Resistance to a coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil among the membership of both parties goes deeper than the practical political considerations that have emerged since the election results became clear.
There is a cultural and even social divide between many of the activists on both sides, which is firmly buttressed by family traditions going back to the Civil War.
The bitter animosities that used to exist between the parties have long since withered and died, but that doesn’t mean they have become interchangeable.
Academics and urban sophisticates may profess to be puzzled by the rivalry between the two big parties, but the hold of tribal loyalties spanning generations is more durable than they can imagine.
Years ago, the late Jackie Healy-Rae, while he was still a member of Fianna Fáil, was asked to explain the difference between the two parties. His response: “Them that know don’t need to ask and them that ask will never know.”
Fear of Fianna Fáil revival
His views were echoed at the beginning of the campaign by the wife of a leading Fine Gael member, who confided that her main reason for canvassing was her fear that Fianna Fáil might rise from the dust.
“We can’t let them up again after all they have done to the country over the years,” she said. “We have to keep the foot on their necks. If we don’t, they will be running the show again before we know it.”
There is something about the self-image of each party that illustrates the gulf in understanding between them.
In its own eyes, Fine Gael is the party that established the State in the cauldron of the Civil War. Over the years it has been prepared to take a stand in defence of the institutions of that State, no matter what the cost in terms of unpopularity.
Fianna Fáil sees itself as the people’s party, one whose mission over the years has been to ensure that everybody gets some share of the available resources – even if that at times means the distribution of largesse regardless of where the money was supposed to come from.
Focus group research commissioned by The Irish Times just before the election was called illustrates how the two parties were perceived by voters.
One group from the new outer suburbs of Dublin were asked which party they thought would be more fun and who they would prefer to go for a pint with.
The consensus was that Fianna Fáilers would be more fun to go for a drink with than anybody else, while Fine Gaelers would be worthy but boring.
Northsiders and southsiders
“I’d probably vote Fianna Fáil, because I see Fianna Fáil as the northsiders and Fine Gael as the southsiders,” said one man, summing up the mood.
The outcome of the election proved his point, demonstrating how strong Fine Gael is in the middle-class areas on the south side of Dublin and how Fianna Fáil has recovered in the more working-class areas and across provincial Ireland.
Both sets of party supporters hope their leaders will be able to manoeuvre their way into government in the light of the election result, but there is little appetite for the grand coalition idea among either of them.
If the two parties were interchangeable, as so many commentators believe, one of them would have ceased to exist by now. Both of them have managed to survive electoral disaster – Fine Gael in 2002 and Fianna Fáil in 2011 – and prove the obituary writers wrong precisely because their sense of identity is so strong.
While their combined support has declined over the years, they still remain the only two parties that can lead a government.
Over the next weeks and months they will have to come to some arrangement to put a government in place. But coalition remains the most unlikely option.