Fianna Fáil: the flexible party

Patience and an ability to float politically have brought the Old Party electoral success – and, unlike order-loving Fine Gael, they are not unnerved by the current uncertainty

Party like it’s 1997: Michael McGrath and the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, celebrate their re-election at the count in Cork last weekend. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA

Party like it’s 1997: Michael McGrath and the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, celebrate their re-election at the count in Cork last weekend. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA


For the Old Party a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since the dark, dark days of the 2011 election. Actually, a lot of water has passed over many a bridge in this long, wet winter. And, on this weekend in 2016, I find that one of our old pubs in west Waterford has closed. I mean the pub where I ran into a bevy of retreating and perplexed Party activists five years ago. My cousin has also emigrated, yet again.

Not only has the old pub closed, but it is roofless. I wonder what happened to its seven-day licence; perhaps it was purchased and transferred to a city location by some incoming British pub group.

No sign of the Fianna Fáil activists, but I can bet that, wherever they have hidden, they’re a happier lot right now. But groups of perplexed and wounded Labour Party activists must be assembling in the coffee shops of Cork and Dublin, wondering, like the faithful of the Party in 2011, what happened, precisely.

What did happen, precisely? As I motor around this part of Co Waterford I notice that nearly all the posters have come down, apart from a few outlying Fine Gael and Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit banners blowing forlornly in the rural wind, calling time back the way posters do.

But time, like an election result, cannot be undone. Strange, the Party faithful are not in public places; not yet. Still, you’d think that, after having more than doubled their seat count, they’d be taking a few victory laps around the drinking circuit of Tallow, Cappoquin and Dungarvan.

Not at all. Or not yet. We’re living in a strange time, a time of uncanny quiet that might alarm those who have a tendency to panic. Few of these panicking people are Fianna Fáil activists.

The yearning for panic seems to belong to those who don’t want to be in any government. I mean those very, very kind young people, those handsome Tom Courtney/Pasha lookalikes who now bother their poor elders in the Party like children wanting to hurry their parents into an old folks’ home. “Here, Dad, Mum: you’ll be much happier in the home. Those Fine Gael people won’t mind your taking up residence with them.”

The old codgers of the Party can see through this. They can see that box of firelighters behind their children’s backs; they have no intention of combusting together in a single conflagration so that the kids can get the whole constituency.

It’s one thing to lend your votes to Fine Gael; it’s another entirely to drop them into the paws of some elegant young communist.

Still, these handsome young people in black may know something about history, notwithstanding John A Murphy, that great historian of our modern era, who reminded Irish Times readers last Tuesday about the permanent gulf of social empathy between the Party and Fine Gael (a name constantly mispronounced by Willie O’Dea, as Prof Murphy shrewdly noted).

Yes, some of these young Pashas may know a thing or two about war; they may know that in June 1940, when Ireland faced certain invasion from either the British or the Germans, bitter memories of the Civil War were set aside.

At that moment of crisis old Republicans like Tom Barry, Tom Crofts, Liam Deasy and Michael Kenny arrived at the gates of Collins Barracks in Cork to offer their services to the officers of the still regular Army. They could not desert the Army of the Dáil, the only sovereign and legitimate army of Ireland, in its hour of danger.

Col Costello welcomed Barry personally but couldn’t persuade him to become an officer. Barry insisted on remaining with the ranks, where he lasted all of 28 days. The aloof Florence O’Donoghue, former adjutant of the Cork No 1 Brigade, became an invaluable asset to G2, the Army intelligence service.

These Old IRA men would serve faithfully and loyally for five years while a danger to Ireland lasted. The conversations in the officers’ mess must have been electric. But they would resume their Civil War differences after the Emergency had passed.

Today, oddly, that sense of emergency has faded: the invasion forces of the troika have withdrawn behind their channel ports. Our island has survived yet again.

Ill-advised election

This result in 2016 has foxed more than the experts and historians. The mood here, picked up in conversations at filling stations, gossiping in the mist by the bridge at Lismore, falling into conversation at two cafes in Dungarvan’s bustling building site of a new square, is still one of puzzlement.

There is a firm expectation among ordinary Party folk that there will be another election within two years. But there’s a realisation, when pushed, that two years cannot be spent in idle uncertainty.

It is astonishing how aware people are of the deterioration of confidence abroad, the daft project of Brexit, the Syrian refugees, the lack of social housing. Suddenly the whole world seems to need a new house.

