Fr Kevin Hegarty
In 1906 the Liberal Party swept to a landslide victory in the British General Election. Within 16 years the party’s vote collapsed. David Lloyd George was the last Liberal to hold the office of Prime Minister. The rise of Labour and internal dissension put paid to the party’s position as a leading player in British politics.
By the 1970’s the party was reduced to six seats in the House of Commons. Since then it has had a mini-revival. Last May it became a junior partner in a Conservative-led government.
Does a similar fate await Fianna Fail, the dominant political Irish party in the 89-year history of the Irish state? Since fiirst coming to power in 1932 the party has ruled Ireland for 63 years. Martin Kettle, in ‘The Guardian’ last week, wondered whether the party is facing not merely heavy defeat but possible oblivion in the forthcoming general election. He raised the possibility that the party, ‘successively the carrier of De Valera’s austere Celtic exceptionalism, of Charlie Haughey’s Tammany republicanism and of Bertie Ahern’s good-time wheel and deals,’, has completed its historical mission.
The omens are ominous. A party that has never failed to achieve less than 39% of the vote in a general election now languishes at 16% in the opinion polls.
The election now upon us is the most unusual in the history of our state. The governing party enters the election with neither the hope nor the desire of being returned to office. It is clear that its strategy is to work for a respectable defeat that might create enough confidence to re-build in opposition.
Fine Gael in on course to become the largest party in the Dáil for the first time since 1927. The electorate seems ready to embrace Enda Kenny as Taoiseach, though without any great enthusiasm. Perhaps that is why the party handlers have limited his media interventions in the political turmoil of recent weeks.
Michael Noonan, whose political comeback rivals Lazarus’s emergence from the tomb, has become the main public face of Fine Gael. One might be forgiven for wondering whether Mr Kenny has been incarcerated in the same cupboard from which Bertie Ahern recently emerged to promote his sports column in ‘The News of the World’! If it is possible to experience despair in heaven, that must have been the lot of Eamon De Valera as he contemplated Ahern’s latest folly.
Labour, of course, also aspires to be the largest party in the next Dáil. It is doubtful if the party has the strength, throughout the country, to achieve this ambition. Also the Gilmore gale seems to be subsiding into a gentle, autumn breeze.
Sinn Féin is poised to increase its number of seats, though it is being hindered by Gerry Adam’s espousal of its economic policies which can be charitably described as unconvincing. Overall I sense a groundswell of disaffection with our current political system that may find expression in the election of several independents of various hues.
Short of the discovery of Berlusconi -style harems in the higher echelons of Fine Gael and Labour during the next few weeks, the likely oucome of the election is a coalition between the two parties. There are significant policy differences between them but the lure of government office for the first time in 14 years will probably be enough to transcend them. Or as Charles Haughey once cynically put it, ‘the Labour Party always wrestles with its conscience and the Labouy Party always wins.’
Why is Fianna Fáil in the doldrums? One reason is that they are in power for far too long. Apart from John Bruton’s short interregnum as Taoiseach in the 1990’s, it has been the leading government party since 1987. There is a wisdom in the American constitution that confines a President to two terms. In ‘The New Machiavelli’, a thoughtful reflection on political power, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff, argues that it is not possible for a leader in a modern democracy to last longer than two terms without people wanting a change: ‘People’s attention span is shorter now than in the past, the media are in the market for a new narrative, everyone is bored, and for the same reason that the shelf life of celebrities has become shorter and shorter, so has that of politicians.’
Cocooned by the comforts of Cabinet office, ministers become detached from the rawness of everyday reality. Hubris sets in. Powell quotes an incident from Margaret Thatcher’s last year in office. Confronted by angry protestors on her way to a meeting in Paris she remarked to an official travelling with her that ’wasn’t it nice to see all those people waving at us.’
Any government forced to bring in austerity measures during the grip of a world recession can expect to experience unpopularity. In Fianna Fáil’s case this inevitable unpopularity has been severerly accentuated by its perceived close toxic association with the bankers and developers who played with money like a merry group playing monopoly in a pub.
What a contrast with the flinty integrity of earlier Fianna Fáil ministers. One of them, Seán McEntee, returned a dinner set given him as a present by the Ardlow pottery factory. Eamon O’Cuiv most resembles the ministers of his grandfather’s generation. One reason for his comparative success in the recent Fianna Fáil leadership election may have been a nostalgic desire for a return to the pristine well of ethical purity.
The party will have to drink deeply from this well before it can expect the trust of the electorate again.