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An end to civil war politics. Again. November 17, 2008

Posted by Garibaldy in Irish Politics, The Left.

Marc Coleman, “columnist with the Sunday Independent, Irish entrepreneur and Irish Catholic” has an interesting piece discussing possible future structural changes in the political system of the Republic of Ireland, arguing that

there is a very real prospect that within the next decade or two, the civil war party structure will join de Valera and Collins in that great political arena in the sky.

Why does he think such change is possible? Firstly, he points to the dissatisfaction with the main party leaders in recent polls, which also show only Gilmore and Adams with decent approval ratings (though Adams’ are of course well down on his peak, and Rabitte’s didn’t do him much good). At the same time, the 2004 local elections saw the share of the vote of FF and FG fall below 60% for the first time since 1927. Coleman predicted then the end of civil war politics, although he had to admit he was proven wrong. Today, opinion polls put their combined support at 61%, and FF’s back at its 1927 levels of support.

In addition, he argues that the urbanisation of the country, and an electorate a decade younger than it was in the 1980s, means that a style of politics evolved for rural Ireland has a less than rosy future. In Dublin, he points out, FF and FG have less than 40% support, and he argues that where Dublin leads, the rest of the country follows.

What is needed for a profound change in the political party system?

For the party political structure of a nation to change radically, three things need to happen. The first, profound social change, has come about — in a generation — through a rise of one million in our population, urbanisation, a huge rise in living standards and a dramatic rise in our expectations.
The second prerequisite for change is an inability on the part of the main parties to keep up with these changes. The third is a catalytic event, such as a serious economic downturn.

Coleman argues that the civil war parties were saved from disaster at the last election only because of favourable economic circumstances including cheap personal credit, government spending, and the maturing of SSIAs putting extra money in people’s pockets. Now that those circumstances are gone for the foreseeable future, he argues that the vote share of FF and FG will return to the high twenties and low thirties, and that consequently they may opt to form a unity government or never be able to force through the reforms he feels are necessary due to opposition from special interest groups.

If they do, they might as well merge. If they do coalesce, Fine Gael will lose its social democratic voters to Labour and Fianna Fail’s working class vote will go to Sinn Fein. Shorn of these wings — Fine Gael and Fianna Fail would be stronger together than apart. The left, with two stronger parties to represent it, would have to wait no longer.

So the vision Coleman offers then is of the development at last of some form left/right politics in the Irish state. I have to say I am deeply unconvinced.

Firstly, we should remember that a vote share of “only” 60% is enough to ensure that either of these parties will be the dominant group in any coalition, so it is a little early to be predicting an alternative politics. And besides that, local elections are different beasts to Dáil ones, so it is to some extent comparing apples and oranges. Secondly, the Republic has been urbanised for quite some time, both in terms of the number of people living in towns, and in terms of the occupation structure. Agriculture has not been the dominant source of income for most rural dwellers for decades. That has not heralded an end to civil war politics. Thirdly, and linked to this point, his argument that FF and FG are still operating to a rural agenda strikes me as wrong. FF in particular is extremely well attuned to local circumstances, and I don’t see much evidence that it is fundamentally out of touch over much of urban southern Ireland. Fourthly, his argument about urban voters’ choices seems to me to be very wrong

With 60pc of our electorate now urban, the way voters choose increasingly depends on policy relevance, consistency, and its coherence with some kind of philosophy.

Surely the very nature of politics in the Republic – almost completely freed from any sense of ideology or consistency – makes a nonsense of this. Fifthly, and this is something that I expect many readers will disagree with me about, I think he misunderstands the nature of the Labour Party and Provisional Sinn Féin, and grossly overestimates the extent to which they are likely to pursue radically different policies from either civil war party. We know Labour has a history of coalition with both civil war parties, and while it seems fairly clear that PSF would prefer to be in coalition with FF than FG, I cannot see them turning down the chance to become part of a modern version of the rainbow coalition should the chance come up after the next election. Both parties clearly moved towards the centre before the last election, and neither party is moving radically leftward. Neither party has shown the ability to pull the voters Coleman is talking about away from FG and FF in the past, and I don’t see that any merged party would be any more right-wing and alienating of them than the current entities. The one thing I think he has got right about voters’ choices is policy relevance, and I doubt that FF and FG as they stand or in any merger would cut their own throats by ignoring the concerns of voters in pursuit of an ideologically pure right wing politics. We’ve seen where that got the PDs (remember them?).

And most of all, there is just no chance of FF and FG merging even within the next two decades, so this is all kind of a moot point anyway. It tells us more about Coleman’s ideal scenario than it does about politics in the Republic.


1. Why Civil War Politics are here to stay « Garibaldy Blog - November 17, 2008

[…] Civil War Politics are here to stay I have just put up this discussion at Cedar Lounge Revolution of why predictions of the demise of civil war politics in the […]


2. anglonoel - November 17, 2008

I’m reminded of a story from the 1980s when an Orange Order march in Glasgow turned into a riot with local shops being looted. Some wag said the rioters were provoked by seeing a Fine Fare store, thinking it to be an Irish political party.


3. Garibaldy - November 17, 2008



4. WorldbyStorm - November 17, 2008

That might well be the name of a merged FF/FG. 😦


5. KevanB - November 17, 2008

“Fifthly, and this is something that I expect many readers will disagree with me about,………”

Sadly, I do not think there are many readers who will disagree with you on this thought.

Amongst committed voters the labour party is 6 old guys meeting in a room, SF is maybe 12 slightly younger, FF is over 25 blokes in the back bar and I don’t have a clue how many turn up for the FG meetings. All I do know is that the young people I work with think they are all old farts in suits, who have no relevance to their lives.

Which is why they, the young ones, only vote when there is a simple yes, no, as in the Lisbon treaty, and regard me as a a silly old sod despite the fact that I haven’t worn a suit since the 1960’s. In my defence I would like to point out so did the Beatles. Wear suits that is.

As Gilmore and Adams have turned themselves into people who look like badly dressed bank clerks, why should any of the kids feel they have any relevance to their lives?

Master Coleman’s fantasies will remain just that, fantasies, until politicians stop looking like and sounding like Grandad on a bad day; or the bank manager who is the arsehole who last year promised them a mortgage and this year reneged on that promise.

I realise that this comment would appear to be superficial as image shouldn’t be anything and the clarity and seriousness of ones thought should be everything, but heh, image is what gets citizens of the bum and down the polling booth.

Perhaps not an anorak, so seventies don’t you think?


6. Garibaldy - November 17, 2008

Anoraks definitely out – unless of course you are Bertie Ahern, and can pull it off. Image is clearly important for politicians. I think one of the reasons De Rossa was so successful was because he had good image management. But as with Rabitte et al, it’s never enough. The north is a good example. The average poster is the candidate in front of a union jack/tricolour – delete as appropriate. Lindy McDowell in the Belfast Telegraph commented a couple of elections ago that the only people to go in for clever advertising was The WP (the poster was of a child sitting on steps looking bored with the words, fed up? I’m voting WP) but that never did much good!

Bertie’s image – especially going on The Premiership as a soccer pundit – was pure genius, as is Boris Johnson’s at the other end of the scale. We have nobody close today, though Adams is really good at projecting his image (his opening the poc fada at the west Belfast festival always goes down well). Although as Kevan says, there is now a sense that some young people see him as out of touch.


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