MICHAEL WOLSEY: Move over Tweedledum, it’s Tweedledee’s turn
We don’t have a Conservative Party in Ireland. We don’t need one – all of our major parties and most of our politicians are inherently conservative. And we seem to like it that way, for we keep electing them.
Sometimes we give the big job to Tweedledum and sometimes to Tweedledee. Either way we can relax; in stormy waters this pair won’t rock the boat.
Whether it was rocked or not, Good Ship Ireland almost sank back in 2008 when recession put a hole in the economy.
The austerity measures that followed were hugely unpopular and for a time it looked as if the country might be prepared to abandon its traditional voting patterns. But we didn’t, not quite, and last week’s by-elections suggest that we have since resiled from any such intention and are returning to the status quo.
That status quo was set in back in 1948 after a string of Fianna Fáil election successes threatened to turn our recently independent country into a one-party state.
Such an outcome was prevented by a coalition – a collision, as the bar-stool comedians had it – of Fine Gael and Labour.
It was an unlikely pairing, since they had almost no policies in common and shared very few with Clann na Poblachta and the scattering of independents who helped them form the Government.
Nevertheless, it worked well enough and set a pattern that lasted for the next 30 years or so.
You could have Fianna Fáil in government by itself or a coalition of Fine Gael and Labour, sometimes helped by a third party or independents.
Charles Haughey altered the equation when he took Fianna Fáil into coalition with the Progressive Democrats in 1989. But the basic formula remained the same until the election of 2011, which was dominated by recession and smashed Fianna Fáil, and the election of 2016, which was dominated by austerity and almost wiped out the Labour Party.
These elections also saw the rise of Sinn Féin and some small parties on the Left. They changed the Dáil arithmetic and, for a time, it looked as if next year’s general election would finally put an end to the 1948 status quo.
It seemed distinctly possible that Micheál Martin would be the first Fianna Fáil leader not to become Taoiseach and that his party might be pushed towards coalition and eventual amalgamation with Fine Gael.
For Labour, with only seven TDs, there was the grim possibility that further slippage could leave it a party in name only, a flag of convenience for two or three independents.
Neither Fianna Fáil nor Labour can relax just yet but the trends of the past year and the results of the by-elections would suggest that both parties will survive.
Fianna Fáil will never return to the glory days when it could provide one-party government, but it remains strong enough to be a major force and comfortably ahead of Sinn Féin.
Labour, which had already seen a revival at local government level, looks likely to return enough TDs to at least be a player in any government formation.
So what has changed since 1948?
There is no single dominant party. Sinn Féin, which is now prepared to go into coalition, will take on the role then held by Labour and Labour will play the part of the traditional fourth party, held by the likes of Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan and Democratic Left.
The next government will, of course, bring a fresh approach to specific issues such as housing and transport but there will be no radical shift.
That’s how the voters like it. And they are right. Look at the shambles of British politics, the instability in Spain and Italy, the rise of the Right in Hungary and Poland, and you can only conclude that our dull old parties, governed by pragmatism not ideology, have served us well.
I hesitate to predict the outcome of a general election on the basis of four by-elections with very low turnouts, but I do think Fianna Fáil will be the biggest party next time out.
It’s not that their policies are wonderful, just that their time has come.
Move over Tweedledum, it’s Tweedledee’s turn now.