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‘Tired’ parties or ‘tired’ politics? June 28, 2022

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Elaine Byrne in the SBP recently made the argument that Fine Gael, after eleven years in power, appears ‘tired and low on ideas’. It’s an interesting thesis. And not without merit. She looks at some of the party’s ‘big ideas’ and argues, convincingly, that they are anything but. Because what precisely are these big ideas?

Only three parties have been in power for more than eleven years. They include Éamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil from 1932 to 1948. De Valera, Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch kept the party flag flying from 1957 to 1973 and then Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen served as Taoiseach on different occasions between 1997 and 2011.

From my readings of the Dáil debates, internal departmental archives and contemporaneous records, the word that most sums up the end of a long time in power is “tired”.

Fair enough, though note she really means one party and different leaders of that party. And therein we have the real problem.

Sure, eleven years is a long time but consider that FG has had two leaders, been head of a coalition with the LP, headed up a minority government with FF support, and now is in a coalition arrangement where FF has the position of Taoiseach until the end of this year, after which FG will take it. Difficult, I think, to argue that this has not been a novel and, in some ways, an interesting period of Irish political history, even were we to exclude some period defining issues such as Brexit, the pandemic and a massive economic dislocation – and we can’t exclude them.

Returning to the real problem, that being that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have essentially since the foundation of the state (albeit the former in a slightly different guise) alternated in power with only minority participation by smaller parties there to add rather limited unique characteristics to successive administrations. And that’s the whole of the problem. In a context where there is a contending third party striking deep into FF and (remarkably) FG territory from the republican mild left of centre, the means for Fine Gael (or Fianna Fáil) to fend this off is extremely limited.

These are parties that staked a claim across decades as centre or more accurately centre-right. That their ideology meant largely (at least after Fianna Fáil initial mildly centre-left economic and social inclinations) the basic continuity of approach has been for both of them strength but, increasingly, weakness. The open abandonment of FF of even the most mild centre leftism in economic terms, under the influence of the PD apostates, served to blur the distinction between them yet further, albeit Ahern allowed them to sustain a cosmetic popularity for some time after it probably should have ended.

An increasing aversion to nationalism undercut yet another pillar of FF’s support; small, perhaps, but not insignificant (much as Labour had ultimately proved to be a conveyor belt of former FF voters away from the party towards SF as Labour proved unable to retain those voters as it spun towards Fine Gael in the early 2010s). From being a broadish tent, FF has become a rather narrower abode and one that in some respects seemed both similar to FG. But also, crucially, FF seemed outmanoeuvred by an FG that has been willing to assume the mantle of a party of perpetual government, some social liberalism and tellingly even deploy republicanish rhetoric as and when the need arose. Not that FG hasn’t had its own problems, as Byrne notes. One returns to the reality of FG in power for a decade and more.

For Byrne this all boils down to questions such as:

Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney are the only members of the existing cabinet who have continuously served in power for over a decade. To get this far required a massive dollop of perseverance, patience, endurance and even defiance against the burden of weighty decision-making during a global pandemic. Which prompts the question – do they still have a hunger for government?

But I suspect that’s the wrong question. I’ve met precious few politicians across the years either in or out of Cabinet who didn’t have some hunger for government. If they’re out they want mostly to be in; if they’re in they don’t want to be out. The real issue is can that government be formed and sustained, and what keeps the show on the road. Remarkably little of this is ‘tiredness’. Much more of this is about the sheer pressure and weight of events that chip away day by day at the ability of a government to remain in office. 

And that’s where I think the focus on ‘big ideas’ is almost beside the point.

It is not that the relentless focus on issues such as housing aren’t playing to SF’s strengths. It is that FG and FF are unable or unwilling to countenance the sort of programmes that SF most likely will implement. So that’s one big idea off the table. Similarly with health. Likewise with other areas. It’s not a time for Big Bang right wing ‘solutions’, so massive privatisations are a non-starter. For parties such as FF and FG, which have always had hesitations about state endeavour and enterprise beyond certain limits, small wonder that they’re not going to offer anything particularly striking. 

Byrne concludes:

The country needs an all-star performance from a party with drive and ambition in government and not spectators looking on from the inside.

