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Diarmaid Ferriter: Fianna Fáil now bereft of its catch-all credentials

Soldiers of Destiny unlikely to charm both sides of political divide: the winners and losers

Class warfare does not often break out in the Dáil and historically when it did was more a source of amusement than consternation.

In one of the more memorable Dáil speeches, after then taoiseach Bertie Ahern announced himself to be “one of the few socialists left in Irish politics” in 2004, Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins responded.

Higgins had been abroad advancing the cause of international socialism when Ahern came out of his ideological closet, and expressed mock outrage: “You can imagine how perplexed I was when I returned to find my wardrobe almost empty. The Taoiseach had been busy robbing my clothes . . . Saul’s embrace of Christianity on the road to Damascus stood the test of time, but the Taoiseach’s embrace of socialism on the banks of the Tolka hardly will.”

The rise in support for Sinn Féin has occasionally sharpened the Taoiseach's assertions about class, Sinn Féin's populism and the differences he sees between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael

The Dáil exchange between Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou MacDonald on Wednesday was far less jovial as he pointedly declared “my background and where I grew up, and what we had to put up with, was far different from yours . . . Don’t you dare lecture me. I understand the realities of life as well as anybody else in this House.”

It is 90 years since Fianna Fáil first took up the reins of government, at a time when one of its Cork TDs, Seán Moylan, insisted after the 1932 general election that its victory was a triumph for “the owners of the donkey and cart over the pony and trap class”. There were undoubtedly strong class dimensions to the political divisions at that point, and if they did not disappear between the two largest parties, they certainly melted, as did the declarations of the likes of Moylan.

In the early 21st century, Bertie Ahern was not going to ape the language of his political mentor Charles Haughey who described socialism as an “alien gospel” and “inherently un-Irish”. Instead, Ahern generally preferred the catch-all claim, as when he suggested Fianna Fáil “looks out for the small ranking guy, the middle ranking guy and assists the big guy”. This was an updated version of Brian Lenihan snr’s insistence “there are no isms or ologies in my party”, regarded as a matter of some pride. But it also camouflaged the extent of Irish class divisions. Forty years ago, in 1982, an Economic and Social Research Institute paper recorded just how deeply implanted these differences were and predicted: “Ireland may enter the twenty-first century with an upper-middle class so securely entrenched as to hearken back to its nineteenth century predecessors.”

The rise in support for Sinn Féin has occasionally sharpened the Taoiseach’s assertions about class, Sinn Féin’s populism and the differences he sees between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (“Fianna Fáil is the party of the working classes”, while Fine Gael “have a sense of privilege” he declared in 2020) but these contentions will hardly fly high while they are in Government together. Another Cork stalwart of Fianna Fáil, former TD Tom Meaney, whose father was also a Fianna Fáil TD, insisted last summer that the party must be true to its “founding philosophy” in appealing to urban and rural voters: “they were established to be a party for everybody”.

But where does that ambition sit now? A paper from the School of Politics in UCD last year by Stefan Muller and Aidan Regan posed this question: “Are Irish Voters moving to the Left?” Surveying Irish elections between 2002 and 2020 they suggest, in a big shift from the 1980s, the average Irish voter now leans to the “centre-left” and that the leftward shift is “anchored in economic inequalities”.

This is partly a reflection of a large low-wage sector “and a highly polarised labour market between lower and higher-earning households . . . a large cohort of voters across the low to lower-middle income distribution do not directly benefit” from the growth generated by the Irish economic model.

That seems of particular relevance now given the headlines this week that announced the “Boom is Back”. It might be regarded as very good news for a sitting Government that the Central Bank is predicting strong recovery to the point where the economy could grow by 8.7 per cent this year with unemployment likely to fall to 5.3 per cent next year. But this may be better news for Sinn Féin.

Talk and evidence of boom could well do much to hone, not just bitter, ideological exchanges in the Dáil

The cost of living, lack of supply and inflation in relation to housing, for example, illuminate sharp disparities. Estate agent Sherry Fitzgerald is predicting an 8 per cent increase in house prices this year, while the volume of properties sold that were valued at more than €1 million increased by 46 per cent last year.

Talk and evidence of boom could well do much to hone, not just bitter, ideological exchanges in the Dáil, but the feeling by voters that, as alluded to by Regan and Muller’s paper, “Ireland’s political economy has created a clear winner and loser dynamic”. Fianna Fáil is unlikely to appeal to both.