Sunday 19 January 2020

Fianna Fail risks unleashing demons of a darker populism

The contradictions of Micheal Martin's stance against coalition with Sinn Fein become starker by the week, writes Ed Brophy

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Tom Burke
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Tom Burke

Ed Brophy

"The sky is darkening with the wings of chickens coming home to roost," Denis Healey

Denial is the common thread that links the greatest shocks of our unruly political era. Britain would never be so rash to leave the EU. Strong and stable Theresa would surely trounce looney left Jeremy. And best of all, a candidate so obviously unsuited to the presidency as Trump could never prevail. Well, naturally not.

Meanwhile, our own favoured trope of political denial, the impossibility of a Fianna Fail/Sinn Fein 'republican' coalition after next year's likely election - mainly because Micheal Martin says so - becomes less plausible by the day.

We like to tell ourselves that we're immune from the forces that gave us Brexit, Trump and Corbyn - or even the authoritarianism making a comeback in Eastern Europe. Superficially, our strong recovery, responsible government and public support for the EU suggest the centre is holding.

But listen to what people are telling pollsters and you quickly encounter the same trepidation about the future that is driving the populist wave elsewhere. Voters worry about how their kids will fare in an automated future and a state that is unable to manage basics like health, affordable homes and a tax system that doesn't penalise them. More troublingly, a significant minority of voters want a much tougher line on immigration than any party is offering.

To date, our populist response to these anxieties has been contained within the existing parties, particularly Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein. To their credit, neither has become - like the hard left - a party of nostalgia whose only role is to remind voters what they have lost. Nor have they preyed on these anxieties with an anti-immigration message that would resonate with a significant proportion of their supporters.

However, the lease on this 'responsible populism' is almost up. If the price of the centre holding after the next election is the exclusion of Sinn Fein from government, then the temptation will be overwhelming for it to become the authoritarian anti-immigration party the majority of its voters have long wanted it to be. In saving the State from Sinn Fein, Micheal Martin may unleash demons the like of which we have not previously witnessed.

For all my many misgivings about Sinn Fein, I believe this is the context in which its current overtures to the larger parties must be seen. If Sinn Fein is about anything it is an abiding faith in the State - all that stands between us and an equal society, it implies, is better government. People like Eoin O'Broin - a policy wonk but political naif whose whimsical 'left majority' strategy has been ditched in the rush for government - are surely ministers in waiting. More than anything, office would surely cure them of their most dirigisme fantasies.

Equally, Micheal Martin must be in denial if he cannot see how dismissing the legitimacy of Sinn Fein's mandate could play out to the detriment of our body politic. He acknowledged as much in a recent interview, outlining how a grand coalition with Fine Gael could irreparably damage the centre ground of Irish politics - the same argument he used when refusing Enda Kenny's coalition offer last year. And yet he seems blind to the consequences of denying Sinn Fein.

The more troubling conclusion is that his stance is all about short-term political calculation.

Even in such narrow terms, his approach is wrong-headed. Fianna Fail's private research must be telling him the same as the rest of us - Sinn Fein is no longer toxic. Mary Lou has an ability to speak directly to the squeezed middle unmatched by anyone other than Leo. Equally, the number of people choosing Sinn Fein as their second preference party has doubled in the past year to the point that the party's ratio of second preferences to first preferences is the same as that of Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. As far as the electorate is concerned, Sinn Fein has already come in from the cold.

Rather than recognising this shift for what it is, Micheal has doubled down on denial and in the process, revealed a failure of political courage and imagination that diminishes him. Indeed, in his very scorn for the notion of a government that the public is ready for, you sometimes get the impression that he doth protest too much.

However, not a single one of Micheal's charges against Sinn Fein - its failure to condemn the IRA, its way of doing politics and its cult-like tendencies - will cut any ice whatsoever with the crucial 18-45 urban demographic who will decide the next election on the basis of who they trust most to improve their standard of living. Elections are not history seminars. They are nearly always about the future. Leo knows this too, but like the Bourbons, Micheal has forgotten nothing and learned nothing.

There is also a large serving of humbug in Micheal's presentation of the case against coalition with Sinn Fein. He won't go into government with them, but would be quite happy to rely on their support in a confidence and supply arrangement - the political equivalent of smoking without inhaling. However, Micheal is no Bill Clinton, so voters are likely to call his bluff on what is a essentially a distinction without a difference.

It may be a sign of our growing political maturity - or else a product of mathematical reality - but next year's general election will be the first where none of the parties who wants to be in government (in other words, everyone apart from Solidarity-PBP) will be able to credibly rule each other out in advance. Like our European neighbours have long done, we will belatedly accept the reality that everyone's mandate is equally legitimate in a coalition system.

Instead of recognising this reality, Micheal Martin perpetuates the dangerous myth that up to a fifth of the electorate is off limits for government formation. In so doing, he risks alienating an even larger number of voters, with untold consequences for a state that still likes to believe it is not polarised.

In his seminal biography of LBJ, Robert Caro refutes the cliché that power always corrupts. Instead, he argues, what is seldom said is that power always reveals. In squandering his power to transform politics for a generation and save us from a much darker form of populism, Micheal Martin reveals less courage than we should expect in any future taoiseach.

What's that sound? Look up in the sky, thousands of chickens coming home to roost.

  • Ed Brophy was chief of staff to tanaiste Joan Burton in the Fine Gael/Labour coalition

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