One Party Dominance: challenging simplistic ideas about Irish politics
The differences between parties in the democratic centre are significant but proportionate and do not force unreasonable choices
Attending the Michael Collins memorial mass in The Church of The Most Holy Trinity, Dublin Castle, were (right) President de Valera and Mr Seán Lemass FF TD. Photograph: Paddy Whelan
One Party Dominance: Fianna Fáil and Irish Politics 1926-2016
edited by Seán McGraw and Eoin O’Malley
In Ireland, we very often look at politics and political history with a very narrow and partisan perspective. Narratives can get stuck in received wisdom – with the first draft often being the only draft.
This is not new.
The first and most influential biography of Michael Collins was actually commissioned by the government in the weeks after his death with the direct intention of shaping public opinion. On the other hand Dorothy McArdle’s equally influential history of the republican cause was subject to many manipulations by Éamon de Valera.
It has always been striking how few books there are on our political parties which challenge established narratives and set a wider international context for considering them. This excellent collection, edited by two of our foremost political scientists, with contributions from a mixture of well-established and new academic voices, is very different.
It takes a broad look at the party’s history and actively tries to challenge simplistic ideas no matter how deeply entrenched.
In doing this it is especially impressive in taking on perhaps the interpretation most resistant to acknowledging contrary evidence – the idea that everything can be explained by using the two short words “civil” and “war”.
As recently as the months following the last general election, our newspapers and airwaves were full of commentary about how the two largest parties had nothing to separate them except the Civil War and that they should just get on and amalgamate. This is a portrait of these parties which is dismissive and superficial in equal measure. And it is founded on the false idea that there is a “natural” party system which has been frustrated by those parties being separate.
What it also does is present a static picture of the last 92 years which is belied by the willingness of large numbers of people to vote for parties which were, for want of a better description, on the other side.
Many of the contributors to this book show ways in which there is a much more complex and evolving reality to be seen. Of course the basic party divisions originated in the Treaty split, but the differences in the period since then have been significant.
This is a point which comes through in a number of the contributions, with Niamh Purséil, for example, referencing Fianna Fáil’s distinct preference for actions such as radically expanding State-funded housing and education.
Fianna Fáil’s State activism of the 1930s and the radicalism of the early 1960s in no way reflected a common approach to politics in the two largest parties.
Indeed this approach of the State as an enabler was central to major differences in the 2016 election and in the negotiations about the confidence and supply agreement.
The national interest
Ken Carty’s point concerning a distinct approach to what constituted the national interest provides a good framework for viewing both the constitutional innovations of the party’s early governments and the dramatic shifts in policy towards the wider world during the era of Lemass – launched with a depth, energy and radicalism unmatched in our history.
Carty looks at Fianna Fáil’s history and finds a sustained centrist orientation and compares it to what he sees as similar approaches followed by parties such as the Liberal Party in Canada. What one person dismisses as “catch-all” is often seen elsewhere as “big tent” nation building.
A number of contributors refer to an “ambiguous ideology” and “adaptive survival” being a core element of Fianna Fáil’s success. I would put it a different way. I believe that the idea of the “normality” of a clear left/right divide should be challenged. It certainly gives a rhetorical clarity, but in reality it does not reflect the governing practice of parties in free democracies.
You could say that the standard left/right divide which so many have yearned for is actually, to misquote Freud, the narcissism of large differences. Equally, ideological inflexibility, remaining committed to the same programme as realities change, is not something to be admired
Liberal democracies which respond to the needs of the public are inherently centrist. For centrist parties as the demands of particular times change, so too does the party’s programme. In response to significant failures and new problems different approaches must be taken.
There are no bibles from long-dead economists used as the touchstone of orthodoxy.
Rather than seeing this as ambiguous or about political survival, I would see it as being responsive and evolving – which is surely what democratic politics should be about?
Unique in Europe
A core point about Fianna Fáil’s programme referenced in contributions is that it has been unique in Europe in being a party led by former revolutionaries which attained power and actually increased individual rights and checks on the executive. De Valera’s decision in 1937 to give up parliamentary control of the constitution, give the courts power to check the government and to completely reject the extremism then dominating much of Europe is something which has always inspired Fianna Fáilers but has been absent from most commentary.
The record also finds a consistent approach to the idea of the need for strong rules-based international organisations. De Valera’s call for respect for the League of Nations is well known, less so is the inclusion in Bunreacht na hÉireann of an explicit statement that this is a state which acknowledges and respects international law.
This is an approach evident in Fianna Fáil’s leadership of the cause of joining what is now the European Union and support for the ratification of every subsequent treaty. This is the exact opposite of the populist nationalism evident in too much of Europe today.
If you compare this record in relation to internationalism, the balance of powers and centrist policies responding to contemporary needs the charge of some that we are a populist party is shown to be absurd in the extreme. Yet only last year this very newspaper gave a feature page over to just this claim.
Ireland today has and will continue to have a complex multi-party system. We are slowly moving away from the Westminster model of governing and are becoming more like other Northern European countries. This is a point reinforced by the academics in this volume but still largely unappreciated in wider commentary. It is also being resisted by the government’s attempts to restore political control of funding in areas like the arts, though I believe this will be overcome.
A substantial competition in the democratic centre remains and I believe it will remain because it offers a credible choice to people and avoids the sort of polarisation which has directly enabled extremism elsewhere. The differences between parties are significant but proportionate and do not force unreasonable choices.
What this collection does is to once again ask us all to push aside limited and partisan narratives and to take a broader perspective in how we look at our politics. It is challenging, independent and illuminating even for people immersed in political history and practice.
It shows once again how much we have to gain by paying more attention to academic political science.
Micheál Martin is leader of Fianna Fáil