There’s an strong comment piece by Frank Callanan in the latest edition of Village in which a number of points worth discussing and challenging are presented. Headlined ‘Fianna Fáil in government has changed us all’, the opening paragraphs neatly summarise the main thrust of the article. Strangely I agree with a lot of the reasoning he employs but not the conclusion drawn.
The opening two pars…
One of the least-considered characteristics of Irish politics is that which has most defined it: the ascendancy of Fianna Fáil. This asserted itself between 1932 and 1973, broken only twice, gave way to a pattern of alterence (rotation) over the quarter-century 1973-1997 and then seemed to re-establish itself in the general elections of 1997, 2002 and 2007. It was as if the electorate had acquired, and then lost, the knack of of turning Fianna Fáil out.
There is a remarkable derth of analysis of, and reflection on what might be called the macro-pyschological effects of the decades of three consecutive Fianna Fáil election victories on civic society including the media, opposition and civil service. These were considerable, even devastating.
I disagree with the Fianna Fáil focus. Yet it’s pretty tricky to compose a rebuttal the following which he uses to support the above…
My point is that there was and continues to be a striking lack of self-awareness, of reflexive consciousness, of the peculiar state of living Ireland over the Ahern decade and not being Fianna Fáil or Progressive Democrat. This also had a marked effect on the media which had to negotiate this strange psychological state. Some commentators, without necessarily having thought too much about it, came to regard Fianna Fáil ascendancy over opposition parties in brutalistically Darwinian terms.
The country had seemed to lose the most modest and most under-rated virtue of democracy, the habit of alterance [his emphasis]. The phenomenon was cumulative. Without changes of Government, the sense of the necessity of politics atrophied. The electorate was habituated to Fianna Fáil governance, and – somewhat unfairly, certainly by the 2007 election – the lack of governmental experience became a reproach against Fine Gael and Labour.
Certainly periodic changes of government are healthy for democracy, however, in our case I’d be more inclined to place the blame for the lack of alterence at multiple doors than solely at Fianna Fáil’s.
While Callanan does set a broad historical foundation for his point, the period in focus is 1997 to 2009. This is also, of course, when Social Partnership ‘flourished’.
Social Partnership was – to simplify it utterly – designed so everyone with influence would get along. However, everyone playing happy families does not a normal democracy make. The culture of consensus that emerged contributed more to the derth of alterence to which Callanan refers than Fianna Fáil alone.
Yes, Partnership, as we have came to know it, was a Fianna Fáil construct but it did require the participation of many other groupings. If you accept that then, I argue, it’s unfair to lay blame fully at the feet of ‘The Republican Party’.
Up until 1997 Partnership worked in a reasonably healthy way. Then it just got bizarre. The addition of the community and voluntary pillar that year meant anyone who spoke out thereafter was simply ushered into negotiations. There was a pillar for almost everyone in the audience. It became about appeasement rather than solution.
Still, on the face of it, it worked for all involved for a few more years; coinciding and contributing to the up-swing in the economy. Soon though Partnership, Fianna Fáil and the economy become mutually reliant. That’s where the seeds of the messy result we see today were sown.
By pulling all the potential mischief-makers into the same room to beat out a series of deals Fianna Fáil ensured said mischief-makers wouldn’t rock the boat (or spook the Tiger, if you’d prefer an alternative cliché). In power Ahern et al cemented their dominance by continually promising to appease the social partners, who agreed to have their bellies rubbed once they got their bit of benchmarking. That stability helped the economy, which in turn meant there was more money to promise to the partners. The cyclical process kept Fianna Fáil in power right through the boom.
Over time the Dáil became irrelevant because the important debates were going on around the negotiating tables, this further contributed to the electorate’s habit of returning Fianna Fáil. Gradually the media began giving more weight to Fianna Fáil statements; their policies were the only ones which would actually effect the lives of the paying general public. This cultivated a perception that the other parties were more to the fringe than their actual position. Thus – in search of the electorate’s acceptance -the Opposition parties began to move closer to the Fianna Fáil position.
In more recent years we’ve heard about Fine Gael policies being simply re-worded Fianna Fáil policies and vice versa. Similarly it has been said Labour sold out from the Left in its 2002 and 2007 manifesto. Neither accusations are without foundation. They’re the results of the logical shift towards the electorally successful centrism of Fianna Fáil which both parties sought to attain.
Of course, the outcome of this shift was a narrowing of the wingspan of what was accepted as mainstream political thought – ‘alternative’ became ‘radical’, ‘mainstream’ became ‘alternative’ – and therefore a reduction in the possibility of a change of government. Why change the boys in power when everyone influential seems to think they’re doing pretty okay? And sure aren’t the other lads almost the same nowadays anyway?
A narrow mainstream political spectrum is a particularly unhealthy situation for a democracy. However, that’s the situation we found ourselves in right up until early 2009 when Social Partnership begun to collapse. What constitutes mainstream political thought has since broadened slightly, unsurprisingly.
To conclude; blaming Fianna Fáil solely for the “devastating” ‘macro-pyschological changes’ the country has gone through is too easy. There was plenty more players, though few will admit to their choices having a detrimental impact on the economy today. These shouldn’t be forgotten.
It was Social Partnership wot done it, I say, and Social Partnership must be viewed as more than a Fianna Fáil cash dispensing machine.
But do feel free to tell me that I’m wrong, sure isn’t my whole point that broad consensus is a dangerous thing…
FOOTNOTE I: Of course none of the above means Fianna Fáil should not be the main grouping to be blamed for leaving us as we are now. They were in charge after all, I know that.
FOOTNOTE II: Not usually a fan of Village but the last two editions have been quality. Definitely worth picking up.
I enjoyed – perhaps ironically, given the above – the criticism of the quality of media debate about the causes of the crisis. The feature on corruption at the Carlton site on O’Connell Street by Michael Smith is also a must-read (not to mention the above referenced piece!)
Hopefully the standard can be maintained.