Musings on the Irish General Election

Thanks to the Cedar Lounge for this link. It’s an RTE radio documentary called ‘Dogfight: Conor and Charlie’, that zeros in on one constituency, Dublin South-West during the recent general election campaign and the re-election bid of the area’s two former Fianna Fail TD’s, Conor Lenihan and Charlie O’Connor. Lenihan is the scion of a distinguished Fianna Fail family. His brother Brian was the finance minister in the FF-Greens coalition and the point man for the economic meltdown; his late father, also called Brian, was Charles Haughey’s ill-fated Tanaiste, and his aunt is Mary O’Rourke, a three time minister in Fianna Fail administrations.

Conor Lenihan, Charlie O'Connor and new FF leader Micheal Martin in happier days

It is a great piece of radio and is required listening because it graphically illustrates why the general election went the way it did. What comes across as Lenihan and O’Connor separately canvass housing estates in places like Tallaght, is the sheer venom of so many of the voters towards Fianna Fail. The verbal abuse directed at the two men, the sheer anger at what the Fianna Fail government did to the Irish economy and the damage done by people like Brian Lenihan to ordinary lives is extraordinary. There are a couple of instances in the documentary where the two, soon to be ex-TD’s, are lucky to escape physical violence on the doorstep.

That anger became quantifiable on February 26th. Between them Lenihan and O’Connor barely ended up with half a quota and the contrast with 2007 could not be greater. Four years ago Lenihan topped the poll, exceeding the quota on first preference votes and O’Connor was not far behind. This time O’Connor outpolled Lenihan (evidence, surely, that being a brother of the finance minister did him only harm) while Labour and Sinn Fein took their seats, improving their share of the first preference votes respectively by 81% and 41%.

The documentary gives colour and atmosphere to the wider message coming from the general election result, which is that it was not a judgement about other parties’ policies, ideas and competence as alternatives but overwhelmingly an opportunity, grasped eagerly by the voters, to give Fianna Fail a severe kicking. Fine Gael, Labour and the independents, notably the left-wing ones, all benefited enormously from this revenge factor in the voters’ minds and so did Sinn Fein. In fact one of the striking features of the documentary was how some of the angriest voters saw voting for Sinn Fein as the best way of doing the most damage to Fianna Fail.

In that respect Fianna Fail’s tactic of leafletting constituencies with warnings that Sinn Fein’s vote could increase unless the party faithful answered the call on election day badly backfired since it served only to alert voters that this was the outcome most feared by FF.

Protest vote or not the results were translated into bums on seats in the Dail chamber and in that department, Sinn Fein saw its group of TD’s more than triple to fourteen even if the first preference vote rose by less than 45%. This was the result that Sinn Fein had hoped for and expected in 2007 but had it come about then, the Provos would almost certainly be political toast now. With fourteen seats under its belt in 2007, Sinn Fein would, in all likelihood, have taken the place of the Green Party in coalition with Fianna Fail and now would probably be in the same place as that party: utterly destroyed and without a single TD to its name.

With a result like that four years ago, the Shinners would have been able to boast that the peace process strategy had reached its medium term goal, even if the holy grail of Irish unity was still out of reach. That goal was to have SF bums nestling on chairs around cabinet tables in both parts of Ireland and a voice in the formulation of all-Ireland policies in each jurisdiction.

The chief architect of the process on the Republican side, Gerry Adams would have hailed this as a vindication of the decision to dump armed struggle and the IRA – and of all that preceded and enabled this, especially the controversial offers, deals and non-deals that accompanied six of the ten deaths during the 1981 hunger strike and the consequent foray into electoral politics.

Sinn Fein’s surprisingly poor showing in 2007 deprived Adams of that triumph but fortuitously so, as it turned out. However, luck, one of the biggest housing bubbles in economic history, the Anglo-Irish Bank and the most stupid, incompetent and possibly corrupt Fianna Fail government in the history of the State combined in the period since then to give Sinn Fein a second chance.

It seems pretty clear that for Sinn Fein to achieve in 2015 or 2016 what it failed to obtain four years ago, a certain set of conditions would have to exist. The major prerequisite would be that in four or five years time the Irish economy is every bit as damaged and derelict as it is now. That’s a distinct possibility but the downside for Sinn Fein is that if this were so then emigration would in all likelihood have returned to the distressing levels last seen in the early 1980’s and many of those leaving Ireland’s shores would be natural SF voters and therefore no longer available to the party (hence, I suspect, the reason for SF’s demand that emigrants be given the vote).

Another set of requirements would be that the recently elected Fine Gael-Labour coalition would be every bit as venal and bungling as Fianna Fail was, that when the next general election is called the voters are as angry as they were last month and, last but not least, that Sinn Fein has shown itself as a talented and inspirational opposition. Again, all three of those preconditions are by no means impossible, but neither are they anywhere near certain.

Then there would be the question of whether Sinn Fein should aim, as it did in 2007, to be the junior partner in the post 2015/2016 coalition government or the senior one. Since the election campaign would be focussed on attacking the FG-Labour government, coalition with either of those parties would be automatically ruled out (just as FG could not now contemplate a partnership with Fianna Fail).

That means that if Sinn Fein wants to be in government in four or five years time, its likely partner, possibly the only one available, will be Fianna Fail. Here’s where it starts to get tricky for SF. If Sinn Fein’s support is going to grow in the next four or five years it will in the main be at the expense of Fianna Fail yet it will need Fianna Fail to have recovered a lot of the support lost in the recent election for such a government to be viable. How to balance those competing demands will be a challenge.

