25.02.2020 Author: Seth Ferris

Ireland: The Old Guard Tries to Ignore a Bomb


The country most affected by Brexit, apart from the UK itself, is the Republic of Ireland. The border between the Republic and British-controlled Northern Ireland will now be the boundary between the UK and the EU, and what that actually means, and how it relates to other international treaties, was one of the sticking points in trying to get a Brexit agreement.

There are also significant Irish communities all over the UK, whose members are “the same but different” to the British, and Irish nationals can still vote in UK elections as a result of the original agreement which established what was then called the Irish Free State. Ireland may have been independent for a century, but the old special relationship applies as much as ever, with neither side considering the other “foreign”, even though they soon will be in practical terms.

So maybe it is not surprising that the recent Irish elections, which might change that country’s political landscape forever, have produced the press reaction very familiar to those who have had Brexit rammed down their throats since long before the 2016 referendum. Just as in the UK, the Irish press barons have decided that if you repeat something often enough, everyone will believe it.

The big winners of the Irish election were Sinn Fein, the left wing party that unashamedly advocates a united Ireland, being also active in the North, and rejects the neoliberal economics promoted by both the traditional centre-right parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Contrary to all previous precedent, it won the largest share of first preference votes under Ireland’s proportional voting system, only being edged out of the top spot in seats by Fianna Fail voters’ traditionally strict allocation of second and third preferences exclusively to their own party’s candidates.

But for the Irish press, this never happened. The seismic change in the Republic since independence and the subsequent civil war is being treated as merely a bump in the road.

The Irish media are trying their hardest to present the task of forming the next Irish government as a slightly more difficult version of the usual Fianna Fail-Fine Gael stitch-up. Though the two old parties wouldn’t have a majority even in a grand coalition, anyone who simply reads newspapers and watches TV would think that all that has happened is a slight alteration in the maths, with more acceptable smaller parties the only ones to come into any credible equation

It is exactly this attitude which is responsible for having created the Sinn Fein surge. It is no longer a small party that can be bought off by a few policy concessions, now and then, as traditional smaller coalition, partners are so often—and for cheap!

It is promising a future when no one else is – and it is a future everyone in the Republic has always professed to want, whilst wondering why their politicians have never delivered it.

Back to the future

Ireland is like Liberia – it broke away from its colonial master to go back in time. Irish politics has always had a nineteenth century character to it, combining the traditions of the UK with those of South America.

The two main Irish parties are extensions of the sides which fought the civil war which followed the establishment of the Irish Free State. Although they are often ideologically similar, they remain separate entities because the sons and daughters, and grandsons and granddaughters, of those combatants went into politics themselves, extending their feuds across generations in what has become an increasingly arcane internecine struggle.

Fine Gael, the major partner in the outgoing government, is the side which won the civil war, and still represents the middle class, the well off and the “establishment”, though being also socially progressive and reformist. In effect it is a South American Liberal party, representing the urban elite at the perceived expense of the general population.

The usual Irish governing party, before it wrecked the economy, is Fianna Fail, which ironically sought to join Liberal International a few years ago in what was little more than a publicity stunt. This represents the full-blooded nationalism of the losing side in the civil war, which is bound up with the historical status of the Irish as oppressed, which was behind the original drive to restore the country’s ancient independence.

FF was long the dominant party because Ireland remained poor and party founder Eamon de Valera could adapt his position any which way in order to express his concept of a distinct Irishness, which he had a gift for both defining and largely inventing as he went along. The party attracts support from across the political spectrum, but remains the party of the historically dispossessed, including those who did very well out of the boom years of the Irish economy, much like a South American Conservative party.

The strength of Fianna Fail has made Labour, which as in most countries is the political arm of the trade union movement, a minor force. Labour questions are not as important as the broader question of how independent Ireland should be, and for whom, which is what the civil war was fought over. There are also a number of smaller parties which drift in and out of coalitions with the larger ones, and always a number of independents, as a proportional electoral system can always produce one localist or maverick amongst a broader selection of mainstream representatives.

Again it is all very nineteenth century, with organised labour struggling to break a duopoly of basically conservative parties and individual personalities with the quaint concerns of sectional interests. The UK moved on from this long ago. But Sinn Fein is the one example of a party more progressive in Ireland than its UK equivalent.

Sinn Fein claims to be descended from both the original party of that name founded in 1905 and the forces which fought in the civil war and became Fianna Fail. However in practice it was long regarded as the political wing of the IRA, the Republican terrorist organisation in Northern Ireland responsible for many atrocities on the UK mainland.

Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland has fought hard to distance itself from this connection, with varying degrees of success, as its leaders do not always convince even moderate opponents that they are men of peace. But although it took longer for Sinn Fein to establish itself as a political force in the Republic, where it remains the only party with a presence on both sides of the border, it has managed to rid itself of its paramilitary past much more effectively.

