So long Soldiers of Destiny
Fourteen months ago Fianna Fáil were in a coalition government with the Progressive Democrats. The PD’s no longer exist and on 25th February Fianna Fáil was wiped out at the ballot box.
The defeat was seismic. Going into the election Fianna Fáil had 70 seats out of 166 in the Dáil Éireann ruling in coalition with 6 Green Party members. Afterwards the Party was reduced to 20 seats having lost 24% of their vote, the worst result in the party’s history. The Green Party lost all its seats.
The defeat was also historic. Fianna Fáil were founded in 1926 by Eamonn De Valera who had fought in the Easter Rising of 1916 and been a leader of the Anti-Treaty forces in the Irish Civil War of 1922-1923. The winners of that war, the Free State government established by the treaty with Britain, formed a party named Cumann na nGaedheal, later Fine Gael, which dominated Irish politics in the first decade after independence.
Formed to rid Ireland of what it saw as lingering British influence Fianna Fáil became one of the most successful political parties in the western world. In the 79 years since the election of its first government in 1932 Fianna Fáil has been in power for 61 of them.
Beyond its commitment to Irish Republicanism Fianna Fáil never had much in the way of a coherent ideology. Its perennial opponents, Fine Gael, were generally described as ‘centre right’ but whereas they often worked in coalition with Labour in their rare spells in government it was Fianna Fáil which allied with the free market PD’s in the 1980’s and 1990’s to enact a raft of reforms which reinvigorated Ireland’s moribund economy.
If a party has no clear ideology what sort of person does it attract? Sadly for Fianna Fáil and Ireland the answer was all too often crooks and chiselers on the make. The business dealings of the notoriously corrupt Charles Haughey, Taoiseach on and off between 1979 and 1992, prompted two separate public inquiries. His successor but one, Bertie Ahern, was embroiled in yet another corruption tribunal.
It was this ceaseless quest to line its own pockets that did for Fianna Fáil. They schmoozed with Ireland’s bankers who were getting rich thanks to the low rates they could borrow at following euro membership. And when the banks got into trouble in 2008 Fianna Fáil agreed, late at night, behind closed doors and with almost no consultation, that the Irish taxpayer would cover their losses. The party of De Valera’s ‘frugal comfort’ lashed themselves and their prospects to the fortunes of the banks and as the banks losses spiraled Fianna Fáil’s electoral prospects withered.
The prospects for Fianna Fáil are not good. The rump left in the Dáil are mostly the party’s old hands, linked with the government that bankrupted the country. A party which has relied on patronage (also known as kickbacks) will find this power deserts it in distant opposition. A party founded on Republicanism has been crowded out by Sinn Féin. They have no flag left to rally round.
The prospects for other parties appear better. With 37 seats Labour had their best election result ever and look set to join Fine Gael in government. But that could just be the start of their troubles. They are closely linked to Ireland’s trade unions which are unlikely to suffer the implementation of EU dictated austerity in silence. Unless there is significant give in the conditions of Ireland’s bailout from Brussels Labour could end up skewered like the Liberal Democrats across the Irish Sea.
Fine Gael has not been in such a commanding position since the late 1920’s but they too could find a warning in Britain. There a coalition elected to clean up the fiscal mess of a previous government is struggling in the polls against the party which left it. People have short memories and the more unpleasant the medicine the more they are inclined to discount the illness that necessitated it.
For Labour and Fine Gael triumph might be short lived but Fianna Fáil, once the natural party of Irish government, will struggle to capitalize. A sad impasse for the Soldiers of Destiny, but an utterly deserved one.
This article originally appeared at Global Politics