Friday 17 November 2017

'Parties still defined by contempt for each other, but Civil War politics is long dead'

Éamon De Valera. Photo: Getty
Éamon De Valera. Photo: Getty

Patrick Geoghegan

When François Mitterand visited Ireland in 1975, he couldn't understand why we had "two apparently identical conservative parties". He was told, quite simply, that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were kept apart by "the contempt they have for each other". A little over 40 years later, the prospect of a Grand Coalition between the two parties is being presented as a real possibility, and already political commentators are rushing to write the obituary of Civil War politics.

The fact that this election takes place in the centenary year of the Rising makes it seem even more appropriate the two parties should form a government. Both, after all, emerged from that revolutionary decade, and both had leaders who fought in 1916.

The 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty splintered this revolutionary generation. The oath of allegiance became the key point of division, although subsequent generations would rewrite the terms of the argument so that it was about Partition. Every political party has its own myths, and the most important one of all is the foundation myth.

Splitting from Sinn Féin, the supporters of the treaty formed into Cumann na nGaedheal, and governed the country until 1932. Determined to pursue hard-line policies to maintain law, order and stability, the party came to see itself as the defender of the institutions of the State. It became an integral part of its mythology, and has remained so ever since.

In September 1933, Fine Gael was founded, in part a rebrand of the old party, in part a merger with the National Centre Party and the National Guard.

Standing in its way was a self-declared "slightly constitutional" party. Éamon de Valera was interned until 1924, and upon his release found himself distrusted by those in Sinn Féin because he wasn't seen as sufficiently republican. Ambitious and disillusioned, he resigned in 1926 and formed his own party, Fianna Fáil. Swallowing his reservations about the oath of allegiance, and his pride, he brought his new party into the Dáil in 1927. It was destined to spend 61 of the next 89 years in power.

Following its formation, Fianna Fáil vigorously contested local elections, while Cumann na nGaedheal remained aloof, and this had important consequences. Seán Lemass, for one, believed this "cemented Fianna Fáil into the political structures of the country".

Over the decades, Fianna Fáil established itself as a national movement - pragmatic and well-organised. Its self-image was that it was Ireland's 'real' Labour party, less cautious and more populist on fiscal measures, more forthright on the problem of the North. One national executive member even went so far as to describe his party as "larger than life, proud and pragmatic, ready to deal with the devil himself".

Fine Gael's self-image was different. It championed prudent economic management and integrity in high places, placing a value on these principles because it believed it had created and defended the State and must continue to do so.

Observers looking in on the Irish system have been baffled because there is not the kind of right-left divide you see in many European countries. But many countries, such as the US, have historic alignments that make sense in their own context. Phrases like Civil War politics only reduce the terms of the debate to a cliché, one that becomes less and less useful the more it is deployed.

A couple of years ago, Mary Lou McDonald urged Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to "kiss and make up" and put Civil War politics behind them. It was a clever line, because it presents the differences between the two parties as superficial and historic, and suits her own party's political mythology.

The truth is that Civil War politics ended a long time ago. As new dividing lines appeared, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael defined themselves against each other as much as for certain policies and ideas. Irish politics has been all the stronger for it. Sometimes a little contempt in politics can be a good thing.

Patrick Geoghegan is professor of history at Trinity College Dublin and presents the award-winning Talking History on Newstalk radio

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