Sinn Fein is the party of the young and working class who feel they have been excluded by an economic and political system which is irrelevant to them. In previous years, power has alternated between the traditional parties because one or the other has let the electorate down. Sinn Fein’s rise takes that process one-step further – it represents the failure of the Irish political system itself to offer anything to a significant portion of the population.

In this respect, Sinn Fein is another of the populist parties which have risen throughout Europe. But most countries have seen this before. Ireland’s traditional parties never thought that if nationalism cured poverty those left behind would abandon it, but this is what has finally happened in a country always so desperate to live in the past.

Into their own wilderness

Both the old parties have said they will not work with Sinn Fein. Fianna Fail might be persuaded to rethink that position, but as the press circling the wagons indicates, both it and Fine Gael face a credibility problem it will not be easy to solve.

The Irish have voted for change, in greater numbers than ever before. If Fianna Fail and Fine Gael make some sort of agreement between themselves, which is pretty much what happened after the last election, this will be a “coalition of losers”. Rather than being South American Liberals and Conservatives, who were also usually the product of civil wars, they will be closer to the frightened men who presided over the last days of East European Communism, unable to grasp that the people no longer believed their ideology was superior, or worth the pain.

Both old parties are now talking about working with Labour, the Greens and the Social Democrats to “respect the result of the election”. But why on earth would these parties want to work with the big boys for that?

What happens in other countries also happens in Ireland – the smaller parties in a coalition get blamed for the crimes of the big ones, because their supporters voted for an alternative to the parties they shacked up with. As Ireland usually has some form of coalition government, all the small parties have seen years of hard work ruined by going into one which then becomes unpopular.

If they are being included because they represent change, they have nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by joining a government run by people who created the desire for change by their failures.

Though only the second largest party (by a single seat), Sinn Fein is trying to form a government of its own. Like the big parties, it will need to attract the support of Labour, the Greens and the Social Democrats.

Though these parties are closer to Sinn Fein ideologically, this might be exactly the problem. Irish in the Republic are very aware of what happened in Northern Ireland when peace broke out, and the more extreme parties on either side of the Republican/Unionist divide, who had been minor forces before, took over as the main representatives of their communities now moderation was no longer needed.

Even if a Sinn Fein-led coalition falls flat on its face, its smaller members will suffer the most, leaving even a beaten Sinn Fein liable to swallow them whole. But a short term arrangement, just long enough to be an experiment but brief enough to be over before they can’t get away with blaming the old guard for everything any more, might just help all the parties involved. If they can stay together long enough to change the political dynamic to new versus old, such a coalition may not achieve much as a government, but give a real and beneficial choice to the country.

The fire is real again

One issue on which Irish Republic citizens of all opinions agree is that an independent Ireland should mean exactly that. In Northern Ireland, the major political fault line is between those who want to stay in the UK and those who want to be part of the Republic, although these are as much social traditions as ideologies. In the Republic, if Ireland is a sovereign state the Protestant dominated north must eventually become part of it.

Fine Gael is descended from the parties which accepted an Irish Free State of 26 counties rather than 32, and thus caved in to the British, in the eyes of their opponents. Fianna Fail fought for a united Ireland not bound by terms imposed by the British, but eventually accepted some of the provisions of the Irish Constitution they had previously rejected, such as retaining the British monarch as Head of State until the Republic was finally declared in 1949.

But neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fail have any presence in Northern Ireland, where other parties have represented the Republican and Catholic community in its special situation there. Sinn Fein operates as one party on both sides of the border, and therefore represents a much better opportunity to achieve the united Ireland everyone in the Republic wants, particularly now the two communities work closely together in the North, and Brexit has driven many Unionists to take the previously despised Irish passport.

The civil war left a legacy of poverty in Ireland, as such affairs usually do. Before the Iron Curtain was torn down it was usually the poorest nation in what was then “Europe”. But Ireland’s 1980s boom not only improved living standards, it magnified the Irish feeling of independence. Ireland was at the same level as the other Western countries now, and therefore a more important part of the family of nations.

The Irish may accept economic downturns, having suffered one for decades before, but not when the politicians of their independent state tell them as a result of their policies their young may never own a home or attain the incomes their parents can enjoyed.

This is not the loss of a generation, however, it is a loss of national independence. Though Sinn Fein appeals primarily to the young, it also appeals to the patriotic, no matter how alien to the political culture they are being presented as.

Ireland should never have been in a position where Sinn Fein represents both the traditional nationalism and a new future. But if the old parties think the electorate will swing into line behind them again in a while, they are likely to be disappointed.

On the points which won Sinn Fein votes, the old parties represent failure, and they are not offering anything different. Sinn Fein will probably fail too, as there are only ideological alternatives to failed austerity, but they could well change Ireland in the attempt, and the Irish press barons, and many of its politicians, do not want their legacies to go down with a sinking ship.

Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

Please select digest to download: