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The Empire Strikes Back, and back, and back… The ascendency of Fianna Fáil July 26, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics, Sinn Féin.

They abide. They abide. Seemingly nothing can detach or dislodge Fianna Fáil from their present dominance. Other parties must work with them or around them. Note the Greens, and the rather wan talk about how FF would not ‘allow’ Patricia McKenna to become a Taoiseach’s nominee. Well, that may well be true, or it may not, but that it can be stated in such blunt terms indicates who is calling the shots at the moment.
The talk before the Senate Elections that they might be in trouble, lose their working majority, etc, all so much fluff now. They’re down two seats. That’s all.

This is, in short, a lesson in pragmatism and hegemony. Forget about the wonderful morally and ethically seamless Mullingar Accord. It achieved nothing, did nothing – except for Fine Gael. Fair dues to them. They did exactly what any party should do, look to its survival and beyond that look to increasing its vote share and representation and simultaneously look to getting into power.

But Mullingar remains no more or less than a midlands town and Labour is free. So, what next?

The Labour/Sinn Féin deal over seats was good. Great even. Here was a point where we saw a small but significant step forward which worked on two fronts. Firstly it demonstrated that the parties in a secret election could work with sufficient trust to deliver a result. That’s enormously important. Secondly it demonstrated that gains can be made. But let’s not overstate this. Two seats gained for the left is nowhere near what the left should be regarding as a victory. And who was that in the Irish Times photo on Tuesday with Alex White? Why one P. Rabbitte, enfolding candidate and wife in a bear hug complete with an enormous grin – sure the deal had to be done with the hated Provo’s, but at least there was a result. A lesson learned? Yes. Well. Dealing with FG led to no bonus. Dealing with SF leads to one seat. At least something is getting through.

So what next? Another five years. The Senate looks like it will remain the home of at least some level of interesting thought, although the general impact it has will be minimised by dint of a comfortable FF working majority – in tandem with their allies.

And for those of us who caught Sam Smyth in the Irish Independent food for at least some thought when he suggested that the Labour/SF deal opens the gates to the latter party being taken on board should the Greens have the temerity to jump ship during the current Dáil. I don’t know. That the Greens would jump, or that FF would bring SF into a coalition (with Michael Lowry as well?) seems hugely unlikely. I wondered at the response of Ahern in the Dáil to SF requests for speaking time. There was a pinched and querulous tone to his comments that went well beyond his normal public persona. He really didn’t like them. But of course, he wouldn’t. Labour presents little threat to FF in the working class. But SF are a different matter. A good wind behind them and who knows how many seats they might wind up with. Better to cut them off at the knees, so to speak, and limit their public exposure. And no doubt that seemed like a clever strategy in the aftermath of the election. Problem is that SF can project themselves as the awkward squad and to an extent already have. Their message may now be clearer because it is no longer mixed within the voices of the former Technical Group. And that niche left of the Labour Party has remained stubbornly attractive to at least one sector of the Irish electorate. Perhaps Ahern may yet come to conclude that it might have been better to embrace them as the Greens and others were embraced.

In any case, the word is out that some of the taboo’s relating to SF are being discarded, and that rumour that FG actually made some contacts with SF during the post-election period (reiterated again today by Smyth) to tie up their support for a minority FG-led coalition persists.

Narratives take time to change, but generally they change incrementally.

One last thing. It was notable that Independents did quite well in the Senate Elections. Another straw in the wind for 2012? It’s impossible to tell what the shape of the political world will be in five years time. But, Ahern by pandering to the Independents has effectively given carte blanche to every disaffected FF candidate in 2012 to jump ship and point to the “McGrath” deal, the “Lowry” deal and the “Healy-Rae” deal Mk II (or is that Mk II.V?). I think that could eat into his successors votes quite considerably and could potentially leave an FF that was much more dependent upon left forces, at least those that were willing to move beyond posturing.


1. Damian O'Broin - July 26, 2007

I think the Labour/SF voting deal was indeed a positive occurrence, but I wouldn’t rush to read too much into it. It could very easily be forgotten about by the time the oireachtas actually gets around to sitting again.

Having been thinking about this a bit recently, it’s clear that the fundamental strategic issue for the left in Ireland is how to deal with ‘the FF problem’.

