As we prepare for a three-way debate the parties of FitzGerald and Haughey are gone, but their divisions on identity subsist; while Sinn Féin offer a new, left-wing answer to the identity question.
By Rory O’Sullivan.
Whatever else happens, tonight’s RTE leaders’ debate will be a first because Mary Lou McDonald will be there. The latest Irish Times poll now has Sinn Féin ahead of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael; true or not, it is nearly for certain that after this election we will no longer be a country with two large parties and a bunch of smaller ones. Instead, we will have three large-ish parties: two of them centre-right and divided by history, the third left-wing and until now shackled by it. If the polls are right less than half of the country will vote for Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael: most people cannot see any difference between them, and want something else.
But this was not always so. In the election of 1987, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were more profoundly and bitterly divided than at any other time in the modern era. The vote was called by Garret FitzGerald to win a mandate for an austerity-style budget which had caused four Labour ministers to resign from his cabinet. The economy was dreadful and was the main story of that election. Both parties were also threatened by the newly-formed Progressive Democrats of Des O’Malley, Charles Haughey’s political enemy who had been expelled from Fianna Fáil two years before. The PDs would end up the third-largest party with 14 seats, but in the end most of their votes came from Fine Gael, who were well-beaten. Garret FitzGerald afterwards resigned and was replaced by Alan Dukes, who has been somewhat forgotten by history. Haughey would win – 1987 was the year of ‘Arise and Follow Charlie’ – and govern until 1992, when he finally resigned and was replaced as Taoiseach by Albert Reynolds. It would only be afterwards that the scale of his backroom corruption became known.
The televised leaders’ debate of that year was the third ever, and included only Haughey and FitzGerald. At that time Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were monolithically large. Even with the Progressive Democrats surging they would end up with nearly 75% of the vote between them; in the previous election, in November 1982, they won nearly 85%. It was practically an American-style Presidential debate. And the two men had been the leaders of their parties for nearly a decade each; they had already debated one another twice, in the elections of 1982.
Neither man had much hatred within – FitzGerald was too quiet and too decorous, and in general Haughey could not imagine other people enough to hate them – but still they despised each other. When Haughey first became Taoiseach after Jack Lynch’s resignation in 1979, FitzGerald made a speech in which he declared that the Fianna Fáil leader had a “flawed pedigree”. The remark which caused a political scandal; many people thought it was a dog-whistle. Haughey, for his part, would consistently purport to speak on behalf of “Irish people” when criticising Fitzgerald.
Anyone with an interest in this country’s political history would do well to go back and think hard about what separated Haughey and Fitzgerald in the 1980s. The 1987 debate would be the last time they faced each other, and by then they knew each other well. It was the most fiery of their encounters, although it must be said that in the 1980s political television generally lacked fire. RTE’s presenters, including a young Pat Kenny sounded like they had been shipped over in a crate from the BBC; the debate was moderated by Brian Farrell, who asked only a few questions and pronounced ‘notion’ as ‘new-tion’. Both leaders frequently used the impersonal voice, “one must say”, and both referred to the other by their titles: “Mr Haughey”, “Dr FitzGerald”, “the Taoiseach”.
The debate lasted 77 minutes, of which the first 47 were all about the economy, but on this the two leaders didn’t much disagree. FitzGerald was more specific on substance: reduce borrowing, reduce spending, reduce taxes on businesses. Haughey wanted to invest in specific sectors of the economy to create jobs, citing the hospitality industry as an example. In effect, FitzGerald wanted to reduce the size of the budget and Haughey wanted to expand it, but whenever FitzGerald highlighted the disagreement, Haughey skirted around it. The Anglo-Irish Agreement had been signed in 1985, and committed Ireland to the principle of majority-consent in the North in exchange for British acknowledgment of Ireland’s stake in it. Haughey opposed giving up Ireland’s claim to the six counties, saying it was unconstitutional; FitzGerald accused Haughey of playing partisan. ‘Law and Order’ came up too and both parties claimed that they could dramatically reduce crime.
