Monday 23 September 2019

Liam Weeks: 'No country for old men as FF enters the grey area'

All momentum now stalled, Fianna Fail lags behind the party it keeps in government, writes Liam Weeks

Crossroads: Peter Casey and his wife Helen. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Crossroads: Peter Casey and his wife Helen. Photo: Gerry Mooney.

Liam Weeks

Next month is the centenary of what was perhaps the most significant election in Irish history.

In the December 1918 House of Commons elections, Sinn Fein won 70 of 75 seats in the 26 counties that later became the Irish State - a result the party interpreted as a mandate for independence.

That landslide wiped out the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), which for the previous 50 years had dominated Irish politics, virtually monopolising representation outside of the north-east.

A century on from Sinn Fein replacing the IPP as the main party of nationalist Ireland, Fianna Fail is hoping to avoid sharing the IPP's historical fate.

It, too, experienced a massive electoral defeat in 2011, losing even more votes than the IPP in 1918.

However, while the IPP won only two seats from 21pc of the vote in 1918, Fianna Fail retained 20 seats with 17pc support in 2011.

De Valera. Had his electoral plan suceeded, it would have wiped out Fianna Fail.
De Valera. Had his electoral plan suceeded, it would have wiped out Fianna Fail.

In a twist of irony, Fianna Fail escaped the IPP's experience because its attempts to replace the single transferable vote with the British first-past-the-post-voting system (as had been used in 1918) were defeated twice by the electorate, in referendums in 1959 and 1968.

Had Fianna Fail got its way, the re-introduction of single-seat constituencies to engineer its dominance in the 1960s would have led to its downfall in 2011. This is because of the tendency of that system to exaggerate results, and it is difficult to imagine a Fianna Fail candidate topping the poll in any such constituency at that election.

Fortunately for modern Fianna Fail, the retention of the single transferable vote ensured the party did not disappear in the economic crash.

Since its annus horribilis of 2011, the soldiers of destiny have been slowly rebuilding. The party likes to boast that it became the largest party in local government in 2014, and had its greatest ever electoral gains in 2016, winning an additional 24 seats.

But this was working from a low base, and Fianna Fail's momentum now seems to have stalled. While in 2016 the party was just one percentage point behind Fine Gael, since Leo Varadkar became Taoiseach, Fianna Fail has lagged considerably behind the party it keeps in government. Opinion polls for the past year have suggested the gap between the parties to be anywhere between five and 10pc.

At the moment, Fianna Fail is able to profit from dissatisfaction with Fine Gael (and Labour) due to the innate conservatism of the Irish voter, who is loath to switch to a radical party, as occurs elsewhere in Europe.

However, what will happen when voters either forgive or forget IRA atrocities and lose their hang-up with voting for Sinn Fein as an alternative?

The consequences don't bear thinking about for Fianna Fail.

Why? The answer is apparent when we consider the profile of the Fianna Fail voter, who is quite different to the average Irish voter on the key social issues that have been to the forefront of political debate in recent years.

Take abortion, an issue on which a clear majority spoke last May. Fianna Fail voters spoke differently, with a majority of its supporters voting No in the referendum. In all other parties, Yes voters considerably outnumbered the No side.

Something similar was evident with marriage equality in 2015. Again, Fianna Fail voters were the least enthusiastic for this change.

Just last week, 41pc of Fianna Fail supporters voted to keep the ban on blasphemy, considerably more than any other party voters.

In an exit poll conducted at the time, fewer than one in 10 Fianna Fail voters said they want to stop the broadcast of the Angelus on RTE. For all other parties, the comparative figure in favour of such a change was at least twice as large.

There is undoubtedly a strong clericialist streak to the Fianna Fail voter, and it's not surprising that more than half of them attend Mass at least once a week or more often.

In an era when church attendance is radically in decline, this is quite a telling statistic.

This voter may long for the day when the party took a stronger line in defence of Catholicism, such as in 1929 when it proposed a motion that the Dail should not sit on Catholic days of obligation, or a year later, when it defended the actions of Mayo County Council over its refusal to appoint a protestant librarian.

Unfortunately for Fianna Fail, while such voters remain a core element of its support base, they are dwindling as a proportion of the Irish electorate.

As a consequence, many are quick to criticise Fianna Fail, especially its rural TDs, for pandering to this socially conservative vote. However, at a time when we reproach political parties for not standing for anything, is it fair to besmirch Fianna Fail because its voters have a clear social identity? In political science, we praise the existence of responsible parties, so called for offering policy platforms distinct from other parties, and for acting on these differences when in and out of office.

In this light, we could call Fianna Fail a responsible party, but is this an identity it wants?

The reason Fianna Fail may be attracting a socially conservative electorate is not necessarily because it is offering policies that appeal to such voters, but because it has driven away all of the other voters.

This social make-up of the Fianna Fail voter will prove to be a problem for the party if it is the product of what academics call a generational effect.

This sees political change as a consequence of the emergence of a new generation, which in the Irish case is more liberal, and sees little appeal in Fianna Fail; as this group ages and replaces a dying conservative generation it could spell curtains for Fianna Fail.

Alternatively, what is happening to Fianna Fail could be an ageing effect, which means that the young are liberal simply because of their age, and in time they will gravitate towards more conservative sentiment, and closer to Fianna Fail. With people living longer, this could mean a growth in support for the party.

For now, we don't know yet if the liberal-conservative divide between young and old is a generational or ageing effect. But Fianna Fail can't afford to wait to find out, as the grey and conservative vote the party is attracting has one foot in the grave.

"That is no country for old men," Yeats wrote in Sailing to Byzantium. "Whatever is begotten, born, and dies."

A similarly depressing picture was painted for the British Conservatives in an academic study in the 1990s, which correctly predicted years in the wilderness as a consequence. Indeed, it is no great coincidence that Fianna Fail has had Professor Tim Bale, an expert on the Conservatives, address its ard fheis a number of times in recent years on how to avoid the mistakes of the Tories.

So, where does Fianna Fail go from here? In times of crisis, parties often retreat back to their roots. And Fianna Fail's roots are firmly populist. Originally it was the party of the 'small man', and preached, in nationalist overtones, the values of a virtuous and homogeneous people.

However, this doesn't seem a position the current party leadership wishes to adopt. In its stead, some within the party might seek an aspiring populist, willing to lead Fianna Fail down this path, and away from the 'aged man' despaired of by Yeats.

Step forward Peter Casey?

Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc Government & Politics at UCC

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