Politically, everything is now up for grabs


‘HISTORIC” IS an overused word. If we actually take a long view, the significance of the local and European election results may not be as great as it seems. Yes, Fianna Fáil has hit a new low and Fine Gael has become the largest party, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE.  

These are not insignificant events. The fact remains, however, that the old two-hander – let’s call it Fianna Gael – is in pretty good shape.

In the local elections, Fianna Gael is on 58 per cent of the vote. That is certainly low but we’ve seen this kind of result in a local election before – the last one. In 2004, Fianna Gael got 59 per cent. By the time of the 2007 general election, it was back up to almost 70 per cent – pretty much its average level through the history of the State. So any talk of a seismic shift in Irish politics is, at best, premature. A swing between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is not an earthquake. It’s a gentle quiver. Its implications are about as revolutionary as Ryan Tubridy replacing Pat Kenny on The Late Late Show.

We have to look elsewhere for historic significance. It lies, I think, in two things. The first is the emergence, in the local elections, of a clear class divide. For the first time we are seeing the Fianna Gael machines lose their grip on urban working class voters. There are now whole swathes of the population, mostly concentrated in urban and suburban housing estates, that have become alienated from the mainstream conservative parties.

In northwest Cork city, in Ballyfermot, in Crumlin and Kimmage, in the north, southeast and southwest inner city areas of Dublin, in Balbriggan, in Tallaght and in the north of Waterford city, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil can barely muster a council seat between them. In a large range of working class and commuter belt suburbs, they are massively outpolled by parties of the left. In the Dublin Central byelection, Fianna Gael got just over a third of the vote. Something is happening here, and it is particularly worrying for Fianna Fáil, whose social coalition has always included a hard core of working-class voters. The fact that these votes have not just swung between the two big centre-right parties, but gone in a very different direction, suggests that this is not a merely temporary phenomenon.

The other thing that is genuinely historic is that, for the first time since Daniel O’Connell forged a mass political Catholic identity in the early 19th century, both Catholicism and populist nationalism are undergoing a crisis of authority at the same time. There have been previous crises for both Irish nationalist politics and for Irish institutional Catholicism. Those crises have never been simultaneous. When nationalist politics were in disarray during the Parnell split, the church was riding high. When the church was losing authority in the 1990s, mainstream nationalist politics were delivering an economic miracle.

What’s happening now is that the whole weave of religious and political power is unravelling. The ideological glue of Irish public identity was a potent mix of populist nationalism on one side and Catholic institutional control of the moral agenda on the other. That glue no longer sticks.

It is striking that attempts to form a renewed populist brand from the elements of conservative Catholicism and/or nationalism are not working. Sinn Féin, which seemed to have worked out a formula for a revived nationalist appeal in the anti-Lisbon campaign, had a decidedly mediocre result. Libertas, which tried to concoct a heady mix of Catholic backlash, anti-immigrant resentment and nationalist Euroscepticism, fell flat. This may have had something to do with its strategy of aggressive obnoxiousness and its mixed messages (trying to be both xenophobic and pan-European is not a great idea). But it also suggests that nationalism and right-wing Catholicism have lost too much authority in Ireland for even a slick rethread to be successful.

It is the combination of these two factors – the emergence of large areas of population in which Fianna Gael has lost its purchase and the collapse of the old religious-political system of ideological authority – that makes the current situation interesting. Politically speaking, we now have two Irelands. One – the larger part – is still remarkably conservative and seemingly convinced that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the global economic system. The other – roughly the 37 per cent that told the RTÉ/Sunday Independent exit poll that it would prefer neither Brian Cowen nor Enda Kenny as taoiseach – thinks the system is broken and Fianna Gael is incapable of fixing it.

Within this large minority, everything is up for grabs. The ties to the old mothership have been cut, but no new course has been charted. There is an emergent left, but it is disparate and incoherent. This poses a huge challenge for Eamon Gilmore in particular. Does he leave the disaffected 40 per cent to its own devices and cross into the other Ireland with Fine Gael? Or does he try to make Labour the core of a serious and radical opposition?

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