Una Mullally: Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil must ask ‘what do we stand for?’

Sinn Féin has benefitted from Fine Gael’s vapid neoliberalism and lack of engagement on issues that matter to people

Having spent a campaign attacking Sinn Féin – a tactic which completely backfired – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil politicians are now continuing that failed approach.  Photograph: Getty Images

Having spent a campaign attacking Sinn Féin – a tactic which completely backfired – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil politicians are now continuing that failed approach. Photograph: Getty Images

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Another week has passed since Ireland went to the ballot box, and the floundering continues. The worst possible outcome of this election is societal division. Anything that incites that division – stoking outrage, platforming polarising rhetoric – should be calmed. All parties now have a role in responsibly responding to the needs of the electorate without inflaming division.

At this point all outcomes are positive for Sinn Féin. An unpopular centrist government is manna from heaven for a Sinn Féin opposition. Sinn Féin in a coalition government makes it kingmakers. Another election would see it run more candidates and capitalise on its vote share. It’s win, win, win. Meanwhile, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s joint identity crisis deepens by the day.

The political establishment seems aghast at Sinn Féin’s connection with sections of the electorate. The same goes for a lot of Irish media, which has gaping holes when it comes to representing people under 40 and/or working class voices.

In many quarters there seems to be a shallow analysis of the desire for “change” coupled with an insinuation that the electorate is naive, patronised by a “father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” tone.

Having spent a campaign attacking Sinn Féin – a tactic which completely backfired – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil politicians are now continuing that failed approach. So we know what they’re against, but what are they for?  When Sinn Féin was garnering support in working-class communities, when it was soaking up young, politicised people in universities, when it was getting the vote out in disadvantaged areas of Dublin, when it was organising groups of lads to head out and help Repeal canvassers, where were Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil?

Why didn’t either party notice this, and think “wow, we better make sure they don’t capture our potential voters!” Could it be that neither party really cared enough about those demographics?

No accident

Sinn Féin filling the political vacuum right now took them by surprise, but its strategy to build a base away from the political mainstream was no accident.

But we also know that “us” versus “them” feelings rarely lead to a pleasant atmosphere. The temperature of this heightened moment will potentially be increased by talk of Sinn Féin “rallies”. But the fact is Sinn Féin is now in a position to hold such public meetings, and probably get a crowd. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are not.

Who would go to their public meetings to show their support? Their base will not be out on the streets if Sinn Féin ends up in government, but Sinn Féin’s base, with nothing to lose, could well be if the turgid marriage of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil comes to pass.

While the concept of “rallies” has taken on an angry, Trumpian flavour given how politics has fragmented in the US, remember Obama’s chant? “Fired up! Ready to go!” Yet Sinn Féin also has a responsibility not to usher in an era of new tribalism, a tribalism the electorate largely rejected at the ballot box.

Every political party has delusions of grandeur. If they didn’t they wouldn’t consider themselves capable of running a country with their brilliant ideas and burning talent. Yet popularity is transient, and Sinn Féin would do well not to get ahead of itself.

What all parties need to recognise is that in recent years “success” is actually the result of another’s failure. Fine Gael came to power because Fianna Fáil crashed the economy. Sinn Féin has now benefitted from Fine Gael’s vapid neoliberalism and lack of engagement on issues that matter to people. 

The key question for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will be asked long after this election cycle: what do they stand for?

Mary Lou McDonald’s ideology around republicanism is often queried even though it’s a perfectly regular disposition for an Irish politician to have.

Rarely do we see Leo Varadkar’s politics interrogated. Why did he join Fine Gael? What is his world view?

Or Micheál Martin’s. What is his ideological attraction to Fianna Fáil?

These are all interesting questions. People in left-wing parties are upfront about their ideologies, yet I rarely hear such clarity from those in the centre or centre-right.

Ideology

If one’s gravitation towards Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil is dynastic, a legacy issue, a default, careerist, or an attraction to power, well you’re probably going to struggle to articulate the essence of your ideology. This is not a struggle Sinn Féin and left-wing parties have. 

McDonald delivered a fantastic speech in the Dáil last week. Quality oration is rare in contemporary Irish politics, but anyone can give a good speech.

Leadership is not about preaching to the converted. It’s not about kicking ass and taking names. It’s not about rallying the base, providing viral moments, or landing blows.

Being a good leader is not about being the captain of a team already on your side, it’s about bringing people with you.

It’s about creating the conditions for those with reservations to be heard, respected, and then basically converted, while incorporating their constructive criticism to challenge and improve your offering, and to encourage the kind of dissent that confronts conventional thinking and orthodoxies, and creates the sort of robustness diversity of thought provides.

Can Sinn Féin do this? Or will the party default to defensiveness, ego, or get carried away? Its support is there, but the share of the vote it received is fluid and ultimately could land anywhere. 

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are in existential crisis mode, which is why they will talk about anything but themselves. Existence is not just about survival, it’s about purpose. What’s theirs?

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