FG and FF now more compatible than ever


Fine Gael has moved to the right, but Labour, under Eamon Gilmore, has moved to the left, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE.

BEFORE IT is over, the current global crisis will subject democratic political systems to the most severe test they will have undergone since the 1930s.

Mass unemployment and falling living standards will create a large constituency of the disaffected and the desperate.

At the same time, with the shrinking of the private sector of the economy, governments and public institutions will have to take on a huge range of new tasks, effectively nationalising banks and underpinning many industries.

In these circumstances, no democracy can afford a dysfunctional political system. By a functional system, I mean, simply, one that offers voters a genuine and coherent set of policy choices. We need a system in which more than one party, or coherent combination of parties, is capable of winning power and in which a change of government really matters. And we in Ireland do not have such a system.

Even as the electorate despairs of the party that has engineered the particularly nasty native version of the global crisis, it lacks faith in the very idea of a real alternative.

For the last 40 years or so, the rough shape of the Irish political contest has been Fianna Fáil plus add-ons, versus Fine Gael and Labour plus add-ons. But since the 2007 general election, there has been a profound change: Fine Gael and Labour no longer form a viable opposition. The two parties are further apart than at any time since the 1960s.

The idea of a Fine Gael/Labour alliance has been based on the assumption that Fine Gael has a substantial social democratic wing. That internal tendency reached its height under Garret FitzGerald, a straightforward social democrat who was actually more at home with Labour ministers in coalition governments than with many of his own party colleagues. It was reinforced by broad agreement between Labour and the liberals in Fine Gael on non-economic issues like contraception, divorce, women’s rights and church-state relations. That social democratic link is now definitively broken. Fine Gael under Enda Kenny is a clearly conservative party – with a large C as well as a small one. After “open and enthusiastic” discussions with David Cameron in the House of Commons last November, Kenny declared his intention to form a much closer relationship with the Tory party.

He pointed to agreement on areas like taxation and public spending and announced that he will be sending his policy advisers and front bench members to spend time with their Conservative counterparts. Fine Gael is, in other words, now quite openly identifying itself as the Irish Tory Party. This is fair enough, and it is presumably part of Kenny’s strategy to mop up what remains of the old Progressive Democrat base. But it marks a complete collapse of the rationale for a Fine Gael/Labour alliance. It underlines the paradox that Kenny has been a brilliant leader of his party and a terrible leader of the Opposition.

For not only has Fine Gael moved definitively to the right, but Labour, under Eamon Gilmore, has moved simultaneously to the left. This is not just a matter of theoretical positioning. On all of the biggest issues – the banking crisis, public sector cutbacks, taxation – Fine Gael and Labour have taken fundamentally different positions.

By contrast, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are now more compatible than they have ever been. Their differences on the economy were always relatively mild. The key “wedge issues” were Northern Ireland and, from the late 1970s onwards, the so-called liberal agenda. With both of these issues effectively off the table, the differences between the two tribes are now less marked than the differences within them. And the big argument against an alliance – that it would create an overly dominant monster with a monopoly on political power – is no longer valid. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have about 60 per cent of the electorate behind them, leaving 40 per cent to try to form a coherent alternative.

When I made this suggestion here last November, Kenny offered a reply that was strikingly weak. He could think of just three actual differences between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. One was that Fine Gael “never had a corrupt leader” – a valid point, but one that is a matter of behaviour rather than of policy. The second was that “we tell the truth about the economy” – a claim so vague and broad that it is practically meaningless. The last was that “Economically, we combine decisiveness with direction and we always put the public interest first”. This amounts to claiming no more than that Fine Gael would do the same things better – not that the party would do different things.

Let’s suppose that these three claims are entirely true, that Fine Gael in government would be less corrupt, more truthful and more decisive.

This is not an argument for competing with Fianna Fáil but for coalescing with it. Fine Gael, by its own account, would be able to help Fianna Fáil implement the same centre right policies more honestly and effectively. If it actually believes in the public interest, it should offer to do so.