It’s a ‘sign of the times,’ the commentators say, that an agreement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to enter into coalition was only the third or fourth item on the Irish news bulletins.
Ireland’s once-towering political duopoly, the so-called Civil War parties, has collapsed. The two have traded power since the formation of the state (Fine Gael’s predecessor Cumann na nGaedheal having dominated the first decade of the Irish Free State). The operative question heading into any Irish general election has always been which one of the two would lead the next government.
It’s common in Ireland to dismiss the differences between the two parties as negligible. In terms of policy, the two are both conventionally centre-right, and have in recent years dutifully implemented a model of economic development based on low taxation and foreign direct investment.
But the longevity of the Civil War parties, and the extent to which they dominated Irish politics, can only be fully explained by understanding the differences between them.
Ireland’s True Populists
Often seen as more of a national movement than a traditional political party, Fianna Fáil has historically appealed to a cross-section of Irish society, including a strong base of support in the working-class.
It managed, at one and the same time, to be the party of the Catholic Church, farmers, rural labourers, and urban workers. This broad class base allowed the party to flexibly adapt to the needs of Irish capitalism throughout its history – and become the second most successful political party in Europe until recently, its record in elections bested only by Sweden’s social democrats.
In the 1930s it promoted economic nationalism, establishing state companies in an effort to build native industry. Later in the 1960s, under the leadership of 1916 Rising veteran Seán Lemass, the party would ‘open up’ the country to foreign capital and trade, and embark on a programme of economic modernisation.
Fianna Fáil was also the party of mass public housing projects and expanded access to education. The party still invokes this legacy of public investment, not dissimilar to how the UK Labour Party considers the programme of 1945 as integral to its identity.
Fianna Fáil has sometimes tried to present itself as Ireland’s true social-democratic party, with Taoiseach (prime minister) and party leader Bertie Ahern famously claiming in 2004 that he was one of the few true socialists in the Dáil.
In truth, the party has long enjoyed the support of Ireland’s elite, and its government during economic crises has followed conventionally right-wing patterns. Upon coming to office in 1980, Ahern’s political mentor Charles Haughey informed Ireland that it had been living “way beyond our means”, and pledged to rein in public spending.
All the while, the party maintained its broad coalition of support, shapeshifting its way through history. Fianna Fáil, like the rest of the political establishment, has tried to dismiss the rise of Sinn Féin and the left as the Irish iteration of “populism”; the buzz word used to explain away all disruptions of political convention, from Donald Trump to Jeremy Corbyn. In fact, Fianna Fáil wears the tag better than any of them.
But the Great Recession of 2008 precipitated an unimaginable collapse in support for Fianna Fáil. Ireland, an economy then built largely on finance and property speculation, became one of the horror stories of that global crisis.
Fianna Fáil paid a heavy price. This was due in no small part to how cosy the party had become with property developers and banking capital during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic boom of the 1990s and 2000s.
The Dáil’s biggest party since 1933, Fianna Fáil dropped to third place behind the Labour Party, garnering just more than 17% of the vote. This was nearly half the share it received four years earlier, and a world away from 50.6% in 1977. Of all the political scalps claimed by the Great Recession, the demise of Fianna Fáil was among the most spectacular.
Then came the day of Fine Gael. Ireland’s closest cousins to the Tory Party, it has usually functioned as the more natural representative of old money and big business. This was often to its political detriment, with Fianna Fáil being able to more artfully combine allegiance to Irish capitalism with an ability to capture the support of the working class.
While Fine Gael had led several coalitions before, 2011 marked the first time it was the largest party in the Dáil. The resulting government, a coalition with the Labour Party, was credited internationally with restoring the economy to stability.
Irish capitalism was rescued from life support, but this ‘recovery’ came at a huge price. The state absorbed an enormous €60 billion of private bank debt, which was honoured by Fine Gael and Labour at the expense of public services.
The past decade of Fine Gael-led government (the party’s longest continuous term in power) has been one of conventional neoliberal economic policy. But the party has also adopted a more clean-cut, socially liberal face, in a manner intended to be reminiscent of Barack Obama and David Cameron.
This new-look Fine Gael took on a sharper edge with the rise of Leo Varadkar as party leader and Taoiseach in 2017. Mixed race and openly gay, Varadkar has championed social reforms like the legalisation of same-sex marriage and the first steps towards legal abortion, the latter of which took place during his term.
He has also long been considered Fine Gael’s most ideologically committed Thatcherite. During the internal contest to succeed former leader Enda Kenny, Varadkar insisted that if Fine Gael tried to represent everybody in Irish society, it would represent nothing.
Better than most, Varadkar understands Fine Gael as being a party of technocrats and elites, rather than of the people. That was in contrast to his opponent, current Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who argued the party needed to broaden its support base.
While Varadkar is treated by media at home and abroad as a modern Taoiseach, his vision of what Fine Gael should be is true to a party that has historically drawn its support from the highest echelons of Irish life; big business, an educated upper middle-class, and large agricultural interests.
The collapse of Fianna Fáil’s support in 2011 did not simply clear the way for its traditional rival to take up the mantle of the hegemonic force in Irish politics. The 2016 election made it clear that the rot in the duopoly had set in, and could not be reversed easily.
Fine Gael skilfully navigated the past decade, riding the back of social change as the global economy stabilised. But there was little political momentum to be gained off of austerity, while its embrace of social liberalism did not pay off with any greatly enhanced coalition of voters.
