FG wide boys replace FF as party of operators
The Shortall episode showed the difference between clientelism and good governance, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE
AMERICAN evangelical Christians adopted the slogan WWJD – “What would Jesus do?” The Government has now adopted its own variant: WWFFD?
For Fine Gael, the formula makes complete sense. It has replaced Fianna Fáil as the chief operator of The Machine, the system of clientelist politics that has held power since the 19th century. It can stay in office for a very long time by becoming as adept and unashamed in its manipulation of the levers of power as the party it looked on for so long with all the envy of a shy, spotty youth watching the slick rogue getting all the girls. The jilted lad would console himself by raging that the rogue was a bad character. But secretly he dreamed of being the rogue himself.
And now he is. Fine Gael has been given control of The Machine and is testing out what it can do. Oooh, look, says James Reilly, pull this handle and it can deliver primary care centres for me and my buddies! That’s nothing, says Phil Hogan, if you pull this switch, you can stop Traveller families moving in to a housing estate in your constituency. Feck your civic democracy, I’ve a Merc outside.
All you have to do is to keep asking, in any given situation, WWFFD? Practice will make perfect – soon, it will be as if Fianna Fáil never went away.
This is a perfectly rational political strategy for Fine Gael. There is, after all, a real sense in which Fianna Fáil is still in power – the entire framework of economic policy is that created by Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan. If you’re going to inflict the pain that this implies, you might as well get the perks. And in the longer term, becoming Fianna Fáil is a clever survival strategy.
There’s a big market for pure clientelist politics in Ireland – The Machine will always deliver a rake of votes to those who work it with sufficient vigour and shamelessness. If it becomes The Machine, Fine Gael will stay in power long beyond the next election – perhaps long enough to subsume Fianna Fáil itself. Imagine the joy of that – the slick rogue begging to be the sidekick of the shy, spotty fella.
There will be some awkwardness along the way. Clientelism is not big with Dublin middle-class voters, which is why Leo and Lucinda are uncomfortable. But The Machine doesn’t really need the Dublin middle class. It can give Fine Gael a permanent 30-40 per cent of the vote – enough, in a fragmented political system, to keep the party leaders and advisers in the luxuries of office to which they are becoming so rapidly accustomed.