James Downey: Yes, a Fine Gael coalition with Fianna Fail will cause rifts – but it'll also liven up our dull politics
What's the difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail? We have heard this question asked again and again throughout most of our lives and never got a satisfactory answer. The short answer is that there is no difference worth talking about.
So Mary O'Rourke had every right to propose a coalition between the two parties after the next general election.
She had said the same thing three years ago. It was as valid then as it is now. Indeed, more so. A coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail is by far the likeliest outcome of the election, whenever it comes.
A coalition, not a merger. The time has not yet come for a merger. The strains between and within the parties would be too great.
But the strains will be great even in a coalition, because this one will not follow the traditional model for an Irish coalition.
I remember the 1989 general election for two intriguing incidents. The first occurred while the results of the count were coming in. I was in an RTE studio, watching Charles J Haughey on one of the monitors. Suddenly Des O'Malley appeared on another monitor. The look of contempt that immediately appeared on Haughey's face was something worth seeing. Yet within a month, those two men went into office together.
After Haughey learned the full results, he appointed Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern to negotiate a deal with O'Malley's Progressive Democrats. I came across them one sunny afternoon. They were sitting on a bench on Leinster Lawn, looking unhappy and under-employed.
No wonder. Haughey was conducting his own set of negotiations. They succeeded. Leading members of his party were dismayed, but powerless. The Dail numbers had dictated the shape of the new government.
Next time round, the numbers will again dictate the shape of a new government. But in one important way, everything will be different.
Let us assume that Fine Gael hangs on to its present level of electoral support, or improves on it.
That is much more likely than might appear from the party's, and the country's, present ills. For Fine Gael has shaken off its one-time amateurism and consigned to oblivion Garret FitzGerald's flirtation with social democracy, and focused on its strengths.
Fianna Fail is not the party of Eamon de Valera or Sean Lemass. Labour is not – never was – the party of James Connolly. But Fine Gael is recognisably the party of W T Cosgrave. It has as firm a grip on the middle-class vote as it ever did.
Fianna Fail will recover. To what extent, though? Not enough, I think, to come close to equality with Fine Gael, but enough to "break the mould" (we seem to have heard that phrase before) of coalitions composed of one large party and one or more minor parties.
And we cannot foresee how a coalition of two large parties will work – especially since Fianna Fail will struggle to maintain its identity in the government and the country.
Labour's recent experience offers no guidance. It shares seats in government with Fine Gael in roughly the same proportion, one to two, as the election results and its Dail representation. But it clearly does not enjoy one-third of the power. It had more influence, though far fewer Dail seats, during its brief coalition with Fianna Fail.
Lately the possibility has been mooted of a new left-wing party. If that emerges, it could hurt Labour, though probably only a little.
Is something similar true of the new centre-right party of which we hear so much and see so little?
Such a party would presumably resemble the Progressive Democrats. We know what happened to them. Its votes would come chiefly from Fine Gael. Even if it achieved a wider appeal, it is hard to see how it could hope to compete with the big parties.
But the most interesting part of the spectrum is Fianna Fail.
There have been murmurs against Micheal Martin's leadership. To what present purpose? His critics offer no alternative to the policies he pursues. They cannot resurrect the old Fianna Fail dreams: ending partition, reviving the Irish language, draining the Shannon.
In a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition, however, dissent would become inevitable. Issues of one kind or another would arise. Outright splits could occur.
And if that happened, perhaps it would be all to the good. Our political system is dull, not to say stagnant. Let us have a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition for the sake of logic and stability. But also for the sake of giving the system new life. Stability isn't everything.