Mícheál Martin’s Fianna Fáil is in a bind. The man once described by the Irish Times columnist Miriam Lord as the Grand Old Duke of Cork is still impaled on the horns of a dilemma. He has led his party into a perilous position, leaving it stranded in political no-man’s land.
Caught in a “confidence and supply” agreement with Fine Gael, De Valera’s old party is being damaged by its support for a reactionary neo-liberal Government. At the same time Martin and his team are fearful of forming a co-operative relationship with opposition parties or independents, in case this might cause Fianna Fáil to be completely eclipsed by more stridently radical voices.
In particular, Martin and his colleagues fear being overtaken by Sinn Féin. Mary Lou McDonald has not only slotted effortlessly into the leadership role but has a fluency for Southern politics that Gerry Adams never quite mastered. Moreover, Sinn Féin have access to working-class communities in a way that has eluded Martin’s party over recent decades. Significant too is the fact that under its new middle-class management Sinn Féin is appearing acceptable to a sizeable portion of the electorate that previously voted for Fianna Fáil.
Gone too are the days when Fianna Fáil could play the republican card. On the contrary, its present leader is working hard to put a distance between his party and its anti-Treaty past. In his efforts to damage Sinn Féin he constantly reminds the public of the Provisional IRA campaign, a tactic that may only enhance his adversary’s anti-establishment credentials. Indicative of Martin’s outlook is his recent overtures to the SDLP, a party with even greater problems than Fianna Fáil.
Although Fianna Fáil retain a significant lead over Sinn Féin in the number of its TDs, it is far off the level required to form a Government. Moreover, opinion polls have consistently shown that they are not about to bridge that gap.
Therein lies the threat. They are neither fish nor fowl, and so can neither hope to lead a Government nor act as an effective opposition.
Nothing revealed this better than the recent motion of no confidence in the minister for housing, Eoghan Murphy, placed before the Dáil by Sinn Féin. In spite of what is widely acknowledged as one of the defining issues of the present era, and notwithstanding the very public and well-supported protests about a clearly evident housing crisis, Mícheál Martin capitulated. “Motions of no confidence won’t build houses” was his lame comment as he attempted to justify backing Fine Gael’s wretched record of promoting private-sector profiteering.
The importance of this cannot be overestimated. For eighty years Fianna Fáil was the natural party of government, but it is now becalmed, with no obvious means of regaining its previous grip on office. The question therefore is, What next?
While it has been recognised for some time that the old “2½-party system” had broken down, it is not clear what will emerge to replace it. We can, nevertheless, anticipate the likely outcome by looking over the field of elected representatives.
Fine Gael will remain a reactionary force to be reckoned with. They revel in promoting a two-tier economy, with a divide that has become ever more pronounced since the 2010 economic crash. Servicing and supported by the “I’m doing very nicely, Jack” third of the population determined to hold its position at all costs, Varadkar and his posh boys are now displaying all the arrogance of their Blueshirt founding fathers. In the absence of an alternative, they can and will govern by default.
As for the Labour Party? We can dismiss it as an option into the foreseeable future. It faces huge problems in recovering from its calamitous defeat in 2016, and working people will not easily forget or forgive its collaboration with Fine Gael during the coalition years.
There is then a disparate collection of independents, with political agendas ranging across the ideological spectrum, covering everything from the reasonably coherent to the egregiously self-serving. This latter group is symptomatic of the existing political confusion, and the phenomenon of so many independent mavericks may not remain a feature in the long term.
As well as the above there are left-leaning TDs, acting alone or in groups, such as Solidarity and Independents4Change. They have promoted a left social-democratic critique of the current situation and played an important part in street protest. Nevertheless, for a number of reasons they have been unable to unite and therefore establish sufficient momentum to act as the official opposition and thereafter aspire to form a Government.
In all of this, Sinn Féin remains the big imponderable. Opinion polls suggest that support for the party has tended to fluctuate since its change of leader. On some occasions it sits in second position, on other occasions falling back to third place. In either case it has become a permanent and potent feature on the 26-County political stage. In practice the party has the choice between entering a Government coalition, most probably as a junior partner, and attempting to displace Fianna Fáil as the main opposition.
Although tempted by the prospect of participating in government, the attraction is severely blighted by the likelihood that they would have to make an arrangement with Fine Gael. It would not be easy to agree a programme for government with the Blueshirts, and very difficult to make the deal palatable to a large section of its electorate.
On the other hand, aiming to become the official opposition would involve equally difficult choices for Sinn Féin. Adopting an unambiguous socialist programme would allow the party to lead a substantial bloc in the Dáil but would probably deny it the type of middle-class support that always features in its Blair-like “triangulation” calculations.
Intriguingly, there is another avenue that Sinn Féin might possibly consider. Bear in mind that the party has demonstrated its ability to take the long view. If a border poll were to result in a vote for reunification, Mary Lou McDonald would, as things stand, become leader of the largest party in Ireland. A party committed to remaining within the neo-liberal European Union and also retaining a relationship with each US government is not the most attractive of options for hard-pressed working people.
No matter how this situation develops, it’s reasonable to say that working people cannot afford to rely exclusively on parliamentarism. The case for building a strong mass movement involving working-class communities and organised labour remains as strong as ever.
As always, we have the answer in our own hands, but we cannot sit passively and wait for it to fall into our lap. The task of organising for this process has to be addressed seriously, and begun as soon as possible.