There are no ideas in Irish politics. Sean O’Faolain recognised this in 1945, when he wrote:
Irish politics today are not politics; our two main parties are indistinguishable not because their political ideas are alike but because neither has any political idea at all – warriors of destiny and the race of the Gaels – silly romantic titles that confess a complete intellectual vacancy as far as the reality of political ideas are concerned.
Seven decades later, this observation holds. Our two main political parties, Fianna Fail (the “warriors of destiny”) and Fine Gael (the “race of the Gaels”) are still distinguished by the positions they took over the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922. When Bertie Ahern and, later, Brian Cowen occupied the Taoiseach’s office in Leinster House, a portrait of Eamon De Valera hung on the wall. When Enda Kenny took over in 2011, he replaced the portrait of Dev with a portrait of Michael Collins. This is as close to an ideological debate as Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have ever gotten.
The economic boom that began in Ireland in the late 1990s and continued until 2008 created something that had never really existed in Ireland before: a large and prosperous middle class. As a result, Irish politics changed. The majority of Irish people will now vote for what they perceive to be the party of middle class self-interest. This is now the only “idea” in Irish politics. From 1997 to 2008, therefore, the Irish people voted for Fianna Fail – the party that presided over the Celtic Tiger. When the banking crisis struck in late 2008, it became clear to the Irish electorate that Fianna Fail were no longer competent to serve as the guardians of middle class self-interest. Fine Gael became the largest party in the 2011 general election with the tacit understanding that they would put things back the way they were – that they would make Ireland’s new middle class feel rich and safe again. The reason they were not booted out of power in 2016 is that, to a significant portion of the Irish electorate, they seemed to have done this.
During Fine Gael’s term in power, Fianna Fail has been attempting once again to position itself as the party of middle class self-interest. (And so has Sinn Fein: this is what Martin McGuinness’s presidential campaign was all about.) Separately, many Irish voters have been secretly waiting for the day when it is once again safe to vote for Fianna Fail, who, the last time they were in power, enabled these voters to get rich without having to worry too much about irritating rules and regulations.
With the current crisis in the Fine Gael-led coalition – and with no clearly electable successor in line to replace Enda Kenny – the return of Fianna Fail to power, as the party of middle class self-interest, seems increasingly likely.
In the event of another global financial crisis, of course, Fianna Fail will fare no better than Fine Gael, since both parties share the same outdated neoliberal view of economic policy. The problem is that the fate of the Irish middle class is not really in the hands of any particular Irish government. It is in the hands of a complex global system that no one really understands or knows how to control. Enda Kenny’s tenure as Taoiseach was predicated on ignoring this fact. His successor may not be able to do the same.