In most Western democracies, politics is usually defined by the left-right divide or spectrum. Readers in the north of Ireland will know that politics is a little different here, with most parties being pigeonholed along constitutional lines first and traditional left-right lines second (I would argue that these lines are not separate but rather intersect, however that is an article for another day). What readers may not know is that a similar political dynamic exists in the South, a dynamic that has come to the fore due to the upcoming general election on Saturday 8th February.
Since partition, the South has been governed in rotation by Fianna Fáil (FF) and Fine Gael (FG), with occasional help from smaller, coalition-friendly parties. Both parties are products of the Civil War between supporters of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and its opponents nearly one-hundred years ago. At the risk of omitting considerable historical detail, FG formed from the pro-Treaty forces whereas FF formed from the anti-Treaty forces to run the fledgling Free State. The Civil War was bitter and divided families, friends, and communities. Its scars were so deep that these divisions still exist today. FG and FF remain the two largest parties in the South with many people voting along traditional Civil War lines. It is therefore reasonable to ask, “How different are these two parties?”
When I first moved to Dublin several years ago, I posed this question to a friend of mine. She told me, with a wry smile, that FF is the party of small farmers whereas FG is the party of big farmers. Her answer was tongue-in-cheek, if not generous. In terms of politics and ideology, FG and FF are virtually identical. According to Gail McElroy, a professor of political science in Trinity College Dublin, there isn’t a clear difference between the two parties. In an interview with TheJournal.ie she stated, “They’re both centre-right parties and their fiscal policies are really not that far apart… They’re ideologically very similar.” As a result of these similarities, McElroy concludes that it “wouldn’t be hard for them to be in government together.”
This conclusion is perhaps unsurprising given that FF has supported FG in government through a confidence-and-supply arrangement since 2016. In that time, FF has tried to have their cake and eat it by keeping FG in power while also claiming to be the opposition in Dáil Éireann. Furthermore, FG leader and current Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has publicly stated that he is open to a grand coalition with FF. Although FF leader Micheál Martin has dismissed this, he has refused to rule out a new confidence-and-supply arrangement with FG, albeit with the roles reversed.
The sweeping similarities between FG and FF raises yet another question, “How long can Civil War politics last?” There are signs that the tectonic plates of electoral politics are already beginning to shift. Since the early 1990s, no single party has been able to form a majority in Dáil Éireann, rendering coalition governments the norm. In 2011, support for FF collapsed to its lowest level since the founding of the party, thereby handing the baton of government to a Fine Gael-Labour coalition. In 2016, the collective vote share between FG and FF dipped beneath 50% for the first time in the history of the state. These trends suggest that the influence of Civil War politics is beginning to wane. However, there is another important factor: the rise of Sinn Féin (SF).
Since the 1986 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis voted to drop the party’s policy of abstention from Dáil Éireann, SF’s share of the vote has steadily risen to 13.8% in the South. Today, the party currently holds 22 seats in the Dáil and recent polling suggests that SF’s rise has not abated. In January alone, three separate polls have reported an increase in support for the party. A “Poll of Polls” reported by RTÉ puts support for SF at 19%, fewer than eight points behind either FG or FF. If replicated on polling day, SF could win between 32 and 36 seats in the Dáil.
A more recent poll from Panelbase reported that SF is now in second place at 21%, two points ahead of FG and only two points behind FF, whereas a new poll from Red C has reported that SF and FF are tied at 24% while FG lags behind in third place at 21%. These figures suggest that SF is currently in a position to potentially enter government in the South. However, the only poll that counts is on election day and there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and Cabinet table. Regardless, these results have panicked FG and FF as SF closes the gap between the parties.
Over the course of the election campaign, both FG and FF have repeatedly ruled out going into government with SF. In effect, they are trying to block SF from power and deny their voters a voice in government. This may raise eyebrows north of the border since both parties think that SF is suitable to govern in Stormont. Nevertheless, this strategy to sideline SF extends beyond government formation.
Both Varadkar and Martin have refused to debate SF leader Mary Lou McDonald on the RTÉ leaders’ debate only days before polling. This means that it will be a two-way debate between FG and FF, despite both parties effectively being in government together for four years. This is particularly hard to accept given recent polling which puts all three parties within touching distance of each other. In response, an online petition to include SF in the debate has garnered over 27,000 signatures. If Varadkar or Martin had confidence in their arguments, policies or record in government, they would have no reason to exclude SF from the debate. The fact that they have chosen to do so speaks volumes.
Despite their cowardice and chicanery, there is a rationale behind the two conservative parties’ actions. It is in their political self-interest to do everything that they can to keep SF from power. FG and FF have governed hand in glove for nearly a century. They have left the South in the midst of crises in housing, homelessness, and healthcare. Both parties fear that SF will demonstrate a radically better and fairer way to govern, thereby ending their decades-long duopoly. Once people see that a better alternative is possible, they rarely return to the status quo.
Civil War politics has dominated the South for too long, allowing FG and FF to return to government despite repeated failures and scandals. However, times are changing and try as they may, neither party can hold back the tide. The upcoming election is the first to be held on a Saturday since 1918, when Sinn Féin won 73 of the 105 seats in Ireland and therefore a mandate for Irish independence. No doubt the party will hope to replicate this success and prove that the right to decide who governs rests solely in the hands of the people.
Cormac Begley is a Sinn Féin member and activist.