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Howlin’ at the moon: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael should NOT have coalesced in 2020!

Photo by Mauricio Mascaro

On Friday, 15 July, The Irish Times published a dyspeptic piece of political commentary by Gerard Howlin. The headline conveys the TLDR (too long, don’t read) version:

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael made a disastrous mistake coalescing in 2020

The article followed the publication of the same newspaper’s opinion poll earlier that week which showed the ratings for the above mentioned parties languishing at 20% and 18% respectively. Taken together, the two civil war parties’ combined support barely exceeded the 36% attributed to Sinn Féin.

Mr. Howlin’s reaction conveys a tone of grim satisfaction, akin to a Parisian tricoteuse seated in front of the revolutionary guillotine, waiting for the aristocrats to reap the fate they have sown for themselves. His pen trembles with righteous anger. This is J’accuse on steroids.

The price of office for a privileged few in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael was to hand over, uncontested, the role of leader of the opposition to Sinn Féin. The government parties have been fish in a barrel since. By standing together, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael finally admitted they stood for nothing.

And the “ordinary” TDs in those parties bear their share of the blame and are confronting their just desserts for their supine consent to their upper echelons’ lunge for the baubles of office.

…when they [Fianna Fáil TDs] had the chance they had neither the courage nor concern to bring them [Sinn Féin] into government. With more Dáil seats, but fewer votes, it was Fianna Fáil’s last change (sic) to attempt to reassert its historic dominance. Once possessed of an insatiable appetite for power, the party settled in the end — at Martin’s insistence — for office at any price.

As for the Fine Gael party:

Fine Gael support in opinion polls from peak to trough has halved. In 2011 it was briefly Fianna Fáil’s replacement as the natural party of government. Now it’s identity is frittered away in reactive interventions from their leader, paid for with a promiscuity that undermines the purpose of the party.

Like the ordinary ranks of Fianna Fáil TDs, their Blueshirt equivalents bought into a pig in a poke.

The unprecedented rotation of the office of Taoiseach from Martin to Varadkar is testimony to the determination with which this government was put together by those determined to enjoy it. It will also be the final disappointment for parliamentary colleagues excluded from the pleasures of office.

Mr. Howlin lightly skips through one mitigating factor.

Events have certainly driven down support for the government. On inflation, housing, waiting lists or energy security there is no light on the horizon.

To modify an old saying, he might have sung that point a bit louder and with more of an air to it. Instead, Mr. Howlin returns to his theme to finish.

But two other factors are at play. Both of their own making. The first was forming a government that allow Sinn Féin avoid responsibility, while ensuring that the three centrist parties that comprise it became less than the sum of their parts.

The second is more profound. It is the end of the social contract. Educating a generation but failing to house them, has upended the status quo. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael thought that holding the centre was a version of staying the same. They are stunned again by the ingratitude of the Irish people.

That the government are stunned by the ingratitude of their voters may be a “truth” so obvious to Mr. Howlin as to require no supporting evidence. I suggest that professional politicians travel their path in the hope of being rewarded by their electorates. But they are generally sanguine and thick skinned enough not to allow that hope to metamorphose into expectation.

First, we must apply a wider angled lens to the assessment of the health of these two parties than the circumstances surrounding the last elections.

The general election of February 1982 represented the high watermark of voter support for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The former won 47.3% and the latter 37.3% of the votes yielding a combined total of 84.6%. Over the ten general elections since then, the combined share of these two parties has subsided gradually but steadily, except for a couple of blips of apparent remission in 1997 and 2007.

In 2016, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael secured 24.3% and 25.5% of votes respectively. These figures fell (rather than collapsed)at the last election when Fianna Fáil won 22.2% and Fine Gael secured 20.9%. Indeed, it should be noted that in the three general elections since the great recession of 2008 (2011, 2016 and 2020), every party in every outgoing government (or associated with government as Fianna Fáil were from 2016–2020) has lost both votes and seats. All other things being equal, since the great recession simply being near government at all is bad for any political party’s electoral health.

It may be cold comfort to the current coalition but, looked at against that backdrop, the recent opinion poll ratings for the parties in the mid-term of a government are not too bad.

Mr. Howlin has been around a long time. That may explain the implication of his article that there is somehow a “real” underlying support base for the civil war parties closer in size to that of their glory days. After the last election, Fianna Fáil had a last chance “to reassert its historic dominance”. Fine Gael briefly replaced Fianna Fáil “as the natural party of government” in 2011.

I make these two points as gently as I can to Mr. Howlin. First, Fianna Fáil’s historic dominance is exactly that: history, beheaded and buried by the great recession. Second, in 2011, with the tailwind of a complete collapse in Fianna Fáil’s vote share to 17.4% from 41.6% in 2007, Fine Gael won an underwhelming 36.1% of the votes. Not really “natural party of government” territory even when backed by a strong tail wind.