Do you attempt to secure a (most likely short-term) balance of power / trojan horse position (a la the PDs) and get as much of your agenda implemented as FF will allow. And run the risk of being punished at the next election for your flirtation with the ‘enemy’.

Or do you work to create a counter-balance of some sort – the alternative govt strategy. And if the latter option is the choice, how can that be done without becoming a crutch for FG? Is there room to create a broad church of the left and centre-left when FF have so many tanks parked on that very territory?

There’s a quote from Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland, relating to the 1930-60 period that sums up how ingrained FF were, and are, in Irish life at every level.

“The curious thing is that FF came to speak, not only for the small-farming, shopkeeping and artisan classes of rural Ireland, but also for many of the bourgeoisie. Between the 1920s and the 1950s the concentration of FF’s first preference votes inexorably moved from west of the Shannon to the more prosperous midlands and east. The party also captured the ‘labour’ interest.”

It’s hard to argue against the view that FFs ‘present dominance’ has stretched uninterrupted right back to 1932.


2. joemomma - July 26, 2007

“Note the Greens, and the rather wan talk about how FF would not ‘allow’ Patricia McKenna to become a Taoiseach’s nominee. Well, that may well be true, or it may not, but that it can be stated in such blunt terms indicates who is calling the shots at the moment.”

Who actually stated it in those terms?


3. Worldbystorm - July 26, 2007

Very true Damian. And difficult to deal with for the left. Conor McCabe has argued very cogently that in the 1918 period Labour effectively ceded the political ground to nationalism (of a sort) and then again in the late 1920s and never recovered.

joemomma, I emerge hands up and plead that it was the meeja… Irish Indo, and indeed something in the IT or SBP. But note my customary caution… I still think that the anecdote, right or wrong (and I’d bet wrong) tells us a fair old bit about the current Irish political scene…


4. conor mccabe - July 27, 2007

sorry worldbystorm, I actually argue the opposite! Labour didn’t concede ground to nationalism in 1918, in fact they held their own in the 1920 local election and the 1922 elections as well. Only in 1923 did they concede ground, and in 1927 they actually regained a good slice of that ground. It’s in the 1933 election that labour really lose out, in voting terms. They backed the FF minority government in 1932, on the promise that FF agree to social housing. FF undertake to build social housing on a huge scale (in Irish terms anyway), and take all the glory for the idea!

There’s a new history of the Irish labour party out at the moment, by Niamh Puirseil, that argues for the view that 1918 was the crunch election, and that’s pretty much the mainstream view. I disagree profoundly with that analysis. My view is heavily influenced by Emmet O’Connor, who’s pretty much the expert on this. (He was also my supervisor, so maybe a bit of bias on my part as well!)

enjoyed the article, by the way. and agree with it as well. Didn’t mean to leave a comment just because my name was mentioned, I promise!

Anyway, sure you know I think that the Lab/SF pact is the only way forward. Whether Labour’s core 10% vote (which gives them ther 20 seats) agrees is another thing.


5. Worldbystorm - July 27, 2007

Apologies Conor, I misrepresented you. And you are of course correct, the 20s weren’t particularly bad for Labour…


6. conor mccabe - July 27, 2007

but you’re right, the labour party still took a silk purse and turned it into a sow’s ear. The success of FF on social issues shows that, well, you could run on social issues in Ireland, even in the holy conservative 1930s, and get votes.

On another point, I was in the local chinese there this evening, reading the Evening Herald while I waited on my order, and there was a bit about about how we’re all so much better off these days. Dublin is the best city in the world, blah, blah, blah… but, they mentioned that the average irish household’s spending on “housing” – i take that to mean mortgages and/ or rent – has almost doubled since 2001.

Just depressing.


7. Worldbystorm - July 27, 2007

That’s a crucial point I think Conor. There was an appetite for social reform which FF went for. I don’t think that was entirely cynical on their part, then or now. There has been a sort of submerged social democratic strain to that party over the years, but populism is no harm for winning elections as we keep seeing. But it does indicate as you note that Labour could have advanced had it been more astute.

