Tuesday 11 December 2018

Liam Weeks: 'Spot the difference... is the war ending for Tweedledum and Tweedledee of politics?'

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were parties born of conflict - but their ritual quarrel seems forgotten, writes Liam Weeks

Wise men say: Seen at the 1983 All-Ireland semi-final replay between Dublin and Cork at Pairc Ui Chaoimh were former Fianna Fail Taoiseach Jack Lynch and Barry Desmond, then the Labour Party Minister for Social Welfare and Health. Photo: Tony Reddy
Wise men say: Seen at the 1983 All-Ireland semi-final replay between Dublin and Cork at Pairc Ui Chaoimh were former Fianna Fail Taoiseach Jack Lynch and Barry Desmond, then the Labour Party Minister for Social Welfare and Health. Photo: Tony Reddy

Ireland first held the presidency of the European Council in 1975. It resulted in a number of leading European politicians gracing our shores, many with little knowledge of the newest member of the European Economic Community.

Some of these leaders were puzzled by the nature of Irish politics, in part a product of the seemingly unpronounceable and indecipherable names of our main parties. One such politician was the leader of the French Socialists, Francois Mitterrand.

On one visit, Mitterrand asked a local TD why Ireland had two ostensibly identical conservative parties. The (unnamed) TD was silent at first, but when pressed, replied: ''What keeps them apart? The contempt they have for each other.''

Fast forward 40 years, and although the confidence and supply negotiations between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are now into their fifth week, it is evident that much of the historical contempt seems to be gone.

The disdain the two sides had for each other - exemplified by Cumann na nGaedheal's election slogan in 1932 that "the gunmen and the communists are voting for Fianna Fail" - has now been reduced to Leo Varadkar making withering jokes about his rivals at the Fine Gael party conference.

Indeed, what was more remarkable about the Taoiseach's comments on Micheal Martin's ability to keep his front bench in tow was not his attempt to instil humour, but rather the mild reaction it provoked from Fianna Fail.

So, maybe the two negotiating teams are discussing the wrong topic. Forget confidence and supply. What about a merger between the two? After all, what now separates Fianna Fail from Fine Gael?

Former Labour minister Barry Desmond provided an answer to this question in one of the more readable Irish political memoirs: ''Dem dat know don't need to ask and dem dat don't know don't need to know!''

Most of us don't need reminding that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are the product of a civil war, the inheritors of a split in Sinn Fein over our own Brexit moment in 1921, when we left a different type of union.

Sinn Fein then was the dominant party outside of Ulster, but it was torn apart irrevocably by the Anglo-Irish Treaty that Michael Collins and others signed in December 1921.

Fianna Fail are the descendants of the anti-Treaty tradition, and Fine Gael the pro-Treatyites. Both were pro-Eirexit, with one side just more pro-Eirexit than the other.

As memories of civil conflict have faded, however, it has become especially difficult to define the ideological and policy distinctions between the two parties.

For most of their existence, both have remained relatively centrist, sometimes switching sides between the left and right of the ideological spectrum. Fine Gael was to the right of Fianna Fail up until the 1960s, when the parties switched positions - as FG embraced social democracy and Fianna Fail a corporatist ideology. More switches have taken place in the years since, but the general pattern since the late 1980s is of a policy convergence between the two.

Even if we consider them from a European perspective, it is difficult to see any clear differences. Fine Gael likes to portray itself as a Christian Democratic party, being a member of the European People's Party (EPP) in the European Parliament.

Despite a level of religious conservatism within Fianna Fail, few have classified it as Christian Democrat, but Fianna Fail is no further from the archetypal Christian Democrat party than Fine Gael. The main reason why Fianna Fail has not joined any transnational Christian Democrat movement is simply because Fine Gael got in first, joining the EPP when Ireland joined the EEC in 1973.

Many in the media tend to express bemusement at academics' puzzlement over the distinction between the two parties, with some reducing it down to Fianna Failers being more fun to go for a drink with than a more sombre Fine Gael lot.

The reason why it matters is because if there is no difference between the two parties then why do they maintain an independent existence? The argument from the left is that this creates an illusion of choice for the electorate. It allows Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to stifle political competition, preventing the emergence of left versus right politics that occurs in most other European countries.

Why shouldn't a merger be up for discussion? It is not as if this would be a unique event in Irish politics. Fine Gael is the product of a merger between Cumann na nGaedheal, the National Centre Party and the Army Comrades Association in 1933; Labour has in its time merged with Democratic Left, Noel Browne's National Progressive Democrats, and Jim Kemmy's Democratic Socialists. Solidarity is a merger of the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People before Profit. Most recently, some FFers have discussed a merger with the SDLP.

One of the reasons why political parties tend to merge is when they are in decline, and it is hard to dispute that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are not in historical decline. For the first time ever at a Dail election, their combined vote fell below 50pc in 2016. In other words, a majority of voters now reject civil war politics altogether.

When traditionally strong parties in some other countries faced a similar experience they pooled their resources to lessen decline. Consider the experience of the Netherlands and Canada.

In the Dutch case, three Christian Democratic parties (one Catholic, two Protestant), which between them commanded the support of a majority of voters up until the 1960s, experienced considerable losses following the liberalisation of Dutch culture.

Deciding to coalesce and eventually merge in 1980, the new Christian Democratic Appeal party led five successive governments between 1977 and 1994, something which would have been unfathomable for the parties as separate entities.

Likewise in Canada, the Progressive Conservatives suffered a meltdown in 1993 akin to Fianna Fail in 2011, winning just two seats in parliamentary elections. Having been one of the two main pillars of Canadian politics, the party decided to merge with the Reform Party in 2003 to revive its fortunes. In less than three years, the new Conservatives returned to power, winning three consecutive elections under Stephen Harper.

Why shouldn't Fianna Fail and Fine Gael follow the Dutch and Canadian experiences? After all, the division between the two is now little more than what a Canadian political scientist 40 years ago described as a ''symbolic, ritualised conflict''.

Indeed, when asked to explain the difference between his party and Fine Gael, former Fianna Fail leader, Sean Lemass, simply stated: 'That is easy, we are in and they are out!'

But, with Fianna Fail now supporting Fine Gael in Government, can we really say that one is in and one is out? Both may even be in if a future grand coalition emerges.

Has the ritual conflict disappeared? Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, once the Tweedledum and Tweedledee who agreed to have a battle, seem to have forgotten their quarrel.

Perhaps the time has come to bury the hatchet and admit what many claim was always the case, that they are one and the same?

It would not be surprising for someone looking in on Irish politics now, as Mitterrand and other European leaders did more than 40 years ago, to be reminded of the last words of George Orwell's Animal Farm: "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc Government & Politics at University College Cork

Sunday Independent

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