Admittedly we can only ever be certain of death and taxes. With that caution in mind, though, it’s safe to say there is abundant evidence that the once all-powerful Fianna Fáil is sitting on the edge of a political precipice.
Over the past decade, its share of the vote at general elections has been approximately half what it received for the previous seventy years, with its seats in Leinster House reduced accordingly. No less alarming for party supporters have been recent opinion polls. Admittedly only reflecting a sample of the electorate’s view on a particular day, this showed an unmistakable downward trend. Old Dev’s creation is in deep trouble, and the Establishment’s power-brokers know it.
In the three months since forming a government, Fianna Fáil has presided over confusion, fiasco, scandal, and ineptitude. The list of political setbacks is lengthy. The forced resignation of a minister within days of the new Dáil sitting, losing another minister by way of the golf dinner scandal shortly thereafter and the appointment of highly paid advisers on the same day as reducing pandemic unemployment payments are only the more spectacular of many faux pas.
Confused messaging has been a continuing feature of the Mícheál Martin leadership, a problem exacerbated by the constant and apparently deliberate undermining of his position by the Fine Gael tánaiste, Leo Varadkar—a situation underlining the weakness of a party that is now in the invidious position of carrying responsibility but with reduced authority.
Adding to his woes, the taoiseach has powerful critics within his own party. In spite of Mary Lou McDonald’s verbal attacks on Martin’s performance, she has been outdone in that field by certain Fianna Fáil TDs. Marc MacSharry and Jim O’Callaghan are just two of several critics. Most outspoken, however, has been the Galway West TD Éamon Ó Cuív, grandson of the party’s founder, who has bluntly called for his leader’s replacement. He has repeatedly warned that after the next general election only two large parties will remain: Fine Gael and Sinn Féin.
Such undisguised discontent has fuelled a view that the present leader bears sole responsibility for the party’s plight. Though he has certainly contributed to its distress, the malaise goes much deeper than one individual. Fianna Fáil has been in difficulty for several decades, with its failings disguised by a cunning ability to retain office through finding willing coalition partners.
At the heart of its difficulty is a problem of identity, coupled with a lack of clarity of purpose. Sustained for decades by its ability to dispense favours rather than presenting, or representing, an ideology, Fianna Fáil is now paying the price for its duplicity. Once it was seen as offering some degree of opposition to the strident laissez-faire policies of Fine Gael. With a Labour Party wedded to a policy of coalition with the Blueshirts, Fianna Fáil was able to gain significant working-class support.
Such illusions have been shattered over the past decades with a series of devastating disclosures, with Charvet shirts in the diplomatic bag, brown envelopes in the Dáil and untruthful accounts of “personal dig-outs” among the more spectacular. Any lingering illusions were finally laid to rest during the years of “confidence and supply” while supporting the Blueshirts in their pursuit of the harshest of neo-liberal strategies.
Torn between protecting the business interests of its wealthy backers and taking the decisive measures necessary to guarantee the health and safety of working people, Mícheál Martin knew, for once, exactly where he stood.
Within five days of assuming the leadership of the Government in June, his minister for health, Simon Donnelly, oversaw the reprivatisation of hospitals taken into state control at the outset of the covid pandemic. Add to this the inexcusable failure to deal with the threat to workers in food-processing plants, the failure to address the injustice done to Debenham’s former staff, and the state’s refusal to treat covid-19 as an occupational hazard—all clearly indicating that the party’s commitment to the free market remains as firm as when it oversaw the fiasco leading to the 2010 bail-out, which cost working people so dearly.
Elsewhere, the supposedly anti-Treaty, republican party has struggled with its foundation myth. Its commitment to maintaining the 26-County state, with its institutional gravy train, has required it to endeavour to retain partition at all costs. Few episodes illustrate this better than the aftermath of Varadkar’s identification of the “changing tectonic plates” in the Six Counties last December. Rather than recognise reality, the mealy-mouthed Martin hurried to Belfast to publicly reassure unionism that the republican party harboured no desire to end partition.
Hardly surprising, therefore, that Sinn Féin has found itself well placed to supplant Fianna Fáil. With a Labour Party that has spent so long in bed with Fine Gael and is now led by a TD who tried to bulldoze through the water-tax legislation, the social-democratic slot is vacant. Not surprisingly, therefore, Mary Lou McDonald and colleagues are able to use that card to good effect. Moreover, with its repeated calls for a border poll, Sinn Féin can now lay claim to the republican role once played by Fianna Fáil.
That the prospect of Sinn Féin displacing Fianna Fáil is now a distinct possibility has been recognised by the power-brokers of the Establishment, and they are reacting. After decades of outright hostility, the Sunday Independent recently devoted two pages to an interview with McDonald. Last month Joe Duffy spoke to her on RTE about “The Meaning of Life,” and—perhaps most surprising of all—a retired colonel raised the possibility of a Sinn Féin minister for defence for the 26 Counties some time in the near future.*
There is about all this, nevertheless, the impression of a “Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly” strategy. The party can become acceptable to the Establishment, but at a price.
Whether it will pay that price is a matter for its members. For the left, there is the need to recognise the emerging situation and, no matter what changes take place, that we keep our eye firmly on the goal of an independent and sovereign workers’ republic.