Four years ago, when Fianna Fáil was returned for a third consecutive stint in office, electoral pundits could barely find enough superlatives for the role played by Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen in the party’s triumph. Ahern, they said, was a ‘political tsunami’, and Cowen, if anything, even more formidable. This time around, neither Ahern nor Cowen was standing, rightly fearing the vengeance of the electorate. Cowen’s awe-inspiring competence now seems a quaint legend of the barely remembered past, as difficult to credit as the notion that Irish people could once hear de Valera speak of ‘the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens’ without sniggering. Ahern, Cowen’s predecessor as taoiseach, who was lucky enough to be turfed out just before the economic storm broke, used his final appearance in the Dáil to explain what he regretted most about his time at the wheel: the failure of a self-aggrandising stadium project in Dublin, nicknamed the ‘Bertie Bowl’, which had led his own coalition partners to compare him to Nicolae Ceausescu. With this mea culpa went the news that the man of the people would be drawing a pension of almost €160,000 for his endeavours as taoiseach.
Cowen and Ahern were the most prominent members of the Fianna Fáil hierarchy to dodge the electoral guillotine, but they were joined by other party leaders who got their retirement in early, sparking fears that there would be no prominent scalps on display after the votes were counted. We needn’t have worried: every remaining FF bigwig, with the exceptions of the new party leader, Micheál Martin, and the outgoing finance minister, Brian Lenihan, was cleared off the stage on polling day. Tumbling from 77 seats in 2007 to 20 this time – and from 19 to one in the nation’s capital – Fianna Fáil was punished as thoroughly as anyone had dared imagine possible.
While journalists were naturally captivated by the demise of the major players, I was more intrigued by some of those taking their seats: people I’m used to hearing speak at left-wing forums with a couple of dozen other stalwarts to listen to them – the likes of Séamus Healy, Richard Boyd Barrett and Thomas Pringle, all now catapulted into the Dáil with a mandate to disturb the political peace. While the Fianna Fáil aristocracy were punching their cards at local meetings and stealthily ascending the party ladder, these newcomers spent their time debating the relevance of Trotsky’s transitional programme or stomping round the Occupied Territories in the company of the PFLP. If you had told the now-vanquished Soldiers of Destiny that they would one day be supplanted by such incorrigible fantasists, laughter would have been the least of their reaction. As one of Ahern’s closest political friends noted in a very different context, the kaleidoscope has been shaken and the pieces are in flux. Will they settle again soon – before the Irish have reordered the world around them?
The big winners, of course, were Fine Gael, whose ambition to transform society begins and ends with their own place in the pecking order. Fianna Fáil is a fascinating party: its remarkable electoral record, its evasion of the usual European categories, and its sheer effrontery make it a pleasure to read and to write about. Fine Gael is more of an afterthought: once you’ve considered the achievements of FF and the shortcomings of the Irish left, Fine Gael is what remains.
There are two points of interest about it. First, it is perhaps the only party in Western Europe to have swung across the spectrum from fascism to social democracy, without quite anchoring itself at either pole. (Fine Gael’s first leader, Eoin O’Duffy, led his Blueshirt supporters off to Spain to fight with the Nationalists – they had to be withdrawn from the combat zone after coming under fire from their own side, who not unreasonably assumed they must be with the International Brigades.) Second, Fine Gael has a strong claim to be recognised as the most incompetent opposition party in Europe. It has never out-polled Fianna Fáil in a general election, always relying on the support of Labour and other groups during its brief spells in office. Never, that is, until now.
As a response to the crisis we find ourselves in, giving Fine Gael the largest share of the vote seems about as adequate as painting the HQs of Ireland’s banking sector a different colour. Had they been as committed to plain speaking and honesty as their soundbites maintain, Fine Gael’s chief election slogan would have been: ‘Fianna Fáil brought this country to its knees by cosying up to bankers and property developers – it should have been us!’ Fianna Fáil’s hypocrisy has a kind of grandeur to it: Fine Gael’s is merely banal. We were assured that a Fine Gael-led government would ‘take on the big vested interests that have contributed to the current crisis – the bankers, the bondholders, the developers and the unions’. The glossy leaflets containing this pledge were funded by a series of golf tournaments: the roll-call of attendees included many of the same luminaries from the banking and construction sectors who greased Fianna Fáil’s palm during the boom years.
