Coalition of FF and FG may be best we can do
The prospect of such an alliance is no longer as remote as it once seemed
THE Labour grandee, Barry Desmond, likes to quote a Cork Fianna Fail perspective on one of the most enduring mysteries of Irish politics – the difference between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael: "Dem dat know don't need to ask and them dat don't know don't need to know."
The quote is recorded by Trinity College political professors, Michael Gallagher and Michael Marsh, in their book Days of Blue Loyalty, a study of the members of Fine Gael based on a large-scale survey in 2002.
At the time, Fine Gael was facing into what turned out to be an election meltdown under the ill-fated leadership of the current Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, a position not unlike that of Fianna Fail after the last election – although the circumstances were vastly different.
The Fianna Fail grandee, Mary O'Rourke, last week sought to address the question which was asked by the Trinity dons when they sent a 22-page questionnaire to 1,700 Fine Gael members 11 years ago.
It was time, she concluded at the William Carleton Summer School in Co Tyrone last week, that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael bridge the political divide and "give serious thought" to the formation of a "political coalition" at the next election.
O'Rourke drew her inspiration from "one of the most generous non-tribal speeches ever made", that delivered by her late nephew, the then Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, on the sacred ground of Beal na mBlath in 2010.
In his oration, Lenihan said: "The differences between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael today are no longer defined by the Civil War nor have they been for many years. It would be absurd if they were.
"This period of our history is gradually moving out of living memory. We ask and expect those in Northern Ireland to live and work together despite the carnage and grief of a much more recent and much more protracted conflict."
Citing the approach of the centenary of the Easter Rising, Lenihan said: "If today's commemoration can be seen as a further public act of historical reconciliation, at one of Irish history's sacred places, then I will be proud to have played my part."
He was dead less than a year later.
Let us draw a veil over the cold hand of Beal na mBlath last year...
At Beal na mBlath this year, the well-known TV personality, Bill O'Herlihy, a Fine Gael stalwart with a lick of Fianna Fail in him and a former media adviser to Garret FitzGerald, will also address the theme. "I found Mary O'Rourke's comments very interesting," he told me last week.
While of the view that certain policy differences still exist, more
so over the last few years, O'Herlihy said that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were "more compatible" than they were not. "I will be making reference to that at Beal na mBlath," he added.
O'Herlihy will deliver his oration at the 91st annual Michael Collins commemoration at Beal na mBlath in west Cork on Sunday, August 25.
In the 2002 survey, Gallagher and Marsh established that more Fine Gael members were of the view that there were no policy differences between the two parties than were those who cited "some policy area" differences.
Of the four main areas presented to identify that which distinguishes the two parties, Northern Ireland was most often cited, followed by taxation and then agriculture – only 5 per cent saw the EU as the policy area where differences were greatest.
However, the survey also found that more Fine Gael members would go so far as to welcome a merger between the parties than would not welcome such a merger.
Which is not to say that a "merger" will take place any time soon.
But the prospect of a coalition government between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail is no longer as remote as it may once have seemed when all that has happened since is taken into account; that is, the boom, the bust, the crisis, the arrival of the Troika and the austerity.
And the virtual wipe-out of Fianna Fail.
Just last week, Paddy Power installed a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail coalition after the next election as 5/4 favourite just ahead of Fine Gael/Labour at 11/8.
The bookmaker also released a Red C opinion poll which showed Fine Gael (29 per cent) and Fianna Fail (22 per cent) split by those who are seeking a more radical alternative, Independents/Others (23 per cent); Sinn Fein (15 per cent) is lurking with an intent at a level which may have already peaked.
At the peak of his authority in Fine Gael, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, who recently in the Dail levelled a charge of an "axis of collusion" between Fianna Fail and Anglo Irish Bank, has so far shown little sign that he is open to the prospect of a Grand Coalition in 2016 or ever.
If anything, Fine Gael (and Labour) are likely to use the bank inquiry, the timing of which is in their gift, to effectively bury Fianna Fail at least for another term, if not a generation, if not forever.
The inquiry may turn out to be a double-edged sword, however: Fine Gael, and Kenny, have also had their contacts with Anglo behind the scenes, as this newspaper has recorded.
That said, the point is not lost of those Fianna Fail TDs who are in an agitative state over Micheal Martin's continued leadership of Fianna Fail. "No member of the Government that allowed the Troika in here should ever be in government again," a frontbench member told me a fortnight ago.
By way of acknowledgement, at his first Ard Fheis as leader, Martin has said: "We made mistakes. We got things wrong. And we are sorry for that. No equivocation. No half-apology. Just the plain, unvarnished truth."
If only it were that simple...
The real truth is that in the continued absence of a bank inquiry, the Fianna Fail leader's enunciation of the unvarnished truth remains smothered in layer upon layer of liberally applied lacquer.
And unreasonable as it may seem to him, the inquiry, whenever it comes – to probably run up to a short period before the local elections – will do little or nothing to absolve Fianna Fail of the blame for those mistakes which have caused so much pain to so many of our citizens.
Neither can Fine Gael (or Labour) expect to ride on a wave of popularity back into office on account of the manner in which they have so doggedly implemented the Troika deal as negotiated by the man who delivered "one of the most generous and non-tribal" orations ever at the Bael na mBlath, a Fianna Fail man with a lick of Fine Gael in him, by the way.
The only apparent alternative to so far present itself is Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein, a collection of as yet unknown Independents with a greatly diminished Labour Party to make up the numbers.
Put like that, a coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, by then perhaps under a new but untested leader, may be all we are left with, when the Troika has gone, to lead the country post-2016.
Truth be told, I am not sure we are going to do any better.
So who won the civil war?