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Steady As She Goes

John Mulqueen

Electoral Competition in Ireland Since 1987: The Politics of Triumph and Despair, by Gary Murphy, Manchester University Press, 185 pp, ISBN: 978-0719097669

The Begrudger’s Guide to Irish Politics, published in 1986, contained a dedication to “those deluded souls who believe that this island has a foreseeable future”. Its author, Breandán Ó hEithir, compared Ireland’s dismal economic record to a smaller island, Iceland. The latter had attained a standard of living similar to Denmark’s mainly by exploiting its fisheries, which it had defended by taking on the Royal Navy during the Cod War. Thirty years later, a similar fighting spirit would be displayed in Iceland’s general election. The anti-establishment Pirates and allies – campaigning against corruption in high places – came close to securing a parliamentary majority. Across the water, mavericks of a different colour, the right-wing toffs Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, disrupted the European project by persuading many English working class voters to leave the EU. And millions of alienated Americans scorned conventional politics and put the outrageous Donald Trump into the White House. Could voters in the stable Irish state launch similar upheavals?

Gary Murphy’s study of elections from Fianna Fáil’s return in 1987 to its rejection by the voters in 2011 suggests this is unlikely. And now, with the main opposition party facilitating the government, the centre continues to hold, despite the advances of Sinn Féin and various ultra-leftist groups. Fine Gael and Labour were swept into office in 2011 by an electorate shocked by the government’s performance. To avoid economic catastrophe Fianna Fáil, and the Greens, had accepted an €85 billion bailout from the much-maligned “troika” – the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank. Yet almost a quarter of a century earlier Fine Gael and Labour had been kicked out of government following a deep recession. From near-bankruptcy in 1987 to the intoxicating highs of the Celtic Tiger – peaking in 2008, before the collapse of the banks – there would be one political certainty: most Irish voters would choose a mainstream party in a general election ‑ not that they would always resist the temptation to flirt with a minor grouping or an independent, but many in this category would either disband or join a bigger party. In 2011, as in 1987, the three established parties in the state still dominated the scene.

The central question in the 2011 election, one of the most exciting since Fianna Fáil took office in 1932, was how badly would the latter do and could Fine Gael form a single-party government without assistance from Labour? Fianna Fáil paid the price for its appalling mismanagement of affairs and plunged from seventy-eight seats to twenty. The Greens paid an even heavier electoral price, losing all their seats. And so the voters returned to the Fine Gael/Labour option. “There were no other possible alternative governments,” Gary Murphy writes, which “tells us something extraordinarily significant about Irish politics and the state of the Irish party system; at a time when practically no family in the land was unaffected by the dramatic collapse of the Irish economy the only political solution to the crisis was to go back to the two parties who had failed in the 1980s.”

In 1987, with Charles J Haughey at the helm, Fianna Fáil embraced two macro-economic policy strands, foreign direct investment and “social partnership”, spurring economic recovery. The foundations of economic growth were European Union membership, low corporation tax rates, stable industrial relations, and a young, educated, English-speaking workforce. But with the banks practically bankrupt in 2008, a particularly severe recession inevitably followed. The Irish state had gone through recessions before of course, with 60,000 emigrating during the 1950s and emigration and unemployment becoming normal family experiences during the 1980s. However, neither of these dismal economic decades led to the collapse in support for the usual party of government, Fianna Fáil.

The missing card for Ireland’s biggest party in 1987 would be a parliamentary majority. Despite receiving support from Fine Gael in the Dáil to implement austerity measures, Haughey in 1989 recklessly called a general election in search of his elusive majority. An electorate less than enthusiastic about an “unnecessary election” would also be concerned with the state of the health service. And opposition candidates reminded voters of the opportunist slogan Fianna Fáil had deployed during the previous contest: “Health cuts hurt the old, the sick and the handicapped.” Haughey’s gamble did not work and he lost seats, with Fine Gael and Labour managing a slight recovery following their drubbing two years previously. More dramatically, the newcomer party, the right-wing Progressive Democrats (PDs) led by Des O’Malley, fell back sharply to six TDs. The PDs had emerged from a split in Fianna Fáil, but, of greater significance, Murphy observes, “no greater enmity existed on a personal level in Irish politics” than that between Haughey and O’Malley. Having openly reiterated Fianna Fáil’s traditional disdain for coalitions Haughey went on to agree a coalition deal with his enemy. But the way he executed thus U-turn enraged his two successors, Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern. As Murphy puts it: “Coalition theories, policy compatibility, personal animosity, articles of faith: none of these mattered to Haughey. What mattered was leading the government.” Haughey himself boasted: “Nobody but myself could have done it.”