The job of exposing this double-talk was largely shirked by Irish commentators, who preferred to occupy themselves with assessing the personal qualities of FG’s leader, Enda Kenny. In a way this was perfectly understandable: Kenny is a notably wooden performer who has never made much of a connection with the electorate. It’s less than a year since the party’s front bench threw their weight behind an abortive attempt to get rid of him, predicated on the belief that he wasn’t up to the job. The party’s strategy for the election was to keep him out of the public eye as much as possible, avoiding the first three-way leaders’ debate in case the would-be taoiseach made a mess of his prospects. There’s something mesmerising about his inarticulacy. Ahern was known for straightforward malapropisms – expressing the hope that a redeveloped quarter of Dublin’s centre would become the city’s West Bank, telling us that Lehman Brothers had testicles everywhere in the global economy. Kenny’s misjudged remarks strike a note of eccentricity that we can only hope his handlers are unable to drill out of him in office.
Take the leaders’ debate: when it was suggested to Kenny that the TV network might put an empty chair in the studio, heightening the embarrassment of his non-attendance, he informed us that he would ‘regard that as being a symbol in respect of all those who are forced to emigrate in this country’ (the face of the party’s finance spokesman, Michael Noonan, twitched involuntarily as he struggled to contain himself while standing alongside his leader). Appearing on RTE as the scale of Fine Gael’s victory became clear, he referred to government as ‘the Big G’ and told viewers that ‘Paddy likes to know what the story is’ – Paddy, we were given to understand, was not a friend of Enda’s who had a query he wanted dealt with, but the Irish people as a whole, thirsting for information about the country’s predicament.
Kenny’s verbal mishaps were a welcome diversion from the more substantial failings of his party and the same newspapers that had mocked him fell over themselves to praise his competence as polling day approached. With a week to go, it was already clear that he had entered the zone of untouchability, the happy moment at which journalists assume that a politician will soon be the most powerful man in the country and do their best to pretend he has some claim to be taken seriously (David Cameron reached the same plateau when his inability to remember how many houses he owned was allowed to fade into oblivion). With the result in the bag, the party handlers could safely let Kenny out of his pen for the final three-way debate. All in all, Fine Gael should be thanking God that last year’s putsch miscarried: had Kenny been chucked aside, the party’s campaign would have been fronted by an assortment of smug Tories from posh Dublin constituencies, giving an all too accurate sense of Fine Gael’s true character to the electorate.
To be sure, plenty of those who voted Fine Gael would be perfectly comfortable having that identity laid bare. The party was backed strongly by a layer of voters who had endorsed Fianna Fáil last time, pretending not to notice that Ahern’s government had cronyism in its marrow and trusting it to keep the boom ticking over. The consequences of that selective amnesia having proved so dire, there was a vengeful mood among the comfortable classes, tinged with a guilty conscience. Fine Gael’s signature note of unearned sanctimony chimed with that mood perfectly.
Still, it would be quite wrong to generalise from that section of the electorate and berate the Irish people for their ingrained conservatism – despite the best efforts of the Labour Party’s director of elections, Ruairi Quinn, who on the eve of the vote tried to explain why his party had slipped back from its dominant position in the opinion polls last summer: ‘When an election is in the distance, people love the Labour Party, because they’re liberal and they’re progressive, and they love the generosity of the Labour Party. Then, reality starts to bite. This conservative country begins to think more about its pocket than its heart.’ It’s a note often sounded by Labour politicians as they come to the sorrowful conclusion that Ireland isn’t worthy of their progressive ardour.
They aren’t doing themselves any favours. Fianna Fáil’s share of the first-preference vote fell by almost 25 per cent, yet Fine Gael’s increased by less than 9 per cent. For the main opposition party – the only party other than Fianna Fáil to have ever led an Irish government – facing a decayed incumbent in the midst of the worst economic crisis in the state’s history, this was a good deal less than miraculous. The rest of the missing FF votes went to Labour, Sinn Féin and others on the left, with the two conservative parties receiving their lowest ever combined share, 53.5 per cent (in 1981, it was 82 per cent; four years ago, 68). It takes tremendous discipline on Quinn’s part to avoid the conclusion that his party could put itself at the head of a left-wing bloc that would start with more than 40 per cent of the vote and an excellent chance of winning an overall majority the next time Ireland goes to the polls.
