Friday 21 October 2016

Eoin O'Malley: This FF-FG divide runs much deeper than a mere Civil War

The 'Grand Coalition' is out, says Eoin O'Malley, as Fianna Fail knows this would leave Sinn Fein in pole position next time

Eoin O'Malley

Published 10/04/2016 | 02:30

ENDA’S TRIBE: Taoiseach Enda Kenny with TDs Eoghan Murphy, Michael Noonan, Josepha Madigan and Simon Coveney at Government Buildings following talks between Fine Gael and Independents on forming a new government. Photo: Arthur Carron
ENDA’S TRIBE: Taoiseach Enda Kenny with TDs Eoghan Murphy, Michael Noonan, Josepha Madigan and Simon Coveney at Government Buildings following talks between Fine Gael and Independents on forming a new government. Photo: Arthur Carron

Would you be buried with my people? Enda Kenny didn't ask this of Micheal Martin, but he might as well have. His proposal was equally romantic and even more ham-fisted.

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The real possibility of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael working together in a full coalition government emerged this week and then it receded.

But it could be back again. A minority government is more likely and fresh elections are a possibility.

To an outsider, this would hardly appear to deserve a passing reference in the news: 'Two centre-right parties agree to govern Ireland.'

It might rank with 'Small earthquake in Chile, not many dead' for most boring headline. But Irish people know that it is big news, because there is a deep (if narrow) division between them.

Why is this? Some say if you have to ask you won't understand the answer.

The usual assumption is that the division is there since the Treaty and we talk about 'civil war politics'.

But the division on this was in effect gone by 1927, when Fianna Fail accepted the terms of the Treaty, and certainly by 1932, when Fianna Fail went into government. In fact, the divisions are as much cultural as anything else and probably precede the Treaty.

A political journalist, the late Dick Walsh, used to tell a story about his father talking to a staunchly Fianna Fail neighbour. The neighbour said with pride that his people had been in Fianna Fail "since the Rising".

Conscious of the fact that the party was only founded a decade after the Easter Rising, Walsh's father asked if he really meant "since 1916?", to which the neighbour stoutly responded: "No, since 1798!" - leaving Walsh's father speechless.

Research that I did with Kevin Byrne, a geneticist in UCD's School of Medicine, shows that a division between the two parties runs further back than even 1798. We can see that Fianna Fail TDs and Fine Gael TDs since the foundation of the State have quite distinct patterns of surnames.

Your surname is a good genetic marker for your migration heritage. That means that from your surname we can tell whether your ancestors were Gaelic (here before the Vikings), Anglo-Norman (arrived from the 12th Century) or New English (arrived from the 16th century).

We argue that the differences between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael represent some deep divisions that were relevant in Irish society then.

One was culturally Gaelic and had a loyalty to local area and the tribe. The other was culturally connected to England, the Catholic Church and Enlightenment values. These drove divisions in the types of nationalism we saw. One was a violent and cultural nationalism, the other a constitutional, Enlightenment nationalism.

These in turn influenced people's affiliations and instincts at the time of the Rising and the decision to side with or against the Treaty. There is a lot of noise (inter-marriage, adoptions and false paternity) but the remarkable thing is that hundreds of years later we see that the name patterns show clearly that Fianna Fail is more Gaelic and Fine Gael has far more Anglo-Norman and New English names than we would expect if they were randomly assigned.

This gets to the differences between the modern parties.

Fianna Fail famously saw itself as slightly constitutional and was more anti-British in its nationalist rhetoric. Fine Gael is still more liberal on social issues. The differences aren't great, but they are there.

Even now, we see the two parties dislike each other. The way they hiss at each other in the Dail chamber shows this.

Fine Gael sees itself as idealistic; Fianna Fail sees it as arrogant. Fianna Fail sees itself as pragmatic; Fine Gael sees it as dishonest.

The distaste (hatred is far too strong a word) will count for something when the members speak from their guts.

If a coalition deal were to come off, it would have to be passed by a Fianna Fail ard fheis. It is hard to see Fianna Fail members accepting any deal that returned a Fine Gael Taoiseach and Micheal Martin as Tanaiste. Even if it were one with Martin as Taoiseach, some, such as Eamon O Cuiv, would fight hard and could probably defeat it, weakening Martin. He wouldn't want to risk that.

But much more than the history and the poor personal relationships, it is modern political strategy that drives what is happening now.

Martin knows that his party will do well in an election. It is within touching distance of Fine Gael and better candidate selection will see it overtake Fine Gael. Martin doesn't want an election now because the party won't have the money and his new TDs need time to bed in.

But he wants the opportunity to have one in a year or so.

The minority Fine Gael arrangement gives him that.

It also offers Fianna Fail the chance to improve its brand - positioning itself on the centre-left - to extract policy concessions from Fine Gael in public. It will be hard for that government to work and Fianna Fail will have to make concessions and commitments in advance. Fine Gael is right that a minority government without any commitment of support would be unstable and ineffective.

But the alternative of coalition would leave Sinn Fein as the main opposition party. Government formations can shape the party system.

Had Eamon Gilmore kept Labour out of government in 2011, he might now be Taoiseach and there could be a left-right divide in politics.

A Fianna Fail-Fine Gael government would go some way to creating a left-right divide in Irish politics, with Sinn Fein setting itself out as the main left alternative.

But it could bury one or other of the two main parties. In government together, the reasons for their separate existence might cease to exist.

Fianna Fail knows this and is unwilling to risk the promise of a few cabinet seats now, when the bigger prize of Taoiseach is available after another election. That's why it is going to be willing to support a minority Fine Gael government.

For a coalition to happen, it would be a slow process. These two parties would need more time to work together. It's too soon for them, but another election might make it necessary. If Fine Gael sleepwalks into that election with the same leader, it could be the one that's buried.

Dr Eoin O'Malley is director of the MSc in Public Policy in the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University

Sunday Independent

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