Thursday 19 April 2018

One party, but many politicians

Politics: One Party Dominance: Fianna Fail and Irish Politics, 1926-2016, Edited by Eoin O'Malley & Sean McGraw, Routlege, €130

Fianna Fail leaders
Fianna Fail leaders
One Party Dominance

Willie O'Dea

While the not so snappy title of One Party Dominance: Fianna Fail and Irish Politics, 1926-2016 is a hint that this book may not be aimed at the airport book stands, the contents are not nearly as heavy going as you might fear.

Though primarily intended as an academic piece of work, this collection of eight well-written scholarly essays edited by Eoin O'Malley of DCU (and the Sunday Independent) and Sean McGraw of the University of Notre Dame, is, at just under 200 pages, neither forbidding nor excessively weighty. More significantly, it is written with a non-jaundiced eye.

It is an independent and dispassionate examination of the story of Fianna Fail - one that avoids the simplistic Civil War narrative of most of the political pundits, and instead recognises that the story of Fianna Fail is the story of a responsive and evolving centrist party - one whose support quickly went far beyond its Civil War roots. However the book is not a history, but rather an analysis of how it became one of the most successful parties ever, alongside Sweden's Social Democrats (comparisons you don't often hear mentioned at Comhairle Ceantair meetings).

The final chapter, by Stephen Quinlan and Martin Okolikj, brings the story beyond the 2016 election. They do not sugar-coat the scale of the challenge facing FF, identifying that its future depends on its "ability to convince voters of its ability to manage the economy" and that to do this the party needs both third-level educated voters and younger voters.

They further highlight the fact that the party attachment has been waning steadily since 1977 with fewer people identifying themselves as just "Fianna Fail". They point out that this is also true for all parties over that period, not just here but across most democracies.

While the sudden playing out of the two-decade delayed fall in party attachment was an element of the massive fall in support at the 2011 election - the bulk of that result was about FF being held accountable by voters of all hues for a deep and painful recession. And the political recovery is about winning back that trust.

Kevin Rafter's chapter on FF's professionalisation of political communications is also highly instructive, looking at the importance of digital campaigning in what Rafter calls the fourth age of political campaigning - the age of social media and two-way conversations. One-way marketing campaigns are out: conversations are in. (Clearly someone forgot to mention this to the Taoiseach and his €5m Strategic Communications Unit.)

Interestingly, Rafter disputes the commonly held view that it was Fianna Fail's conduct of the 1977 election that heralded the biggest changes in Irish political communications - and suggests that it was Fianna Fail's 1997 campaign that had the most significant impact.

Other chapters look at how FF's political success was predicated on its evolving and developing policy responses.

In her chapter on what she calls evolving ideological ambiguity, Niamh Puirseil describes it as "a pragmatic party that eschews doctrinaire politics". This has found its expression in policies suited for the time, such as its radical expansion of State-funded housing and education.

Whether it be its State activism of the 1930s or the radicalism of the 1960s Lemass era, Fianna Fail's belief in the role of the State as an enabler differentiates it from Fine Gael - then and now. Though the book may not trouble the bestseller lists, it will trouble those who hope Fianna Fail's best and most influential days are behind it and will, along with Prof Tim Bale's analysis, help inform party leadership on the course to chart in coming years.

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