No senior Labour politician appears to have contemplated that option for a moment; if they choose to stay out of government (coalition talks are continuing as I write), it will represent a narrow calculation of self-interest, not a down-payment on a future left-wing administration. A local councillor for the party issued a statement after the results came in, arguing that ‘Fine Gael was chosen by the people to lead the next government and Labour has been elected as the second-largest party to lead the opposition.’ His suggestion was quoted by the political correspondent of the Irish Times, so that it could be impatiently batted away: the Labour Party, it was said, has a patriotic duty to support Fine Gael in government – i.e. grant them the overall majority which the electorate neglected to supply. The same journalist wrote a book some years ago about the now defunct Progressive Democrats, the shrill vanguard of Irish neoliberalism. Breaking the Mould: How the PDs Changed Irish Politics was so penetratingly critical in its assessment that the party’s then leader had a special run of 20,000 copies printed and delivered free to his constituents at the last election. Nothing matters more to the Labour leadership, it would appear, than receiving praise for their statesmanship and responsibility from such quarters.
The Labour Party will only wake up when it finds its left flank under threat. And one novelty of the new Dáil will be its largest ever group of TDs to the left of Labour, including Sinn Féin, the United Left Alliance and a batch of left-wing independents. The Guardian’s Ireland correspondent deemed it the ‘final paradox’ of the election that Sinn Féin’s unprecedented success was grounded in the main on ‘economic disillusionment … virtually no one, either politician or voter, mentioned the question of Northern Ireland and the fact that it remains part of the UK.’ In fact there’s nothing especially paradoxical, or even surprising, about this. The majority of people in the South believe that the issue of partition has been resolved for now by the peace process and the Belfast Agreement; if there’s going to be any progress towards a united Ireland, this is the direction from which it will come. It’s a point of view that Sinn Féin itself seems to share. The manifesto of our local Sinn Féin candidate (who was comfortably re-elected) mentioned Gaza but not the North.
When I was out canvassing for the ULA candidate in my constituency, a man in one of the corporation flats politely explained that he would happily give his second-preference vote to her, but number one was reserved for the Sinn Féin candidate, since he was the only elected politician who ever showed his face in the area, paying regular visits to ask what the problems were. That tells you most of what you need to know about the source of the party’s voting strength.
Much reporting on Sinn Féin’s election was devoted to the move south of the border by Gerry Adams, who topped the poll in the Louth constituency. This provided another opportunity to revisit the tedious question of whether or not he was a member of the IRA. But that’s far from being the most interesting thing about him. Adams has spent the past couple of decades giving radically different messages to different constituencies, telling people what he thinks they want to hear, and making it hard to know what he believes in nowadays. As long as he has his hand on the Sinn Féin tiller, you can imagine the party moving in just about any direction, depending on what he considers expedient at the time. For all the feverish warnings that Sinn Féin possesses a radical core beneath a moderate façade, the real concern is that it may be the other way round.
That’s something that will play out over the next few years. Right now, the crucial decisions about the future of the country are still being made a long way from Dublin. The European economic commissioner, Olli Rehn, weighed in shortly after the poll, insisting that it’s vital for the health of the Irish economy that we put ourselves through the wringer to pay off the gambling debts of European banks, including bondholders whose liabilities were never covered by Fianna Fáil’s bank guarantee. The Berlin correspondent of the Irish Times recently asked a member of the Bild staff why his newspaper hadn’t followed its diatribes against ‘greasy Greeks’ with a similar denunciation of the Irish: it turns out that the staff pension fund is heavily exposed to the Irish banking sector and they don’t want to make things worse for themselves. With the fate of the nation hanging on such considerations, it’s hard to ignore the warning that the worst is yet to come. This election was hyped up in advance as the most important since independence, but it may prove to have been as nothing compared to the next one – due to be held within weeks of the Easter Rising’s centenary.