More desolation than anger among Tipperary Fine Gael faithful
In a constituency where Fine Gael suffered, many are resigned to a coalition future
I do know some who would object to coalition but they would take it on the chin for the country, says Tipperary councillor John Crosse. Photograph: Willie O’Brien
If there is anger among Fine Gael supporters at the election fiasco, one might expect to find it in Tipperary. A constituency that managed to lose both seats – including a Minister of State – is surely in ferment. The heartland of the Old IRA/Fianna Fáil legend, Dan Breen, who “fired the first shots for the start of Irish freedom” at Soloheadbeg in the words of councillor John Crosse, surely harbours festering reserves of Civil War tension?
However, a journey through the vast constituency that stretches from Carrick- on-Suir to Nenagh, found more desolation than anger among the faithful. Even Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen’s propensity to madden otherwise peaceful folk provokes little more than some exasperated eye-rolling.
They see no point. Many are resigned to the notion that the two old rivals must do a deal for the country; all the rest is game-playing. Some will even admit they see little difference between the two parties anyway.
It may be that shock takes time to abate and that the rage stage lies ahead. Realists expected to lose one seat, certainly not two. Maura Byrne (67) a retired nurse, community activist and former town councillor in Templemore, never made it to the count: “That’ll tell you how devastated I was.”
John Crosse “felt sick” when he saw Tom Hayes’s Cashel office already stripped of the latter’s presence just a couple of days after the election. “I could feel the life leaving my body. I felt an emptiness in my gut that there would be no TD in the Cashel area anymore. Tom had one quota but even one quota wasn’t enough in the end.”
Denis Ryan’s father had a sculpture of Michael Collins in the house so little wonder the younger Ryan joined up and served as a councillor for nearly 30 years before retiring in 2014. Like most others, he puts the election wipe-out down to “the pain attached to rescuing the economy”. They knew there would be a downside to entering government in 2011, he says in his measured way, “and the introduction of the two new taxes – water and property – was always going to make it difficult. But losing the two seats was most unexpected . . .”. What happened? “The people still vote for the candidate who says what people want them to say. That’s what I felt here – those who opposed all the tax increases, whether or not the money was there to deliver, got the votes. I don’t know of any taoiseach that did so much good for the country since Independence, and yet, no thanks.”
Back in Tom Hayes’s heartland, there are suggestions that Fine Gael’s support for same-sex marriage and the pledge to revisit the Eighth Amendment provoked a major shift from Hayes to Mattie McGrath. “It’s a very conservative place,” says Crosse.
And the future? “We will rebuild and have a TD in Tipperary again,” Crosse says firmly. With the weary air of a man who has been doing just that for 40 years, Ryan says: “Fine Gael is back to building again. New candidates, new organisation. It’s going to be different. In 2½ years’ time, a new crop of young people will be coming on.”
He is one of the many who dislike the notion of coalition but who see no alternative. “I wouldn’t like it to happen because of the Fianna Fáil carry-on over the years. They were always the party of power and they always looked after their own. I believe they still think that way – you saw Willie O’Dea come out of the party meeting saying it was ‘exhilarating’? But nobody wants another election”.
Crosse has “no doubt” that coalition will happen. “I don’t think it will be good for right-of-centre politics if what you’re left with is left or right. We’d be targeted in a big way . . . Coalition would be handing Sinn Féin an open goal to shout at every difficult decision that’s going to be taken. I do know some who’d object to coalition but they would take it on the chin for the country. I can see Enda Kenny doing three years as taoiseach and Micheál Martin doing two. It would give Enda his place in history and his lap of honour.”
“It’s a no-brainer,” Ryan says. “The next five years are crucial and we have to have stable government. And I can see only partnership between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. It will probably herald a left/right divide but a stable government for the country comes ahead of your own political feelings or even the future of your own party. I’m okay with that.”
Maura Byrne simply cannot understand the delay. “It’s about the people of Ireland. We have a good little country. So get in, stop making obstacles and just do the job – like a woman would. The majority of people I talk to wouldn’t like coalition. That’s men. They always see things in a political line, where women see things in a practical way. I was a theatre nurse. I couldn’t walk in and say, I can’t work with you because I don’t like the look of you. I had to take responsibility for my job . . . .We have to do something now.”
But what would her father have said?
“My father would have lost every bit of hair on his head and he’d have shot me – verbally – for saying that. But he would have come around. He would have moved with the times. He would be about the people of Ireland . . .”
Yet, for all the agitation, is there really any difference anymore between the two parties?
Shade of shirts
Is the Civil War a factor? “The Civil War never came up in my political life,” Ryan says. “I think it died 20-30 years ago.”
John Guilfoyle, a Fine Gael supporter sitting beside him, suggests the difference is that “Fine Gael are decent people while Fianna Fáil are scheming all the time.”
Ryan smiles. “I think the arrival of the troika was a wake-up call for all parties. The days of trickery and ruining the country with debt – that’s all over now. I think everyone believes now that you have to pay your way and be honest and transparent. I think that was a big factor in bridging the divide of mistrust between the two parties. It made everyone realise that there can be no gimmicks anymore . . .”
Does he foresee an amalgamation of the parties? “I wouldn’t have an issue with that in five years,”says the man whose father owned a sculpture of Michael Collins.
John Crosse, the 51-year-old publican whose premises lie at the foot of Soloheadbeg, believes the only difference between the parties now is “personalities”. “I’d say Fianna Fáil are more liberal about money than Fine Gael. History has shown Fianna Fáil broke the country two or three times. The stupidity of the talk about getting rid of Irish Water is just . . . irresponsible. It made my blood boil. But we could still do business with them.”
Crosse bases this on the fact that the two parties have already coalesced on the county council with a few Independents to hold a stable majority – “and our county council was one of the wealthiest and most successful in the country when it was broken up . . . I’d never have looked at Fianna Fáil with daggers drawn. Every year after the anniversary Mass for Dan Breen at Soloheadbeg, they all come to my pub for the celebrations and the sing song”.
Nonetheless, an amalgamation would be a bridge too far. “I’d have no problem with coalition but I feel very much a part of this culture and society and we shouldn’t mess with tradition. Two right-of-centre parties are very, very important for good and constructive opposition. It would be a bad day if Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael weren’t separate, both to protect our traditions and also not to give the left too much of a say.”