Now, let’s look at another core “plank” of Mr. Howlin’s case. Like every decent plank, this one has two sides to it.

First side. Mr. Howlin implies that, with one seat more than Sinn Féin (albeit fewer votes), if Fianna Fáil had exercised more courage, conviction and some of the cunning, guile and ruthlessness that underpinned its historic “dominance” of Irish politics, the party might have enticed Sinn Féin into government in a way that could have provided a springboard for Fianna Fáil to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of a poor position.

Underpinning that thought are light presumptions of Marylou McDonald as an innocent ingénue entranced by the aforementioned baubles of office dangled before her and flattered beyond measure to be wooed by the political senior hurlers in Fianna Fáil.

Frankly, I find it hard to imagine Marylou in that role. Can you imagine her saying something like this? “Yep Mícheál, even though we won lots more votes and loads more seats compared to last time while you got both less votes and seats, you did win one more seat than us this time, so you have us bang to rights. We will be honoured to go into government with you and where do I sign on the terms.”? I can’t imagine it either.

The second side of the plank is the notion that by coalescing together, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael allowed Sinn Féin “to avoid responsibility”.

It is not so difficult to imagine that Micheál Martin could have said after the election: “We know we said before the election that we would not go into government with Sinn Féin. But the electorate has given its verdict and we must respect that. So, I am inviting Marylou to engage in sleeves-rolled-up negotiations on the formation of a government.”

It is possible too to imagine that this might have led to a government led by Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin similar in structure to the present one. This might have come about for the simple reason that Sinn Féin clearly want to be in government — sometime — or because they might be embarrassed into going into government ahead of their desired timing if they appeared to be ducking a genuine opportunity to do so at that time.

But, it is at least as easy to imagine Sinn Féin playing along well enough to steer clear of that embarrassment and possibly returning the serve with even more force by accusing Fianna Fáil of only going through the motions of negotiating. Two other points matter here too.

First, if Fianna Fáil had gone into government with Sinn Féin, that would have handed over, “uncontested” the role of leader of the opposition to Fine Gael instead of Sinn Féin. Being shot “like fish in a barrel” by Fine Gael is no less hurtful to Fianna Fáil TDs than meeting the same fate at the hands of the Shinners.

Second, the election result gave Sinn Féin the most leverage of all the parties to emerge from the post-election fallout exactly where it wanted to be — which was almost certainly to “pass” on government for now.

Let’s imagine the other parties had tried to force a contest about which of them could hold their breath longest — if Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had said: “Well, Sinn Féin got most votes, almost as many seats and gained more of both than any other party. So, it’s their responsibility to form a government and we’re going to leave them at it until they do or we have another election.”

Sinn Féin would simply have waited for that election at which it would almost certainly have gained even more votes and seats. When the votes of the 2020 election were counted, the mood of the country was not that they had been too generous to Sinn Féin, but that they were not generous enough.

The blunt truth is that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were in no position to force Sinn Féin to accept the responsibility of government.

One more aspect of Mr. Howlin’s article warrants caustic appraisal. He states explicitly that the leadership of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael went full throttle for the present arrangement to indulge themselves in the pleasure and spoils of being in government. That is plausible and may even be true.

But the apparently pleasurable trappings of office are inseparable from its downsides, being harassed throughout their term of office and summarily turfed out at the end of it. Curiously, while disappointed at the parties’ failure to get Sinn Féin to assume the responsibilities of office, it never seems to occur to Mr. Howlin that the present government parties might have been even a little bit motivated by a sense of responsibility themselves — rather than self-indulgent.

Remember, the duties of the Dáil under the constitution are, in this order; to elect a Ceann Cómhairle, a Taoiseach and to bless that Taoiseach’s government. If Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had simply stepped back from ensuring those duties were fulfilled, Mr. Howlin would be equally within his rights to excoriate them for their piratical irresponsibility.

Political parties are important components of our institutional framework, but they wax and wane, come and go and the world continues to spin. Our institutional framework would be threatened in a much more deadly fashion if our politicians couldn’t somehow deliver us a government. Where would we be then?

Finally, there is this rhetorical flourish from Mr. Howlin:

By standing together, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael finally admitted they stood for nothing.

Frankly, this is just bull’s poop. The relevant truth is that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael stand for a lot of the same things — and it is this hefty common denominator that maintains the comparative robustness and durability of this government.

Mr. Howlin’s remarks imply that unless the two parties stand for altogether different, possibly even incompatible things, neither of them stands for anything at all. And maybe there’s a further implication that one or other should leave the stage or they should unite to form a single party.

Both of these implications are nonsense. There is a lot of similarity between Lidl and Aldi, but the presence of both rather than only one of them, never mind neither of them, is undoubtedly beneficial to the health of the Irish retail market.



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Daire O'Criodain

Daire O'Criodain


Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.