If Sinn Fein’s participation in the next government is dependent upon Fianna Fail’s recovery, where then would SF’s extra votes come from except from the many independents who were elected last month, or the Labour party? The other option would be to set out to absorb as much of Fianna Fail’s support as possible, effectively replacing it as the Republican party of Ireland, and then cobble together a coalition from the remnants of FF and the scattering of independents.

What matters here is that in either scenario, aiming to be the junior or senior partner in the next coalition government, Sinn Fein would have to grow and develop – and be led – like a normal political party. The problem for Sinn Fein is that it is not a normal political party. It came to life as an offshoot of the IRA and it continues to behave, particularly in the way it handles its internal affairs, as an offshoot of the IRA, where obedience to an all-controlling leadership comes before all else.

The symptoms of this were visible in the years after the 2007 electoral setback with a series of resignations from party ranks in both parts of Ireland – perhaps twenty in all – and most damagingly in Dublin. Perhaps the most telling of these was the defection of Dublin councillor Killian Forde to the Labour Party in January 2010, a rising star who many predicted would go far. He chose his words carefully when he resigned but their import was unmistakable:

“The leadership of the party appeared to not recognise or were unwilling to accept that changes are long overdue. These changes were essential to transform the party into one that values discussions, accommodates dissent and promotes merit over loyalty and obedience. It is only logical that if you disagree with the direction of the party and are unable to change it there is no option but to leave.”

He didn’t put a name to the problem but we all know who he was talking about. Last week Gerry Adams was chosen as leader of the new, expanded Sinn Fein group in the Dail, replacing the dull but dependable Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin. He was picked for the job in the same way as Sadam Hussein was in Iraq, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Josef Stalin in Soviet Russia, with no rival or dissent worthy of the name and success absolutely assured. His selection has to be ratified by the Sinn Fein Ard Comhairle and it surely will be, as all his wishes have been.

Gerry Adams - President of SF since 1983 and now leader of the party in the Dail.

In assuming leadership of the Dail party, Gerry Adams may well have missed one of those opportunities that the great leaders recognise when they come along, that for the good of the party and the project for which they have struggled, it is time to stand aside for newer, younger and fresher blood.

Now it may be that Gerry Adams does see the reality of his situation and that when the new Dail sits, he will be leader in name only, that in practice he will let the Pearse Doherty’s shine and get their way in charting the party’s direction and shaping its decisions. If he does then Sinn Fein will have a betting chance of growing and, more importantly, attracting talented and ambitious people to its ranks and by so doing significantly improve the chances that it will end up in power in 2015 or 2016.

But it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Even harder when there’s a great temptation to see the election result, and his own performance in Louth, as a massive vote of confidence in the way he goes about politics. Gerry Adams’ problem, as Killian Forde implied, is that he sees little difference in leading Sinn Fein and leading the IRA.

Surviving at the top of the IRA, as he did for so many years, required being on constant guard against dissent and brooking no disobedience of, or divergence from the leadership strategy, no matter how trivial, for fear that it will bloom and grow into a significant and even life-threatening challenge. (If you don’t believe this is how he ran the IRA, go ask Ruairi O Bradaigh, Ivor Bell or Micky McKevitt) That may be an acceptable style of leadership for an armed group waging a revolutionary war – or for a revolutionary leader intent on leading his army in a completely new direction – but it’s fatal for a political party in a democratic, parliamentary system.

It means, inter alia, that there’s a natural tendency for such leaders to surround themselves with untalented sycophants, valued mostly for their trustworthiness and dependability, or carpetbaggers who stare lovingly into their eyes and murmur compliments about standing on the shoulders of giants. These are precisely the sort of people who are not needed in a party that wants to flourish and expand.

In two years time, Gerry Adams will have been leader of Sinn Fein for thirty years. I can’t think of any European or Western party with a leader who’s been in office even half as long as he has. But over in North Africa there is one leader just as unwilling as he is to pass on the reins of power to others. Muammar Gaddafi, long time patron and sometime paymaster of the IRA, has been ruling Libya for forty years and is, as I write, stubbornly – and violently – resisting efforts to dislodge him from office. The two men’s lives intersected constantly over the last four decades and it looks like they will continue to do so till the bitter end.

4 responses to “Musings on the Irish General Election

  1. This is indeed a brilliant documentary, Ed. I listened to it yesterday while reluctantly and painfully jogging around Lake Merritt in Oakland, California. The wonders of modern technology meet the reality of the relentless aging process. The programme was preceded on RTE Radio One with a news report on the ongoing Fine Gael-Labour coalition talks, not yet concluded by then. The outcome of the talks was completely predictable. Everyone knew that Labour would seek the ministerial cars and other parliamentary perks over principle and long-term strategy. Had they held off and let Fine Gael form an unstable alliance with assorted independent TDs, they would have become the primary party in opposition, thus usurping Fianna Fail’s position, and possibly, limiting future Sinn Fein support. Following the inevitable failure of a talentless Fianna Gael government, Labour would have been in an exceptionally good position to win a working Dail majority in 4 or 5 years time. But then Gilmore and his crew would had to give up too much filthy lucre, and one never knows when the opportunity to make a few bob will come around again, eh lads?
    Of course I am delusional.
    The idea that Ireland might have a real left-wing alternative in the Dail must keep the boyos of the bars in Baggot Street in stitches.

  2. You’ve excelled yourself, Eduardo. This is a piece that ought to be snapped up by the Irish Times as a review front. The picture you present of Gerry Adams as leader of the IRA in Dail Eireann is chilling.

  3. iBedhV IJWTS wow! Why can’t I think of things like that?

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