GE11 Profile: Fine Gael move from obscurity to power

Fine Gael has a strange place in Irish politics. Many pundits (amateur and professional) like to do their calculations as though the party did not actually exist, or at least was incapable of drawing the affections of a substantial group in Irish society. It is often portrayed as (and often is) the ‘Anyone But  Fianna Fail’ party. And yet, and yet, Enda Kenny is indisputably going to be the next leader of the country.

Kevin Rafter’s book on the party is required reading if you want a quick read-in on the party’s mixed and checkered history. It has been a party of the centre left (Garrett FitzGerald saw himself, and by extension the party he led, as social democrat). It’s not clear that Enda has any pronounced political colouring, even if some of the young turks jostling over his shoulder most certainly do.

But what’s seen to be good for the private sector (tax cuts and easing of employment law), may not be seen to be good for the public sector (job cuts and external competition). Working together on a compromise programme of government runs the danger of alienating both segments.

Opinion in the Dublin media is divided on how deep that talent goes, but no one in the Dail has their current depth and breadth of representation, with 70 deputies as of last night’s count, to Labour’s 36, Fianna Fail’s 18 and Sinn Fein’s 13. Even the shallowest of pools could find 15 competent ministers from 110 plus along with 10 or so juniors eager to be seen to make original and inventive contributions.

There are powerful lobbies now counselling them to go it alone with the aid of a small bunch of economist TDs. The logic is clear enough. Between them, Fine Gael and Labour have almost perfectly segmented Fianna Fail’s Woolworth’s coalition of private and public sector voters, and in the process gutted that party’s political power base.

But what’s seen to be good for the private sector (tax cuts and easing of employment law), may not be seen to be good for the public sector (job cuts and external competition). Working together on a compromise programme of government runs the danger of alienating both segments.

For now the party’s front bench seems content to deal with Labour. And there’s some sense in that too. Much of the rather giddy talk of political realignment, fails to take account of the fact that Fianna Fail’s dominance of Irish politics in the last eighty years arises from its understanding that under STV PR, it’s the parish rather than the nation that matters.

But the parish, and its larger incarnation, the county, is not the sole boundary of a citizen’s political interest. That it has been, goes some way to explain the complacency the last government feel into, and the deep hole at the heart of the nation’s finances.

This is a state of affairs that Enda Kenny and Fine Gael cannot allow to continue. To end the parish pump politics which has brought the country to its knees, you have to assign the care of the parish to something much closer to the parish pump.

Properly reforming local government, restoring to it the power and responsibility it lost in 1977 – when Jack Lynch abolished the domestic rate on houses – would open up real options for those who might lose out from reductions in the size of the Oireachtas while ensuring that the public could seek redress from decentralised democratic power.

This would free up the legislators to focus on law making and hold the executive to account.

Fine Gael and Labour and to an extent other parties in the Dail will have a vested interest in making changes to the political system so that they are not in the firing line of the public come the next election.

The problems the country faces will take longer than a parliamentary term to resolve and any realignment that might be occurring is still only half way completed. Were Labour for example to lose out to the other parties of the left come the next election, it would move the left no closer to government than it is now.

Remedies to the nation’s rather than simply the economy’s ills almost certainly will have to include political reform. It may not be what the average citizen in Cavan or Roscommon is clamouring for, but it is a functional way to address the malaise at the heart of Irish politics, and what Kenny terms as the disconnection between citizen and their democratically elected government.

This requires some form of national consensus, not simply between Fine Gael and Labour, but reaching out to include (as far as possible) Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and the various independent blocks.

Without it, the country is in danger of lurching from party to party in an endless parade of ‘Kick the Bums out’ elections that leads nowhere but down.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty