Despite a mixed legacy, there's life in the old Soldiers of Destiny yet
Published 21/05/2016 | 02:30
Although the last few years have brought electoral turbulence for Fianna Fáil, the party has been the dominant force in Irish politics for much of the 20th century. This week marks the 90th year since the party emerged from the fracturing of the Sinn Féin movement at the Civil War and was established by Éamon de Valera in 1926 following a further split in the ranks of anti-Treaty Sinn Féin. It contested the election in 1927 and entered government for the first time in 1932.
Political scientists have been studying parties for decades, and they group them according to their origins, operation and policy positions as a mechanism for understanding them. But the Soldiers of Destiny are something of an anomaly - and don't fit neatly into any of the family groups.
From 1932 until 2011, the party won more votes at elections than all of its rivals. It had the largest numbers of seats in the Dáil and it enjoyed long, uninterrupted periods in government. The overall vote for Fianna Fáil showed signs of decline from the 1970s, but its adaptability kept the party to the fore in Irish politics. This hegemony led to Ireland being categorised as having a dominant party system. Fianna Fáil sat at the centre of party politics, and other parties either competed against it or, as the decades passed, coalesced with it.
The strength of Fianna Fáil came from its broad-based support. It transcended class and other social divisions and it secured votes across the country.
From an early stage it also built a strong organisational network across the country. Fianna Fáil cumainn were established in every constituency and provided a vital base of supporters from which candidates and campaigners readily sprang at elections. Like many other large parties across Europe, Fianna Fáil has experienced some decline in its organisational structures. Little is known about the precise demographics of the members of many Irish parties, but from exit polls we know a lot about party voters - and it is clear that Fianna Fáil is very strong among older, rural and more conservative voters. We can have some expectation that this profile is replicated among its members.
The party has sought to engage more with its members, and reforms have given members a greater role in selecting candidates and the party leader and in deciding to enter government.
Policy flexibility was an essential component of the party's success. Fianna Fáil is a catch-all party, which means it attempts to attract voters with diverse political views. Catch-all parties tend not to adopt fixed ideological positions, they adapt to events and public opinion. Across Europe, catch-all parties have dominated government since 1945. There are strengths and weaknesses to this disposition - and these will resonate among observers of Fianna Fáil.
The great strength of being a catch-all party is flexibility - the party can move left or right as its supporters or circumstances demand. This malleability let Fianna Fáil form coalitions with the centre-left Labour Party from 1992 to 1994 and then to go into government with the centre-right PDs from 1997. But one of the major challenges facing catch-all parties is that, for many voters, the parties have come to stand for nothing. They are effective at governing, but in challenging times, voters are unsure what their core values are.
Fianna Fáil has also enacted populist economic policies. Its long-standing rival, Fine Gael, was defined from an early point as being conservative on fiscal matters while Fianna Fáil tended to take a more expansionist view. Major house-building programmes in the 1930s are an important part of that legacy, along with free second-level education in the 1960s, which has been identified as a crucial step in putting Ireland on a trajectory to greater prosperity. Equally though, the abolition of domestic rates and the car tax in the 1970s and more recent carelessness in managing the public finances in the later stages of the Celtic Tiger are seen as acts of economic sabotage - and the party now mediates a path between these various episodes from its past.
Fianna Fáil had distinguished political leaders who defined politics in their time - such as de Valera and Sean Lemass - and the party has a notable legacy in relation to Northern Ireland, ensuring a place in history for Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern. Its legacy is mixed, though. In common with dominant political parties in other systems, it has been bedevilled by corruption scandals, while senior party figures have exited under a cloud of suspicion.
During its last term in government at the height of the crash, at times it struggled to separate the party from the State and was roundly punished for its economic policy and management mistakes.
After the catastrophic election in 2011, many observers consigned the party to history. But one of the interesting insights from political science research is that parties with deep political roots such as Fianna Fáil are rarely 'killed off' in one election. They retain an embedded base of support and a capacity to recover - as the most recent elections demonstrate.
One thing the 2011 election may have done is turned Fianna Fáil into just another political party. Its dominance and mystique have most likely been ended permanently but this does not mean it cannot win elections and return to government.
Dr Theresa Reidy is a political scientist at UCC