And so Fianna Fáil formed its first coalition in 1989; there has been no single-party government since. However, the party’s grassroots would be at best ambivalent about this alliance with the PDs. Reynolds summed it up for many when he described it as a “temporary little arrangement”. And another successor to Haughey, Brian Cowen, would tell Fianna Fáil’s faithful that the way to deal with the PDs would be “if in doubt leave them out”. In other words, despite pursuing a relatively successful economic recovery, political rivalries remained strong within the government. These tensions came to the fore in 1990 when Fianna Fáil grandee Brian Lenihan – expected to easily win the election for the largely ceremonial post of president – made a public denial about involving the president in a scheme to avoid an election eight years previously. A subsequent production of a recorded interview he had made apparently contradicted this denial. The PDs demanded his head. And so Haughey ended up in the bizarre situation of firing Lenihan from the cabinet while retaining him as the party’s presidential candidate.

Mary Robinson’s election as president in 1990 would be a landmark moment in Irish politics in a number of respects: she was the first woman elected to the position; she stood as an independent (although her former party, Labour, backed her and claimed her triumph as its own), defeating the nominees of the two biggest parties; and a left/liberal candidate had overcome the mighty Fianna Fáil machine, previously undefeated in a presidential election. Now, not only did most within Fianna Fáil want to be rid of the PDs, but Haughey’s ruthless treatment of Lenihan fuelled the feeling within the parliamentary party that they should get rid of their controversial leader as well. A few political scandals later and Reynolds succeeded Haughey. He now put his mark on his party in no uncertain terms and changed the tone with his coalition partners. The electoral consequences would be disastrous.

Fianna Fáil’s appeal to the electorate in 1992 for a Dáil majority would be refused again. The party lost nine seats. Buoyed during the election by anti-Fianna Fáil rhetoric, and spurning coalition options, Labour secured its best election result, winning thirty-three seats. However, once the votes were counted, Labour leader Dick Spring changed tack. His previous antipathy to Fianna Fáil and the perception that Reynolds could not make coalition government work seemed to rule out the obvious solution based on seat numbers. But, as with Haughey and O’Malley, the inevitable happened with Reynolds and Spring. “The outcome of the campaign resulted in yet another first in Irish politics,” Murphy points out, “as this time a party in office continued in power after a general election but with a new partner.”

Reynolds had a businessman’s impatience, not least with his new coalition ally, Labour, but in one unlikely area this paid off: Northern Ireland. Up to this point Reynolds could be understood as a typical Fianna Fáil politician, Murphy tells us, in that he paid lip service to the “lofty ideals of unification” which very few in the party “actually paid any heed to”. The North had not featured as an election issue in the South, even in the darkest days of the Troubles. “But for Reynolds none of this mattered,” Murphy declares. “What mattered was that he discerned a scenario where on becoming Taoiseach he could persuade the IRA to declare a ceasefire, cajole the British and the representatives of Ulster Unionism into accepting a political deal, and convince the Americans into supporting it.” Nevertheless, a senior judicial appointment – described by a long-serving government adviser as a “power play that went hideously wrong” – brought Reynolds down in 1994. And the seat numbers in the Dáil allowed for a different government combination.

Fianna Fáil’s new leader, Ahern, would now be spurned by Labour, which remained in government by backing Fine Gael’s John Bruton as taoiseach. The newcomer in this three-partner government would be Democratic Left (DL), rejected by Bruton two years previously as unfit for office. DL came into being when the Workers’ Party’s TDs, bar one, jettisoned their Marxism after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bruton overcame his ideological difficulties with DL to become taoiseach and lead the new government, which pursued essentially the same policies as the Fianna Fáil-Labour administration. Not only had Fianna Fáil policies achieved a certain amount of success, Fine Gael had been persuaded to continue them. Bruton’s U-turn with the former Marxists, Murphy contends, highlights the essentially non-ideological nature of Irish party politics.

