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Fianna Gael

The elusive difference between our two biggest parties

The former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds once said that an Irish General Election was a series of 41 constituency by-elections. The vagaries of our proportional representation system mean that a modern Irish election can throw up all kinds of results. The landscape of Irish politics has been thrown into even greater uncertainty by the extraordinary destruction of Fianna Fáil which lost three-quarters of its seats in 2011 (dropping from 78 to 20 TDs).

Though for me FG is more conservative, all I could reply was that Fianna Fáil were a party of the entrepreneurial bourgeoisie and Fine Gael of the commercial bourgeoisie

The narrative for this forthcoming general election is already well-known. Taoiseach Enda Kenny is now seeking the kind of mandate Fianna Fáil used to get in former years. The rhetoric of stability once deployed by Fianna Fáil, is now being marshalled by Fine Gael. Kenny has staked his ground with the mantra, “Keeping the Recovery Going”, while making sure to register humility about the electorate who have brought about the economic improvement. The Taoiseach is understandably playing on the anxiety of voters about the potential for economic reverse if its voting facilitates a weak coalition government comprising disparate parties of left and right with little or nothing in common.

In fact 1977 was the last time an Irish party won an outright majority and Governments which lack an actual parliamentary majority have proved to be among the most successful. Lemass led without a majority in the 1960s and Haughey did so again in the 1980s. A three-party coalition led by John Bruton, with little common ideology, ran quite smoothly from 1994.

It appears that both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael actually perform best when under the watchful eye of smaller parties.

Clearly there is going to be a coalition.  However, the real conundrum for the electorate is that the great probability is that Enda Kenny will be returned as Taoiseach though the likelihood of Fine Gael being back with Labour on their own is very much an outside chance. It is more likely that Renua and other independents will make up his numbers.

Traditionally there has been a leader of the opposition who could put together a coalition alternative to the parties in power. A fully effective leader of the opposition has to credibly state to the electorate his (or her) chance of becoming Taoiseach. The numbers now, and since 2011, do not allow Micheál Martin to make this claim. The only way he could possible claim to having a chance of being Taoiseach after the election is if he consents to forming a government containing his own party, Sinn Féin and assorted independents or smaller parties of both left and right.

A hung Dáil could throw up all sorts of permutations and there is an outside chance that there would be enough, disparate parties other than Fine Gael to form an administration. However, it seems unlikely that Micheál Martin would become Taoiseach and exclude both Fine Gael and Sinn Féin from government, thus stranding both in opposition.

Indeed Martin’s decision to rule out forming a government with or containing Sinn Féin has allowed Gerry Adams to cleverly state that voting for Fianna Fáil is an irrelevance. Adams has made the argument that since Fianna Fáil  would go into power with neither Sinn Féin nor Fine Gael then it is pointless for voters to give it support.

Sinn Féin is probably the only party in the political system, along with the radical parties of the left, that could, if it chose, openly claim that it is fighting the election in order not to go into power.  However, it does not appear willing to embrace this particular high-risk gambit. Nevertheless since Sinn Féin appears to be playing a longer game Fianna Fáil will have little to complain about if Sinn Féin actually does pass it out in this particular general election.

Alternatively, if voters take it that there is no alternative to Fine Gael back in the saddle, they might construe this as giving them in effect ‘a free vote’. This could see the creation of a clear, Sinn Féin-led, left-wing opposition to the status quo though when faced with the challenges of being in government Sinn Féin will no doubt knuckle down, just as it has done in the North.

Whatever the result it is most likely that it will be open to the leaderships of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, with inevitable reticence, to form a grand coalition. This intriguing possibility has its supporters in both political parties. It is noticeable that a good many of those who serve on the Fianna Fáil front bench are privately in favour of this should the election results make it possible. On the Fine Gael side of the house figures like Simon Coveney have been explicit in not ruling this out. It would of course spell the end for both Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin. Maybe it is for this reason that the younger, more ambitious members, in both parties seem keener.

There is after all much in common between the two big parties. Indeed the differences are famously elusive.
The Economist magazine, in 2011, described Fine Gael as centre-right, Labour as centre-left and Fianna Fáil as nationalist, and of course two biggest parties were germinated in opposing stances during the civil war. Beyond this, Fianna Fáil’s sobriquet is ‘The Republican Party’ and it was for a while somewhat unsympathetic to the British perspective.

In his history of Fianna Fáil, ‘the Party’ (1986) Dick Walsh noted that Fianna Fáil was as much a movement as a party, had always attracted as many rich people as Fine Gael and as many poor people as Labour. Donal O’Shea’s ‘80 Years of Fianna Fáil’ defines it as a “catchall party… appealing to all classes”. Walsh said its policies always defied definition and quoted De Valera as advising, “always keep you policy under your hat”.

As to the difference, a French newspaper once asked me, while a Minister, what it was and when pushed to it all I could reply was that Fianna Fáil were a party of the entrepreneurial bourgeoisie and that Fine Gael tended to be stocked by members of the commercial bourgeoisie. Seán Lemass was once asked the same question and rather surprised the questioner with the curt but solemn reply – “We’re in power”.

Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are often described as pro-EU and pro-enterprise conservative parties but for me Fine Gael is the more conservative. My old party has the ability to move both left and right but has traditionally done best when it clings to the centre. Fine Gael is steeped in a deep conservativism and in the 1930s it evolved its current name through a brief dalliance with corporatist and fascist ideas – the notorious Blueshirts were a pale imitation of their continental equivalents but were none the less moving in a similar direction. Fianna Fail, can credibly, assert that its natural inclination is to the left as Micheal Martin has sought to do in the weeks before the election. It is essentially a republican or nationalist movement with its roots in social democratic values but without the lineage to socialism or communism.

Kevin Byrne and Eoin O’Malley (2012)  consider that the differences between the two parties evoke different nationalist traditions (Irish Enlightenment and Gaelic Nationalist).

In fact the biggest difference for years was the simple reality that it was Fine Gael who had to make up the numbers with Labour to get Fianna Fáil out. There has now been a clear role reversal. Fine Gael is now the big party of power.

The remarkable thing is how long the basic, civil-war division, as expressed in political parties was able to survive. Essentially Irish voters have shown themselves remarkably immuno-resistant to the toxic strains of both the extreme left or right. In this sense the country is both politically and culturally middlebrow.
The real disappointment, from a voter perspective, is that few if any of the parties that are putting themselves forward in this election are arguing for a deep-seated restructuring of the way in which our government works.  It will probably take another election before it is possible to change and make dynamic changes to the system itself.

People within both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are apprehensive about any post-election between the two parties as they believe it will allow Sinn Fein to catapult itself, overnight, into the major party of opposition and inevitably government in a relatively short space of time. Some within Fianna Fáil  are prepared to give a limited level of support to a Fine Gael government once Fianna Fáil  retains its status as the major opposition party. This has been described as a reprise of the Tallaght Strategy which Alan Dukes announced in the late 1980s to support Haughey’s austerity and recovery policies.

The most recent Irish Times poll exposed an intriguing socio-economic difference between the two parties. Fianna Fáil, despite its smaller size, remains the only party in the system that draws equally from the entire spectrum of income groups. Fine Gael, by contrast, is drawn more exclusively from the middle class and higher income groups. This sets Fianna Fail apart and allows it to effectively build a social democratic platform in the future. The recent marriage equality referendum saw the party fulsomely supporting the liberalizing move.

The party no longer sees it as good politics to be depicted as being on the side of the country’s more conservative forces.