There should be no dancing on the Labour Party’s grave

There may be ideological differences in next Dáil but not between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael

Labour leader Joan Burton and deputy leader Alan Kelly retain their seats, but the party has seen huge losses across the country. Political correspondent Harry McGee explains where it all went wrong. Video: Kathleen Harris

One public representative who did not have to face the electorate last Friday was President Michael D Higgins.

He will have watched the election results closely for obvious reasons, given the office he holds, and lamented the devastation of the Labour Party of which he was a stalwart flag bearer for decades.

He might also have reflected on the relevance of one of the messages of his presidency to the result of the general election. Over the last few years, Higgins has been vocal in his belief that it is unacceptable that society, the economy and politics should be seen as separate spheres.

That, he has consistently maintained, is not what citizenship is about.


On Saturday morning, as it became clear the government parties had been pummelled, Fine Gael strategist Mark Mortell was interviewed on RTÉ and, whether he intended to or not, summed up clearly and succinctly one of the main reasons why the government lost this election: "We went into this election deciding it was going to be all about the economy."

This misguided compartmentalisation cost Fine Gael dear as it ignored the social dimension. It is clear from details accompanying exit polls that tax cuts were by no means the priority of the electorate; the proposal to abolish the Universal Social Charge cut little ice; indeed, the Social Democrats, who specifically said they would not do this, did very well, and Renua, with its risible flat tax proposal was laughed off the electoral stage.

For the Labour Party, the result is beyond dreadful. Nor is it deserved, and there should be no dancing on the party’s grave. There is little doubt that the “take your medicine” tone from some Labour figures was arrogant and patronising over the lifetime of the government, and it could have done more to distinguish itself from Fine Gael, but it has reason to feel aggrieved.

During election counts there are still a lot of meaningless sound bites and clichés to be endured, but former party leader Eamon Gilmore was credible when he was asked on Saturday about the belief by some in 2011 that the Labour Party should have stayed in opposition at that time to become even bigger.

“Yes”, replied Gilmore, “but that would have been putting the party before the country”.

Ruairi Quinn was accurate too, in his recent, emotional interview with this newspaper. Much of the social reform that many regard as having made a profound and positive difference to this republic has been driven by the participation of the Labour Party in government, and in the early years of this state it made an immense contribution to stability and democracy by rising above the civil war trenches.

A rueful Quinn observed in relation to his party’s long, difficult but also distinguished history: “You’ve got to look with balance at the balance sheet”.

The electorate however, had a different perspective. So what has it amounted to?

Initial reactions to the result have been littered with declarations of electoral “earthquakes” and “revolution”. This can be exaggerated, in the same way that, on the back of the 2011 general election, the phrase “democratic revolution” was widely misquoted and misused.

The current government never promised a "democratic revolution"; instead, it insisted a "democratic revolution" had taken place in the 2011 general election when Fianna Fáil was crushed. In any case, that assertion was a wild exaggeration; a conservative party born of civil war divisions had replaced the other conservative party born of civil war divisions as the biggest party.

Many of the votes were “borrowed” and have now gone back to Fianna Fáil; others have gone from Labour to Sinn Féin, which is not a radical socialist party, but a new Fianna Fáil in waiting. It is also clear that, yet again, a new Dáil will be far too male dominated.


Independents and smaller left wing groups picked up a sizeable share of the vote; it will give them a healthy number of seats, but hardly much coherence as a political entity. Perhaps what is happening in Irish politics now partly reflects what is happening in other parts of Europe; what the late Irish political scientist Peter Mair observed as the backlash that occurs when "party leaderships retreat into institutions claiming their terms of reference ever more readily from their role as governors.

The traditional world of party democracy as a zone of engagement in which citizens interacted with their political leaders is being evacuated.”

Mention has also been made of the precedent of a number of parties coming together to form an inter-party government as happened in 1948, when John A Costello managed to preside over a combination of five parties and a few independents.

But it is important to remember the context for that arrangement. As it targeted Fianna Fáil after 16 years in power, the slogan of the opposition during the 1948 election was singular and coherent: “Put Them Out”. That much they had in common, and they were willing to put other differences aside to break what they feared would be permanent Fianna Fáil dominance.

The context is different now, and Sinn Féin, if it has the opportunity to be the largest opposition party seeking to become much larger, is hardly going to put that profile at risk by opting for coalition, even if the numbers for a rainbow stacked up. Sinn Féin is nowhere near the level of support it had hoped to get.

Of course it is significant that between them, the traditionally dominant parties have fallen so far. For all the focus on what is regarded as a good election for Fianna Fáil, it should not be forgotten that in all the general elections between 1927 and 2007, it commanded an average of nearly 45 per cent of the vote; it seems unlikely it will reach those heights again and Fine Gael is back where it has often been; failing to break the 30 per cent mark.

Shift away from larger parties

A measure of the shift away from the larger parties is that from the foundation of the state to the early 1980s, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour combined commanded over 90 per cent of the vote: in 1997, they still managed 78 per cent and in 2011, 73 per cent.

In 2016 that figure has dropped to roughly 56 per cent.

Another interesting question is what constitutes a mandate to govern? There will be different views on that, and much talk of “the national interest” and the need for stability. It might be seen as appropriate in the centenary year of 1916 that the two largest parties would finally bury the civil war hatchet.

Barry Cowen of Fianna Fáil may have insisted at the weekend that there are "serious" policy differences between them, but he did not sound remotely convincing, and in any case, what was Fine Gael in government doing only implementing the same plan as the Fianna Fail it defeated in 2011?

As political scientist Michael Gallagher put it 40 years ago, classifying Irish political parties in an international context was difficult because of "the absence of any underlying cleavage", or as Seán O'Faoláin put it more cruelly even longer ago in 1945: "Irish Politics today are not politics; our two main parties are indistinguishable not because their political ideas are alike but because neither has any political idea at all - warriors of destiny and the race of the Gaels - silly romantic titles that confess a complete intellectual vacancy as far as the reality of political ideas are concerned".

A few years later, Fine Gael's James Dillon asked in the Dáil: "What ideological differences if words retain their meaning, divide any two deputies on any side of this house?"

There may well be obvious ideological differences in the next Dáil, but they will not be between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter, a contributor to The Irish Times, is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. He writes a weekly opinion column