Is Fianna Fail the new Woolworths of Irish politics?

It’s not published until 3rd March, but one book I recommend you place an advance order for from Slugger’s Bookstore is James Harkin’s Niche. Belfast émigré Harkin examines a number of stories from business, culture and politics and comes to a single insight: everywhere the broad middle is collapsing.

He offers Woolworths as an iconic exemplar of how a broadly curated High Street offering failed when customers chose instead to draw from a range of highly segmented retail outlets:

The big beast of retail media and politics now find themselves in an unenviable position. Many of them hove into view only in the middle decades of the 20th Century, and only thanks to a unique confluence of history, politics and the appearance of new industrial machinery – a set of circumstances that are now on their way out. By holding us captive with a near monopoly of our attention, they integrated the general public into a broad new kind of culture.

Little by little, however, the vehicle in which they held us – from the pick ‘n’ mix display in department stores to the selection of policies offered us by mainstream political parties, from the middlebrow films produced by Hollywood to the midlist fare on offer in the Book-of-the-Month-Club – broke down.

In Ireland, it’s hard to think of a political party with more mainstream ‘High Street’ appeal than Fianna Fail. From the late ’40s even kids in the Dublin street began to sing skipping songs with words like “Vote, vote, vote for DeValera”.

The brand was ubiquitous and universal, and the party was just beginning a long (and their opponents would say relentless) political hegemony.

Now there are many reasons for being sceptical about the true nature of the party’s current poll ratings, but no one predicted a year ago that they would be lucky to gain enough seats to push them up into the mid thirties. As we noted back in December, the party’s once universal and ubiquitous national coalition is cracking up.

Even at Fine Gael’s high point in the November 1982 election, Fianna Fail still came in ahead of them. Yet far more interestingly, from the point of view of Harkin’s thesis, is how few Independents there were (2), or any significant representation from the left of Labour (2).

The big broad appeal is fading from Irish politics. It might be said that Labour and Fine Gael’s success thus far has sprung from a decision to segment the voter base (with Labour taking public sector workers, whilst Fine Gael appealing to the private sector) rather than going for another ‘catch all’ like the ill fated Mullingar Accord.

Thus in the week or so that’s left we might expect Labour to ramp up the message that they can best push a public sector job protection programme, if their target voters push up the proportion of Labour TDs in the next government.

Whilst it’s hard to disagree with Simon McGarr’s slightly world weary observation that there is no swing to the left in Irish politics, this is at least as much because because the swing voter no longer exists in the way he did back in 1982 as the innate conservatism of a very small island nation.

It was inconcieveable back then, for instance, when life was extremely tough for anyone outside the big party system, that a figure like Mick Wallace in Wexford would stand a decent chance of winning a seat in Dail Eireann.

That he does, and dozens more like him do, is perhaps testimony that the days of Pick ‘n’ Mix politics, pre-curated to give the political party maximum general appeal, is coming to an end.  And, if Harkin is right, not just in Ireland. And not just in Politics.

That doesn’t mean this is the end of Fianna Fail, any more than the ’02 election spelt the end of Fine Gael. But it is probably the end of the broad, bland, middlebrow political appeal as the infallible recipe for political success in Ireland.

Niche: Why the Market No Longer Favours the Mainstream – James Harkin.

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  • gréagóir o frainclín

    Is Fianna Fail the new Woolworths of Irish politics?

    I definitely hope so and I hope they wane and decline in popularity in the same way as De Valera’s reputation, his newspaper – the Irish Press, etc.. (oh and the Catholic Church).

    Time to boot this corrupt party into touch.

  • Kevin Barry

    Interesting theory, but perhaps it’s a bit early or presumptuous to call it time on big sweeping party politics especially with these circumstances. Give it another election or two and perhaps he’ll be proved right though.