The party gained just 25.5% of the vote in 2016. This would have earned them a resounding defeat in years gone by, but Fianna Fáil did not manage the Lazarus-type resurgence some of its supporters had hoped for, adding only 7% to its disastrous 2011 result.
This election was arguably even more historic than 2011, in that it marked the first time neither of the Civil War parties could put together a ruling coalition. Combined, they achieved just less than 50% of the vote. Fianna Fáil could once get close to this figure and occasionally surpass it on its own.
The party was forced to prop up a Fine Gael minority government, which politicians and commentators heralded as an era of ‘new politics’. The arrangement was justified as a temporary measure to ensure Ireland had a stable government to guide it through Brexit negotiations and avoid the return of a hard border on the island. Fianna Fáil, never adverse to self-mythologising, tried in earnest to sell the humiliation as a virtuous sacrifice in the national interest.
Given the negligible gap in actual policy terms, a grand coalition of the two parties may have seemed inevitable. But it is an outcome neither Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael ever wanted, and has been avoided for as long as possible.
They now have little choice. February’s election failed to decisively strengthen either party’s hand, and together they achieved an historically low combined vote of 43%. It also saw the unprecedented rise of Sinn Féin, the problem child/great troubadour of Irish politics, as the most popular party in the state.
Sinn Féin’s rise has been predicated on effectively cannibalising the support of Ireland’s urban working class. Previously a key component of Fianna Fáil’s electoral coalition, this layer of Irish society has been looking for a new political representative since the crash of 2008.
This was initially to the benefit of the Labour Party. The perennial third force in Irish politics, Labour’s support had historically fluctuated from a core base of around 10%. A vote share of just under 20% in 2011 was the party’s best ever showing, and was fuelled mostly by a strong performance in working class areas of Dublin.
It had been given a mandate to represent the Irish working class, whose livelihoods had been destroyed, and squandered it immediately by entering into coalition with Fine Gael. After implementing severe cuts to public services and incomes, Labour returned to the doorsteps during the 2016 election and were received as traitors, its vote slipping to just 6.6%.
And so the three pillars of Irish politics have been, each in their own way, weakened and discredited. Previously untouchable due to its IRA links, Sinn Féin has been able to present itself as an alternative to a political class which has fed the Irish electorate on a bland diet of ‘pragmatic’ neoliberalism and no-hope economics.
For all the talk of an economic recovery under Fine Gael, most people, especially youth and workers, have nothing to show for it. That voters identified health and housing as the most important issues in the election is telling. Spiralling rents and homeless numbers have brought into sharp relief exactly who matters and who does not in Fine Gael’s Ireland.
The establishment’s shared vision of Ireland as a low-tax outpost for Silicon Valley is out of touch with a public that has made clear its desire for a recalibration of priorities. Sinn Féin’s calls for new public houses and rent freezes have resonated, particularly with young people and workers priced out of cities like Dublin and Cork.
Just over a decade on from the disaster of 2008, it is accepted that global capitalism is entering into its deepest crisis since the Great Depression. Ireland’s political institutions were barely able to absorb the shock of the last crisis. Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are seeking a third partner (they don’t have enough seats even combined) to join a government.
This mooted ‘grand coalition’ is the product of a greatly weakened political class. Irish capital no longer has a stable political vehicle capable of commanding broad support. And it couldn’t come at a worse time, given the depth of the economic and social crisis to come.
As it stands, the government that will preside over possibly the worst economic crisis in the history of the state will comprise Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and possibly the Green Party. With the former two having already agreed to share power, they began coalition talks with the Greens earlier this month.
Green leader Eamon Ryan has indicated his preference for the party to return to government sooner rather than later. The party has been here before — they partnered Fianna Fáil in the government that precipitated both parties’ 2011 electoral meltdown.
The Greens are in the same predicament as all other smaller parties have been: join a right-wing government, or face being dismissed as irrelevant and not serious about power. This line of attack is used regularly on Sinn Féin and all other forces to their left. The coalition trap is part of the reason why no serious challengers to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s have emerged until now.
There was hope that the left’s combined forces could form an alternative Sinn Féin-led coalition, excluding the right-wing parties. This would likely require the full breadth of the parliamentary left, ranging from the anti-capitalist Solidarity-People Before Profit, to the more traditionally centre-left Social Democrats.
The arithmetic of the current Dáil won’t support a Sinn Féin coalition with smaller left forces. But with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael forced into coalition together, Ireland will, for the first time, have a government and opposition polarised meaningfully in terms of left and right.
To what extent Sinn Féin would follow through with its programme in government is another question, and its record in the Northern Ireland executive is not indicative of a party that will fight under pressure for radical policies.
All the more important, then, that the independent socialist forces that do exist in Ireland, both inside the Dáil and out, assert a role for themselves in the coming period. In the years following the 1916 Rising, Ireland’s nationalists said that “Labour must wait” until independence from Britain had been achieved before contemplating notions of socialism.
Ireland’s socialist tradition did not disappear, but it was marginalised from the political mainstream and has never been close to power. Independence was won, and labour has been waiting ever since.
But with Ireland’s traditionally dominant parties having expended their political capital through years of austerity, there is an opening for socialist politics in Ireland, particularly on issues like housing. Sinn Féin itself has plenty to prove, but its new status as the most popular party should be welcomed — it marks a break from a suffocating right-wing orthodoxy as old as the state itself.