Fianna Fáil are steaming ahead on route to irrelevance
Published 27/08/2015 | 02:30
What do Micheál Martin and Jeremy Corbyn have in common? They both look set fair to establish internal party membership popularity at the expense of the real needs of voters.
The man who looks almost certain to become the new leader of the British Labour party seems set to march them back to the politics of the 1950s and 1960s. Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil leader Mr Martin's post-election government formation strategy looks equally bold. At a stroke he's categorically excluding coalition with both Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. As a consequence, he's left himself no wriggle room and is charting a course for FF to remain in opposition in the 32nd Dáil. Irrelevance will be the price of such a strategy, scuppering the prospects of an electoral recovery.
In my living memory of politics (from the 1970s Cosgrave/Corish coalition, followed by Jack Lynch in 1977), I can't recall FF ever being in opposition for two consecutive Dáil terms. The party's main core value through the eras of Charlie Haughey, Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern was to be in power, irrespective of the ideology of its coalition partner. As a result, if you're an FF supporter and any of the following - a farmer active in the IFA, teacher involved in INTO campaigns, business owner/investor seeking local largesse from central government for your area, organiser in a trade union or lobbyist with a tax wheeze plan - you automatically had a friendly ear in the corridors of power.
The very culture of FF was built on it being the best party to get things done in government. Patronage and promoting your pals is a key modus operandi.
The most sensible political comments from a TD during this month's silly season were those made by FF finance spokesperson Michael McGrath. He called it straight, saying the party shouldn't rule out entering government as a junior coalition partner. His logic is self-evident, yet a predictable chorus of traditionalists jumped all over any notion of considering radical change.
Willie O'Dea maintained this amounted to propping up Enda Kenny in power. Senator Thomas Byrne said government with both FG and SF is "simply unimaginable". Meanwhile, environment spokesperson Barry Cowen sought an internal party motion outlawing any consideration whatsoever of FG government options. To all reactionaries, the simplest riposte is: Why should anyone bother voting for FF if its policies have no hope of being implemented?
Abstention has been the cornerstone of Sinn Féin strategy, not FF's. Protest parties can flourish in opposition isolation, with the comfort zone of their policies never actually having to be implemented, contentedly jettisoning responsibility and reality. But for a large centrist party to choose opposition reduces it to a mere debating society. The old tribal traditions of the Civil War aren't saleable beyond cumainn and branch meetings respectively in FF and FG.
Electoral realities are that with each passing decade, both parties' core vote is melting by around 3pc as loyalty to grandparents' voting habits diminishes with each new generation. Migration towards cities and urbanisation trends break voting patterns back home. Since 1970, despite swings and roundabouts of variable party popularity and personality strengths, decline in older parties is inexorable. In opinion polls, before they allocate the "don't knows", the percentages ascribed to loyalists are diminishing.
Arguments that FF will grow support only in opposition over a decade are extremely dubious. The opposite could be the case without the oxygen of power, as relevance of a party's role is increasingly questioned and the oldest veteran diehards disappear. After several years of austerity and consequent unpopularity for incumbent government parties, the economic cycle of recovery and growth may mean the next election is worth winning. A benign cycle of incremental prosperity could allow ministers to cut taxes and improve public services. It may suit some backbench FF TDs to have an easier life in opposition. Career politicians at the top of FF should remember Mary Harney's adage about "worst days in government being better than best days in opposition".
It suits many rural constituency politicians to maintain historical market divisions between FF and FG. Take the Laois/Offaly constituency, where old factions headed by Ber Cowen and Oliver J Flanagan are a continued phoney war to the present day through sons Brian/Barry and Charlie. Each has only to get out their own vote while maintaining adversarial hostilities to keep the respective brands alive. It's as if Tesco and Dunnes Stores could divide up the territories profitably, giving outward appearances of aggressive competition. This serves our political providers better than we political consumers; voters know policy differences between FF and FG only vary depending on who's in government or opposition. Their greatest shared values are opportunism and cronyism.
The best argument for FF staying in opposition is that the minor parties tend to get all the blame. PDs, Greens and now Labour look like mudguard victims, with an identity crisis, after serving in office. Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats suffered the same fate across the water. But if FF embraces governmental options in an ambitious frame of mind, assertive self-confidence could increase the party's strength to actually being the largest, as happened on county councils in May 2004.
The worst option of all is to support a minority government from the outside. Each week will bring a new crisis or a crucial Dail vote of confidence on private members' time. Have they forgotten Dukes's dilemma of the Tallaght strategy - all the responsibility without power? Being blamed for the inherent instability of a minority government is the craziest choice, leaving the Taoiseach options to cut and run to the polls when most vulnerable. FF must adapt or die. A new order of political fragmentation and instability creates an optimal opportunity for its pragmatism. Walking off the pitch is neither credible nor sustainable.