But if one’s core ideology is that government isn’t necessarily best placed to deliver changes (if there’s a hesitation, an aversion to such approaches) then all the drive and ambition in the world isn’t going to result in much of clear substance at a time when it is exceedingly clear what many in this state require. And if someone with a cogent message and framing that seeks to address these issues appears offering something that might be amenable to assessment by voters as time progresses, then is it a great surprise that those voters will begin to look more favourably on that someone?

Is it all about the ideology? Of course not. There are many dynamics in play. But it’s enough about the ideology for these to be a factor above and beyond mere political fatigue. 

Comments»

1. Fergal - June 28, 2022

‘Only three parties have been in power for more than eleven years’…. unusually-worded sentence as there is only one party mentioned by Byrne in her three examples… Fianna Fáil

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WorldbyStorm - June 28, 2022

+1 Fergal. Very unusually-worded!

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2. irishelectionliterature - June 29, 2022

I might be mistaken but I don’t think FG have had a big idea in their 11 years in power. There’s been a number of large projects such as The Children’s Hospital, Broadband Rollout , Slaintecare but nothing that has been a big success bar the vaccination rollout.

FG were never the catch-all party Fianna Fáil were, A Big Idea is something that would help or positively impact everyone. The current strategy of going after Sinn Féin isn’t done to appeal to the masses but to shore up their own support.

“Tired” is the wrong expression to use too. I think it’s more a case of being in power so long that you become institutionalised, averse to taking too many risks.

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WorldbyStorm - June 29, 2022

That’s it exactly. What were their previous big ideas?

Vaccination rollout was good but a bit of a double-edged sword.

Agree completely re being institutionalised.

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Wes Ferry - June 29, 2022

I’m not totally disagreeing with the idea that FG are institutionalised but there’s also an inherent arrogance and entitlement to being in power.

Varadkar and the FG Mount Street mandarins think they’re the post-independence aristocracy, the upper class now forced to share power with the less-sophisticated FF by the foolishness of an electorate to be worked on with a ‘Red Scare/Barbarians at the Gate’ campaign of vilification.

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WorldbyStorm - June 29, 2022

Ah, party cultures, yes, they have to feed in in some way. But in another way they’re a bit trapped by their political twin which appears to be going nowhere and is even a nose ahead. They can’t really diss them while in power with them. At least not openly. It must be very very difficult for them 😉

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Jim Monaghan - June 29, 2022

FF were and are dab hands at “Red Scares”.

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WorldbyStorm - June 29, 2022

Bound to try it again. Be interesting to see how that flies.

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Colm B - June 29, 2022

Don’t think a Red Scare will work in the next election. The main vector for such a scare, the Indo group, are very much “old media”, whereas SF are much more adept at working social media. In addition, the group who would lead the charge, our old friends the Harris clique, are a shadow of their former selves since the recent disgrace of the guru.

Of course the ruling class would prefer the continuation of FFG gov but they are not panicked by the prospect of an SF one, as they think the Shinners will be tamed once in Gov.
The real challenge will be if an SF gov begin to implement radical reforms – then you will see all the stops pulled out to oust them.

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banjoagbeanjoe - June 29, 2022

The real challenge will be if an SF gov begin to implement radical reforms.

But they won’t be too radical. They’ll do enough in what might be termed social democratic reforms to look left enough compared with the current crowd. And that should be enough to keep most of the SF vote in the south happy enough.
But an SF government in the south… what will it do about the north? That could be interesting and challenging.

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Wes Ferry - June 29, 2022

If SF does get into government, I’d expect incremental progressive reforms. I would, however, be realistic enough (and I trust others would be too) not to get carried away in expecting them to change the direction of a well-entrenched capitalist establishment in politics/civil service, commerce, and security in the first flush of power.

They’ll be facing the legion of the rearguard in Leinster House, the IFSC and Official Ireland. It won’t be the Winter Palace all over again, so let’s not get carried away.

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Colm B - June 30, 2022

I have no illusions about what an SF gov would or could do. They are not an anti-capitalist party, time will tell if they are a radical reformist party or just another centre- left party that tinkers round the edges.

An important question for the radical left is how we relate to an SF gov., an issue that needs to be discussed now, not when SF win the next election.

https://independentleft.ie/coalition-sinn-fein/

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