Dungarvan is still bustling. Its cafes are busy, the streets are crowded: I dare not use the word “recovery”, but I think that its use was not entirely a dishonest slogan. One feels that if towns like Dungarvan, Dingle, Westport or Nenagh begin to bustle, especially on weekend shopping days, then all need not be lost in rural Ireland.

The ordinary folk I spoke to, and I spoke to many this week, can see how the Irregulars may have to keep the commissioned officers at their command for a few years. If only for Ireland, as they say.

Required funding

In a county such as Waterford, which has had excellent public roads since the days of John Redmond, it is heartbreaking to see roads that need urgent repair. Waterford has always been blessed in its engineers and managers, really blessed – and I don’t exaggerate – in the incredibly high level of its infrastructure.

When Martin Cullen built his brilliant motorways he was only carrying on a long Waterford tradition. Now, in the twilight, I drive past Arland Ussher’s gates at Cappagh, Molly Keane’s old mansion at Belleville, FX O’Leary’s town house in Cappoquin, Dervla Murphy’s den in Lismore, driving on through a rural landscape of unsurpassable beauty, even at the dead end of winter.

These are noble places, this rural Ireland. These places deserve the lifeblood of political attention, even if my Party cousin has flown. We live in a waiting time, a time of uncertainty. The countryside here, flooded and expectant, waits for some decent and honest person to make the first move.

Waiting is a game, certainly, but too long a wait is as disastrous as a troika visit.

Fianna Fáil, instinctively, are less unnerved by this waiting and uncertainty; deep in the Fianna Fáil soul is that almost Russian acceptance of a society held together by safety pins and binder twine. The important thing is to survive any long political winter.

A Fine Gael mindset is more narrowly focused, both socially and politically; that haut-bourgeois instinct for order and discipline, a world more familiar to army officers and monsignori of the church. It is ironically an IRB world, a world of discretion and professionalism, where to be unqualified or not spoken-for is to be considered almost illegitimate.

But another mindset, a Russian passivity, allows Fianna Fáil to float, to wait for a kind of mindfulness to develop, a mindfulness harvested from its betters on the left or right.

Momentarily feeling good

The very assertiveness that comes from long and honest ownership always leaves Fine Gael open to attack. The fact is that most people in Ireland have to scramble to make a life, and, amazingly, most people will make some kind of life for themselves if given a few decent chances.

As a rule people feel good only momentarily. Constituents vote not for those who do right but for those who seem to do right by them. Empathy is everything. Those who live on lack, to use a phrase from Austin Clarke’s poetry, don’t need to be told why they must live like this; they need to be told when and how the tide will turn for them.

It was either Micheál Martin’s political genius or his innate sense of decency that made him say that the people needed a break. Everyone could see that, even if they couldn’t yet see the recovery.

Those of us who were born poor in the 1960s will remember the era of hope when free education was introduced. Perhaps fewer will remember how our new secondary schools were flooded with thousands of blue careers leaflets describing, for all of us whose families had scrambled to make a living, how if one studied hard one could become a teacher, a meteorologist, a chemist, a physicist, an ESB engineer (the ultimate 1960s glory for a boy or girl).

A future to believe in

Young Irish people need to experience that feeling again; they need to see a rising tide. Surely if housing and health are matters of public concern, then an emergency programme to deal with these concerns is the least a nation can hope for. This hope is more important than any budget, or any programme, or any troika.

Counterintuitively, I mean from a right-wing economist’s point of view, this very feeling is what lifts all boats and creates consumer demand. How to create this feeling must surely be the single most important political task of the modern era.

That good feeling is waiting impatiently to come back, and it will return when someone announces a restoration of public-service recruitment, the building of 100,000 social homes, the recovery of lost hospital beds, the restoration of funding in arts and public libraries. In other words the restoration of our national self-respect.

It is a truism, my Party cousin tells me from West Norwood, in London, that political hope always pays its own way in the end through increased tax revenue.

As the wily Micheál Martin and the impatient young socialists scratch their heads and wonder what to do next they must surely know that, unlike bailing out private banks, helping the poor to complete their journey out of poverty has never ruined a country.

Thomas McCarthy is a poet from a “Fianna Fáil family”; his work explores the party’s role in Irish life. His new collection, Pandemonium, will be published by Carcanet Press in October

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