Fintan O’Toole: Fianna Gael has been a long time coming

They now have one comfortable majority between them and if they don’t occupy that space together, it becomes a power vacuum.

The eternal question in Irish politics, what's the difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil? We try to make sense of it all. Hugh Linehan reports. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

In the golden summers of my childhood, you would go down to the Grand Canal with a cheap nylon fishing net and a jam jar. You’d catch the tiny silvery minnows that we called pinkeens. You’d take them home and watch them dart about through the thick glass. And then you’d get so, so bored. You’d dump the pinkeens down the drain. And then you’d forget how boring it was and do it all over again.

I tell you this, not because I’m road-testing my soon-to-be bestselling memoir of Dublin in the rare aul times but because all of this suddenly popped into my head last week. I asked myself: “Why am I remembering pinkeens in a jam jar?” And I realised: “Of course – it’s the election!” Watching the main party leaders is like looking at minnows darting around in murky water through a layer of glass. There are no big beasts. There’s lots of frantic activity but no one’s really going anywhere. And the novelty wears off very quickly.

To be fair, the reason the election seems so boring is not that there are no big stories. It’s that the big stories are tales told long ago. They’ve been playing out in front of us for years now, so much so that the brain gets confused and you have to ask: “Has that not happened already?”

The first story is the tragic demise of the Labour Party. Looked at in isolation, it is quite a drama; the party of James Connolly imploding in the centenary of 1916. But it’s a drama in which everything happened in the first act. There was a period of about three months after the 2011 election during which Labour had to deliver something big, something that convinced its voters that it was mounting a real challenge to the injustices of austerity and the outrages of “no bondholder left behind”. Once that period had passed and it became clear that Labour was actually quite comfortable with Frankfurt’s Way, the rest was just the chronicle of a death foretold.

I may be unjust but I think even the Labour leadership knew this too. I think they knew that all those lovely enthusiastic new TDs from 2011 were lambs for the sacrifice. I say that because the alternative is to think that they were hopelessly naive and self-deluded. Either way, there is no suspense here. The final Labour gambit – Fine Gael are right-wing monsters but you should re-elect them and put us back in there to stop them from selling your children into slavery – is vaguely amusing. But amusing in a sad, dull kind of way.

Jedward of Irish politics

The other unfolding inevitability is the emergence of what I’ve long been calling Fianna Gael. Maybe it’s a slight exaggeration to say that the gradual coming together of the great Jedward of Irish politics is inevitable. Some other things might have happened. Fianna Fáil might have collapsed completely, leaving Fine Gael as the sole inheritor of the keys to the governing machine. Or Sinn Féin might have been smart and ruthless enough to adopt a “clean hands” strategy for the South. But neither of those outcomes came to pass: the last ditch proved to be a commodious place in which Fianna Fáil could regroup; Sinn Féin’s cultish tendencies prevailed and it stayed loyal to the rough beasts of its past.

That being the case, though, it’s surely been clear to any objective observer that the logic of the fragmentation of Irish politics leads, at least in the medium term, in only one direction: Fianna Gael. When there were two big centre-right parties carving up anything from two-thirds to three-quarters of the vote between them, it made complete sense for those parties to exaggerate their tribal differences in order to generate the sense that something huge was at stake in their tribal competition. But the space they jointly occupy has shrunk; their combined vote on Friday is unlikely to be much more than what Fianna Fáil alone got in 1977. In other words, they now have one comfortable majority between them. If they don’t occupy that space together, it becomes a power vacuum. One can never rule out the ability of petulance, tribalism and vanity to overpower logic, but office is a great magnet.

Epic development

Surely this epic development should be enough excitement for one election? Perhaps, but it’s more like the movement of a glacier than a dramatic denouement. It’s been coming at least since the end of the Troubles took the national question – and the often illusory but nonetheless emotive differences between the parties – off the table. And conservative voters have been way ahead of it; many of them switched tribes in 2011 and will do so again this week.

The interesting stuff will lie beyond these inevitabilities. A government will be formed and it will be characterised by continuity, in manner and in substance, with the past. A majority of us still wants it that way, but it is a fading majority. The real excitement will be among those who are fed up fishing for minnows in stagnant waters.

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