FG wide boys replace FF as party of operators


The Shortall episode showed the difference between clientelism and good governance, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

AMERICAN evangelical Christians adopted the slogan WWJD – “What would Jesus do?” The Government has now adopted its own variant: WWFFD?

For Fine Gael, the formula makes complete sense. It has replaced Fianna Fáil as the chief operator of The Machine, the system of clientelist politics that has held power since the 19th century. It can stay in office for a very long time by becoming as adept and unashamed in its manipulation of the levers of power as the party it looked on for so long with all the envy of a shy, spotty youth watching the slick rogue getting all the girls. The jilted lad would console himself by raging that the rogue was a bad character. But secretly he dreamed of being the rogue himself.

And now he is. Fine Gael has been given control of The Machine and is testing out what it can do. Oooh, look, says James Reilly, pull this handle and it can deliver primary care centres for me and my buddies! That’s nothing, says Phil Hogan, if you pull this switch, you can stop Traveller families moving in to a housing estate in your constituency. Feck your civic democracy, I’ve a Merc outside.

All you have to do is to keep asking, in any given situation, WWFFD? Practice will make perfect – soon, it will be as if Fianna Fáil never went away.

This is a perfectly rational political strategy for Fine Gael. There is, after all, a real sense in which Fianna Fáil is still in power – the entire framework of economic policy is that created by Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan. If you’re going to inflict the pain that this implies, you might as well get the perks. And in the longer term, becoming Fianna Fáil is a clever survival strategy.

There’s a big market for pure clientelist politics in Ireland – The Machine will always deliver a rake of votes to those who work it with sufficient vigour and shamelessness. If it becomes The Machine, Fine Gael will stay in power long beyond the next election – perhaps long enough to subsume Fianna Fáil itself. Imagine the joy of that – the slick rogue begging to be the sidekick of the shy, spotty fella.

There will be some awkwardness along the way. Clientelism is not big with Dublin middle-class voters, which is why Leo and Lucinda are uncomfortable. But The Machine doesn’t really need the Dublin middle class. It can give Fine Gael a permanent 30-40 per cent of the vote – enough, in a fragmented political system, to keep the party leaders and advisers in the luxuries of office to which they are becoming so rapidly accustomed.

Becoming The Machine also means that you don’t have to worry about the freak-show of the banking disaster, mass unemployment, emigration and growing inequality. The Machine runs on the small stuff of personal and local patronage. It is entirely indifferent to national misery – indeed, the more miserably dependent people are, the more they think they need The Machine. The beauty of it all, indeed, is that you don’t even need national sovereignty – the local is all, Home Rule is fine.

All of this is good for Fine Gael. There’s a Fianna Fáil-shaped hole in Irish public culture – why not fill it? But for Labour WWFFD? is WTF? Labour can’t become The Machine: it’s not big enough or deeply-rooted enough. (It is significant that one of the first casualties of government was Labour’s most adept machine politician, Willie Penrose.) And, to be fair, it doesn’t really want to be.

Most of its senior figures grew up politically defining themselves as the anti-Machine. They sat on city and county councils and watched Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael operate as a single rezoning cartel. Their bête noire was Charles Haughey. They thought of themselves as different, more ideological, more committed to broader notions of the public good.

This creates a fundamental imbalance. Fine Gael can take the hit of imposing unjust and unpopular policies, because it can compensate for those losses by becoming the new lords of The Machine. But Labour has no such compensation – it just takes the hit. Its one chance, therefore, was to stop Fine Gael morphing into Fianna Fáil, to retain for the administration a narrative of selfless endeavour and rigorous pursuit of the public good.

This was always going to be hard to square with the luxuries of office. But along came a glorious opportunity. Róisín Shortall’s conflict with James Reilly dramatised in the clearest possible way the difference between machine politics and good governance based on clear principles and objective evidence. Labour had the enormous good fortune to be overwhelmingly on the right side, not just of an argument, but of a whole approach to public life. It had the chance to stop the emergence of Fine Fáil as the new dominant force in Irish politics.

And Eamon Gilmore knew exactly what to do – he threw all of his weight behind clientelism. He cleared the path for Fine Gael to drive The Machine forward – across the dead body of his own party.

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