Back in the days when there was a sprinkling of good orators in Leinster House, Fine Gael’s James Dillon prided himself on rising above what he termed the “codology” that pervaded Dáil business. As the outgoing minister for agriculture, speaking in June 1951 as a new Fianna Fáil government was about to replace the interparty government, Dillon posed this question: “What ideological differences, if words retain their meaning, divide any two deputies on any side of this house?”
Dillon had just listened to TDs trading civil war insults, and the Labour Party was not immune; its Cork TD Seán Keane, reacting to the nomination of Éamon de Valera as Taoiseach, offered this barb: “Deputy de Valera was spoken about this evening as being the one man who pulled this country out of every difficulty. I can remember conditions into which Deputy de Valera put this country!” Ceann comhairle Patrick Hogan responded wearily: “The Deputy is too strong on history … the Deputy is discussing the Irish Civil War but I want him to discuss the motion before the House.”
Whenever the general election is announced we will be told, as is the norm, that the country is at a crossroads with clear alternative routes mapped out
They certainly liked their history, but as Dillon saw it, that was just a smokescreen to hide their essential sameness and that theme resonates to this day. True, we have a more disparate parliament than was the case in Dillon’s era, and his oratorical flourishes could be far too sweeping, but the two big beasts of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael still dominate and there is still much faux posturing about the supposed gulf between them.
There has been intense speculation about the timing of our next general election, but it is difficult to see the prospect of that election changing much, given the absence of radically competing visions from the two biggest parties. On Wednesday, when the Taoiseach sought to dismiss the idea of an imminent election, it was also pointed out by a spokesman for Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin that “there’s a lorry load of Bills that we’ve already agreed to” – 58 of them.
Whenever the general election is announced we will be told, as is the norm, that the country is at a crossroads with clear alternative routes mapped out. In reality the electoral road is likely to lead us back pretty much to where we started; a Tweedledum/Tweedledee election, where the lead parties might swap places but there is still little if any likelihood of a fundamentally different approach to solving our grave health, housing and transport problems or the treating of the climate change crisis as the emergency it is. Little wonder, then, that one of the rising stars of the Green Party, 29-year-old Saoirse McHugh, commented earlier this week: “I don’t care who did what during the civil war.” She also suggested “there is now a real generational divide in how Irish people are looking at the world”.
But while that might give the Green Party a significant lift, it is unlikely to alter the balance of power in the Dáil too much.
Taking the long view, there have certainly been great shifts in political allegiances. In all the general elections between 1927 and 2007, Fianna Fáil commanded an average of nearly 45 per cent of the vote; it seems unlikely it will reach those heights again. A measure of the move away from the larger parties is that up to the early 1980s, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour combined commanded over 90 per cent of the vote: in 1997, they still managed 78 per cent and in 2011, 73 per cent. In 2016 that figure dropped to roughly 56 per cent. With the Labour Party failing to recover much, recent polls have consistently put combined support for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil at 55 or 56 per cent, with the rest of the votes scattered all over the place
It is true that some of the traditional electoral strategies are no longer tenable. Historically, Fianna Fáil troops rallied to great effect when, to use a phrase of Fianna Fáil spin doctor PJ Mara’s, they decided it was “Fianna Fáil versus the universe”. As the party was more often than not campaigning as an outgoing government, it stressed the importance of experience over novelty, and scaremongering about the alternative was deployed. Fine Gael now has more cover to robustly resist those insults.
There are particular difficulties for smaller parties when the vote is seen as a contest between the two largest parties. Not only do they get squeezed, there is also the danger of what political scientist Michael Gallagher referred to in 2007 as “cannibalism among the alternative alliance”. There is the possibility of a new rainbow coalition, but a strong likelihood is that the government that emerges after the next election will be one based on a new confidence-and-supply agreement. We may have to content ourselves with observing the battles in British politics if we are seeking real electoral drama.