Looking at the docility of Fianna Fáil these days, it’s hard to reconcile the current party with its earliest days when several of its TDs reportedly carried guns in their pockets for self-protection as they entered the Dáil after the 1927 general election.
That period was one of dramatic political upheaval which ran up to 1932, when Fianna Fáil became the largest party in the Dáil. For its opponents, however, the whiff of cordite still lingered.
Here was a new movement, borne out of violence, with links to the IRA which had not been fully sundered. Cumann na nGaedhal ran a nakedly negative campaign accusing Éamon de Valera and his party not only of being supported by gunmen, but also by communists - reds under the beds. There were rumours of a coup d’etat occurring to prevent de Valera gaining power. In the event the transfer was peaceful.
Last year, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael conjoined in a coalition government widely described as historic. The ironic thing about it, though, was the rapidly changing nature of Irish society made what was once thought impossible to occur impossible not to occur.
Last month, Peter Cluskey, writing for The Irish Times from the Netherlands, described a relatively new political term called 'Dutchification'.
It describes what happens when the electoral landscape becomes so fragmented that forming a fully-functioning government becomes a reach too far. It has happened in Holland, where they have had two elections in quick succession which have led to complicated arrangements.
Multiparty coalitions and deep minority governments are the norm in many European Union states these days. Fans of the Danish television series Borgen would have got an inkling of how politics has worked there for decades, with a never-ending series of compromises, ad hoc arrangements and fudges.
It is happening here too. In the 1982 general election, Fianna Fáil (47.3 per cent) and Fine Gael (37.3 per cent) secured almost 85 per cent of the vote between them. In February 2020 that had been effectively halved, down to a combined 43 per cent. One or both might recover in the next general election but not at scale.
A bigger historic shift than a coalition involving Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil could have happened last year, if Micheál Martin had not been so adamantly opposed to it. That was Sinn Féin entering government in Dublin, an event analogous in terms of symbolism and change to that of Fianna Fáil in 1927 and 1933 – minus the guns, of course. At this moment in time, Mary Lou McDonald looks the most likely to be the next taoiseach.
There is a section of the electorate which finds the prospect of a Sinn Féin-led government repugnant. It tends to be older and more affluent, and cannot forgive the republican movement for all the horrible, inhumane and cruel things it did during the Troubles for which there were no grounds to claim justification, or casus belli.
That no longer represents the strong majority view on Sinn Féin. The recent Irish Times opinion polls point to large levels of support for the party among those aged 35 and younger who have little or no memory of violence and for whom this is all ancient history. The Sinn Féin it sees is the party which makes relatable arguments on housing, or on insurance costs, or on the cost of living.
As a middle-class man in his 30s in Terenure said to me during the Dublin Bay South byelection: “I see them as the only big party in Ireland that has not got a crack of the whip in government. I know they have a murky background and whatever. I don’t feel they can do any worse than what we have had.”
It’s not that Sinn Féin has become a paragon of all virtues. It’s still secretive about its organisations and finances and still prone to pulling sly ones when it comes dealing with donations and the like. Unlike Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s live Jeremy Kyle-style party meetings every week, what happens at Sinn Féin meetings remains hermetically sealed from outsiders. Its form of democracy is, well, not quite like Borgen. It ruthlessly dispensed with Martina Anderson in Derry. Its candidate in Limerick County in 2020, Séighin Ó Ceallaigh has been told he can’t run in the next general election because somebody has already designated it a female-only constituency for Sinn Féin, four years shy of the next general election.
Sinn Féin is close to, or above, 30 per cent in a number of opinion polls. That suggests it can hold on to most, if not all, of its 37 seats. It could also make gains in 10 constituencies or more including Donegal, Cavan-Monaghan, Dublin Bay North, Dublin Central, Dublin South Central, Dublin South West, Waterford, Wexford, Wicklow and Galway East.
Dutchification will come into play. Even a double-digit increase won’t be enough to allow it to go alone. Who will its partners be? Labour? Fianna Fáil under a new leader? The Social Democrats? Some other combination? It’s likely the party will look to places its own programme managers in each department (as Labour did in 1992) to deal with an unfamiliar new partnership with the Civil Service (where there will perhaps be mutual suspicion). How will it deal with the Department of Justice, the Defence Forces and the Garda? Sinn Féin is an erstwhile enemy, there is no other way of putting it. Will a non-Sinn Féin politician take the justice portfolio as happened in the North, even though that ministry will fall under d’Hondt for the first time after the next Assembly election?
It’s as certain as night follows day the party is now preparing for what it will do when it finally enters government. The rest of the political establishment will now have to likewise prepare itself for that no-longer-impossible eventuality.