Whisper it, but Fine Gael is the new Fianna Fáil
INSIDE POLITICS:For many years it was a catch-cry of the left that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were two irredeemably conservative parties, committed to the retention of the capitalist system and with no fundamental difference between them.
Nobody in mainstream politics paid much attention, least of all the voters. Despite being slagged off as “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” or even “Tweedledum and Tweedledumber”, the two parties continued on as the “big beasts” of the political jungle.
Nothing changed and nothing ever would change, or so it seemed. Then capitalism itself took a hand, with its most virulent crisis since the 1930s. Fianna Fáil played the role of Pied Piper in the Celtic Tiger era, leading us to the top of the cliff, then over the edge and into the abyss.
Like lifelong topers finally taking the pledge, the majority of the electorate forswore any dealings with the Soldiers of Destiny and looked instead to the most obvious alternative. Instead of George Orwell’s “Four legs good, two legs bad”, the approach was, “Brian Cowen bad; Enda Kenny, maybe good.”
The left, meanwhile – or at least its major component, the Labour Party – played its traditional role of propping up Fine Gael in return for a minority share in power.
But it’s not quite business as usual. Despite some flickering signs of life in Fianna Fáil, the patient remains in intensive care.
The party of de Valera, Lemass and Lynch holds a mere 19 out of 166 Dáil seats, less than half the 44 out of 153 seats in its very first general election back in 1927. And shockingly, it has no women TDs and no seats in Dublin.
Although Fianna Fáil is performing fairly well in Opposition and showing a keen instinct for the Fine Gael jugular, the prospect of anything close to a parliamentary majority, or even of becoming the biggest party again after the next election, is remote and unrealistic.
Lately, however, a quietly insistent theme has been developing in political discourse – a different scenario in which the old Civil War foes join hands in government and sit around the cabinet table together.
Nobody is suggesting it’s going to happen anytime soon, and a Fianna Fáil spokesman has emphatically rejected the possibility. But the fact that such a notion could even become the subject of serious comment reflects the seismic shift in Irish politics since the last general election.
Fianna Fáil itself has not contributed in any way to this speculation but a senior Fine Gael figure suggested unofficially to this writer only this week that his party’s long-time rivals might be prepared to “talk turkey”, especially if they ended up with fewer seats than Sinn Féin in the next Dáil.
There are few people on the scene who can explain the historical reasons for the establishment of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as separate parties.
Who knows: the day may yet come about when the two leaders appear together on the plinth at Leinster House to inform the world that the Civil War hatchet has finally been buried, that there is no more bitterness, and that they are entering a coalition partnership “in the national interest”.