FG will try to form a government, ‘but not at any price’

This is the start of a realignment in Irish politics; it is time for FG to get radical

 Fine Gael members, from left, Frank Greene, Peter Allen and Pat O’Grady at Eyre Square in Galway city. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Fine Gael members, from left, Frank Greene, Peter Allen and Pat O’Grady at Eyre Square in Galway city. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

Lunchtime in Eyre Square: sunshine and shadows, a small gang of skateboarders doing tricks, a busker singing Black is the Colour and, for June, a marked absence of tourists. It is a time like no other and that extends to Irish politics.

Peter Allen, Pat O’Grady and Frank Greally stand under the shade of a tree and discuss what is a singular moment for their party, Fine Gael. They’ve seen each other plenty on Zoom meetings with other party members in their Galway West constituency, with long talks about the programme for government and what the proposed coalition would mean for their party.

“I think we can deal with it either way,” says Allen.

“If we end up in government, I think fine. We would prefer to be in opposition after so many years in government. And if you were to look at this in a cold way of what is best for the party, you might decide we should walk away. But I do think this is the worst challenge we will face. It is not a time for people with theories and knowledge. You need practitioners. And Fine Gael has those.”

All three men come from families with Fine Gael affinities but say that the principles and conduct of Garret FitzGerald were what drew them to becoming actively involved.

For Greally, Declan Costello was another key influence. They are not afraid of the implication that five years of government could render them indistinguishable from Fianna Fáil. But that fear of loss of identity has left some local party members strongly against the alliance.

“Their main fear is that the identity of the party will disappear,” says Allen. “If it lasts five years, will we be decimated in the polls? But you have five years to make a mark. Most that were vehemently against it at the start have listened and moved to ‘I mightn’t like it but we have to do it.’”

Do they, though?

The Government’s performance during the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a Fine Gael resurgence in opinion polls. What if they just went to the electorate again now, with the economy reopening and the sun shining?

All three laugh.

“I don’t think we’d be thanked,” says Allen.

“Fine Gael will try to form a government,” says O’Grady. “But not at any price. We have our own views. It used to be called the Christian Democratic side of Fine Gael in the times of Sweetman and Costello. We will go so far but we won’t sell ourselves completely.”

The decision may not be theirs anyway.

“If the Greens vote against this, then I think we will be out of it,” Allen adds.

Proud record

They are proud of Fine Gael’s record since coming into power in 2011 when the country was buckled by the economic recession and the response to the pandemic. That experience is why they feel their party needs to remain in government.

“But it is time to be radical,” says Greally.

“And Fine Gael have been radical in the past with rural electrification, the land commission. And where we will need radical thinking now is achieving the green emission targets for agriculture, which is one-third of our emissions.

“The average age of farmers in Ireland is over 60. We need young people and we need to copy the land commission and bring in young ambitious people who would expand the horticultural side. The current generation have been extremely good farmers but we all get a bit more conservative as we get older. Imposing targets on them is not going to work.”

There are some positive aspects for the local economy written into the programme – the transport plan for the city, hospital advancements and Greally is optimistic that Galway city and county council can move on greenway plans.

“There is €360 million there for cycle ways but it is first come, first served and it is up to them to take advantage. But other than the green deal and tax, I don’t see where the priority is. There is no real understanding of the total imbalance between the regions in Ireland. The west-northwest has gone from developed to transition, and it could go from there to poor if nothing happens.”

Someone came up to Allen recently and told him that the Greens were “just Fine Gael with bicycles”. It made him laugh but he would argue that the party’s old, small-farming loyalty remains. But there is an acknowledgement that Irish voting patterns are more fluid and unreadable than before.

“So we have to evolve,” O’Grady says.

“And we are evolving. Fine Gael know their identity better than most parties. There will be closer links between the two big parties regardless of the outcome of the current vote. It may happen that some of Fianna Fáil will move towards Fine Gael and the more Republican element move closer to Sinn Féin. What you call that, I don’t know. But you are looking at the start of a realignment in Irish politics.”