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Fintan O’Toole: Fianna Fáil has had two long lives – there will not be a third act

Once its hold on power evaporated, so did the party’s reason for existing

For a long time, whenever I thought about Fianna Fáil (which was far too often for my mental wellbeing), a particular phrase came to mind. I knew it off by heart. It encapsulated an undeniable truth that was at the core of Irish politics for eighty years.

The words were uttered in the bar of the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin in 1992. The background noise of Irish public life at the time was an endless tribunal of inquiry into shenanigans in the beef industry and their governmental ramifications.

Albert Reynolds, who was then taoiseach, was due to give his evidence. He was obsessed with the inquiry. He was worried in particular about being cross-examined under oath by one of the sharpest barristers in the business: the late Adrian Hardiman, then a senior counsel, later a Supreme Court judge.

In the small world of the law library, one of Reynolds’s own lawyers was a close friend of Hardiman. In the Shelbourne bar, he explained to Hardiman’s wife why it would be a good idea for her husband to be unavoidably detained on the day of the taoiseach’s cross-examination and leave the job to a more junior (and less dangerous) colleague.


In its pomp, Fianna Fáil could stand for everything and nothing because everybody knew what it really stood for: power

He uttered, by way of warning, a truth then universally acknowledged. Hardiman’s “future work and long-term interests could be affected if he carried out this cross-examination himself because the Fianna Fáil party was likely to be in power for a long time and had a long memory”.

These were essential facts of Irish life. We hold these truths to be self-evident:

Fianna Fáil is the permanent repository of power. It does not forget its friends – and it remembers its enemies even more clearly.

Political weather

In this reality, there was little difference between power and the perception of power. So long as people believed that Fianna Fáil was going to be running the country far into the indefinite future, they had to accommodate themselves to that fact. Other parties might sometimes make the political weather. Fianna Fáil was the climate.

In this, the party was very like the other institution to which it remained so closely allied: the Catholic church. The church, too, was likely to be in power for a very long time and had, if anything, an even longer memory. Together, these two forces formed the Irish matrix.

For both organisations, this power was deeply corrupting. It meant that everything could be, in both senses, fixed. In the perpetual light that shone on these twin pillars of control, setbacks and scandals were temporary. The matrix would always regenerate itself.

The problem with power based on the perception of its own perpetuity is that, as the ad says, when it’s gone, it’s gone. And for Fianna Fáil, it has been gone since 2008. The crash, and the consequent loss of national sovereignty, destroyed it.

This process is cumulative. A byelection in which the party finishes fifth with fewer than 5 per cent of the votes is not just a disaster in itself. It makes Fianna Fáil look weak and a weak Fianna Fáil is the political equivalent of a homeopathic remedy – it is the watery memory of a once-potent substance.

We don't eat grass or have tails anymore, and we don't believe that there is a party that will always be in charge

Without perpetual domination, ideology matters. In its pomp, Fianna Fáil could stand for everything and nothing because everybody knew what it really stood for: power. It could befriend the oligarch and the oppressed. These were mere shadows; the substance was control of the State.


But turn the power off, and the shape-shifting becomes merely vacuous. The battery – you’d better be with us because we own the freehold on the inside track – goes flat.

Who’s afraid of Fianna Fáil now? Its enemies list is like that of Graham Norton’s Father Noel Furlong in Father Ted – only joking! And conversely, who thinks that the way to advance in Irish life is to be in a party that had difficulty persuading even its own local councillors to put their names forward for the byelection?

In the Irish body politic, Fianna Fáil is a vestigial feature – the tailbone or the appendix. These bits survive their own redundancy, but they have no function. We don’t eat grass or have tails anymore, and we don’t believe that there is a party that will always be in charge.

This problem is existential. To believe it can be solved by replacing Micheál Martin with Jim O’Callaghan or Michael McGrath is magical thinking: the crops have failed because the king has offended the gods, so let us ritually slaughter the king.

Ritual slaughter would add greatly to the gaiety of the nation, but it will not save Fianna Fáil. It can carry on indefinitely as a ghost in its own electoral machine. It cannot, however, answer the question – what are we for?

What is the purpose of a machine that has become obsolescent? It can only be displayed at fairs like a steam-powered threshing engine that exerts a nostalgic fascination but goes nowhere.

Fianna Fáil has had two long lives. It created de Valera’s Ireland. And it then created contemporary Ireland through the Whitaker-Lemass revolution of 1958. The first is long gone. The second has run its course, as Ireland seeks a new paradigm.

There will not be a third act.