FG wide boys replace FF as party of operators
Becoming The Machine also means that you don’t have to worry about the freak-show of the banking disaster, mass unemployment, emigration and growing inequality. The Machine runs on the small stuff of personal and local patronage. It is entirely indifferent to national misery – indeed, the more miserably dependent people are, the more they think they need The Machine. The beauty of it all, indeed, is that you don’t even need national sovereignty – the local is all, Home Rule is fine.
All of this is good for Fine Gael. There’s a Fianna Fáil-shaped hole in Irish public culture – why not fill it? But for Labour WWFFD? is WTF? Labour can’t become The Machine: it’s not big enough or deeply-rooted enough. (It is significant that one of the first casualties of government was Labour’s most adept machine politician, Willie Penrose.) And, to be fair, it doesn’t really want to be.
Most of its senior figures grew up politically defining themselves as the anti-Machine. They sat on city and county councils and watched Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael operate as a single rezoning cartel. Their bête noire was Charles Haughey. They thought of themselves as different, more ideological, more committed to broader notions of the public good.
This creates a fundamental imbalance. Fine Gael can take the hit of imposing unjust and unpopular policies, because it can compensate for those losses by becoming the new lords of The Machine. But Labour has no such compensation – it just takes the hit. Its one chance, therefore, was to stop Fine Gael morphing into Fianna Fáil, to retain for the administration a narrative of selfless endeavour and rigorous pursuit of the public good.
This was always going to be hard to square with the luxuries of office. But along came a glorious opportunity. Róisín Shortall’s conflict with James Reilly dramatised in the clearest possible way the difference between machine politics and good governance based on clear principles and objective evidence. Labour had the enormous good fortune to be overwhelmingly on the right side, not just of an argument, but of a whole approach to public life. It had the chance to stop the emergence of Fine Fáil as the new dominant force in Irish politics.
And Eamon Gilmore knew exactly what to do – he threw all of his weight behind clientelism. He cleared the path for Fine Gael to drive The Machine forward – across the dead body of his own party.