Now that the dust settles, what about the other opposition? May 29, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Election 2007, Irish Politics.
I’m going to cheer myself up a bit. And how will I do that? By the usual leftist tactic of considering the plight of our rivals…
That being Fine Gael, and for the craic I’ll throw in the Progressive Democrats as well (Labour can wait – oh there’s a post brewing there, that you can bet).
Let us consider the Progressive Democrats first. Surely no one can have been entirely surprised that they faced electoral oblivion, nor that they managed to duck the final two bullets. With two TDs returned they are clearly at their lowest ebb in their history. But what does this tell us about Irish politics in 2007?
The Progressive Democrats became every ones favourite whipping boy. Their policies were excoriated, their TDs lambasted. They had been in with Fianna Fáil too long. They were the tail wagging the dog. They were Thatcherites. Free-marketeers. Conservatives. Really, if one thinks about it they were almost as reviled as Sinn Féin back in the day.
But, for all the sound and fury, they really were a very ordinary right of centre part – economically ‘liberal’ in the classical sense, socially reasonably liberal – albeit in a rather middle class way. That they would work with Fianna Fáil rather than Fine Gael tells us something about the anomalies in the structure of the political system, a similar process which sees Labour, lemming like leap across cliffs to be with Fine Gael.
But the Progressive Democrats had it’s own lemmings. Not least the man who would be king, Michael McDowell. Personally a charming and intelligent man. Politically, well, a little strange to be honest. There’s much to be said for being frank and outspoken, but conversely there are times when it’s best just to keep ones mouth firmly shut. He never quite mastered the latter ability. His tenure as Minister of Justice was so erratic as to leave former members of the PDs that I know aghast as regards his – ahem – interesting approach to civil liberties and the rights of the individual. His somewhat briefer tenure as Tanaiste hardly memorable. His political instincts clearly subject to some process of attrition (although the Dáil will be a considerably poorer place without him). Indeed, one wonders whether the PDs would not have been far more clever to go with either Parlon or O’Donnell either of who would have presented a more ameliorative face to the world. And in fairness, the PDs were always a little bit more eccentric than was often appreciated, think Fiona O’Malley, she of the semi-gothic dress sense…
Whether they can, or will particularly want to, recover from the present mess is open to question. There is a section of the Irish upper middle and middle class which is uncomfortable with the Civil War nostrums of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which regards both of them as essentially ‘unmodern’ and prey to atavistic appetites, Ahern too much of the inner city, Kenny too much of the market town. Something with a bit more sheen, a bit more consideration is their style, although they rarely make the mistake Labour have of dismissing Fianna Fáil as a tool for their ideology of choice – hence their current eagerness to embrace that which has almost destroyed them. McDowell misjudged this section when he spoke about ‘equality’. They’d rarely like to hear such thoughts articulated so bluntly. But…they wouldn’t necessarily entirely disagree. And if Fianna Fáil does a deal with Labour, well who is to say their day will not come again?
And Fine Gael? Well this is more difficult, because at least the Progressive Democrats have a clear option for Government, should they choose to take it.
Fine Gael by contrast see victory directly behind them. Who could begrudge them a gain of 20 odd seats. But defeat lies directly ahead. Five more years. In a fine piece in the Sunday Business Post it notes that for Fine Gael the prospect of power is remote, and the prospect of being opposition – their historical niche – very real. And that has human implications. TDs who – enticed by the thought of Fine Gael actually being in government – dropped retirement plans and put their shoulders to the wheel one last time, and now find themselves, like Dinny McGinley of Donegal South having been a TD for 25 years, facing:
five more years, in his mid 60s, of driving himself the 370 miles round trip from Bunbeg to the Dail each week. Not a glittering prospect [as an opposition TD].
Now before we take out the violins and weep, anyone who has the slightest familiarity with our TDs will know that being a TD is generally a lot better than not, opposition or not. And those who have seen the fallen from last Thursday will know that however deep the sorrow at leaving Leinster House, well, at least they made it in the door. Yet, here is failure piled upon failure. Fine Gael has spent 2 and a half years in power in the last twenty. Consider what that means in real terms. The store of knowledge, and experience, from previous Fine Gael led administrations is slowly decreasing. In five years it will have been out of power for fifteen years (assuming they doesn’t make it this time, and short of dealing with Sinn Féin – arguably a replacement for the PDs as the new whipping boys in our wonderful polity, I don’t think they will) and held power for 2 and half years in a quarter of a century.
But opposition is in some respects different for the centre and the centre right. For the left it comes with the territory. We know they hate us and we don’t care – much. Government is as much a curse as a blessing for us because that’s often where our ideological purity is besmirched, our high ideals cast low and our more committed comrades start to lob rocks at us for selling out. For the centre and centre right that’s where they want to be. That’s the point of the exercise.
Of course it’s true. There are new, young, fresh vibrant and ambitious people coming up through the ranks of Fine Gael. I need not mention their names, the media has done that job for me over the past five or six days. But these are new, young, fresh untested people, who will contrast most interestingly with the new young fresh tested people that Fianna Fáil will introduce over the next five years. Who will be lovingly nurtured in junior positions. Road tested before a grateful public, and if they’re lucky surround the next leader with a phalanx of unlined but seasoned soldiers of destiny.
And, nightmare piled upon nightmare, if Fianna Fáil and Labour do the business perhaps we might see Fianna Fáil in power for a good decade. That would then be 2 and half years of Fine Gael government in 30 years.
Circumstances might intervene. But they might not, particularly for a party, Fianna Fáil, which converted what was seen as a possible historic defeat at this election into one of it’s most famous victories.
And all the time, there will be Fine Gael champing as they sit on the opposition benches. Tantalisingly close to power, but always one step removed. Articulate, able, impotent. That begins to tell. Look at what happened to the Labour Party in England over twenty years. Consider how it changed in terms of ideology, policy, approach. But Fine Gael can’t quite pull of that trick, because while populist it can never be quite populist enough. Moreover, where are the next twenty seats that it needs to draw level with Fianna Fáil going to come from? Take them from Labour, weak but embedded in it’s own niche of the urban working class and parts of the middle class? Unlikely, perhaps five or six. The Greens? More likely, but that’s only one or two. Sinn Féin? Very, very unlikely.
And, for this to happen it needs a leader like Garrett FitzGerald, someone who brought the Fine Gael seat numbers up to 70 in November 1982. But FitzGerald had form as a Minister for Foreign Affairs in the 1973 coalition. And it needs to tilt – not right – but towards the populist centre, as FitzGerald did. But who in the current crop has the experience FitzGerald had, or the personal charisma? And worth adding this version of Fine Gael is, in it’s own way as joemomma has pointed out, fairly conservative – in an environment where most of the big socially liberal battles that Garrett made his own (although not to the point of y’know, actually winning any of them) have been fought and won some time now.
So 70 seats. That’s quite a tall order. But that’s the mountain it has to climb, even in the absence of a Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition taking power on the 14th of June.
There, somehow I feel just a bit better now.