Pat Leahy: New politics working for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil

The ‘Irish Times’/Ipsos MRBI poll shows the two main parties still dominate

There are few people in politics, in the Government or around Leinster House who exhibit much affection for the so-called new politics. The general view is that the arrangements of the last year are not working.

However, as we saw when the two main parties backed away from a confrontations that could have ended these arrangements in recent weeks, they don’t want to bring it to a halt just yet.

I don’t think you can really argue that new politics has delivered better government. It has increased the power of parliament but the Dáil hasn’t really learned to use that power very effectively. The Government is more likely to be held to account by the Dáil, but the Dáil is just as likely to use its power for windy grandstanding. The Government’s inability to impose its will has led to more decisions being postponed than made, especially on politically contentious matters.

New politics has not led to a cultural change or a different way of doing politics. But then new politics is simply old politics without a Dáil majority.


It's not entirely without achievements, though. What new politics has done is demonstrate that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can work together. This is quite important because parties matter in politics and nobody matters more in Irish politics than Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

As demonstrated by the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll this week, they are the biggest parties by some distance and seem likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

For all the grumpiness about the new politics, the big two seem not to have been damaged by it; quite the opposite, in fact. Support for both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has increased since the general election last year, according to the numbers this week. This is one of the things that gives both pause in the face of the frequent requests to call the whole thing off: it might not be great, but it’s working out okay for each of them, and who’s to know that an alternative would be better?

United left

The only party that can reasonably aspire to challenging the big two is Sinn Féin, which saw its support increase by four points this week. However, the party’s tendency to underperform its midcycle polls when elections arrive – based, I think, on its strength among low-turnout sections of the electorate – suggests it will not make the big two a big three any time soon.

So we are left with politics being dominated for the immediate future by the two parties that have always dominated it.

The Labour Party's opportunity to change the structure of Irish politics has evaporated (survival is its pressing concern now) and the energies unleashed by the economic crash have been too dissipated among too many groups to make for a coherent political force.

The old dream of a united left remains just that. The new players are minnows: the 18 per cent that Independents and others attract – down from 30 per cent last year, by the way – is divided between the Green Party, the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit group, the Social Democrats, Independents4Change, the Independent Alliance, non-aligned Independents and other groups. One per cent of respondents either refused or said they were not sure when asked which group their favourite Independent candidate was part of. I’m surprised it wasn’t more, frankly.

This fracturing of the forces of opposition increases the power of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Which is why it is important that the new politics has demonstrated that they can work together.

They may not like each other much and they may continue to pretend they do not share the same ideas about the central questions of politics, but they can get along. Ultimately they recognise that it is in their interests to do so.

Necessary evil

The experience of new politics also demonstrates the centrality and importance of political parties in our system of politics and government.

Though most people vote for them, parties tend to be seen as a necessary evil. Many Irish voters ascribe to Independent candidates a virtue that may not be automatically warranted, simply because they are not members of political parties.

This is unwarranted: the available evidence of experience does not bear out voters’ expectations that Independents automatically produce better politics and better government. Independents are just as likely as members of parties to be obsessed with the local, the short-term and the political.

The shared objectives of members of political parties enable them to prioritise, to compromise and to swallow things they may not like in pursuit of a greater goal. The discipline that parties require is also required for governments to function.

This has been one of the hardest things for some of the Independents in the Government to adapt to.

The findings of the poll, reported in the paper today, suggest people are ambivalent about new politics but also that their appetite for political change remains huge.

History suggests that parties are also the best vehicles to bring about change. Change usually happens when people build coalitions, get elected and get involved in the sometimes dirty and messy business of politics.

Marriage equality came about not because of pressure groups or social media campaigns but because activists pushed their agenda within the ideologically fertile ground of the Labour Party, which got into government and cut a deal with Fine Gael.

Those campaigning for change of all types might take note.