independent

Thursday 24 April 2014

Eamon Delaney: FG-FF merger is last thing democracy needs

President deValera welcomes Jackie Kennedy to the Aras in 1967. What would the Long Fellow have made of all this merger talk?

OF all the recent silly-season stories, surely the most outlandish was the notion of a merger between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. It got legs again last weekend in a speech by broadcaster and former Fine Gael strategist Bill O'Herlihy, after it had been floated originally by Mary O'Rourke and endorsed by the more egg-headed commentators who believe our political system is some sort of social-engineering project that can be scientifically rearranged.

No great surprise then that Micheal Martin went out of his way yesterday to bury the notion once and for all.

The notion is unlikely to die away all the same. Granted, you can see the logic. Here are two centrist or right-of-centre parties, who have no great clash in policies and whose loyalty is one of tribalism and tradition, based originally on the Civil War.

The two parties are essentially 'big-tent', mainly rural organisations, which have broadly followed the same economic direction, social policy and foreign policy. For decades, the one big dividing issue was Northern Ireland, but even this became a consensus issue.

So for many who want to see ideological coherence in Irish politics, especially those of the left, the idea of a merger between the two big parties is very appealing. They assume that this would facilitate a big party or movement on the left. But this is completely mistaken. There is no prospect of such a rearrangement in our politics. Polls show that even the existing Labour Party, which is hardly radical, would be destroyed in an immediate election.

More left-wing politicians claim that if Labour stayed true to its socialist principles and didn't apply the bailout cutbacks, the party would be rewarded by the public. But there is no evidence for this.

The reality is that Ireland remains a politically conservative country, albeit with the sort of generous welfare culture and protected public sector that the European left could only dream of. But this is because these features are also endorsed by our centrist parties as they jostle in the middle ground and stay 'all things to all men.' The Left doesn't gain. Joan Burton might be protecting her dole economy but she won't receive any gratitude at the polls.

Once again, Labour has come in to help clear up the mess created by one of the bigger parties and is then discarded by the voters, including their own voters, who are notoriously fickle compared to those of the bigger Civil-War parties. It's unfair, but that's political life.

The two parties not only still dominate, despite the FF meltdown at the last election, but they also define the system and act as its co-ordinates. No government can be formed without one as the dominant partner.

It is like Barcelona and Real Madrid or Manchester United and Chelsea. Labour is 'good for a cup run', like getting Michael D into the Aras. But it will always be playing catch-up with the establishment 'clubs'.

The same parallels apply in terms of cash resources, fan bases and the motivation of an illustrious past. The last FF ard fheis had big banners of the party's past heroes, just like those images of Matt Busby or George Best. FF may have hit the floor, but it knows how to 'energise the brand'.

And this is no bad thing. If competition improves performance in our sports, business culture and media, then why not in our politics?

If most people are broadly right of centre, then why not give them the choice of two fit and lean parties competing against each other and saying they 'could do a better job'? This is why the voters swing from one to the other when they get tired.

And talk of merger also overlooks the actual differences between the two parties, not only in their current policies, but also in their culture, temperament and social background. It is naïve and insulting to suggest that two huge social organisation which have existed since the foundation of the State and have, at dangerous times, defined and protected the State – often through their very rivalry – can just be merged on a piece of paper.

The social origins of the parties – FG the more middle-class, FF the more populist and republican – may have blurred, but their context should be respected.

And yet the polls suggest there are still many voters who are fed up with the existing system and with the disproportionate pain being visited on the coping classes and the squeezed middle.

Instead of creating 'new' parties or mergers, why don't both FF and FG go after this particular vote and ease the pain of our overburdened middle class?

Now that would be a breakthrough to celebrate.

Irish Independent

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