The Fianna Fáil party is in trouble. Some of its TDs want to get rid of Micheal Martin but they don’t know who could replace him. Red C polling places the party at 13% of the national vote. An internal report found that Fianna Fáil had become “indistinguishable” from Fine Gael, with the majority of members unclear about the party’s distinct identity.
Yet this is a party that once dominated Irish politics. Between 1932 and 1989, Fianna Fáil never got less than 40% of the vote. One study conducted in the seventies found that the vote was evenly distributed across the social classes. Urban workers voted for the party in the same proportion as farmers. Party membership numbered just under 100,000 in its heyday.
The troubles of Fianna Fáil are bound up with the weakening of a conservative hegemony over the Irish electorate. Until the early eighties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael captured 84% of the popular vote between them. Today, they can only win half of that.
It is often forgotten that Fianna Fáil began as a radical republican party, formed by republicans who were victimised after the civil war. It presented itself as a radical alternative to a neo-colonial regime. De Valera denounced Cumman na nGaedheal for maintaining Ireland as ‘an outgarden’ of the British, supplying the metropolis with food and raw materials.
The party’s project was to create a pro-development block that would unite workers and native capitalists to uproot the neo-colonial relationship.
To appeal to workers, Fianna Fáil adopted a very radical rhetoric. It called for the abolition of banks and their replacement by credit unions. It wanted to replace a standing army with a citizens’ militia. De Valera proclaimed himself a follower of James Connolly and the party supported strikes by workers – as long as they were not directed against Irish firms. They promised small farmers in the west of Ireland the break up of ‘grazier’ land. They stood on platforms with socialists such as Peadar O’ Donnell, urging a boycott of land annuities.
Fianna Fáil Minister Gerard Boland urged Labour to be more left wing, stating ‘that as England despises those who run after her, so does Capital despise those who run after it’. In the election of 1932, Fianna Fáil produced a poster denouncing ‘A government by the rich and for the rich’. Cumman na nGaedheal replied ‘ ‘We want no reds here’.
It is not uncommon for nationalist movements to adopt a left rhetoric to win a base among workers or the peasantry. But their aim is to secure their own patch within a global capitalist system. Once they come to power they comply with the logic of the system and can only make minor adjustments within it.
This is precisely what happened with Fianna Fáil. After they took power in 1932, they dropped their call to abolish banks, setting up a banking commission instead. Far from replacing the army, they strengthened the state’s security apparatus by recruiting former IRA members into the Special Branch and invoking the Offences against the State Act against republicans.
This shift from a neo-colonial model to economic protectionism to develop native Irish capitalism brought some gains for workers. There were more jobs, slums were cleared, social welfare was improved. There was also some extra land division but the big ranches were rarely touched. The mere fact that national development appeared to bring some gains helped to cement Fianna Fáil’s support base. Two other factors also helped
Fianna Fáil embraced a militant form of Catholic fundamentalism and forged an alliance with the Bishops to discipline the population. Instead of real material gains, the Irish population were rewarded with a spiritual antidepressant and portrayed as the most Catholic country in the world. Behind the scenes, De Valera and the Catholic Primate, John Charles McQuaid, poured over every detail of social life to effect their control.
Less well known is that Fianna Fáil had a clear strategy of co-opting a key section of the trade union bureaucracy. This began when an informal alliance was forged between Fianna Fáil and William O’ Brian, the leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, to expel British based unions. It was picked up later by Charles Haughey in 1987 when he invited the unions into a social partnership – the legacy of which is still with us.
How can we account for the fall of this right-wing political giant?
There were, firstly, the revelations about the party’s naked corruption, symbolised most dramatically by the way leaders like Haughey and Ahern drew on financial support from hidden bank accounts and ‘dig-outs’. Both leaders had an aura of personal venality but there is more to it. Native Irish capitalism is weak and looks to the state for direct assistance. Managing this form of capitalism meant creating laws to cut their taxes or assist them in property speculation. It was not a far cry from using the state apparatus to directly benefit individual capitalists, to outright corruption.
This tendency grew more marked as Fianna Fáil dropped protectionism after 1958 and embraced foreign direct investment. Having pioneered methods for supporting native capitalists, the party was adept at creating a massive tax haven for the international rich. But as the flow of money increased, so did the corruption at the heart of the party.
Secondly, the very changes which Fianna Fáil oversaw in making Ireland part of a global economy led to major transformations. Agriculture declined in significance; women went out to paid work in larger numbers; a stronger urban working class was created. These changes often crystallised in the changing role of women and the manner in which their lived experience came into direct conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Yet while Irish society was moving into open revolt against the Bishops, Fianna Fáil doubled down on its conservative rural base.
Thirdly, the economic crash of 2008 brought these subterrain changes to a head. The crash helped to end 18 years of unbroken Fianna Fáil rule–albeit in coalitions–but it also provided an object lesson to the population on the true nature of the party. It showed them that Fianna Fáil would protect the wealthy at all costs even if that meant crucifying the population with water charges, extra taxes, and cuts. It was obvious that the singular aim of Fianna Fáil was to fund the bailout of banks and the rescue of the property sector.
The crash was the decisive moment when Fine Gael emerged as the leading right-wing party because the electorate turned to them as the quickest way to rid the country of Fianna Fáil. Yet Fine Gael does not have the same type of cross-class roots that Fianna Fáil had. It is often seen as a party of snobs, big farmers and would be Tories. Fianna Fáil, by contrast, was able to pretend that it stood for the ‘plain people’ – until this image was blown apart.
Space for the Left
The decline of Fianna Fáil is not solely reflected in the shrinking of the right-wing voting base. Rather, a particular type of hegemony over workers has been weakened. Its central motif was that independent capitalist development could benefit all classes. This in turn helped to create a specific 26-county nationalism that reduced Ireland’s anti-colonial legacy to a desire for economic development within the Southern state. This form of bourgeois hegemony has certainly not disappeared. You will hear it any time you call for higher taxes on multinationals and are met with the response ‘but they give us jobs’. But alongside support for this viewpoint there is a more open awareness of the class divide in Irish society. The road has finally been created for a left-right divide.
Politics never moves in straight lines and an expression of the shift leftwards is the rise of Sinn Féin. Today this party presents itself as the voice of workers but there is a deep irony here. Namely, that Sinn Fein’s left rhetoric in the South contrasts sharply with their implementation of right wing economic policies in the North. Moreover, even as they follow in Fianna Fáil’s early footsteps, their left rhetoric is milder than that deployed by Fianna Fáil in the late 1920s. One only needs to compare that latter’s call to abolish banks with Eoin O’ Broin’s recent declaration that expropriating the property of vulture funds would not be appropriate for Ireland.
And if their left rhetoric lags behind that of the early Fianna Fáil, who thinks that their taking of government office will lead to a different outcome?