Overlap between FG and FF good for Irish democracy
European model of left versus right politics is currently in meltdown
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin following the renewal of the confidence-and-supply arrangement between his party and Fine Gael. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The renewal of the confidence-and-supply arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has provoked all the old cliches about Irish politics being fundamentally flawed because of the continued survival of two parties whose origins go back to the Civil War.
It is strange that this facile view is being trotted out once more at a time when any objective analysis would show how the Irish political system, whatever its shortcomings, has stood up really well to the test of time.
The contrast between the way the two big parties in this State handled the dilemma thrown up by the inconclusive election result of 2016 and the shambolic manner in which the two big parties in the United Kingdom have brought their country to the brink of economic and political disaster over Brexit should give those who regularly pour scorn on the Irish party system food for thought.
The Irish political system has, in recent decades, delivered a level of prosperity and openness that is the envy of much of the world
Taking a much longer view, the series of events currently marking the centenary of the first Dáil should prompt some reflection on the course of Irish politics over the past 100 years. That the Republic is one of the very few new states founded in the aftermath of the first World War that survived as a continuous democracy is no mean achievement and it is one for which our politicians and our political parties deserve credit.
Of course they rarely get it but that is one of the best features of our democracy. People are under no obligation to show gratitude to politicians for doing a job nobody asked them to do in the first place and a degree of scepticism about their claims and ambitions is always necessary.
However, there is always a danger that healthy scepticism about politics can turn into corrosive cynicism which chips away at the foundations of democracy itself. We only have to look at the events in Hungary and the US to see how the attractions of the loose-lipped demagogue can threaten the values we take for granted.
There are legitimate fears that on current trends the stability of the European Union, the US and indeed the whole world order could be undermined in the years ahead. Is it something to be ashamed of that our so-called Civil War parties have managed to head off such threats in this country?
The Irish political system has not simply delivered stability and kept the country safe for democracy over the past 100 years it has, in recent decades, delivered a level of prosperity and openness that is the envy of much of the world. Many Irish people, fed on a diet of unremitting negativity from sections of the broadcast media, may find this hard to believe but facts are facts.
The United Nations Human Development Index, which ranks the countries of the world in terms of living standards, currently places Ireland fourth. The index doesn’t simply measure wealth in terms of income per head and GDP but takes in a range of factors including life expectancy, personal security, educational opportunity and women’s rights. The only countries ahead of us are Norway, Switzerland and Australia.
Ireland’s ranking in the UN index is rarely remarked on by commentators as it doesn’t fit the persistent narrative of failed politics to which they are wedded. When Leo Varadkar sought to draw attention to it on Twitter he was widely attacked for his temerity in trying to intrude some reality into the discussion.
Of course that doesn’t mean the country doesn’t have serious problems or that everybody feels the benefits of prosperity equally but it is important to keep things in context. It is notable that the most vitriolic criticism of the Irish political system comes from people who lauded the disastrous policies of Yanis Varoufakis in Greece and gave uncritical backing to Hugo Chávez who destroyed the economy of Venezuela.
The main criticism of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is that they do not conform to the European model of left/right politics but the fact is that model is currently in meltdown. Mainstream conservative parties are losing ground and socialist and social democratic parties are doing even worse as their former supporters succumb to the blandishments of populist rabble rousers.
One of the big problems in the UK is that the breakdown of the House of Commons along the traditional left/right divide has left both the Conservatives and Labour at the mercy of intransigent extremists of both hues. There is a clear majority in the Commons for either a soft Brexit or even remaining in the European Union but so far they have been unable to find a way to defy their extremists who want a hard Brexit.
A political cleavage based on their approach to Europe would make more sense in current British politics than one based on outdated concepts of capital and labour. The majority of MPs in both parties may yet find a way of co-operating to marginalise the extremists but there is no guarantee that will happen.
In the meantime citizens of this State can thank their lucky stars that our strong democratic tradition and the current political leadership of our two biggest parties has saved us from the kind of political madness that is currently engulfing our nearest neighbour.