Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael dragged out government formation negotiations for weeks. Yet both parties are identical in terms of policy and politics- they are both right wing, neo-liberal parties. Why won’t they just unite?
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are both parties of the Irish elite, but have different historical origins. Fine Gael emerged from the counter-revolutionary Cumann NaGael government which attempted to put an end to the social flux of the Irish revolution.
The Irish ruling class split over which direction to take the newly emerging state. There were those who represented the Anglo Irish elite, the Church and the big farmers who wished for Ireland to remain an agricultural nation and hence sign the treaty with Britain. And those who represented small local businesses and the middle classes who wanted to break with Britain and use tariff walls to build up Irish industry.
It was this split in the newly forming Irish ruling class that led to the formation of two right wing parties.
De Valera led some of the more conservative elements of the anti-treaty movement into the formation of Fianna Fáil in 1926. When they first took their seats in the Dáil Fianna Fáil TDs had guns on their belts and the whiff on gunsmoke gave them a radical reputation.
The weakness of the Irish Labour Party meant that Fianna Fáil could pose as friends of the working class while serving the interests of Irish capitalism. Fianna Fáil first formed a government in March 1932- the campaign saw De Valera rail against ‘British’ banks.
The country was initially very poor and so the state treasury became a coveted source of initial investment for those setting up businesses. Fianna Fáil built up a cosy golden circle of state handouts and corruption becoming the ‘A team’ of Irish capitalism.
They maintained a working class base through the building of state enterprises, building social housing and by wrapping themselves in the green flag. The political spectrum in Ireland was skewed with most workers voting Fianna Fáil, leaving the Labour Party on the margins of political life.
When Charles Haughey was inaugurated as Taoiseach a trade union band played ‘A Nation Once Again’. The twisting of the political spectrum saw trade unionists celebrating the election of a Tory politician. Haughey ranted about Fine Gael’s ‘monetarism’ yet once in power proceeded to implement the exact same policies.
Fianna Fáil presented themselves as a ‘national movement’ which successfully wed the Irish working class to the interests of the Irish elite for several decades. This left Fine Gael as the ‘B team’ of Irish capitalism. The opposition between two right wing parties meant that political debate never strayed into radical territory.
In periods where anger accumulated towards Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael could step up to the plate and, with the assistance of the Labour Party, govern temporarily in a manner that was safe for the elite. As Ireland industrialised the historical distinction between both parties blurred as they merged with the same wealthy donors.
Fianna Fáil remained the preferred choice for the ruling class because of their support amongst workers. Fine Gael’s base was amongst members of the D4 elite and the wealthy farmers but they never won over large sections of workers, necessitating deals with Labour when in government.
Since the 2007/2008 crisis the purchase of the right wing parties amongst workers has been diminishing. They have gone from 80% of all votes in the 1980s to 50% of all votes in the last election. Fianna Fáil had their worst election result ever in 2011, in what we described as a ‘riot at the ballot box’.
The ruling class would like to see a strong right wing government but the key activists in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael realise it would give the game away. Fianna Fáil would rather stay out of a Fine Gael government, supporting them from opposition and prepared to bring them down to gain credibility.
Fianna Fáil may be down but they are not out. They are seriously trying to rebuild their working class base and have even sent representatives to meetings with striking workers. These snakes would say anything to chain the working class to an elite project.
It’s up to us to build a serious left that doesn’t bow to the parties of the establishment the way Labour have always done. We also have to remind workers that there is a difference between the rhetoric of a party and what they will do when in power.
Fianna Fáil began with guns on holsters and then used the aura of radicalism to attack workers. There are Stormont politicians who are every bit as adept at that two faced approach to politics.