So the leaders of Fine Gael and Labour have begun the slow waltz that will lead, almost inevitably, to the closest thing to national government I believe the constitution allows. But is that what we need, or would an independent-supported Fine Gael minority administration be the best outcome for Ireland?
It is a faintly scary proposition. I argued earlier that Fine Gael was a more right-wing party even than Fianna Fáil, but I didn’t justify it. As German public radio’s correspondent said on Radio 1 yesterday, from abroad it’s hard to see any difference between [what until yesterday were] the two major parties. In what way is FG the further right?
It is very hard to nail these two parties to traditional axes. FF has – or rather, had – more of a working class vote, and seemed to be (or managed to cultivate the image of being) more generous with welfare. But many would call that populism rather than socialism, buying off the poorest so as to preserve privileges.
In some senses – certainly, in the American liberal sense – Fine Gael are on the left. They were far clearer about separating church and state, more keen to push for contraception, divorce and women’s rights. But then again, they are seen as the party of law and order, the favoured party of the Gardaí (police), by instinct ready – even eager – to introduce draconian measures.
Fine Gael were traditionally the party of business, the professions, farming. But in recent years Fianna Fáil have become closely identified with the finance industry and the property development and construction sectors. Who is the more lefty there?
It’s a conundrum, but an easily explained one. They don’t easily fit into a left-right mould because neither ever set out to. Unlike the Labour party, they weren’t founded to represent a segment of society. They were national movements. They wanted all of society. Or at least, that majority of society that did not identify with British administration.
Originally of course, the same national movement. To cut a very long story very short, it split over whether to compromise with the British and form a government, or to keep fighting. Almost inevitably therefore one faction would be characterised as more conservative and authoritarian, while the other managed to cling on to the mantle of national popular movement.
The seed of a left-right orientation can be seen there. However that very quickly became more a matter of image than ideology, as Fianna Fáil slipped into the dangerous role of ‘natural party of government’, and Fine Gael that of ‘only realistic alternative’. Though you – or an ancestor – may once have been on one side of a deep ideological divide, and though of course the rhetoric was still occasionally used, the predominant reason for voting for one over the other was that one was your crowd and the other was the other crowd.
Now that is a mould that this election seems to have broken. Traditional FF voters turned their back on their crowd’s politicos in unprecedented numbers. People are calling it the ‘end of Civil War politics’. But where are we now? Replacing a heavily pro-capitalist party that many will argue was actually too generous to the poor and influenced by the unions, with a heavily pro-capitalist party in partnership with a moderate socialist one. There seems to have been roughly zero change ideologically.
But what’s even worse is that we’re swapping a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach for a Fine Gael one, just as we have done every single time that we have changed administrations since these parties came into being, getting on for a century ago. Even in the direst of circumstances,. the election has changed nothing except the faces.
Will we ever change the “Your side is worse no your side is” political zero-sum game? Maybe the only way is for Labour to stay in opposition, until they are given the mandate to change it.
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I’ll get back to this soon. Now though it’s time for the latest Galway West recount – the one we all hope will be the last count of the election.