Going like Jacuzzis - a reflection on FF and FG's path to coalition

The journey of the two Civil War towards this point can tell us much about Irish politics since independence

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader, Michael Martin.

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader, Michael Martin.

At the height of our artificially inflated economic boom, or Celtic Tiger, the owners of a prominent builders’ suppliers told a friend of mine that although the year was not yet over they were ‘amazed at the phenomenal amount of Jacuzzis’ they were selling.

If sale of Jacuzzis was an index, then the economy must have been performing well. But what did this tell us about our values? Political success depends on connecting with peoples’ values at the time. What are, and have been, the nation’s values?

Obviously, for some, our current zeitgeist is embodied by a Government led by an openly gay Taoiseach who scolded a Pope for perceived attitudes of an older, more ‘judgemental’ Ireland not of this pope’s making, and which has legalised abortion following a national plebiscite which all the parties pushed. It has led to Ireland being called a ‘more caring’ country.

The Taoiseach’s party, Fine Gael, we should remember, is the same party of Liam Cosgrave, a man who always knelt to kiss a bishop’s ring, and who, on Ireland joining the EEC, and entitled to representation in the European Parliament, aligned itself with the Christian Democrats (now the European People’s Party ), the largely Roman Catholic centre-right grouping.

Further back, Fine Gael was the party whose first president was Eoin O’Duffy, founder of the Blueshirts that, having fought street battles with republicans, later went to Spain to fight for Franco. It is also the same party that buckled under clerical pressure over the introduction of the ‘Mother and Child’ scheme (by a cabinet colleague not of the party ) in the Inter-Party government in 1951. Obviously, in electoral language, FG never quite captured the zeitgeist of past Irelands the way its rival party, and now prospective coalition partner, Fianna Fáil did.

1930s - different parties

Blueshirts

Electoral success depends on connecting with people’s values. Fianna Fáil, from the 1930s on, wrapped the green flag around itself and the politics of ‘who loves Ireland more’ - in a way Fine Gael, after Michael Collins’ death and its Civil War legacy could never do. Most Fianna Fáil’s TDs and all of its ministers had national records in the struggle for independence. Fine Gael as it emerged, on the other hand, was a coalition of conservative interests; Cumann na nGaedheal, Army Comrades’ Association (Blueshirts ), Farmers’ Party, National League, Centre Party, old Nationalists and old Unionists faute de mieux, originally calling itself ‘United Ireland’.

'If political popularity was dependent on acquiring ‘converts’ then Fianna Fáil’s founding principles may have been destroyed by its success'

The Fianna Fáil government of the 1930s relied heavily on economic protectionism, common in other countries at the time, making it somewhat trustworthy to small business interests initially distrustful of these once ex-communicated republicans. It also brought some progressive social radicalism, and thwarted a politically active IRA to its left. Its strength grew over a long tenure in government rather than declined. It organised in every parish, just like the hugely successful GAA, and grew organically with the new State in a shared experience, so that it could justifiably have been called a ‘national movement’.

Always being considered left-of-centre - Fine Gael had the right wing label from the outset, being the party of the Blueshirts, and supported by the Catholic hierarchy - Fianna Fáil rewarded its large working-class and small-farmer base with what was progressive social legislation for the times; an end to paying land annuities to Britain, land reforms, workers’ holidays, children’s allowance, and massive public housing projects.

1960s - a changing Ireland

Charles Haughey

However, by the 1960s, having held most of the power since 1932, a native business and professional class, unaware of the polarity and polemics of the 1930s, could support Fianna Fáil in the interests of sound business administration. Fine Gael, on the other hand, was by this time developing a ‘social democratic’ wing, the ‘Young Tigers’ of the sixties who would eventually rally around Garret Fitzgerald.

This was a result of some sons of prominent Fine Gael politicians (Fitzgerald himself and Declan Costello ) waking up in the 1960s and acquiring a social conscience. Instead of joining Labour (they could not, because of their history obviously, join the more de facto social democratic Fianna Fáil ) they produced The Just Society document and tried to change Fine Gael from within, culminating with a motion at the 1968 Árd Fheis to change its name to the ‘Social Democrats’. It was firmly dealt with. The name is still Fine Gael.

