The reality and rhetoric of where Fianna Fail stands in Irish politics

I read with some amusement Jack O’Connors contribution to the debate around Fianna Fail and the SDLP possibly developing a more formal arrangement.

He argues;

Noel Whelan is probably indulging in a bit of end of silly season kite-flying, but it is extremely damaging to the Labour Party. I mean no disrespect to the Fianna Fail Party, indeed I am on the record as saying that the decision not to go back into Government with them in 1994 was one of the worse mistakes we ever made. However, Fianna Fail is a centre-right party in the nationalist tradition whereas we are a democratic socialist party.

He continues;

if the SDLP choses to throw its lot in with Fianna Fail, we in the Labour Party should engage with our comrades in the UK Labour Party, with a view to organising across the community in the North in a non-sectarian way to press the case for economic equality and justice for all.  This was always hindered by the constitutional question, but now that has been solved on the basis of the principle of consent.

One thread through the entire debate is this notion that Fianna Fail is some Thatcherite party. Having first hand experience of being an active member of the party for close to 7 years I must say that this is absolute nonsense and bears no relation the reality or history of Fianna Fail in government.

Fianna Fail is a broad church political party. Like some analysts have observed, it’s better to view the organisation as a movement, rather than a party. When I was active in the party, I met some people who were comfortable with our colaition partner the Progressive Democrats, others who wanted to go into government with Labour and some who wanted to go into coalition with the Green Party and a few who wanted Sinn Fein.

Look back at history, Fianna Fail has shared power or been supported by parties on the centre left such as Labour and the Workers Party. It has also governed with centre right parties such as the Progressive Democrats. Fianna Fail is not a party of strict ideological thinking in a right/left sense.

When I was a member, pragmatism and addressing political realities as they are were always stressed as a good thing. If you were in the political centre, it was important to have the flexibility to move left on some issues and right on others.

But this notion that if the SDLP merged with Fianna Fail they could find no home or nothing to support is just nonsense. Lets look at the reality of Fianna Fail government. Go back through the advances in social welfare, in most of the cases from free secondary education to the introduction of the minimum wage, most of these initiatives were brought in by a Fianna Fail government.

The tale of the last Fianna Fail government tells its own story when it comes to public spending

Now these massive increases in spending are not something that a ideological right wing party would seek to do. These increases went largely to improving infrastructure, health, education and social welfare. Under Fianna Fail, there were huge increases in provisions of medical cards and improving old age pensions. Oh and by the way if you’re interested, the previous Rainbow Coalition presided over a situation where meager increases were given to pensioners, resulting in the famous £2 a week increase.

Even during the recession, it was commented upon by institutes such as the ESRI that Fianna Fail austerity budgets were actually more equitable than the Fine Gael/Labour coalition, contrary to Jack’s assertion. As Vincent Browne comments upon very well;

Following last year’s budget, the first after Labour’s most recent return to government following the ravages of its previous period in office, the ESRI established that the 2012 budget’s combination of indirect tax increases and welfare cuts imposed greater percentage losses on those with low incomes (reductions of between 2 to 2.5 per cent) as against losses of about ¾ of a per cent for those on the highest incomes.

That same ESRI study showed the previous Fianna Fáil-led government was much more progressive, with the impact of the austerity regime being directed most on those with higher incomes.

Then we have Fianna Fail’s relationship with the Trade Union movement. Going back to the 1980s, when Thatcher was in direct conflict with the unions, Haughey was developing social partnership, led by his Labour Minister, Bertie Ahern. Adopting a consensus model to achieve economic progress, he did not follow a confrontational route like Thatcher did in the UK. This very same approach was adopted by Brian Cowen during the most recent recession with the Croke Park Agreement.

My final point is this, Irish Labour regularly mention the IMF and on that, I have to say they do have a point. Fianna Fail should never view this as a good period for either Ireland or the party. However, I wonder how Jack proposes to square that circle with the UK Labour, who themselves presided over an IMF bailout for the UK in 1976 and had they been re-elected in 2010 were proposing massive budget cuts and restraining public sector pay.

If Irish Labour are going to stand they should do so on their own merits. I would welcome it, all island politics is a good thing. Labour play a role in Irish life and that spectrum of debate would be welcome in Northern Ireland.

I don’t know what will come of the SDLP and Fianna Fail talks or if they are even that serious. But, we need to keep this debate in perspective.

Fianna Fail is a broad church. But that church was able to govern, make mistakes yes, but it was also able to do the Downing Street Declaration, Good Friday Agreement and take Ireland into the European Union. The various National Development Plans that improved infrastructure and saw schools and hospitals built across the country.

If you sit in Northern Ireland and marvel at the Irish economy & society, you cannot simply dismiss the role that the party who has governed that state for most of its existence played in creating that success.

 

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs