| 13.3°C Dublin

Kevin Myers: Fianna Fail knows it's not Fine Gael -- but little else

A hundred years ago today, a UK general election produced a dead heat between the Liberals and the Tories, and thus it was that the Irish Parliamentary Party woke up on December 21, 1910, and realised that its 84 seats gave it power over the House of Commons.

The outcome, as we know, was the Home Rule Bill, which was then blocked by the House of Lords, and its final implementation catastrophically delayed by the outbreak of war in 1914. This is familiar territory.

Rather less familiar was a pre-election rally by south Dublin unionists, a year ago last week. This was almost the last time that unionists would ever be able to gather publicly in numbers. After 1922, a demographic and cultural calamity engulfed southern unionism, rendering it all but extinct within a generation, as unionists discovered the narrow limits of tolerance of nationalist Ireland.

After independence, public gatherings of avowed unionists would become impossible in the 26 counties -- first by the veto of the mob, and in time, by the veto of the Fianna Fail government, which used the Public Order Act to ban public displays of an identity with which it disapproved.

Paradoxically, that was precisely what the unionist election meeting had foreseen. The unionist candidate Captain Bryan Cooper had said that he did not believe that Irish nationalism was tolerant of people it disagreed with. He was right.

Most readers are now acquainted with the Rome Rule that emerged following independence, as in the Obscenity Act of 1926, which made it a criminal offence to import or sell condoms, or to mention either contraception or menstruation in public. By 1949, the Labour Party boasted that its policies were based on papal encyclicals, and that it acknowledged the authority of the Catholic Church in all policy and welfare matters. Little wonder that by 1954, this "Republic" had banned over 5,000 books.

Just as interesting as Bryan Cooper's predictions were his observations that without protection from the RIC, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) candidates were unable to appear in large parts of the country. In particular, in Cork, Louth, Mayo and Tipperary, he declared that the right of peaceful assembly for John Redmond's party did not of itself exist -- it had to be enforced. In other words, there was a powerful stratum in Irish nationalist life that not merely resented the IPP but was deeply and physically opposed to it. The restless mob from whom IPP candidates had to be protected would one day be converted into the demographic and cultural entity known as Fianna Fail.

What we can see 100 years ago, in other words, is the deep division that lies within Catholic nationalism between the antecedents of Fine Gael -- the inheritors of the politics of the IPP -- and Fianna Fail, the heirs to the IPP's enemy. This is a division so profound that no words exist in any ordinary political lexicon to describe it: it is transmitted almost in the way that the caste system is in Indian society, except of course, it is not spoken of or understood in those terms. Indeed, it is not understood at all.

And this tribal/caste aversion to one another expressed itself during the election meetings of 1910, it expressed itself during recruitment rallies in 1914, and it expressed itself in the Civil War of 1922-23. It then expressed itself throughout the political life of the Free State. Thus Fianna Fail could go into office with almost anyone -- the PDs, the Greens, and even effectively with a semi-Trotskyite IRA-supporter like Tony Gregory -- but it could not go into office with Fine Gael.

That's the defining taboo line in Irish life, creating the no-man's land in which other parties can grow and do deals with either side. Nothing, it seems, can bring the two parties together: not national self-interest, not the survival of the Irish State, not the rule of law.

Fianna Fail opposed just about every anti-IRA measure taken by Fine Gael whenever the latter was in government. It even opposed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. There is almost nothing that Fine Gael can propose that Fianna Fail will not oppose.

Forget the opinion polls that forecast a total collapse in the Fianna Fail vote. The party will get around 25pc of the vote in the next general election. Fianna Failers are like Manchester United supporters, or Brahmins, or Born Again Christians, or Islamicists: they cannot help themselves. It is what they are. They have little choice in the matter.

Daily Digest Newsletter

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan's exclusive take on the day's news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

That's why Fianna Fail will not join with Fine Gael against Gerry Adams in Louth. For Fianna Fail is far more averse to a union with Fine Gael on anything than it is either to Sinn Fein-IRA, or to any atrocity that the IRA has ever done. It's not so much a question of "liking" or "disliking". It's a question of being NOT something. And that's what Fianna Fail in essence is. It is NOT the Irish Parliamentary Party 100 years ago, even before it existed, and it is NOT Fine Gael today.

And that's how it will always be: Fianna Fail will forever remain the great NOT in the tree of Irish political life.