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Fianna Fáil needs to decide which way it is going to jump

Does it want to remain a centrist party or become something altogether more radical

Whether you agree or disagree, it was not an especially startling thing to say. A Minister of the Government averred that the Coalition was doing a decent job under the circumstances and should ask the voters to re-elect it when its term ends.

I mean, consider the alternatives. “We are doing a bad job so we won’t seek re-election.” “We are doing a good job but we won’t seek re-election.” “We are doing an okay job but we will seek different coalition partners next time.” “We are doing a good job but we will need a rest in Opposition for a while.” Don’t sound great, do they?

And yet when Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe told the Indo: “I believe, come that next election, there is an argument for re-election that I, Fine Gael and the Government can win and I want to do it” some Fianna Fáilers reacted with horror.

“I would expect,” Donohoe explained, “come the next election, each party will go in as a separate party and make the case for their separate efforts but I believe this government, despite the challenges and pressures that we’re facing, is working cohesively and is showing the political centre can work.”

If any part of the Coalition goes into the next election thinking it might not want to be back in government, it is pretty certain that the voters will come to share that view

This did not go down well in parts of Fianna Fáil, however. Asked if the “grand coalition” should seek re-election, Chief Whip Jack Chambers said: “I don’t think party members of Fianna Fáil throughout the length and breadth of this country would welcome that.

“Fianna Fáil will be running in the next election on our own manifesto, with our own policies, with our own focus and with our own identity.”

Of course, Donohoe hadn’t suggested that the Coalition present a joint ticket in the next election or anything like that. But it’s interesting that even the suggestion of something like it was enough to trigger strong responses in Fianna Fáil.

The straw man is the idea of a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael merger: that will not happen. The differences between the two parties in history, culture and their sense of themselves (if not in policy) are too important to their members to permit even talk of a merger.

And on a tactical point, the competition between their candidates at local level is more likely to maximise returns that diminish them. The question for the two old rivals is not whether they will merge; it is whether they can make a success of being allies in government, while retaining their electoral and political rivalry.

This is tricky, to be sure. At best you could say that the two parties are still getting used to it. But the notion that it is impossible is absurd. Any government that wishes to be successful needs to believe in itself, to have confidence in its project, to have conviction that it is doing right by the country. A corollary is that it should want to be re-elected.

If any part of the Coalition goes into the next election thinking it might not want to be back in government, it is pretty certain that the voters will come to share that view. I can think of only one party that ever went into an election campaign telling the voters that a spell in opposition might be the best thing for everyone: Fianna Fáil in 2011. The voters wholeheartedly agreed, and the party lost 50 seats.

The view that “We need a spell in opposition” is now more usually found in Fine Gael, which has been in Government since 2011. One can only say that if this is what enough people in the party want, they will assuredly get their wish.

The old divide in Irish politics used to be between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. No longer. Now it is between the radicals and the moderates

(By contrast the Green Party, which faced a fierce internal debate on entering government and lost members and some supporters because of it, has a clear-eyed view of why it is in government, what it wants to achieve there and why it would like to continue in government after 2024 or 2025. Ask a Green TD if they want the Coalition to be re-elected and they are likely to say: yes, if we can continue to implement our policies. They would not hum and haw and say, umm, dunno, the thing is we don’t really like those other lads.)

What lies underneath Fianna Fáil’s ambivalence towards the re-election of the coalition is fear of the questions that will become unavoidable for the party: what is it for? What is its role in the future? Does it believe in the (sometimes maddeningly slow) centrist incrementalism that Irish governments have always followed? Or is it moving towards a more radical approach?

Boil it down to basics: does it believe that the current Irish State is largely worth preserving, while improving on it, or does it believe that it needs to be completely reinvented?

There is a case for each of these views. But you can’t believe both of them at the same time.

The old divide in Irish politics used to be between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. No longer. Now it is between the radicals and the moderates; for now, that division centres on Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil on one side, and Sinn Féin on the other.

Perhaps Fianna Fáil under (presumably) a new leader reckons it can have an each-way bet, with the potential to join a government led by either of its rivals, radical or moderate, depending on the coalition deal that might be on offer.

Such a position could put the party in a decisive position of great power. Or it could fall between two stools. Either way the party will have to make up its mind about all this in the not-too-distant future.