Saturday 24 August 2019

James Downey: People take anger out on FF with quiet revolution

James Downey

WHEN it was all over, you could see that Brian Cowen still could not bring himself to believe it.

Still less could he bring himself to understand that he and his party deserved it.

It was the same with people who had served as ministers under him and under Bertie Ahern.

Those who had lost their own Dail seats could not believe the evidence of their senses. Such things simply do not happen to Fianna Fail.

Equally, blame does not belong with Fianna Fail. Blame must lie somewhere else, as far away as possible in history or geography.

An unpredictable storm must have struck out of a clear blue sky, leaving it to a heroic Fianna Fail government to take tough decisions in order to repair the damage.

On Saturday night Mr Cowen managed to refrain from mentioning Lehman Brothers, but he might as well have done for all the credibility he attracted.

All this was par for the course. During the later Ahern years, and throughout all of Mr Cowen's premiership, two Taoisigh and those around them have not just been completely out of touch with public opinion, they have lost contact with the political and economic facts of life which confront them, and all of us, daily.

But more extraordinary is the way in which they lost touch with their own people.

All through the election campaign, we wondered whether traditional Fianna Fail supporters could enter the polling booths and vote for the Ancient Enemy, Fine Gael, as well as Labour and Sinn Fein. At the last minute, would they find it impossible?

Enda Kenny's enforcer, Phil Hogan -- they don't call him Cute Phil for nothing -- must have had the same thought. He asked "decent" Fianna Fail people to lend him their votes. He need not have worried.

These people did not trumpet their anger or their intentions from the rooftops.

They formed part of Ireland's quiet revolution. In some other countries, the angry take to the streets, throwing petrol bombs. In Ireland they waited for the best chance they would ever have, revenge in the polling booths.

How could anybody fail to see it coming? In what kind of bubble have Mr Cowen, Mr Ahern and their ministers lived for all these years?

Their party's founders understood the Irish psychology. Eamon de Valera said he had only to look into his own heart to know what the Irish people wanted. Glancing back, that may seem amazing. It added up to poverty, unemployment, emigration, under-development, a declining population and a set of aspirations which could never be fulfilled. But it won votes.

And when everything changed under Sean Lemass, the old ways were replaced by a more concrete vote-catcher, economic competence.

Most of the population, including almost all the party supporters, trusted it to manage the economy. In our own time, those who had been among the most loyal discovered its incapacity to do that.

Simultaneously, the party decayed. This happens to all parties that stay in power too long. It is accompanied by corruption and, often, various major and minor forms of oppression.

We don't have much official oppression in Ireland, but we do have corruption. In fact, we have our own special form -- legal corruption, very hard to detect but easy to identify. And we have our own methods of dealing with it, possibly the least successful in the democratic world.

Meanwhile, in the space of a generation or so we have created for ourselves a new ruling and moneyed class. They are exemplified by the bankers, the developers -- and Fianna Fail ministers.

These ministers have "notions of themselves", far removed from the austerity prevalent in the early years of our tight little republic.

Their heads have been swollen, not to say touched, by the deference to which they have grown accustomed in Brussels and locations to the south and east. They love the limousines, the red carpets, the first-class flights and the luxury hotels. So much do they love the hotels and their accompanying spas and conference centres that they have replicated them all over Ireland, at the taxpayers' expense.

Every authority, from the Bible to the Greek myths to the works of modern political philosophers, tells us that this kind of thing can't last. It will end in calamity. But exactly what kind of calamity?

We may be lucky -- and Enda Kenny is surely lucky that the Cowen government did not collapse before we felt the full force of the economic crash, let's say in September 2008.

An incoming Fine Gael-Labour coalition would have had to take the blame for all the unpalatable decisions.

The Fianna Fail leadership would have persuaded its own core supporters, if nobody else, that our woes were all the fault of the blueshirts and the pinkos.

In the event, we had to wait until the Fianna Fail-Green coalition disintegrated, thereby demonstrating that its members could not end a government with any more grace than they could run one.

They went to the country in the worst possible circumstances. They found the people, including all those grim-faced former Fianna Failers, waiting for them.

Still dwelling in their bubble, the party chiefs disbelieved the evidence from the canvasses and the opinion polls.

Although Mr Cowen remained Taoiseach, they elected a new leader, Micheal Martin, and even after the election some of them speculated that he might have done better had he had more time.

More pie in the sky. In reality, he never had a chance. The albatross of his 14 years in the Ahern and Cowen Cabinets weighed too heavily on his neck.

Finally, devastation. A proud party reduced to a rump.

No Fianna Fail seat in half the constituencies. In Dublin and the entire commuter belt, a total of two seats. Special kinds of punishment inflicted by the canny electorate.

Shane Ross, scourge of boardroom cronyism, heads the poll in Dublin South.

The magnificent Mick Wallace, everybody's favourite property developer, emulates him in Wexford.

One-time Fianna Fail voters helped to elect these people, and the four Fine Gael candidates in Mayo, and Joe Higgins, the man who once provoked Mr Ahern to anger in the Dail.

And one-time Fianna Fail voters helped to bring down big names and useful people -- Mary Hanafin qualifies on both counts -- as well as outgoing deputies whom nobody will miss.

Can the party recover? Never say never. But it is safe to say two things.

Fianna Fail lost the capital city, and the middle class, quite some time ago. Until it wins back sufficient of both, it will not thrive.

Nor will it thrive unless it gets in touch, once again, with the people. It could start with its own people.

Irish Independent

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