Difficulty of ending Civil War politics underrated

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael despise each other for reasons beyond historical differences

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s personal triumph in the election puts him in a psychologically strong postion. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s personal triumph in the election puts him in a psychologically strong postion. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA Wire


As the smoke clears from the election battlefield, pressure mounts from sections of the media, as well as from elements of the left and Sinn Féin (though they may vehemently deny it) on Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to recognise that some kind of coalition between them is now the only feasible arrangement, and one that is well-nigh inevitable.

The huge difficulties in bringing this about are underrated. A simplistic case is framed in historically facile terms. We are told that the division between the two “Civil War parties” has been meaningless for decades, that there are no differences on matters of substance, and that some form of political co-operation is a necessary step towards rationalising and modernising Irish politics.

An unspoken corollary is that their irrelevance is reflected in their archaic Irish-language names that few understand and even fewer pronounce properly.

But rationality does not determine politics any more than it does other aspects of human behaviour. All over the political world, parties of a very similar colour continue to exist side by side without any strictly rational basis.

Political parties put down strong personal and local roots, develop vested interests and seek political power long after their historical origins are forgotten. In the United States, slavery and secession from the union do not explain, two centuries on, the passionate mutual hostility between Democrat and Republican.

Turbulent 1930s

National Centre Party

The quasi-fascist Blueshirts inspired fierce loyalties among members and former members, but the organisation remained an embarrassment to the mainline respectable Fine Gael party.

To this day, in the party’s parliamentary rooms in Leinster House, the founding leader’s portrait is conspicuous by its absence from the photographic gallery of successive leaders.

By the same token, the Fianna Fáil rank-and-file occasionally taunt their parliamentary opponents with the abusive term “Blueshirts”. Similarly, Willie O’Dea knows perfectly well that the proper pronunciation of Fine Gael is “Finneh” Gael but he insists on saying “Fine” (to rhyme with “shine”) with studied contempt.

Vulgar attitudes

The truth is that the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael rancour has to do not with Civil War differences, but with the hostile histories of the two parties over 80 years. On issues such as foreign policy, Anglo-Irish relations, Northern Ireland and on attitudes to the Catholic Church there is now a broad consensus.

Enda Kenny’s caustic “Cloyne” speech more than made up for the craven deference to the Catholic hierarchy shown decades before by his predecessor John A Costello.

On class and socioeconomic matters, Fianna Fáil in its early years looked for support to the skilled working class and the small farmers – the men of little property, it could be said – while Fine Gael was favoured by the merchant and professional classes. But both have long since become cross- class parties and, while they each have different social tones, no inherent obstacle exists to the formation of joint policies – personal animosities apart.

Now that Fianna Fáil members are shaking off their odious role as villains of the piece from 2007-2111, they may well revive their pretensions to be a national organisation rather than a mere party.

Certainly, Micheál Martin’s personal triumph puts him in a psychologically strong position in his relations with his own party and with others in the negotiations that lie ahead.

Like other leaders, he will of course claim to be acting “in the national interest”. But it may well be that the further recovery of his party as well as “ the national interest” will both be best served by Fianna Fáil remaining in powerful opposition rather than agreeing to what may be a fatally misguided move to end “Civil War politics”, thus putting the distinctive identity of his party at risk.

John A Murphy is emeritus professor of history at University College Cork