Why 1916 still decides Irish elections after a century

Again, we hear that there are no significant ideological differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – both are centre-right parties. So what divides voters?

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It was widely thought that the centenary of the Easter Rising, to be commemorated over the coming weeks, would influence the Irish election at the end of February. Recently, all of the prizes at the annual Irish Times university student debating competition were won by speakers opposing the motion that this should be the last year in which the uprising is remembered. One victorious debater argued that the rebellion was about equality, democracy and independence and that these ideals still resonated “louder than cannon fire . . . as relevant today as they were radical then”.

The failed uprising achieved success two years later when Sinn Fein, the broad nationalist movement that it produced, swept the boards in the 1918 general election. The Irish Parliamentary Party, which had lobbied for home rule for almost four decades at Westminster, was consigned to history. Sovereignty, not devolution, was the new watch cry. But after a guerrilla war brought the British government to the negotiating table, Sinn Fein split over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, some accepting a de facto independent state in the empire soon to become a commonwealth, others holding out for a republic.

After a brief but very bitter civil war, in which the anti-treaty side was defeated, these two factions of the movement became the dominant political parties of 20th-century Ireland: Fine Gael (pro-treaty) and Fianna Fáil (anti-treaty).

On the surface, the election result suggests that their time is up. For more than six decades, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael commanded over 80 per cent of the votes cast in any election. This year, they received barely 50 per cent of the vote between them. Ever since domestic television came to Ireland in 1961, commentators have predicted that the treaty split could not continue as the basis for Irish politics. A landmark on the journey to a new order appeared to have been reached five years ago when Fianna Fáil lost 51 of its 71 seats in the first election since the crash of the Celtic Tiger boom. With the Lib Dem-style wipeout of the Labour Party on 26 February, after five years in coalition, a significant increase in votes and seats for the modern Sinn Fein, and the success of small parties and independents, some are suggesting that this election brings the demise of the dominant parties ever closer.

But are these the “seismic changes” that some Irish commentators are hailing? The Fine Gael-Labour coalition of 2011-16 suffered a significant fall in support, from 56 per cent to 32 per cent. But most of those votes seem to have gone to Fianna Fáil, the party that was thought to have been irreparably wounded last time around. It has more than doubled its number of seats and has just over 1 per cent of the vote less than Fine Gael. A Fine Gael minority government, supported from the opposition benches by Fianna Fáil, is the most likely outcome of the negotiations over the next few weeks.

Again, we hear that there are no significant ideological differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – both are centre-right parties. In the minds of their membership and voters, they are distinguished by the kinds of affinities prized by advertising executives. Fine Gael appears stolid and middle class, Fianna Fáil profligate and populist. What is remarkable is that although Irish politics has been transformed over the past 25 years – with the end of the republic’s claim on Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement, the collapse of the authority of the Catholic Church, immigration, a boom and a bust that exposed corruption – the party system remains resilient, if battered.

The perception persists that getting things done requires a return to the two big parties. Challenges based on hardcore liberalism have withered; the left is disparate. Some argue that the system’s failure to adjust to a new reality shows that it is rotten. But the reversion to the mean has its positives. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, Ireland has no populist anti-immigrant party. The few politicians who have tried to run with this got nowhere.

One reason to suggest Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would not opt for a grand coalition is that they would be giving Sinn Fein the opportunity to establish itself as the alternative. But Sinn Fein is aspiring to be the new Fianna Fáil. So, even if the realignment came to pass, it might result in Ireland having three parties with little to distinguish them except their views on a treaty with Britain that was signed almost a century ago. The student debater argued: “Identity in Ireland is so rooted in 1916 that people come out of the womb advocating for one faction or another.” Against all the odds, he might be right.

Maurice Walsh’s book “Bitter Freedom” is published by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis