Whisper it, but Fine Gael is the new Fianna Fáil


INSIDE POLITICS:For many years it was a catch-cry of the left that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were two irredeemably conservative parties, committed to the retention of the capitalist system and with no fundamental difference between them.

Nobody in mainstream politics paid much attention, least of all the voters. Despite being slagged off as “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” or even “Tweedledum and Tweedledumber”, the two parties continued on as the “big beasts” of the political jungle.

Nothing changed and nothing ever would change, or so it seemed. Then capitalism itself took a hand, with its most virulent crisis since the 1930s. Fianna Fáil played the role of Pied Piper in the Celtic Tiger era, leading us to the top of the cliff, then over the edge and into the abyss.

Like lifelong topers finally taking the pledge, the majority of the electorate forswore any dealings with the Soldiers of Destiny and looked instead to the most obvious alternative. Instead of George Orwell’s “Four legs good, two legs bad”, the approach was, “Brian Cowen bad; Enda Kenny, maybe good.”

The left, meanwhile – or at least its major component, the Labour Party – played its traditional role of propping up Fine Gael in return for a minority share in power.

But it’s not quite business as usual. Despite some flickering signs of life in Fianna Fáil, the patient remains in intensive care.

The party of de Valera, Lemass and Lynch holds a mere 19 out of 166 Dáil seats, less than half the 44 out of 153 seats in its very first general election back in 1927. And shockingly, it has no women TDs and no seats in Dublin.

Although Fianna Fáil is performing fairly well in Opposition and showing a keen instinct for the Fine Gael jugular, the prospect of anything close to a parliamentary majority, or even of becoming the biggest party again after the next election, is remote and unrealistic.

Lately, however, a quietly insistent theme has been developing in political discourse – a different scenario in which the old Civil War foes join hands in government and sit around the cabinet table together.

Nobody is suggesting it’s going to happen anytime soon, and a Fianna Fáil spokesman has emphatically rejected the possibility. But the fact that such a notion could even become the subject of serious comment reflects the seismic shift in Irish politics since the last general election.

Fianna Fáil itself has not contributed in any way to this speculation but a senior Fine Gael figure suggested unofficially to this writer only this week that his party’s long-time rivals might be prepared to “talk turkey”, especially if they ended up with fewer seats than Sinn Féin in the next Dáil.

There are few people on the scene who can explain the historical reasons for the establishment of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as separate parties.

Who knows: the day may yet come about when the two leaders appear together on the plinth at Leinster House to inform the world that the Civil War hatchet has finally been buried, that there is no more bitterness, and that they are entering a coalition partnership “in the national interest”.

Such an eventuality would mean that, after many decades where academics and commentators lamented the absence of “normal” left-right politics in this State, we would finally have achieved that dispensation.

Indeed we are already moving in that direction. Sinn Féin is, broadly speaking, a party of the left and, by adding other groups and individuals who could be described as socialist or radical, as well as Labour “exiles”, you come up with a majority of the non-Government TDs.

Over the last quarter-century, Irish politics has become a voyage into the unknown where nothing is predictable.

This has been the case since Charles Haughey abandoned his party’s “core value” of governing on its own, by joining forces with the Progressive Democrats. Subsequently Labour, having denounced Fianna Fáil with relish, got into bed with it. Whisper it, dear reader, but Fine Gael is the new Fianna Fáil.

Few have commented on the change in the larger party’s social composition, for example. Long-time readers of this newspaper will recall how the late John Healy used to tease the Fine Gael barristers who, he alleged, were loath to exchange the comfort and rewards of the Law Library for the slings and arrows of government office. But these days, there are more barristers in Labour ranks than in Fine Gael.

However, Fine Gael has caught the mood of the electorate better than any other party at the moment. The radicals and the protesters against budget cuts have achieved a high profile but there is a “silent majority” out there relying on Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan to bring the ship of State safely into port.

Indeed the late Shane McEntee, whose passing is such a great tragedy, accurately reflected that mood when he placed the cut in the respite care grant in the context of decreasing prices in other areas. It is hugely to be regretted that his untimely death may in some way have been precipitated by aggressive and anonymous reaction in social media to his remarks.

However, it would be a mistake to over react by seeking to introduce new controls. Social media are contributing to democratic developments in other parts of the world, famously in the Middle East but elsewhere as well. If one may borrow from Deputy Colm Keaveney’s stock of Latin phrases: festina lente – hasten slowly.

It might be smarter to train the politicians better in social media and beat the “trolls” at their own game.

Fógra:After many happy years on the staff of this newspaper, the present writer has decided to move on in the near future, and wishes to thank readers for their support over the years. Míle buíochas agus gach rath oraibh.

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