in the last two Budgets, Harris seemed to have a level of recognition that even Micheál Martin or Leo Varadkar would struggle to match. That, in the reasoning of the TD concerned, was enough reason to put Harris in charge of the next election when Sinn Féin are expected to clean up the youth vote.

The issue, though, is that younger voters tend to be more socially aware and altruistic (“woke”, if you like?) than other generations. They have largely accepted that the commodification of accommodation means they might never have security of housing. Does that make them more pliable in other areas, or does it harden their resolve? It seems entirely plausible to me that, much the same way people rejected the Care referendum as framing the needy as being unworthy of direct State support, younger voters would demand other forms of security from the State. The rights of immigrants or transgender people, for example, to live without constant doubting of their existence, might be a red line.

Young people flew home to give their gay peers the right to marry - having grown up surrounded by a more diverse society, when it comes to the rights of their peers, they put their money where their mouth is.

That’s why the Maslow thing can be tricky. Some people might think intangible laws on intangible behaviours are the unnecessary garnish on the top of the cake - for others, they’re basics needs for security in an increasingly hostile and intolerant society.

Which leaves the Taoiseach-in-waiting with a decision to make: what is Fine Gael for? Is it for defending minorities, even if it means some constraints on the liberties of everyone else? Or is it a broad church, appealing to the masses even if those minorities are accidental collateral damage?