Is the new Government a first step towards a FF-FG merger?

Will the next few years see the parties emphasise separate identities or reveal that there really is little difference between them?

An Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, Leo Varadkar.

An Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, Leo Varadkar.

The end of civil war politics. A cliché maybe, but one we have heard repeated ad nauseam in recent weeks following the decision by FF and FG to enter government together for the first time.

Poor electoral performances from both parties in last February’s General Election - so poor it necessitated the inclusion of the Greens to give this coalition a working majority - paved the way for this, but it has been a long time coming.

On a local level, Insider remembers the excitement and, in some quarters, disbelief when the two parties formed a pact for the Mayoralty of Galway city in 1991. At the time, a desire on the part of both parties to keep out the Progressive Democrats was a motivating factor, just as a desire to keep SF out of national government has played a part on this occasion.

On a national level, people will point to the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement in 2016 as a turning point but Insider would point to the great economic collapse, followed by that of FF in 2011, as the point of no turning back. On the day a FG/Labour coalition with a huge Dáil majority took office, it may have been only a footnote, but significant nonetheless that FF not only failed to nominate a candidate for Taoiseach but in fact abstained on Enda Kenny’s nomination. That government then subsequently implemented the bailout programme agreed by its FF predecessors.

Even if we go back to the halcyon days of Haughey versus Fitzgerald in the 1980s, when the two parties won +80 per cent of the vote between them, we heard calls from the likes of the late FG Ministers John Kelly and Austin Deasy for the parties to come together.

Kelly felt that the main rationale for FG was as an alternative to FF and as a check on some of its less redeeming features but, as he saw it, by that stage FF had largely moved away from some of the positions that so riled FGers – for example, an obdurate stance, optically or otherwise, on the North and an ingrained tendency to equate party with country – so that there was no rationale for the continuation of two separate parties. This analysis did not gain much traction at the time, yet the decade concluded with the ‘Tallaght Strategy’ in which FG gave conditional backing to a minority FF government.

What are the differences?

"We’re in and they’re out," is how Seán Lemass summed up the difference between the parties as far back as the 1960s! Some years later, Jackie Healy-Rae’s answer was, "Them that know don’t need to ask and them that ask will never know!"

Traditionally, FF would have been seen as a leaning towards the ‘small man’ – small farmer, small business, and the ‘ordinary people’ – with FG the choice of the establishment and those with a stake in society. While much of this was based on a radical FF government in the 1930s, for much of the past 50 years this has been based more on culture than on any great policy difference.

For all the image of FG as further to the right, it must also be noted that for almost its entire history, the party has relied on coalition with Labour as its only means of getting into government. You also only need to look back to the Celtic Tiger days when FF were the party of ‘letting it rip’ with FG viewed as the party of redistribution and public services.

The idea of FF as a national movement, rather than just another political party, has faded, so much so that by the time of the Bertie Ahern era, while it breached the 40 per cent barrier, support was now conditional on FF delivering for voters rather than on any great emotional attachment to the party; when the relationship ceased to be beneficial after 2008, support was abruptly withdrawn.

That Jackie Healy-Rae quote also brings Insider to another trend which has manifested itself over the past 25 years – the rise of the ‘gene pool independent’. This is a further illustration of the weakening of the emotional attachment to the party brand, especially in rural Ireland, and has particularly afflicted FF, but in more recent times FG too.

This past decade – fragmentation

Despite nominally being on opposite sides, the two parties have drawn closer together over the past decade. During this time, we have seen Labour suffer badly from its time in government and its former support is now spread across a wide range of parties from the centre-left to far-left.

We have also seen the rise of SF, gradual at first before a dramatic breakthrough at the last election. The rise of the gene pool independent, and indeed unaligned independents has continued. This fragmentation has in turn caused FF and FG to be grouped together as one and eventually to come together in coalition.

'The failure to appoint any full rank cabinet minister from Connacht, no matter how exaggerated some of the reaction has been, will not fill rural FGers with much confidence'

Nevertheless, this fragmentation has been quite complex and FF and FG are not necessarily attracting the same type of voter. The past decade has seen FF struggle for the support of urban, middle-class voters; this most dramatically manifests itself in the form of their ‘Dublin problem’. FG however have seen support slide dramatically in Munster and south Leinster and at this stage their tally of seats in those areas is almost as bad as FF’s in Dublin.

This could be important in terms of how the next few years play out politically. FF is largely in competition with SF and independents in its heartlands. FG on the other hand arguably has a more niche vote although in some urban areas it is in competition with some of the soft left parties – but, in bringing the Greens into Government, FG has potentially neutered some of that threat.

Rural FGers in those areas where the party has gone backwards do not share this analysis and are concerned about the future. The failure to appoint any full rank cabinet minister from Connacht, no matter how exaggerated some of the reaction has been, will not fill that latter group with much confidence, while the optics of a Dublin (and Cork city ) centric cabinet will surely worry FF.

Differentiation in Government

How might all of this play out in government and could it give the parties an opportunity for differentiation? Might we see each party doubling down and focusing on the areas where it has been strong, with a view to solidifying that support so FG becomes a party of middle-class suburban Ireland, and FF a party of rural and provincial Ireland? Or will the two parties simply become indistinguishable?

'Will FG dominate and become adept at getting its way, or might we see FF and the Green Party team up to redress the balance?'

It is interesting to look at the allocation of portfolios. The Greens have taken ministries directly related to their core policy areas but the choices made by FF and FG may also be indicative; in broad terms, FG have opted for economic portfolios with FF focusing on public services, while the parties have split the marquee ministries of Justice and Agriculture. FG then, is banking on reinforcing its image as the party of economic stability and renewal, while FF is betting its future on delivering much improved services to those who need them most.

Arguably both are playing to what might be regarded as their traditional core voters. However, this is a coalition and the internal dynamic will determine its overall pitch. Will FG, with its more experienced team, dominate and become adept at getting its way, or might we see another dynamic whereby FF and the Green Party team up to redress the balance?

One dynamic Insider will be especially interested to see is how economic and industrial policy plays out. While the economic numbers under FG, until recently, have been generally strong, the party has been accused of being too much in hock to bigger business and multinational, with less of a focus on smaller, indigenous business.

This is something that has arguably exacerbated the urban/rural divide and is likely to be an even bigger factor in the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. Can FF (also conscious that this is an area that SF under their finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty have been focusing on ) exert sufficient influence to redress the balance?

The role of the opposition

How things play out on the Opposition benches will also be interesting and potentially important. In particular, will we see the various parties co-operate or will the big focus be on getting into government with FF or FG after the next election? The vote for Taoiseach – Micheál Martin was elected by a hefty 30 vote margin – does illustrate that those parties still have a steep hill to climb if they are to form an alternative government.

Also, while most of these parties are nominally on the left, there are significant cultural differences and they are not necessarily drawing support from the same sectors of the electorate. SF and Labour in particular may be more interested in gaining seats and going into government with FF or FG – for SF, there is also the realistic prospect of leading such a government if things go their way over the next few years. It may not necessarily be a case of FF/FG versus an alternative.

'The recent suggestion of FF grandee David Andrews that the parties formally merge may not sound so dramatic'

Turning to the more mundane matters of competence and delivery, there is another obvious question – if this Government is a success, surely the constituent parties must ask the electorate to re-elect it next time out? This in itself would further cement the relationship between FF and FG and reset the dividing lines in Irish politics.

The next few years will be defining, but having now come together as a coalition, the parties face a difficult task in maintaining the pretence of significant difference and the recent suggestion of FF grandee David Andrews that the parties take it a step further and formally merge may not sound so dramatic.


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