As four months of protracted political horse-trading come to a close, it appears to be a most Pyrrhic victory for Micheál Martin. With the Taoiseach’s office within grasp and a decade of post-Crash reform under his belt, the future should look rosy for the prospective Leeside Taoiseach.
However, abysmal polling which places Fianna Fáil at a haggardly 12%, and internal rancour manifesting itself at a parliamentary and grassroots level appears to be a dampener on any return to office.
Indeed while the media originally focused on whether the Green Party would be able to swallow the Programme for Government, the ability for Martin to command the numbers himself is now in question.
Beginning as an internal murmur over the abortive attempts to be more proactive in the six counties, before reaching a crescendo this week, disquiet is fast spreading at Martin’s leadership. It has been a fight that has been brewing for some time, but which has only occasionally reached public notice.
What germinated originally as an informal lobby in the form of the quasi-anonymous Cosmhuintir, has crystallised into formal opposition to the Programme for Government.
The self-proclaimed ‘Fairer Future’ group has become a rallying point for anti-coalition, ergo anti-Martin, dissent the past few days, picking up a respectable number of endorsements. Educated opinion states that Martin should marshall enough support to carry it over the line, however it should haunt his premiership regardless.
The main thrust of Fairer Future is to prevent any coalition with Fine Gael so as not to leave Sinn Féin as the de facto primary opposition. With a whopper of a recession down the line, elements within the party know that being in the hot seat as the country enters a slump is a proverbial poison chalice.
While prima facie a schism over entering into a devil’s pact with Fine Gael, the disharmony masks the existential crisis facing the party.
As a brand name Fianna Fáil simply cannot afford another half decade on the opposition benches. The nexus of clientelism that constitutes the party demands one thing and one thing only – victory and the resulting bounty that follows. Without that the party will rapidly slip away into the night.
Ultimately whatever side emerges victorious is frankly an academic question to us on the populist right. The epoch in which Fianna Fáil or indeed any Irish political party set the tempo on real governance is long since gone.
The 26-county State and its huckster elite is essentially a hollowed out husk in an era of transnational governance, and where real decision making has been outsourced to the triumvirate of Brussels, Washington and a multitude of NGOs.
The State styled in their founder’s image is really only a shadow of its former self, with modern Fianna Fáil just feeding off the scraps.
The role of a genuinely republican party in 2020 is to repatriate these outsourced powers and chart a new direction, a concept alien to contemporary Fianna Fáil.
In our parents’ lifetime Fianna Fáil could mobilise hidden armies of cumainn nationwide, now it lives off these organisational fumes, abandoning the unspoken cultural conservatism that was implicit within the party. To a large extent Fairer Future embodies these jaded political soldiers.
For conservative-minded Fianna Fáil voters, the Martin years have been one of marginalisation. Ten years ago a Fianna Fáil leader championing abortion would have been blasphemy, now it is mainline party policy.
Why has it taken so long for the more traditionally-minded members to assert themselves? Considering how far Martin has taken Fianna Fáil into the progressive doldrums why is Fairer Future only acting now?
While the Left bemoans the supposed compromises made by the Green Party, what reason should conservatives in Fianna Fáil have for supporting not just the coalition, but the party itself?
Whether it be green taxes or hate speech laws, Fianna Fáil has stopped paying any deference to any notion of a conservative voting bloc. Considering how the core membership of the party remains disproportionately conservative, it may even be feckless down the line.
The end result of the decade-long liberalisation process leaves Fianna Fáil a green-tinted version of the Social Democrats. A hyper-progressive like Stephen Donnelly did not stop being a Social Democrat to join Fianna Fáil, rather Fianna Fáil had become indistinguishable from the Social Democrats, enabling him to simply change brands.
Almost with a sense of self-loathing, the party desired to move away from its perception as an amoral boys club of gombeens and into the centre. The thinking in the face of social change was merely to go with the tide for the sake of not being categorised as an irrelevant parochial relic.
The reformism of Martin was born out of the carcass of the Cowen-Ahern era that drove the State and parliamentary party into the abyss. After a decade of lectures instructing the faithful of the need to pivot to an agreed progressive centre, the party is in arguably a worse condition now than it was when the IMF entered Town.
Whether you are Fianna Fáil or the Catholic Church the lesson is always the same, never appease progressives or wider liberal society.
In sociological terms, Sinn Féin has swept the electoral rug from under the Soldiers of Destiny, with Martin’s liberalisation further bringing the party into the cold.
Furthermore the willingness of Fianna Fáil voters to opt for a joker like Peter Casey in both Presidential and European elections should be a forewarning of what could occur as discipline breaks down among their electoral core.
Contrary to certain observers harping on about the increasingly progressive nature of Irish society there is enough of a conservative core to provide a political engine for populism. The problem at present is that they are, as of late, voting for parties like Fianna Fáil out of a sense of ritualised obligation.
It only took approximately 10% of the public to back UKIP post-2010 to set in motion the chain reaction that culminated in Brexit and shift of the Tory Party rightward. Similar to Martin, David Cameron attempted to slowly phase out more conservative aspects of the party before blowback occured.
For prospective populists, Fianna Fáil has the promise to be an electoral piñata in the event of its imminent demise. Across Europe, populism has entered the political foreground on the backs of lacklustre centrist, formerly catch-all, parties. Out of the ruins of Fianna Fáil could step in something more dangerous to the status quo.
Aontú, with its more Midlands-based orientation, occupying the same socio-economic ground as Fianna Fail, is presently positioned best should Martin lead his party into the electoral meat grinder. Whether they function as anything better than Fianna Fáil is yet to be seen.
Against the Scylla of four more years in the doldrums, and the Charybdis of a pact with Fine Gael, the future looks dim for Martin’s men. Whichever way the party opts, it surely will be electorally penalised.
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once noted of the moribund Soviet Union that there were very few true-believing communists in the USSR, and arguably one could say the same of current members in the Fianna Fáil party. Once it becomes evident that the party will never be top dog in government and attain the prestige that goes with it, the party will enter a death spiral. Potentially this spiral has already started.
Fianna Fáil is not an ideological party, but a once-formidable political machine. Once it’s shown as a dead duck for careersists and inseparable from the rest of the progressive pack, it will falter.
In its own way, populism is reshaping Irish politics, although it has not yet manifested itself in explicitly nativist parties attaining a footing. Despite the former prestige of the party, one really doubts if it will be around in a decade.
Once the stabilising effects of the two centre parties Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael diminish, radical forces can exert themselves more on the political stage.
Presently the left is allowed to run rampant on social policy and state capture precisely because amoral centre-parties like Fianna Fáil give them free reign. The price of power for these fossils is handing the keys to the kingdom over to the progressive left.
The prospective demise of Fianna Fáil is not merely a moment too soon, but almost a decade too late. Ideally, in the aftermath of the ‘08 Crash the party should have disbanded, or at least have been co-opted so something better could have taken its place.
Fianna Fáil was formed in the 1920s out of the inadequacies of the early Free State. Fianna Fáil in the 2020s may sing its swan song by driving itself into the electoral wilderness after a decade of liberal reforms. It has operated with almost a sense of amorality the past century but cannot survive just being an indistinguishable progressive party.
Letting Fianna Fáil die in a forest fire of its own political contradictions would clear the road for a populist right in Irish politics.
To my shame I have a vote on the acceptance of the Programme, and will be giving it my approval, hoping for a populist phoenix to arise out of the ashes of Fianna Fáil.