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Big parties tend to do what big parties tend to do… March 20, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.

It’s often seemed to me that the size of political parties can dictate outcomes, not in policy terms but in relation to behaviours and development. Very small parties, significant ideological homogeneity. Increase the numbers a bit, trouble ahead. But oddly increase the numbers substantially and it allows smaller groupings to achieve some cohesiveness within an organisation thereby allowing the to co-exist for better or worse within the larger parties. Labour in the 1970s and 1980s had some of this, with in a sense two Labour lefts, one based around Militant and the other a non-Militant crew. The WP might be said to have aspects of this with a much less formal basis in the 1980s as it grew larger. But that OSF tradition was no stranger to groupings within the larger party, from the split in 1970 onwards, through the IRSP and even – though this stretches it somewhat – the departure, and later return of some who went on to form the SPI.

And this applies more widely. Large governing parties will, almost inevitably, take on the character of other large governing parties. There’s reasons for that too, obvious reasons. Lines to power, to inducements, electoral or otherwise, centres of influence, appeals to ‘sense’ and ‘moderation’ and ‘moderates’ all of which may or may not exist. The pull to the broader society. And so on and so forth.

Granted this is a bit chicken and egg. For a party to exhibit certain of these aspects it must be smaller and then larger, or whatever. But perhaps in this instance form following function and function following form genuinely is correct.

Anyhow, all this comes to mind reading Pat Leahy’s thoughts on the Fine Gael led government and… well, here’s his thesis:

The big danger for Fine Gael from the Frank Flannery/Rehab affair is not that people will fret about the intricacies of the controversy or follow the evidence from the public accounts committee. It’s that they will simply conclude that Fine Gael are conducting themselves in office in the same way as Fianna Fail did.
Most people follow politics, not in the detail of its patterns, but in the primary colours of its big movements and pivotal moments. They arrive at a mood about politicians and parties, rather than a painstaking analysis.
The charge that Fine Gael is the new Fianna Fail is considered so politically pungent as to seriously worry some smart people in the party. It’s also unfair, they cry, pleading that the government is yet only half way through the most difficult administration in the history of the state, cleaning up the mess after you-know-who.

And Leahy, has a great line:

But Fine Gael is now regularly exhibiting the sort of pathologies that makes late-period Bertie-ism look so daft in hindsight.

Those of us who remember, and saw reasonably close at hand, that period well will remember the hubris, the sense of entitlement and the unshakeable belief that tomorrow would be much like today, that FF hegemony would exist in perpetuity because…well…just because.

And Leahy pulls no punches: [Alan Shatter] seems to believe that words are true because he says them, and deeds are laudable because he does them’, ‘John Perry and James Reilly, have judgments registered against them’, and of course Flannery himself. Reilly, Leahy considers that Reilly’s thoughts on Flannery were indicative when he ‘specifically equated public service with the cause of Fine Gael, in the course of a watery encomium to Frank Flannery. ”He [Flannery] has done this state some considerable service in his involvement with Fine Gael, the great work he did in bringing the party to the point it’s at . . . Reilly told an interviewer’.

And Leahy correctly notes that ‘One of the things that ate Fianna Fail up from the inside out, enabling the party and its leaders to justify anything, was this tendency to conflate the interests of the nation with the interests of the party’.

Leahy argues that what instincts the Government had in regard to ‘reform’ however inchoate, are now exhausted and he is scornful of the minimal enough changes made – for example – to Dáil procedures. In a way, though, I’d like Leahy to spell out in much greater detail precisely what he thinks would constitute ‘reform’. I think that’d be a useful service for us all. And yet, I can’t help but think he’s correct when he notes that ‘our political system has not changed substantially’.

The question as to what would constitute change is an interesting and useful one. How would we know?

An aspect of this is how difficult it appears to be for FF to reinvent itself. Sure, it’s only been a few years since their catastrophe, but I’d still argue that four or five percentage points in polls on their 2011 showing is poor return for all its efforts at ‘change’. And that raises a further issue. How would FF ever convince people that it had genuinely changed? What would be tangible evidence of same? To ask the question is almost to answer it.


1. Mark P - March 20, 2014

There’s a certain bizarreness to Leahy’s understated premise: that Fine Gael could or should be different in substantive ways from Fine Gael.

On the issue of FFs modest recovery: they did cause the near collapse of the economy not very long ago, and, to a certain extent a strong Fine Gael limits their growth much as their own strength set the parameters of the possible for FG for many years. They can pick up a few points from Labour, but there is strong competition for the spoils of Labours implosion. Real FF growth will come as FG hit the rocks.


2. Firbolg - March 20, 2014

Apart from a slightly less overt form of corruption and a greater social cachet how could one expect “reform” from tweedlee as opposed to tweedlededum? Leahy in this instance is a waste of space.


3. WorldbyStorm - March 21, 2014

I like your unconscious Freudian slip Mark P in your first sentence. It’s actually a great way to put it.


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