Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Death of Fianna Fáil, and the Unsustainability of the Center

In all modern democracies, there is a problem with the narrative. Most start in some kind of war or other, be it the French Revolution, the American War of Independence and Civil War, and Ireland’s Independence and Civil War. Clausewitz said something to the effect that war is simply politics by other means, and certainly as wars end and politics take over, the war has a great influence on the political structures that emerge.

Once those structures are established, the life or death incantations from the battlefield and other bloodied words become political invocations. Vote Johnny because he saved your sons and daughters from the evil! Vote Mary because she fought for you! You owe your life to Tony! That sort of thing. There is real depth of feeling, strength of purpose, an offence strongly enough felt to fight and die for, be it slavery, dependence, partition, or a massacre. The political organisations that coagulate around the remnants of war develop other identities, along broad socio-political lines. Socialism, capitalism, nationalism, sectarianism, secularism, environmentalism, and religion can differentiate them.

After the War

Invariably, the dominant forces tend to occupy the winners in the war, those who get to dictate the national narrative post-war. They get to decide who the heroes were, what the school text books say, when the days of celebration shall be, and how the society shall be run. In building this national structure, it is a structure intended as a home for that new dominant political movement.

As the memory of war fades into history, and the blood and thunder disappears into the mists of time, politics “normalises”. In order to accommodate the wishes of the majority, the dominant party or parties concede ideological ground to minorities. In reconciling disparate opinion, different ethical, religious and cultural norms, the strength of commitment to a core set of beliefs diminishes. As time goes on, people, parties and movements dilute their zeal, undermine their original purpose, and compromise their very raison d’être.

Fianna Fáil: A Case Study

Thinking about Fianna Fáil, all of this is relevant. Built out of the remains of war, designed as an anti-Brit party, creator of the modern Ireland and synonymous with our politics for almost a century, it has now reached that stage where its identity has been so diluted as to represent nothing at all, and everything. Fianna Fáil became Ireland, for a time, and Ireland became Fianna Fáil. As its authority waned towards the end of the twentieth century, it accepted the inevitability of coalition government, dealing with the leftist labour party, then the Fianna Fáil breakaway right wing party the progressive democrats, then finally the Green party.

Signs of Demise: Coalition

By the time it acknowledged the need for coalition government, Fianna Fáil was already beginning to break up. The Progressive Democrat breakaway represented a group of ideologically driven politicians who wanted in some respects to resurrect the kind of politics that characterised the post-independence Ireland, a driven, thoughtful, productive politics. In some respects they simply wanted to pursue ideas, rather than power and politics as an end in itself. In the British sit-com Yes Minister, when Jim Hacker, a government minister, is asked whether he should reverse a particular policy because it is unpopular in his constituency, he solemnly declares “they are my people, I am their leader – I must follow them!” In a way, this reflected the Fianna Fáil of the 1980s, when the fractious state of the parties in Dáil Eireann reflected a disintegrating consensus about how Ireland should be run. It has yet to be restored.

The 1990’s

Fianna Fáil continued in coalition under Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern. There was an admirable consistency to the governments led by Fianna Fáil in the years since 1992. The story, however, was told by the junior partners in government in that time. The Labour party won a massive vote in the Spring Tide in 1992 in what was in essence an anti-Fianna Fáil vote. When they went into coalition with Fianna Fáil, there was a huge backlash, and the Labour vote suffered terribly in 1997. Had Reynolds gone to the park in 1994 when the coalition collapsed, Labour would have been decimated. As it was, they gave up all of their 1992 gains and more in 1997, and only the amalgamation of the Democratic Left managed to allow it a critical mass in opposition.

Hanging On In There

Fianna Fáil continued to attract a large vote, with a seat bonus that was crucial to its maintenance of power. Increasingly, however, they were dependent on older voters, the more atavistic and the middle classes were more clearly divided. The lower classes were deserting them in droves. The first coalition with the Progressive Democrats limped through several crises, but managed to serve the full term, buoyed by the success in the Peace Process, and encouraged by a rising international economic boom that underpinned significant growth in Ireland. In 2002, Ireland voted to maintain the growth in the economy, maintaining Fianna Fáil’s position in power, but decimating the opposition benches by returning record numbers of independents. Local issues – in particular healthcare, and local hospitals – now dominated, as the national position seemed to be of less concern. Fine Gael suffered tremendous losses in that campaign, unable to compete with a successful economy, and – crucially – unable to differentiate itself from Fianna Fáil.