  • Mick Fealty

    Just had a review copy of another book posted through the letterbox this morning: Cute Hoors and Pious Protesters by John Drennan. At first glance, it looks like a dystopian version of Olivia O’Leary’s Politicians and other animals…

    I’m just waiting for someone to do a dystopian pen portrait on political journalists, bloggers, their commenters and the like…

    Greg, you miss the point. It’s not that FF is dead, it’s not. It’s that their one stop shop for politics (and much else) is gone, to be replaced by something else. Maybe better, may be not.

    Interestingly these dramatic changes are not as apparent in the British system (probably because the proportionate nature of the Irish voting system makes them more apparent) but the big parties are seeing the same disengagement.

    FPTP has not threatened binary ‘yes/no’ blocks in the same structural way that STV-PR does, so perhaps disengagement by citizens from ‘big politics’ is the cost exacted by the same process?

  • joeCanuck

    Good metaphor; Humpty Dumpty also comes to mind. Will FF end up like the once all powerful Unionist Party?

  • John Ó Néill

    Joe – whether they like it or not the UUP and FF were always mirror images of each other – when they stop ‘governing’ (sic), FF will also atrophy as they can’t figure out what they are supposed to do (since they have no ideological base to fall back on). Over the last 2-3 weeks I’ve heard a few FF people condemn their ‘client list’ (their own words, believe it or not) for deserting them after all they did for them. We are in unchartered territory here – FF could still have 40 TDs and be the largest opposition party, or it could have 14 and the fourth largest party. I’m inclined to believe it will still be the former, although there is such vitriol being aimed at them and they may be so transfer repellant, that the latter wouldn’t exactly be a shock.

  • Why has nobody flagged up Alex Massie’s piece in The Speccy?

    Make sure you ignore the specious commentary; and go straight to the embedded video.

    The spirit of Myles na gCopaleen rises to meet us.

  • Brian Walker

    Hmm Maybe, but premature to jump to conclusions. First Woollies was a declining brand for at least 20 years not only because of segmentation but due to massive expansion of other segments away from the High St in shopping centres was a victim of the absolute not only relative growth of other shopping. By analogy the Irish polity isn’t about to expand greatly in all directions ( no cracks about the north, please).

    Sure, further fragmentation is an option as it is in the UK even with first past the post, with the growth of nationalism . But if new constraints are put on clientlelism, this might not seem so attractive an option. Nor can one see a major left-right realignment any time soon. The big contrary example to fragmentation is the virtual disappearance of the Progressive Conservatives in Canada from an overall majority to two seats in 1993, only to revive in a slightly different form in just over a decade to form a minority government, followed by two others up to today. This is the alternative vision Fianna Fail might like to cling to.

  • Greenflag

    There may be scope out there for some up and coming political analyst to look at any correlation between the segmenting of the broad political middle with a similar segmenting taking place in the economic ‘middle ‘ in western societies ?. Perhaps the large ‘catch all ‘ parties are now demonstrably out of their depth as they can no longer be seen to be all things to all men/voters?

    FF are now clinging to anything and everything as they struggle to avoid or is it evade the voter’s wrath . Doors have been slammed in faces or left unanswered while candidates and canvassers alike are subjected to verbal abuse and threats of worse .

  • Mick Fealty


    I wasn’t predicting the end of FF, merely pointing out that the national alliance (and broader sympathy within the ‘general public’) is no longer a reliable appeal to make.

    This has been a slow, iterative slide for them, as my reference to Nov 1982 as a benchmark demonstrates. It was the banking crisis that fractured Woolies in the end, but the *weakening* of the model took many years.

    It may yet do the same to FF, depending on just how low they go on the night. But whether they survive or crash, the catch all Woolworth’s model seems to bust for now.

  • Roy Walsh

    Brian, I expect part of the problem for the once great FF is their lack of expansion into the North despite their promise.
    Have they been missed? I think not, is it to late for them, again, I think not, I’d be interested to hear if others think this could be their best move in shoring up the center ground Republican vote or are they the ‘mis-shapes’ once found in the cheap aisle and bought by the poor students?