I think the current housing market is worrying on many many different levels, and the response from our government entirely inadequate. But then I have the horrible feelinkg that no-one knows what to do… not a great way to run an economy…

Re the left and pacts and such like in a way to me the names don’t really matter as respects the formations on the left. Yeah, I’d like to see some sort of engagement between the two great traditions of the Irish left (albeit the two great and rather small traditions) that being Labourism and Republican Socialism. But I’m not too hung up on how that happens and I’m damn sure I don’t want to see any more mergers or such like!


8. conor mccabe - July 27, 2007

It’s interesting to read Todd andrew’s autobiography, Dublin Made Me. There’s little doubt that there was a social justice element to Fianna Fáil – I’d say it was a significant force in the party in the 1930s.

The i thing about a merger of Labour and Nationalism – the cornerstone of James Connolly’s ideology – is that a form of it took place with the formation of FF. Again, this is from Emmet O’Connor, but he argues that the one thing modern political commentators call illogical – Labour AND Nationalism, how can it be? it’ll never work, etc – is exactly the cornerstone of the FF party, at least in the 1930s and 1940s. The most successful political force in Ireland ever.

As Emmet O’Connor puts it, when did logic ever apply to politics?

A lot of the guff about labour and nationalism has to do with the North, especially the experience of 1968-94. It’s a simple point, but an effective one: Paisley can work with them, what’s your excuse, Pat?


9. WorldbyStorm - July 27, 2007

It’s down to the mix isn’t it? Nationalism and Labour, Labour and Nationalism. The FF version used as much as was necessary of Labour, but broadened the appeal out through Nationalism. But this feeds into a different conversation about the way in which Labour has dealt with Republicanism and Nationalism.


10. conor mccabe - July 27, 2007

Oh, absolutely true, a different conversation alright. but it shows that the myth of incompatibility is just that – a myth. Connolly might have been on to something after all! If it doesn’t work it’s not down to just nationalism and labour being incompatible, because, well, they aren’t. It might work, it mightn’t, but to not try because labour and nationalism are incompatible is just daft, because they are not.

Most labour members I know detest SF, but would have backed a coalition with FG. And that’s illogical.


11. Worldbystorm - July 28, 2007

Perhaps it was because FF stole the clothes and refashioned them in a nationalist, populist and semi-social democratic way that Labour felt it had to push a line that was effectively free from any tinge of nationalism. Then again, there was also the radical Republican left tradition that largely stood – if only rhetorically – a couple of steps further to the left again… they would have wanted to distinguish themselves from that as well.

And when I use the term ‘nationalism’ it’s not in a ‘wrap me in the flag’ sort of a way, but more a broad engagement with aspects of national identity, but I think we’ve said it before, the left has significant issues with that sort of a project.


12. ejh - July 28, 2007

Most labour members I know detest SF, but would have backed a coalition with FG

People might say this is something to do with guns, but I wouldn’t count on it. There’s a similar situation in Scotland where the Labour people absolutely detest the SNP and would rather work with almost anybody else.


13. WorldbyStorm - July 28, 2007

It’s the nationalist thing, isn’t it? Somehow nationalists can’t be worked with whereas big business can… (at least in UK Labour’s case)…go figure…

Incidentally reading the IT today one of the letter writers referred to Labour and SF as guns’n’roses. Had to smile, I hadn’t heard it before. Still it will be thrown back in their faces no doubt.


14. Damian O'Broin - July 28, 2007

Speaking as a Labour member here…

… I don’t particularly like Sinn Fein and I have many problems with them. But equally any deal with FG makes me very uncomfortable. And I would have (reluctantly) supported the pre-election deal.

Part of the reluctance of to deal with SF here and SNP across the way may be rooted in local election rivalries. SF (or SNP) and Labour are often fishing from the same pool for votes. Hence the antipathy. There’s less of a concern about FG / Lib Dems or whoever because they’re seen as less of a threat.

On the more general point about Labour and nationalism. Maybe I’m missing something here, or maybe my own experience is different. But I always saw Labour as encompassing both nationalist and (for want of a better word) non-nationalist tendencies. What maybe seen as a non-nationalist outlook may have more to do with the fact that Labour, for most of it’s history, has found itself drawn into a relationship with FG and against FF.