The Peace Process and The Property Thing

It had at this stage become impossible to define what Fianna Fáil stood for. Bertie Ahern had been able to successfully negotiate peace in the six counties primarily because he had no ideology, no attachment one way or the other. He – and Fianna Fáil – was too far removed from the war to empathise too much with the Republican side. Certainly it was now possible for them to objectively discuss peace with the Unionists, and indeed the Unionists saw that too.

After the 2001 financial blip, it became clear that growth that was dependent on the export sector would offer up a hostage to fortune. Ireland would not be in control of its own economy. Thus began a series of measures designed to drive the construction sector into overdrive, in a combination of major national infrastructure development combined with tax incentives for housing development.

The Last Socialist (Except Joe)

In 2004, as people and opinion polls began to become concerned that the country was more like an economy than a society, Ahern famously gathered the great and the good of Fianna Fáil at Inchadonney, and had them listen to people like Seán Healy so that they could become more empathetic, and caring. In an interview for a Sunday newspaper that weekend, he declared him (alongside the inimitable Joe Higgins) to be the only socialist in Dáil Eireann.

There was no cynicism in Ahern’s mis-statement. He was, from a political science point of view, clearly not a socialist. But he was absolutely and unapologetically populist, and at that time when the health service was in difficulty and young people were having difficulty buying their first house, he genuinely set about redistributing the wealth. However, in that redistribution, he did so according to who was more likely to vote for Fianna Fáil, and therefore perpetuate his power. The decentralisation of the civil service was the last great act of Charlie McCreevy, who was summarily dispatched to Brussels for not being socialist enough.

A Party Devoid of Direction

Fianna Fáil had finally become devoid of purpose, save political administration. In that, two things happened. First, they became exposed to crisis – there was no ideology, no plan to fall back on. Second, and perhaps more importantly, they became fodder for the civil service administration. John Bruton’s recent assessment of the Cabinet as the execution arm of the civil service is correct – and unveils a constitutional anomaly where the Dáil is irrelevant, the Seanad an inconvenience, and the country itself disrespected by the politicians who would seek to serve it. In essence, the Cabinet itself has become the fall guy for the Civil Service.

Oblivion on the Horizon?

It is unlikely that Fianna Fáil will be completely decimated at the forthcoming general election. It is difficult to know where the floor is in terms of seats, but to see them winning more than 30 seats (or roughly one per constituency) seems far fetched. There will be constituencies where they will win no seats; and there will be very, very few where they win more than one. Dun Laoighre will be interesting, with a cabinet member and two junior ministers all looking likely to lose their seats – ironically because of their profile; those Fianna Fáil politicians who retain their seats are more likely to be the less well known members, and therefore those less well associated with the party. The Fianna Fáil logos on their election posters will be small indeed.

The movement, however, will be undeniably at an end. Fianna Fáil politicians grasping for the leadership of the party this week have been talking about Fianna Fáil as more than just a party, as a community movement, something belonging to the people, a part of the fabric of the country. That is no longer true.

An Unsustainable Center?

Ultimately, it was Fianna Fáil’s centrism, populism that got found out. For years, people demanded, and people got. Fianna Fáil read the tea leaves, the opinion polls, Liveline and the Sunday Papers, and blithely designed policies around that. In the process, it abdicated an identity of its own. And when crisis hit, and the people said “lead us, where should we go? What should we do?” the party had no answers. When the leadership of the party was in the balance last Thursday evening, members of the party disappeared off to their constituencies nevertheless. The party was irrelevant now.

Was it inevitable? Is populist centrism unsustainable in the face of crisis? Is it inevitable that people in a democracy gravitate to this cobbled-together ideology that is least well suited to serve them in a crisis? Maybe it is. Fine Gael is undeniably now defined as not Fianna Fáil, but it remains centrist, and populist. Labour has succeeded in attracting support because it moved to the center from the radical left. I would be unsurprised if Fine Gael and Labour did not do as well as people think in the upcoming election – independents, radicals will do well. Ireland may well become like Italy. A balkanised political class, and a disaffected populace, but with the added ingredient of an economy in freefall. We need to tread softly now, for we tread on our dreams.

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