None of this is earth-shattering. But that is what is so fascinating and so strange about Haughey and FitzGerald: the real debate was all subtext and shadow-boxing, all careful dog-whistling. Haughey’s long diatribes about growth-sectors of the economy remind you of the chest-thumping of Brexiteers; “trust in Irish industries”, the subtext says, “FitzGerald does not trust in Irish industries”. FitzGerald constantly accused Haughey of lying and underhanded vagueness. During a portion about Haughey’s past comments on the Anglo-Irish Agreement FitzGerald interrupted with, “That’s the second time Mr Haughey has denied his own words”.
The division was this: FitzGerald believed that Haughey was narrow-minded and slippery while he himself was honest and forward-thinking; Haughey believed that FitzGerald was a West Briton while he himself was not. FitzGerald spoke openly near the end of the debate, arguing that the country needed to “break out of one tradition” and develop a “broader Irishness which can comprehend all of the people on this island”. Haughey shrugged him off. FitzGerald spoke vaguely of “the need to stand up to interest groups” (remember, Ann Lovett had died only three years before) and move the country forward; he did not name the groups. Haughey sat and smiled. When Brian Farrell, the moderator, asked if that was the reason Des O’Malley had broken with Fianna Fáil, FitzGerald nodded vigorously; Haughey dismissed the idea, saying that O’Malley left Fianna Fáil because he could not stand Haughey as leader.
FitzGerald could never be completely open about this division for obvious reasons: he was the Taoiseach of Ireland, a country of hard-Catholics and Irish people who believed that Pádraig Pearse was a hero. More than 60% had voted against allowing divorce only a year before; if he said what he really thought he would never win.
For Haughey, who was no more open about it than FitzGerald, the reasons were different. In 1986 he made a Mr Burns-style documentary about Ireland for Channel 4, called ‘Charles Haughey’s Ireland’. That the documentary was made at all is incredible. At the beginning of it he says: “We Irish, through our long and troubled history, have shown ourselves to be a race of survivalists”. He visits Ben Bulben, where he looks into the camera and says: “Yeats believed that certain things are permanent – that they are beyond flux, and time, and change – and so do I”. Fitzgerald was right: Haughey’s version of Irishness, as a race and a tradition that went with it, could not comprehend a person who thought like Garret FitzGerald as truly Irish. And so, Haughey pretended that the difference between them did not exist, and referred to it only obliquely.
And that meant that it was kept below the surface until it sank into almost nothing. Now it is still there between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but it is all subterranean. The Fianna Fáil criticisms of Varadkar – that he is obsessed with his own image, untrustworthy to do business with, a posh-boy – amount to an assertion that he is not an ordinary, honest man; he does not have Martin’s thick Cork accent. But now every major social question has been settled in favour of the liberal side and Northern Ireland is a consensus-issue. Voters look at Martin and Varadkar and see two people rehearsing the same old thing; and that is how Sinn Féin have found an opening.
Ireland’s politics have forever been about identity: people have always voted for the person who stands for the country and way of life that they want; personally, I suspect that is true of every other country as well. But as we face into this weekend’s election, and the longer-term, it bears thinking about. What has propelled Sinn Féin to popularity is not left-wingedness on its own, and certainly it is not their zeal to reunite Ireland.
For decades the country has been following the path laid by FitzGerald and opening up economically and socially. Now, that ideal is becoming a victim of its own success: its combination of economic and social individualism has meant that people feel like they have lost their stake in the country. Sinn Féin have offered voters a way of getting that back without going back to the Church; that is why they are succeeding in breaking up the duopoly where so many others have failed. Those saying that we are at last developing a traditional European left/right division are wrong: Sinn Féin are offering a new, left-wing answer to the same question that divided Haughey and FitzGerald. Whenever it happens, and however the dominance of those two parties is broken, the historians of the future will say that it was a continuation rather than a change of the way politics works in this country.