There’s a whole other discussion jut under the surface about what constitutes nationalism, but I don’ think I’ll go there just now. There’s more important things to do like celebrate the yellowbellies win this afternoon. 😉


15. WorldbyStorm - July 28, 2007

That’s really interesting to hear Damian particularly because it points up how rivalry is an engine of mistrust and division. Around 1988 or 89 I was in the – well – the Cedar Lounge in Raheny when who should come in but the local Labour candidate looking to sell I think raffle tickets. I bought a couple to his evident delight but as soon as I told him I was in the WP he backed away as if bitten. Mind you he didn’t thrust the money I’d given him back into my paw, and neither would I if the situation had been reversed.

Got to move beyond that I think in all factions of the left who might participate in a broader enterprise.

Meanwhile, you’re dead right. It’s 30 something degrees where I am and I intend to make the most of it.


16. ejh - July 29, 2007

Yellowbellies = Wexford?

I suppose I ought to take this opportunity to ask what the original Cedar Lounge was.


17. WorldbyStorm - July 29, 2007

A bar in Raheny, ejh. Actually it is in Foxfield which is an area in Raheny. A funny building actually in the sense that it was effectively the same general shape as three or four of the semi-detached houses in the area squashed together. I drank in their when I was younger, as indeed did smiffy although we didn’t know each other.

Not the worlds worst bar, but not the greatest either.


18. Section 31, Eoghan Harris and rewriting history… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - July 29, 2007

[…] the Sunday Independent this morning. Today he is exercised by the photograph I mentioned the other day, the one showing Pat Rabbitte with Alex White. Now, I mentioned briefly that it indicated a certain […]


19. Damian O'Broin - July 29, 2007

“Yellowbellies = Wexford?”

yes indeed ejh, my second county.

Although, what an anti-nationalist labourite like me is doing watching these strange peasant games is a good question 😉


20. Joe - July 30, 2007

We didn’t know it at the time but the Cedars was a hotbed of “left” politics in the 80s. My memories include:
Buying a raffle ticket from the Milis. “What’s it for?” “It’s for a weekend in a hotel”. “No, I mean what’s it in aid of.” “It’s for Militant”. “Gimme two.”
Sitting in a big circle with various WPers after the polling station closed in 87? McCartan buying a round, my apolitical best friend delighted to partake, but McCartan’s hardest opponent saying no thanks to the offer.
Trying and failing to keep up with another leader of the opposition to McCartan as he skulled pints in the bar after McCartan’s group walked out of a Constituency meeting in a row over McCartan.
And I saw Bono there once with his trousers tucked into his boots.


21. ejh - July 30, 2007

Buying a raffle ticket from the Milis

Oooh, spooky Mili raffles. When they had these in CPSA all the cash prizes were conincidentally won by Milis who then all handed them back. However, I preferred them to the even spookier collections in which instead of passing a hat round, people would start getting up and offering a tenner…


22. WorldbyStorm - July 30, 2007

Concerning McCartan. Just before the 92 election day he brought us – his loyal new DL members to the Dáil Bar as a sort of thank you. Pints on the house, so to speak. Advanced hour of the night I was talking to him and suggested that I was on my way to the bar and did he want a pint? He looked at me seriously and said ‘think you’d better buy your own from now on’ or words to that effect and turned away to someone else. I wasn’t a big drinker in those days so I pretty sober, nor had I intended for him to pick up the tab. But it was a bit sour nonetheless…

Funny, the Cedars tended to play a more prominent part (when not trying to sell the Irish People there of a sunday morning) for me as the site of the Christmas Eve drink with queues out the door and thronging masses inside…

Joe would one of those leaders of the opposition have had the initials TL? Were you there the night of the fateful meeting in the Doghnamede Inn when De Rossa was sent over by the ‘centre’ to assure us that McCartan would toe the party line and recant his reformist and social democratic ways?


23. Joe - July 30, 2007

Indeed WBS. TL, god love him, was the one skulling pints. The bar in the Cedars was his local.
And the Constituency meeting that McCartan and group walked out of led to the one you mention in the Donaghmede Inn. Funny, I don’t remember any of the content of what De Rossa said and didn’t pick up that McCartan was being given any kind of a dressing down. To me it was just Head Office says McCartan is the candidate, now back him.
If I remember, I said something from the floor about WP being a revolutionary party and me not being interested in it if it wasn’t and I thought I got an agreeing nod from De Rossa.


