An Irish Times/Ipsos poll this week showed surprising resilience for Fianna Fáil, polling around the same as it did in the last general election, and a few points above Fine Gael. But this steady figure, driven by the relative personal popularity of leader Micheál Martin, hides a deep, existential crisis within the party.
For any Irish party, the question “What do they believe in?” can be difficult. Easier, perhaps, is “Who are they for?” For Fianna Fáil, for most of the history of the State, the answer was: a lot of people. Now, it’s considerably fewer. The past 10 years, both out of and in government, have been a process of dealing with an identity crisis, and a creeping, growing sense of irrelevance.
Unlike Fine Gael, which functions as a standard European Christian Democratic or Liberal-Conservative party, Fianna Fáil has never been comfortable with the label of right-wing, or with having a discernible ideology at all. Bertie Ahern once famously claimed to be one of Ireland’s last true socialists. The party membership long regarded themselves not as an ideological faction, but a national movement; the natural, big-tent party of government that appealed to a variety of social classes and had something for everyone, from small farmers to the urban working class.
In this paternalistic conception of their relationship to the nation, they resembled less their European counterparts, and more hegemonic political titans such as Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, the Indian National Congress, or even the Argentinian Peronist movement.
Fianna Fáil has no great theorists, no writers of note, no ideological lodestars. De Valera claimed that to know what the Irish people desired; he had only to look into his own heart. To be a Fianna Fáil politician was not to align oneself with one side of the spectrum, but to express the general will of the people.
For a long time, it garnered enough votes that this wasn’t entirely ridiculous; winning majorities or even coming close in a strict PR system is no mean feat. As late as the Bertie era, it governed as if class and ideological conflict did not exist, or at least could be smoothed out while the money flowed. But the idea of this mass popular expression of will is a denial of the existence of different class interests in society, and if these interests don’t exist, then why has the project of Fianna Fáil been to manage them so carefully?
For decades, Fianna Fáil served primarily as a patronage machine, one that promised – and occasionally delivered – jobs, favours, and local development in exchange for votes. This kind of clientelism always depends on an illusion. There aren’t enough resources to pay off every voter, but there is enough visible direction of favour to suggest every voter might be in with a chance. Combined with mild, patchy social democratic policies and the most effective voter turnout machine of any party, this was a recipe for decades of hegemony.
The best evidence of Fianna Fáil’s muddled ideological position is in European politics. Since direct elections were first held to the European Parliament in 1979, it has sat with, at various points, French Gaullists, the Scottish National Party, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the far-right Danish People’s Party, the Liberal Democrats and various esoteric Monarchist and family values parties from Poland. It was denied its logical home in the European People’s Party by Fine Gael’s presence there. It wouldn’t do to remind people of their similarities.
Should Fianna Fáil split?
Since 2009, in a process of ideological reinvention, Fianna Fáil has sat with the liberal centrist grouping, making some of its most prominent politicians uneasy. Brian Crowley, the only Fianna Fáil MEP returned in 2014 and a senior leader in a previous right-wing group, defied party leadership to sit with the European Conservatives and Reformers, a Eurosceptic rightwing grouping that included post- (and not so post-) fascist parties. This earned him expulsion from Fianna Fáil and, because of health issues, he never cast a single vote. He represents the ideological dilemma of Fianna Fáil.
For decades, as a huge party in a socially conservative country, Fianna Fáil could operate quite happily in an ambiguous space, delivering largesse and meaning all things to all people. As its vote shrank after the crash, it suddenly became only one party among many, and not one that made a lot of internal sense. Fianna Fáil voters and elected officials split almost perfectly down the middle on repealing the Eighth Amendment.
For a decade now, a socially conservative, supposedly republican party has been led by a centrist social liberal with a more cautious position on Irish unification than even Leo Varadkar. Looming in the background is the potentially shattering question of whether to support a Sinn Féin government.
Fianna Fáil has recovered from its lowest point in 2011, but this has mostly been achieved by clawing back some older voters from Fine Gael. It is true to say that the Fianna Fáil brand remains toxic to younger voters, but for most under 30, it’s truer to say that it is increasingly irrelevant. It remains the most generationally polarised party in the country, with candidates occasionally garnering margin-of-error numbers among young voters. It would be a struggle for many people to name a single, notable, unique Fianna Fáil policy. To return to the question of who Fianna Fáil is for, the answer appears to be a steadily dwindling, increasingly regionalised demographic.
A few possible futures for the party are worth mentioning. It spent years on a failed merger with the SDLP, perhaps the only more irrelevant political force on the island. If an all-Ireland moderate nationalist party is an impossible dream, what about a split instead?
It’s conceivable that the next leader will be unable to contain the contradictions, and the party will cleave into an urban centrist grouping and a rural conservative one, perhaps in concert with Aontú or the TDs attempting to form a right-wing farmer’s interest party. In an increasingly ideologically defined Irish political moment, the fracturing of Fianna Fáil and its vote poses a serious risk of electoral success for the hard right.
Jack Sheehan is a writer and PhD researcher in history at Trinity College Dublin