This Rainbow Coalition also pledged to keep a promise made by its predecessor: to hold a referendum on the constitutional ban on divorce. A slim majority voted in 1995 to remove the prohibition – conservative attitudes remained very strong. If morality would be the first strand of issues challenging politicians in the 1980s and 90s, corruption in public life would be the other. One tribunal of inquiry led to another. But winning the referendum and engaging with the difficult task of attempting to penalise corrupt politicians did the Rainbow parties no favours in the 1997 election. Fianna Fáil and the PDs were back.

While the latter had its neo-liberal ideology, Fianna Fáil had typically been all things to all men: the party of the developer and the entrepreneur as much as the professionals, the farmers and the workers. And it also kept its eye on the urban and rural poor depending on social welfare. Above all, it portrayed itself, Murphy reminds us, as “the party of the plain people of Ireland who had their dinner in the middle of the day”. All this would change, he argues, when Ahern appointed Charlie McCreevy as his finance minister. McCreevy, and later Cowen, effectively adopted a “If I have it I spend it” approach. McCreevy epitomised the Fianna Fáil of the Celtic Tiger era, cutting taxes in his first budget while increasing social welfare payments. A determination “to favour business and the better-off would run through all his budgets”, Murphy observes. But unemployment fell from ten per cent when this government took charge in mid-1997 to six per cent eighteen months later. Not lacking in confidence, McCreevy paid no heed to naysayers, including those in Brussels.

The voters liked his style too and re-elected the government in 2002 (with the PDs doing well by highlighting the dangers resulting from Fianna Fáil securing a Dáil majority). Fine Gael suffered an extremely serious setback and Labour, brought back to earth post-Rainbow, did not fare well either. Hopes were dashed that Labour, strengthened by the incorporation of DL, might enjoy another landmark election and force the Dáil into the left-right divide that has been stubbornly resisted by the voters for so long. Keen to harness significant support by promoting a leftist platform, Sinn Féin made a breakthrough by winning five seats. The Greens captured six, and independents fourteen. This election, then, created an opposition more fragmented than it had been in more than fifty years (although it would become more splintered in successive elections). However, the political feelgood factor dominated and this government, too, lasted five years.

With Fianna Fáil winning forty per cent of the vote in 2007, and continuing in power, the possibility of any alternative government seemed remote. Obsessed with stability, Ahern formed another coalition, this time with the Greens, the remaining two PD TDs and some independents (the PDs would dissolve themselves in 2008). Ahern had an impressive career as taoiseach, Murphy observes, winning three general elections in a row, playing a crucial role in the Northern Ireland peace process, overseeing a booming economy, but finally becoming embroiled in “a squalid dispute with the Planning Tribunal which would see his career end in significant public ridicule”. The hapless Cowen succeeded him and would be overwhelmed as the Celtic Tiger economy imploded. Murphy believes that more than twenty years of social partnership created a sterile debate about economic “management” which resulted in a situation where “no one in either the bureaucratic or political elite” knew how to get the state out of the quagmire it was steered into “as a result of ineffective regulation, greed, corruption, and downright incompetence”.

While support for the old order is weakening – Labour got hammered in 2016 – the three main parties won seventy-eight per cent of the vote between 1987 and 2011. “The collapse in the Fianna Fáil vote in 2011 saw direct gains for the established political alternatives of Fine Gael and Labour, but also Sinn Féin and a number of hard-left groups and various classes of independents,” Murphy writes. However, crucially, what did not happen “was the emergence of a new political party which could attract enough votes to make a difference”. This study of electoral ups and downs is subtitled “The politics of triumph and despair”. The author might well have chosen something more prosaic. Perhaps “steady as she goes”. Which, as millions of voters in the world’s most powerful democracy might now agree, is no bad thing.


John Mulqueen is a tutor in history at Dublin City University.



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