A thought experiment for Northern Ireland: Part I. Are the Tories in for a historical bashing?

While the late Noel Whelan was already seen as a formidable commentator on political matters in the South for quite some time, the warning he gave to the political establishment in the run-up to the February 2011 general election did much to cement his reputation as Ireland’s leading political pundit.

While hardly anyone was expecting Fianna Fáil to receive anything other than a drubbing in the lead-up to that election, given that the party had almost single-handedly killed the Celtic Tiger barely two years earlier, the media at the time nevertheless refrained from suggesting that the setback would be seismic for them.

In late 2010, however, Whelan began to issue warnings in his Irish Times column and in media appearances that what was about to befall Fianna Fáil was likely to be unprecedented in Irish history and that their eclipse could have an incalculable effect on the future of politics in the state.

The first half of his prediction was duly proven correct on the day of the count (during which the Fianna Fáil tallymen so familiar to Whelan watched on impotently as no less than 51 of their party’s 71 seats disappeared, knocking them into a poor third place in the Dáil behind Fine Gael and Labour).

The other half of the warning – i.e., that the eclipse of Fianna Fáil would likely have unforeseeable effects on the electoral arithmetic of the country – began to crystalise when a series of almost suicidal miscalculations by the Irish Labour Party (which had taken second place from Fianna Fáil and had joined Fine Gael in government) led to a collapse in their newly won support, a support that was to be slowly won over by a highly-disciplined and well-funded Sinn Féin unsullied by dead-tiger austerity.

Even now, more than two years since Whelan’s untimely death, the full repercussions of Fianna Fáil’s demise as Ireland’s leading party have yet to be seen in full, but – to the trepidation of many both north and south – it’s beginning to look like what’s happening is they’ve been replaced by a triumphant Sinn Féin.

Now I don’t claim anything like the perspicacity of Noel Whelan and I’m aware that the UK is nowhere near close enough to an election for me to make any predictions, yet I do dare to venture the hypothesis – if only as a thought experiment – that the Christmas period of 2021 to 2022 may well turn out to be Tory Party’s equivalent of Fianna Fáil’s summer of 2008.

Like Fianna Fáil in 2008, the Conservatives are likely still a couple of years away from an election (unless they fall apart in the meantime). Indeed, they’d look well advised to push the election back as far as the law allows, which would mean going to the polls in the first half of 2024 (they might even use already promised legislation to push the evil day back to the full five-year interval, allowing them to postpone the election until January 2015!).

It could be that the Tories will by then have managed to fully offload the bulk of the blame for Covid misbehaviour onto a leader they now seem certain to dump sooner or later (presumably once they feel they’ve got the succession sorted out), but let’s just imagine – as was the case with Fianna Fáil – that much of the blame continues to stick to them. It almost goes without saying that they are likely to get a drubbing when election day arrives … but quite how bad could it be: is it even possible that the drubbing might end up looking similar to Fianna Fáil’s in 2011?

Let’s imagine (extremely speculatively) that Brexit continues to follow more or less its current unpromising trend, that the new leader fails (much like Brian Cowen did in Ireland) to come out of the mess entirely unsullied, that the opposition parties avoid any major banana skins and that the Tories thus end up facing the election with at best their current levels of support: what might happen then?

Well, the first thing to consider is that the Conservatives have not yet fallen from grace to anything like the extent that Fianna Fáil did after 2008 (recent polling suggests the Tories have dropped from 44 to about 30% so far, as compared to the fall from 41½ to 17½ % suffered by Fianna Fáil!). Against this, however, one should also factor in the truth that the British first-past-the-post system tends to magnify losses of the party that’s fallen behind far more than the more proportional system used in Ireland.

For what it’s worth, I think there may be yet other reasons to believe that a Tory defeat could be historical in scale, but lack of space forces me to postpone pontificating about that until Part II (presuming Slugger is kind enough to give me the nod … there might even be some graphics).

I’d also like to leave for later (perhaps even to Part III) the question of how such a hypothetical result in the UK might affect Northern Ireland, especially against a background of the (far less hypothetical) rise of Sinn Féin north and south of the border, as well as what I see as the ongoing long-term tendency within unionism to shift towards the more moderate end of the scale (in both big U and small U unionism, and arguably with some elements even considering abandoning unionism altogether).

I’m suspicious that, like so much that happens in GB, it could be a case of six of one against half a dozen of the other for the ever-present constitutional question, and it’s a fairly obvious conclusion that Northern Ireland would likely benefit from no longer having to worry about a British Government that’s less prone pick it up as a political football at any given moment. Yet seismic change brings uncertainty, and that’s rarely good.

It all this sparks your interest, then it might just be worthwhile to watch this space.

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