'A ‘half-starving, half-greedy’ mindset, to borrow from Eugene McCabe’s novel Death and Nightingales, latent in the Irish psyche since the Famine came to the fore during the Celtic Tiger'

If political popularity was dependent on acquiring ‘converts’ then Fianna Fáil’s founding principles may have been destroyed by its success. A former FF minister, Neil Blaney, would later describe these new found members as ‘carpetbaggers’, evoking a term from American post-civil war reconstruction where ‘chancers’ from the victorious northern States would head South with carpet bags to make a quick few bucks on the backs of the defeated Southerners.

Once the internal strife, caused by the Arms Crisis after the outbreak of the Northern troubles had settled, the now infamous Fianna Fáil Election Manifesto of 1977 brought the introduction of auction politics in Ireland, effectively to compensate for its abandonment of what used to be called ‘core policy’.

The Celtic Tiger

Values change over time and by Bertie Ahern’s period as leader, and the successful co-facilitation of the Belfast Agreement, led to the subsequent ‘peace dividend’ that had Irish people queuing up for bank loans to buy property, build property, buy land, go on shopping trips to New York.

'FF has shifted from its origins more than FG has. Today it opposes a border poll which could result in eventual Irish unity, once a core aim of the party'

The easy access to bank credit meant democratisation of a different sort. Social classes previously denied it could now invest in apartments and become landlords. A ‘half-starving, half-greedy’ mindset, to borrow from Eugene McCabe’s novel Death and Nightingales, latent in the Irish psyche since the Famine came to the fore like mental disorders surface due to some deep-rooted trauma. The State took a back seat as private enterprise gradually moved into third level education, the health service and, what most impacts on us today – housing.

If a nation’s zeitgeist is personified by its leader then, a Charlie Haughey, on-the-take, having a mistress - neither in the public domain, Bertie Ahern, without a bank account, separated with a live-in – all in the public domain, and Leo, a metropolitan young professional with a gay partner, sum up how Ireland’s has shifted over the last 30 years.

More in common than there are differences

That Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can now enter government on compatible terms at last with the common goal of excluding Sinn Féin shows the mask has slipped and what many knew for decades – that both parties now have more in common than not, will normalise Ireland into a left-right political divide with Sinn Féin on the left.

Both coalition parties embrace the neo-liberal model and while you could still notice a discernible difference between a collection of Fine Gael members and a collection of Fianna Fáil members, individually you couldn’t tell from appearances which party one alone belonged to.

'Fine Gael has morphed from a party of traditional Catholic conservatism to a modern day socially ‘liberal’ but fiscally conservative party'

Enoch Powell said "all political careers end in failure". The same might be said for political parties; the journey to coalition with Fine Gael has, for Fianna Fáil, been a long one of compromise and jettisoning of core principles for years, to the extent that both now seem two brands of the same generic product – like Coke and Pepsi.

FF has shifted from its origins more than FG has. Today it opposes a border poll which could result in eventual Irish unity, once a core aim of the party. It is worth noting that the increase in Sinn Féin support over the past 20 years exactly contrasts with the decline in support for Fianna Fáil, a core base that, like matter in physics, has not been created from nothing, it has converted from one form to another.

Fine Gael’s case is different; it has not exactly shifted – it remains on the right. What has happened is it has morphed rather, from a party of traditional Catholic conservatism to a modern day socially ‘liberal’ but fiscally conservative party – this from the 1980s on, mirroring a shift common to centre-right parties across the continent as they embrace a more secular outlook without compromising on the fundamentals of the market driven economy.

So, maybe Jacuzzis might sell again? A quick Google of the word Jacuzzi tells me it gives buoyancy, massages as well as heats. I wonder are they essential or even needed?

Jim Ward is the author of the award-winning play Just Guffwhich focuses on lost principles in Fianna Fáil. An MBA graduate of NUIG, he is PRO of Galway West Sinn Féin.

 

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