We can never resist Fianna Fáil's dark allure for long
Our attraction to the black swan of our political ballet runs too deep for us to be content with pious bores, writes JOHN WATERS
FIANNA FÁIL is the black swan of our political ballet. It is where the darkness becomes visible, the entity on to which we project all our selfish, shadow energies and desires – our cynicism and self-interest, but also our sneakier hopes of redemption and salvation by some painless intervention of forces which, until things begin to go wrong, we are never disposed to question too closely.
The white swan is, at different times, played by other entities: Fine Gael, Labour, celebrity economists, Independents, journalists.
Such is the capacity of Fianna Fáil to play its scripted role in Irish life that even Sinn Féin now competes to play the white swan. But the white swan doesn’t float our boats. She is plaintive and fragile, but also pious, incompetent and uninteresting; and nobody wants to dance with her for long.
This has been the drama of Irish public life for 85 years. We may wish for a different drama or a more effective governing narrative. But we are drawn to this one, again and again.
Witness the past couple of weeks, when, although the Irish State is reduced to the status of local authority, implementing yet again the will of a foreign power, we have thrown ourselves with abandon back into the narrative of Fianna Fáil’s family romance. From time to time we pause in an attempt to invoke some connection between this storyline and our objective circumstances, but mostly we remain immersed in the drama for its own sake.
Because – our protests and sanctimony notwithstanding – the darkness is intrinsic to our secret collective life, the black swan will live forever.
There is a cycle that occurs again and again. When things turn bad, we resolve to repent, to turn our backs on the black swan. But the attraction runs too deep and the white swan bores us, so our resolve never lasts long. Thus, renewal is followed by a further period of degeneration, followed by another rebirth, followed by what sometimes seems like the black swan’s final career towards self-destruction. From time to time we try to kill the black swan, but always it rises again from the wreckage, because, deep down, that’s the only drama that really satisfies us.
People have been predicting the end of Fianna Fáil since its foundation. I’ve done it myself, prophesying the emergence of a left-right divide or intermittently declaring FF to have finally and fatally shot itself in the foot. It never happens like we think it should, because “should” holds no sway in the relationship between a people and its inner life.
The mistake we make is thinking of Fianna Fáil as “other”. But Fianna Fáil is us, or a least is an embodiment of a part of each of us, even those who grew up hating the black swan more than anything else in the world.
As a child I dreamt of a befeathered de Valera tap-tapping at my windowpane. As an adult I became fascinated with the nature of this darkness, and how convenient it was that it seemed to reside outside myself. It was some time before it dawned on me that the drama of public life is only interesting because it reflects the interior life. The so-called “Civil War divide” really exists inside each of our hearts.
Every leader of Fianna Fáil has arrived to that position as the saviour of the party or the nation. Sometimes, as with the shift from de Valera to Lemass, the necessary act of salvation has been defined by some dynamic of modernisation; or, as with the installation of Jack Lynch, as an attempt to divert the storyline by suppressing the black swan. But it never works out.
Each leader in turn has become possessed in one way or another, and in due course has had his human personality obliterated by the projected blackness of a culture in search of some place to deposit its misunderstood or unacknowledged dark side. After brief periods of apparent rejuvenation, Fianna Fáil repeatedly acts as a conductor for all the things we refuse to look at in ourselves and in our dysfunctional public culture. A trauma follows and, in the end, the party responds to the implicit general behest by changing its leader, and the whole process starts over.
There are myriad literal ways in which one might adumbrate the reasons why Fianna Fáil will rise again: because it’s good at mobilising the tribal energies; because its organisational capacity is unrivalled; because voters forget, etc etc. But the truer, deeper reason – or at least the most coherent way of stating things – is that the white swan cannot satisfy the darker appetites of a political culture more attracted to the playing out of its psychic dramas than to creating a functional political reality.
It’s a conventional wisdom right now that Micheál Martin will prove the first FF leader to never become taoiseach. I’ve been uttering such things myself, because, briefly, I forgot about the black swan and its meaning in the national drama. In my heart, I know: anyone who thinks we have heard Fianna Fáil’s swansong will live to gnash their toothless beaks and tear out their white feathers.