Monday 22 November 2010

The strange death of Fianna Fail Ireland

The final capitulation by Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowan to the IMF and the European Union over a bailout must mark the last rites for his Fianna Fail party. The party founded by Eamon DeValera in 1927 had seen itself as the natural party of government since 1932, and it enjoyed a dominance of Irish politics only occasionally interrupted by coalitions of the opposition parties over the following 80 years. But all that is now at an end.

Fianna Fail scored a mere 17% on one poll last week, with Fine Gael on 33% and Labour on 27%. In Thursday's by-election in Donegal, not only are Sinn Fein set to win with as much as 40% of first preference votes, but Labour may score 15% in a seat where they barely scraped 3% before. Some polls even make Labour the largest party nationally, and it undoubtedly is in that position in Dublin.

When I was at university, we were taught that Ireland was a two-and-a-half-party system with Labour as the half-party. Now Fianna Fail may find itself in that unenviable position after an election that will now happen in January when the Greens pull the plug on their uncomfortable coalition with Fianna Fail. Why has this happened?

The most obvious reason is the economy. Fianna Fail has presided over a culture that allowed the property boom to develop, and which favoured unregulated development. Banks like Anglo-Irish were indulged, but so too were public sector trade unions as wages far exceeded the long-term capacity of the economy. The populist economic approach of Fianna Fail had a lot to do with the economic problems.

But that is not the only reason. The collapse of the Irish Catholic Church impacted on the party too: Fianna Fail was more closely in step with the hierarchy than its opponents, particularly in the 70s and 80s, and slower to embrace liberal reforms. The legacy of Charles Haughey and his cronies took their toll too. But above all, the near-death of Fianna Fail symbolises the profound social changes that have outlived the demise of the Celtic Tiger, which really gained traction after Mary Robinson was elected President in 1990.

All that is needed now is for the electorate to act as undertaker to Dev's party in the new year. The extent to which the Irish Labour Party can gain most from the remains will depend a lot on its ability to consolidate the popularity of its leader Eamon Gilmore - compared with Fine Gael's lacklustre Enda Kenny - into solid and credible policies for the age of austerity. The next two months could change the face of Irish politics forever.

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