Clann na Poblachta: A Cautionary Tale for Smaller Parties

By Paul McIlvenny

The silly season has begun.

As the parliamentary recess began and TDs returned to their constituencies to touch base and escape the parliamentary heat for the heat of summer, the political commentariat were predictably consumed by pre-election claim and counter-claim.

As the summer draws to a close, political fever around the October Budget will become pandemic, with new temperatures reached as the budget signals the end of the current Confidence&Supply agreement that holds Fine Gael and their Independent bedfellows in power; with Fianna Fáil washing the sheets, fluffing the pillows and tucking them in each night.

After the general election of 2016 failed to deliver a majority for either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, an agreement was reached between the civil war parties that saw the larger party forming a minority government with the Independent Alliance, and Fianna Fáil promising to support them through three budgets until the close of 2018.

The final budget of the agreement draws ominously near.

With the Confidence&Supply agreement reaching its expiry date, talk of election is in the air.

Beyond Confidence & Supply

There is good reason for Fianna Fáil to believe that any extension of the agreement beyond its expiry date will result in a predicted rot, and the stench in the air can already be smelt by its grassroots.

With crises in housing and health persisting, recent opinion polls have confirmed that the current agreement is benefiting one of the two civil war parties. That party is not Fianna Fáil.

A recent opinion poll by the Behaviour and Attitudes Survey in the Irish Times had the party on 21%, a widely reported 13% behind Fine Gael, and little reported 1% behind Sinn Féin. It was their lowest polling position since the last general election.

Caught in an amphibious position between zombie opposition without the credibility to criticise a government it sustains, and zombie coalition without the ministerial or cabinet power to direct policy, they find themselves in a difficult position.

Their low polling augurs badly were they to seek an election after the October Budget. But any continuation of the current agreement would perpetuate the amphibious condition that has cemented their electoral myopia.

For Fine Gael, an election seems an attractive proposition but their lustre could fade in the public eye were they to call an election for brazen political gain while Brexit D-Day looms.
What is certain and unanimously accepted is that neither party will enjoy a majority after the next election, whenever it occurs. The balance of power will remain much the same, except for a strengthened Sinn Féin and a squeeze on Independents, if the polling trends continue.

From this it is inevitable that the next government formation will be coalition, crystallising Mitchell’s assessment in Coalition Governments in Western Europe that Ireland has moved from being a country were coalition has become the rule, rather than the exception.

The parliamentary scales may be as evenly balanced, but the weight of Sinn Féin will be considerably heavier this time.

In a recent interview with Hugh O’Connell in The Sunday Business Post, FF leader Micheal Martin ruled out nothing except formal coalition with Sinn Féin; while Fine Gael ministers and backbenchers have offered similar sentiments.

However, the post-election negotiations will yield to political reality when the votes are counted.
While the options for the two larger parties seem restricted to formal coalition between themselves, a resuscitated form of the current arrangement, or a formal coalition between Sinn Féin and one of them, the options for the other parties are equally vexed.

For the smaller parties, history may offer a cautionary tale.

The Fate of Clann na Poblachta

At the beginning of 1948, Eamon de Valera and his Soldiers of Destiny had enjoyed 16 years in power, shepherding the 26 counties through a Second World War and a seemingly terminal economic decline.

The election of 1948 saw the emergence of a plethora of parties, each united with the others in little beyond their shared determination to Put Them Out!

Among the parties determined to displace Fianna Fáil from their seemingly unassailable position in office was Clann na Poblachta. Founded by the charismatic Sean MacBride, son of 1916 volunteer John MacBride, and himself a former Chief of Staff of the IRA, the party coalesced around a platform of radical republicanism and a social democratic model that had swept to power in Britain and throughout the European continent.

At the beginning of 1948, it seemed that the new party would pose a major threat to Fianna Fáil. In 1947 it had won two by-elections, and counted among its number IRA ex-internees who had witnessed the ruthless manner in which De Valera had dealt with the IRA through special military tribunals and execution.

Combining strong nationalist credentials with a progressive politics, the radical republicanism of MacBride’s Clann na Poblachta posed a grave threat to the socially conservative and economically protectionist FF.

After a snap election in February 1968, Clann na Poblachta secured only 10 seats despite receiving 13.2% of the first preference vote. But with the 31 seats of Fine Gael, National Labour’s 5, 7 of Clann na Talmhan and Labour’s 14, they committed to their pre-election pledge and formed the first inter-party coalition in the history of the State.

Despite the strength of Fine Gael, which enjoyed the majority of government ministries including the all-powerful finance portfolio, it was Clann na Poblachta that provided the ideological zeal and policy direction of the new government.

With MacBride assuming the position of Minister for External Affairs and Noel Browne controlling the Department of Health, the party sought and achieved considerable concessions from their fiscally conservative, anti-republican and significantly larger coalition partner.

Unlike the policy reversals of Labour in their 2011 coalition with Fine Gael, MacBride’s Clann na Poblachta achieved large swathes of their policy platform.

With the passage of the Republic of Ireland Act, MacBride realised his aim of extricating the South from the British Commonwealth and reversing Britain’s ability to accredit its diplomatic representatives.

Under the leadership of Browne, the Department of Health all but eradicated the scourge of tuberculosis that had blighted the southern population and had claimed the Minister’s own parents.
The health budget increased from less than £700,000 in 1947 to over £5 million in 1951.

In a policy outcome that seems beyond the current government, the 1948 coalition increased housing output from 1,460 in 1947 to 2,295 in their maiden year. The figure rose to 12,046 in 1950, representing an expansion that the current housing crisis so desperately requires.

Despite these achievements, the electoral fortunes of Clann na Poblachta provided an inverted reflection of their political achievements. After a government collapse in 1951, Fianna Fáil returned to majority power, while MacBride’s party suffered successive losses in each election until their eventual dissolution.

The reasons for the Clann’s electoral demise stand in stark contrast to those attributable to the implosion of Labour in 2016 after 5 years of austerity. Despite its apparent political successes in Government, Clann na Poblachta failed to convert policy value into political capital.

Eoin O’Malley of DCU, in Punch Bags for Heavyweights? Minor Parties in Irish Government, contends that by entering government larger parties may effectively ‘smother’ smaller ones. This takes place through a combination of utilising the policy direction of the smaller and more ideological party to modernise the larger party, and by blunting the identity of the smaller party through its government participation.

In the case of the coaltion of 1948, Fine Gael was able to steal the nationalist dress of Clann na Poblachta and discard “the Union Jack which [De Valera]… had wrapped around [the party] in 1922” (quoted from McCullagh’s 1998 book A Makshift Majority: The First Inter-Party Government 1948-51).

The later-to-become Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Sean Lemass later claimed that had Clann na Poblachta exercised patience rather than enter government at the earliest opportunity, they could have succeeded in eclipsing his own party. In his own analysis, Lemass concluded that voters returned to Fianna Fail in disgust as soon as MacBride entered coalition with Fine Gael.

A Cautionary Tale

Whatever the arithmetic outcome of the next election, the fate of Clann na Poblachta should provide a cautionary tale for smaller parties that hope to grow beyond their current chrysalis to dominate southern politics. Even achieving policy aims can prove a curse for smaller parties in government.

The next election could well prove an historic moment in the continental drift of Irish politics, unless the mistake of Clann na Poblachta is repeated.

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