24. WorldbyStorm - July 30, 2007

Yeah. Poor ould TL. Passed away a couple of months ago.

Seemed to me they were emphasising that McCartan had to follow the party line, even though he was the candidate. Sort of having their cake and eating it, I thought. Anyhow, I think I remember the point you made.


25. Joe - July 30, 2007

Ah shit. I didn’t know he was dead. That has knocked me. I won’t get in to false eulogies. The man had many faults. But rest in peace, comrade.


26. Worldbystorm - July 30, 2007

Yeah, I’m still in contact with AL but I didn’t hear from her until after he died. He did have many many faults, but he was a force of nature and in his own weird way very charismatic. I can’t remember exactly but was he in the old Socialist Party originally before it folded into OSF or did he come the OSF route?

It was really sad to hear that…


27. Colm Breathnach - July 30, 2007

Also sorry to hear about TL. Can only concur with Joe.

Two incidents stick in my mind regarding Judge Dread (Mc C), with whom I had little contact being a southsider. When he joined one of the yacht clubs in Dun Laoghaire, there was much mirth in the press and fury in the local WP since we were involved in a big battle over the attempted encroachment of these clubs on public property in the harbour (aside from the obvious anachronism of a socilist being involved in such an elitist institution). He attended a constituency meeting to explain his actions but his basic line was that this was a private matter which had no implications for the party. He came across as hugely arrogant.

This impression was confirmed by my only other conact with him. In late1991or early 92 as the WP headed for a split I was in the Dail restaurant with a number of the WP secretaries when we were joined by McC. We were discussing the future of the party when I expressed an opinion about the danger of us going down the Labour road, becoming more middle class and losing working class support. Although all I had done was express an opinion and not very strongly at that, he turned to me and said quite sharply ‘Thats just your opinion’ or words to that effect. I remember being quite taken aback by the sharpness of the response. Looking back I guess I hit a raw nerve.

Another ex-WP comrade has often said to me that he hopes he ends up before McC in court just so he can remind him of his days in the murky era of OSF/WP. Now that would be fun to watch!


28. WorldbyStorm - July 30, 2007

Yes. the yacht club was a source of no happiness north of the Liffey, nor the fact he lived, IIRC, outside the constituency.

Although in fairness, again IIRC, back in the day he had acted as solicitor for a range of people who were beyond both the general and WP pale.

But the sharpness, as you describe Colm, was something that was hardly endearing. All those streets pounded. All those doors knocked. And for what?


29. Joe - July 31, 2007

As far as I know, TL came the OSF route, wasn’t in the old Socialist Party. There were a couple of other good heads in DNE at the time who were ex old Socialist Party.
I have lost contact with AL but will be in touch. My last activity in DNE was canvassing with and for her in the local elections. A real solid decent working class candidate. Canvassed St Assam’s and down by the Cedars. Full circle.


30. WorldbyStorm - July 31, 2007

Yep. One in million.

People forget about the SP but it had a real impact I think on OSF and later the WP.


31. franklittle - July 31, 2007

Just googled Socialist Party to find out who the ‘old SP’ was. Hadn’t heard of it but a fascinating organisation it seems according to Wiki.


32. Joe - July 31, 2007

I once heard them referred to (by an ex-SWMer) as “the very rusty guns” – as opposed, I suppose, to the Officials who were “the rusty guns”.
Only other thing I remember is a poster they had which depicted a bloke with a shovel full of earth and a big red x across it, with the slogan Capitalism the cause, Socialism the cure.
I couldn’t figure out at the time whether they meant that Socialism would do away with the need for hard physical labour or whether Socialism would mean an end to a lack of work for labourers.
Interestingly, one of the members of their first Central Committee, according to Wiki, was one of the WPers in DNE that I referred to earlier. What Wiki didn’t detail was how much of it was left by the time it merged with Kemmy and BICO into the DSP. I’m sure there were a good few partings, many going back to OSF, along the way.


33. Worldbystorm - July 31, 2007

It must have made for some fascinating discussions inside the DSP.


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