Diarmaid Ferriter: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael may have to consider coalition
FG cannot afford the arrogance accrued in recent years, while FF cannot afford a return of its historic swagger
‘Retrospectively, John Kelly seemed to regard the mid-1970s as the golden age for Fine Gael.' Photograph: Cyril Byrne
By the 1980s, Dublin Fine Gael TD and legal scholar John Kelly had endured enough of Civil War politics. Although he had specialised in mercilessly haranguing Fianna Fáil for what he regarded as its unthinking tribalism and grubby ineptness, his tone dramatically altered to the point where in February 1989, a few months before he bowed out of politics, he drafted a searching letter to his party leader, Alan Dukes. He explained where he felt Fine Gael had gone wrong since 1977 and why he believed it should disband and integrate with either Fianna Fáil or the Labour Party, depending on the individual members’ preferences: “The core of the problem is what do we stand for that no one else stands for, or what justifies our separate existence now that (unlike earlier times) it is not possible to fault Fianna Fáil convincingly on any of the old grounds.”
Retrospectively, Kelly seemed to regard the mid-1970s as the golden age for Fine Gael, precisely because it had what he regarded as a completely different identity. “When Liam Cosgrave was leader it was easy to see Fine Gael, sincerely, as the one rational and moderate and more or less honest political option for the country and correspondingly easy to detest and oppose Fianna Fáil. In 1973 and thereafter they were arrogant, bullying, often corrupt, opportunistic, irresponsible about both the North and the economy. When Liam went out in 1977 his party could hold its head high.”
There was little appetite within Fine Gael for Kelly’s sentiment, despite the decision of Dukes to announce in opposition in 1987 that “When the Government is moving in the right direction, I will not oppose the central thrust of its policy”; what became known as the Tallaght Strategy.
The question of what one of them stands for that the other doesn’t has generated numerous answers over the decades, none of them very convincing
Much consensus developed around the supposed “right direction” and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have broadly shared that direction for a long time now, something John Kelly seemed to anticipate in 1989. But the electoral space they share has shrunk dramatically; in the election after Kelly wrote his letter they shared 71 per cent of the vote; next week they are likely to share a little over 50 per cent.
The question of what one of them stands for that the other doesn’t has generated numerous answers over the decades, none of them very convincing. When Seán Lemass was asked what the difference was by an American journalist after the 1957 general election, which saw Fianna Fáil replace the Fine Gael-led coalition in place since 1954, he reputedly stumbled somewhat and then answered: “Well, the main difference is: we’re in and they’re out.” Fianna Fáil senator Eoin Ryan, whose father James was a founding member of Fianna Fáil, used to insist the differences were not ideological but boiled down to Fianna Fáil’s “close contact with the grassroots…we have, you could say, an instinct for what people want”. It was also more disciplined and better organised, but political theorising was discouraged; as political scientist Tom Garvin put it in 1978, “ideological commitment of any kind is frowned upon in the party”.
Fianna Fáil insists today it is left of centre, while in 2002, a Fine Gael election leaflet proclaimed “the single greatest difference between FG and FF would have to be our passionate commitment to delivering first class public services to all our people”. Sinn Féin is also, it seems, “passionate” about that, and the party is no slouch when it comes to connection with the grassroots, instinct for what people want and discipline – far too much discipline as far as its critics are concerned.
Given the compassion confetti being flung with abandon during this election campaign, perhaps all parties are seeking to position themselves as political great grandchildren of Éamon de Valera , who famously lauded “a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of right living”.
Given their reduced collective appeal, Fine Gael cannot afford the arrogance accrued in recent years and Fianna Fáil cannot afford a return of its historic swagger; the kind political correspondent Dick Walsh once described as “like an overbearing heavyweight in late-night company who cannot see how anyone can take a different view and in certain circumstances, why anyone should be allowed to do so”.
They’re likely to have the numbers to govern together. Fianna Fáil has ruled that out but will the postelection arithmetic soften its stance and unite both in order to undermine a robust Sinn Féin biting at their heels? As the late Noel Whelan, whose astute analysis will be missed come the election count, used to put it, “they will if they have to”. This election will be interesting because of what has been described as the increasing Balkanisation of Irish politics; it is unlikely to settle into a more fixed shape for a few years or elections to come, but what we are perhaps getting closer to is an inevitable public confrontation with the question that John Kelly posed privately in 1989.