Alex Massie

The End of the Party

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You'd never guess that Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan are members of Fianna Fail, would you? Oh, you would? Fancy that.

Grotesque. Unbelievable. Bizarre. Unprecedented. Ireland has known crises before, many of them extremely serious. But the GUBU days now seem the stuff of comic opera when set beside the battering Ireland has taken these past few weeks and months. The game is up and all that's left is the reckoning.

Today the Green party pulled the plug on the coalition in Dublin. The Greens may not fare well in this poll but they deserve some modest amount of praise for recognising, as Fianna Fail patently did not, that an election is in the Irish national interest and the sooner it is held the better. The Greens will vote for the budget next month (though it may require Fine Gael's assistance to pass) and that will be that.

Never mind the economics; consider the politics. In the past one would have assumed that Fianna Fail's brass neck and chutzpah could have seen it through even this tempest. After all, the Irish state has been in many a car crash and Fianna Fail have usually been behind the wheel only to escape unscathed. This time it should be different.

Fianna Fail - and consequently Irish politics as we've known it - is about to be destroyed. A poll this weekend suggested they enjoyed the confidence of just 17% of voters*. This too is unprecedented. Their worst previous performance? The 38% they won in 1992.  Amongst western european parties, only Sweden's Social Democrats rival Fianna Fail's success: the Soldiers of Destiny (cue hollow laughter) have occupied Government Buidlings for sixty of the last 78 years. Since 1987 they've spent all of 30 months on the opposition benches.

The startling aspect of the present crisis is not so much Fianna Fail's mismanagement - this is hardly unbelievable - but its bizarre political failure. The survival instinct that was once the party's chief glory and, for that matter, only raison d'etre, has failed. In the past the party would have found a way to blame someone else for the present emergency. In the past the people would have bought that idea too.

Not that Fianna Fail has ever stood for much beyond the cheap appropriation of national myths, cute hoorism and gombeen pocket-filling. But in the past they party had enough political sense to survive disasters that would, in other countries, have discredited a political movement forever. The economic failure of recent times is one thing; the political blundering quite another.

Brian Cowen may, by the standards of his party, be an honest man but his political manoevering has been disastrous. Attempts to delay by-elections (even going to the Supreme Court to do so) in the hope that something, anything, might turn up to save the party have been disastrously and righteously counter-productive. It has suggested, quite accurately, a party more concerned with power than a national interest that any fool can see is best served by an election and the modest prospect of a modestly fresh start.

Cowen could have run ahead of this gathering public sentiment. He could have been open and upfront with the Irish people, explaining in clear terms why events had brought the country to this present crisis, acknowledging some responsibility for mistakes made (in good faith!) and demonstrating why, despite it all, Fianna Fail were best placed to right the ship of state. Instead, prevarication, obfuscation and spin ruled the day.

Pretending that everything is fine when it's palpably not is poor political strategy. The need for the bail-out is depressing enough; that Fianna Fail should have pretended for so long that it was't coming only to then turn round and try and claim credit for an outcome they'd opposed all along is the kind of insult even long-suffering and easily-gulled voters can't be expected up with which to put.

For the past two weeks at least, Irish citizens have had to look to the foreign media to dicover what was actually happening with their own government. (An interesting commentary on the media too!) As political case studies go this is a fine example of tactical and strategic foolishness. Cowen and his cronies have made a bad situation even worse (for them) than it needed to be.

For that we should, I suppose, be grateful even if few people think the forthcoming Fine Gael-Labour coalition has many answers either. Sometimes, however, politics needs to be purged to be restored to health. Ireland can't go on like this.

Since Fianna Fail is nothing if it's not in power one wonders just how it will behave if fewer than 40 of Dev's great-grandchildren are returned to the Dail next year. The party - the "movement" (cease your chuckling) - is not bred for opposition. What, then, is the point of Fianna Fail?

Political parties do die. It's not impossible that this could be the end of Fianna Fail though, if truth be told, this may prove an overly-optimistic view. They are the Irish Undead. It doesn't much matter that the average Irish person is still much better off than they were 25 years ago, nor that, eventually, some kind of economic recovery must happen. It's Irish pride and Ireland's sense of itself that have taken a battering.

Perhaps the greatest success of the boom years was that, for the first time, Ireland's great shame no longer cast a shadow of failure over the island. At long last, Ireland could support its people and its young no longer looked to New York or London or Sydney for their future. The most miserable aspect of the present crisis is that emigration is back as a dispiriting feature of the Irish political landscape. This too is part of Fianna Fail's achievement and something which, in a just world, would neither be forgotten nor forgiven.

*This, mind you, could be thought a remarkable triumph in the present, dire, circumstances. Almost one in five voters will still vote for them! It's also worth observing, merely in passing, that despite driving Ireland to ruin, Fianna Fail remain more popular in Ireland than the Conservatives do in Scotland. That's a matter of perennial regret and, of course, another day too.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticsireland