Scale of Republic’s political meltdown hard to grasp

Brian Cowen’s handling of the Irish economy was excellent, not least because of his commitment to cross-border dealings – that may be Margaret Ritchie’s view this past weekend, but it is astonishingly and disgracefully out of touch.

The financial meltdown in the Republic of Ireland has heralded a political meltdown which is surely more dramatic still. Fianna Fáil is not just the party which has led Dublin’s government for three quarters of the time since independence and not just the party which has won most seats in every Dáil, but also a fundamental part of the fabric of a state now hitting middle age. The link between the financial and political chaos is more than just politicians’ handling of it.

In the way that FC Barcelona is “more than a club”, Fianna Fáil is “more than a party” – it is woven in to every aspect of Southern Irish life, from finance to sport. Fianna Fáil politicians went easy on bankers commiting people to irretrievable debt, priests committing children to lifetimes of misery and people with pasts refusing to say where the bodies are buried the same way Fianna Fáil GAA referees go easy on Fianna Fáil goalkeepers commiting professional fouls. Blind eyes were turned on the upward journey, but the downward one has been just as swift, brutal and bitter as a dodgy property deal, a child abuse cover-up or a mother still waiting for the body to be found. Fianna Fáil was not just the Republican party, it was the Republic of Ireland – from the positives (strong export base, remarkable sense of community, astonishing cultural output etc) to the negatives (aforementioned).

So, as Fianna Fáil effectively ceases to be (at least temporarily, but perhaps even permanenently), what will Ireland become? This is a much more fundamental question than the result of a forthcoming election or even a financial deal to satisfy the IMF – because Fianna Fáil is (was?) much more fundamental to Ireland than a political party. We should all understand that none of us has anything to thank Brian Cowen and co for – and as a result of their excesses, what we are witnessing is a social change beyond current comprehension.


33 thoughts on “Scale of Republic’s political meltdown hard to grasp

  1. Richard says:

    I always wondered why Fianna Fail didn’t go ahead and join forces with the SDLP.
    Speaking of meltdowns, I see 2 more UUP councillors have fallen off the perch in Larne!

  2. Yes, Brian Dunn was a good guy but was another McCrea supporter who rightly saw no future in the party. He has taken an entirely honourable line.

    His son Mark is, in my experience, quite able but somewhat harder line. I would expect to see him in another Unionist party before too long.

  3. Paul says:

    please note confirmation in todays newsletter alan mcfarland in talks with others about setting up a new pro union party

    • IJP says:

      I’ve a lot of time for Alan and a “loose association” makes some sense. However, no one wants yet another party.

      The problem is, if the Union is secure, what does pro-Union mean and why would it be the only reference point? UPNI didn’t work and nor will this.

  4. Richard says:

    I think that’s right. No room for a new party.
    In the unlikely event of Alliance firming up its pro-union credentials it has the possibility of becoming the alternative for many more than Paula or Harry.
    Meanwhile, Elliott does a broadside today on his own members, and Nesbitt announces the UUP will only support the Conservatives on issues outside NI.
    What a farce!

  5. Richard,

    Why should Alliance change their position on the union? The continuance of the union isn’t within the gift of political parties. Anyone that signed up to the GFA accepted that constitutional change will only happen if the people decide so in a referendum, and the only person who can call a referendum is the SoS. “Unionism” and “Nationalism” are now politically empty terms, and their only continuing use is as code for “biased towards Prods” and “biased towards Taigs”. Alliance’s position on the constitution is absolutely correct as it is.

  6. Richard says:

    I can see where you are coming from Andrew but the point I was making was purely to do with strategy and how people leaving the UUP may consider Alliance.
    Naturally the matter is important to them.
    For me personally it would be my biggest stumbling block, simply because I feel passionately about supporting the union.

  7. Richard,

    You are a unionist, that’s fair enough. But it’s a question of priorities. Is the union a more urgent matter than jobs, health and education? Particularly given that there is no realistic prospect of the union ending for at least a decade or two?

    Most politicians are motivated to enter politics by the issues of the day, and for most of our current generation of politicians these driving issues were related to the Troubles. Now that the Troubles are over the concerns of these politicians are looking increasingly dated. It is no accident that it is young politicians like Ian and Harry Hamilton who are chafing at the limitations of existing party politics.

    There is a sea change coming like that of 1970, when the old political order was swept away. This change won’t be born of violence, but of hardship. NI looks increasingly like a post-Soviet state, with a subsidised standard of living but no native economy to pay the bills. Whichever parties deal convincingly with this problem will define politics for the next generation. Unionism and nationalism are no longer the burning issues that they once were.

    • IJP says:


      You’ve answered the question. “Unionist” means “biased towards Prods”.

      It is perfectly possible to have a strong view on the constitution and be a member of the Alliance Party – the only expectation is that that view is realistic enough to recognise that the current settlement isn’t changing any time soon.

      What is changing is the economy and world around us – that external world is where we should be playing the game.

  8. Paul says:

    there simply isnt the room for another party and quite frankly anybody thinking of starting one is wont get off the ground and richard you have to face facts the ni tories are have yet to accept that

  9. Paul says:

    i am staggeed ian you havnt returned to your natural home the alliance party.richard your natural home is the alliance party i see seymour major is supporting the alliance party at the assembly elections.

  10. Richard says:

    I accept your point on priorities Andrew but you need to accept the point also that for some of us the union does matter and is not an non-issue.
    Yes the union is secure and other issues have taken priority but that dosn’t mean there should be no opinion on something which a lot of us cherish.
    And Paul, I will admit the party here is dead when all hope is gone. I cannot disclose here information which I have but the party is here to stay and you will see evidence of that very soon

  11. Richard, I never claimed that the union was a non-issue. It will clearly continue to be important to many people and I accept that. I think however you have missed the entire thrust of my priorities argument. If NI’s political landscape remains organised around issues that will only come to a head in two decades time, it will fail to make good decisions on today’s problems. And this is exactly what we see in practice.

    In the Republic, the main parties are commonly derided for being based on historical divisions and not on bread and butter issues. The Fine Gael vs Fianna Fáil rivalry mirrors the unionist/nationalist divide in NI: created by the issue of the border, accusations of treason on both sides, allegiances being passed down from parent to child. With the border issue now taken for granted and the implosion of FF, there are encouraging signs that we may finally see the end of Civil War politics south of the border.

    Unfortunately it will take more than the implosion of the UUP to similarly change politics in the North.

  12. Richard says:

    I’m not arguing for today’s decisions to be organised around issues which will come to a head in two decades. I’m simply saying that it’s perfectly legitimate for a moderate party to give recognition to peoples allegiance to the UK and the Union. I’m not talking about flags at the parties annual conference!
    Only recently I argued on this blog for a phased introduction to water charges. That is not only dealing with today’s issues but it’s dealing with an issue that should have been dealt with at least 3 years ago!
    The union is not top of my list of important issues Andrew otherwise I wouldn’t be voting for Alliance in the Assembly elections this year either.

    • Paul says:

      i thought you ni tories were canvassing and supporting indepedents richard make your mind up you are all over the place these days.

  13. Richard,

    I’m not arguing for today’s decisions to be organised around issues which will come to a head in two decades.

    But you are. You’re saying that you (and others) would not join a party unless it takes an explicit view on the Union; that your relationship with people who may very well agree with you on every other issue but the Union can never extend to sharing the same platform. If you accept (which you have done by accepting the GFA) that the Union cannot be altered through party politics, what else is it but flags at party conferences? Do you believe that if you joined Alliance (say) it would make you not a real unionist any more? I’m genuinely curious.

  14. Richard says:

    I don’t accept your point that for a party to take a view on the union somehow everything is organised around it. If it’s emphasise (as with the UUP) were to be that, and I used the example of flags at the party conference, I would then agree with you.
    The GFA in many ways enshrines sectarianism, it has institutionalised it, and the d’hont system requires parties to define themselves for or against the union. And you support that? I think that’s a better example of what you are talking about Andrew. The GFA may have taken away the vacuum where terrorists thrive better but what has it actually achieved apart from a lot of talking?
    The only proper way to move things on is for the national parties to properly organise here. By properly I mean with enthusiasm and finances, and not getting into hopeless arrangements with sterile local parties. That way Andrew you truly remove the need for a position on the union, because to many the union would more secure. It is only when local parties here dissolve that real politics and non sectarianism will get the opportunity to thrive.

  15. Richard says:

    No Paul I am not all over the place, let me be more clear.
    We will be voting for and supporting candidates in a tactical way. My intentions are to vote Alliance but if I think some other non sectarian candidate has a chance of beating a sectarian one I will switch support. So in some cases this may be independents.
    Some may canvass for independents.
    It’s the only option available when the Conservative Party in its wisdom has decided to do a Hatfield re-run with regard to Stormont.

  16. Richard,

    I never liked the institutionalised sectarianism of the GFA, but thought it a price worth paying at the time. You are wrong about the process of designation though – it is members who designate, not parties. This is a vital distinction, because it opens up the prospect of cross-designation as a way out of the sectarian impasse that doesn’t rely on changes to the agreements (which would almost certainly be vetoed). If there is one constant of NI politics, it is that everyone wants to fiddle the system to suit themselves, instead of adapting themselves to take advantage of the system.

    Re integrationism: politics can’t be imported like a branch of Tesco. It has to be grown from the grass roots. A successful political movement is one that articulates the views of the people, and if you put emotional but irrelevant barriers like the Union in the way, you’re cutting the potential size of your movement in half before you even start. Nobody in today’s generation is going to change their minds on the constitution, so debating it is futile. If you paint your party as pro-Union, no matter how pastel a shade you use, you are taking sides in the sectarian headcount. This is what I mean when I say everything is organised around one issue.

    Every successful political party is an internal coalition of disparate views. The members have to set aside their disagreements on some issues in order to make progress on others. Parties obsessed with ideological purity end up on the fringes of politics. The Conservative party has no official position on abortion, even though many members have strong personal views. Yet they manage to agree to disagree, and that’s on a matter of life and death. You accepted above that the border is not the most urgent matter, so why can’t it be put in the agree-to-disagree box?

  17. Richard says:

    I agree with you Andrew that it does have to grown from grass roots. And to a large degree now the local Conservatives here have accepted that we must gain support at local council level first if we are to make progress.
    I have been pushing this point a lot. It is essential to do a lot of the mundane work that I an is involved with like street lighting and planning issues.
    Clearly the short-cut scenario of achieving seats by way of a coalition with a local party has failed dismally, and I wish more people would accept that, especially on the other side of the water.
    On your point about a comparison with abortion Andrew, I’m afraid that does not stand.
    There are many issues such as abortion and the death penalty which are regarded as matters of conscience in Westminster debates and in party membership.
    The Union can not be classed in the same way.Some of us class allegiance to the state, and the very existence of the state in quite a different way.

  18. Richard,

    So which is it? Either the constitution is not a pressing issue, or it is an issue more fundamental than all others. You can’t have it both ways.

  19. Richard says:

    Its not a pressing issue anymore Andrew but it’s not an non-issue that dosn’t deserve recognition either.
    It’s a question of emphasise, and if you don’t mind me saying I think you have fallen into the trap of believing its impossible to support the union and have it as a party policy without beating a drum!
    To give an example. A few years back I went into the Short Strand to a community centre with the then shadow Secretary of State Owen Patterson. As Conservatives we were warmly received. We weren’t beating drums or playing flutes but we still supported the union.
    Like I say it’s a question of emphasise. People will respect you supporting the union as one of your policies, and many catholics will vote Conservative accepting that the Union is here to stay for the forseeable future. The emphasise however should be on issues such as housing, education, and the economy.

  20. Richard,

    I haven’t accused you of beating a drum. I’m saying that not beating a drum isn’t enough. Wholeheartedly accepting those with differing views is something else. You are erecting a small, discreet sign outside your party door saying “only loyal citizens need apply”. To what end? Who are you trying to keep out, and what horrors would ensue if they were let in?

    A polite, even warm, reception is one thing. Voting for a political party is another, and joining is something else again, as you yourself have pointed out.

  21. Richard says:

    “only loyal citizens need apply”
    Is that so wrong Andrew? The Conservative Party nationally has never made any secret of the fact that it supports the union. The party is a unionist party and still calls itself Conservative and Unionist.
    But don’t underestimate the distinction between this and our local unionist parties. We are wholeheartedly anti-sectarian despite that brand being recently tainted.
    I believe the correct presentation of this to all sections of the community will have appeal not least because it gives real input into every level of governance within the UK.
    Inciidentally Andrew as an area officer I opposed the use of the word Ulster in UCUNF. Although not successful in achieving that change, it’s an example of how emphasis and image matter. While both unionist parties are uninterested in cross community support we actively encourage it

    • It’s not wrong, but in the context of NI it is unhelpful. In most countries, loyalty is a unifying factor. In NI, loyalty is divisive. I fear you are seriously limiting your appeal amongst Catholics for the sake of a point of pride.

      You keep trying to convince me of your non-sectarian credentials, but I haven’t questioned them once.

  22. IJP says:

    I really shouldn’t be allowing this debate as it is seriously off topic, but it seems worth watching!

    My concern about the local Conservatives is less about their stance on the Union and more about their focus. If, yet again, no Conservative Councillor is elected at the NI local poll in May, CCHQ will regard itself as entirely justified in ignoring the NI party, on the grounds it offers nothing but fulfilment of the technicality of being a party of the whole UK.

    I fail to see, given the discouraging numbers last time around, how there is any time for local Conservatives to be lobbying London or campaigning for Assembly candidates. They should long since have been attending community meetings, carrying out neighbourhood surveys, taking on planning issues.

    They will be an irrelevance in London for as long as they’re an irrelevance in NI. Sadly, I suspect they are already too late to fix the latter, and thus the former will remain the case.

  23. Richard says:

    Thank you for allowing that debate to continue Ian, as you say it was seriously off topic. We went off on a tangent let’s say! I hope it WAS worth watching.
    You are of course correct in saying the focus needs to change towards community meetings etc.
    It’s very much back to basics and focussing on these matters rather than the Assembly elections and in this regard it’s both too late and largely pointless now.
    The objective now has to be more long term and building from council level up. That is certainly the case I’ve been arguing.
    This has been accepted by CCHQ also I think. Back to the drawing board.

  24. To get the debate back on topic again, I think the most important thing about the travails of FF is that for an entire generation of young people the name of the party will be synonymous with the economic crisis. FF may rebuild itself in the medium term, but impressions made at a certain age are hard to shift and they will struggle to recruit the next-but-one generation of leaders. A line has been crossed and I don’t think they will ever again be the force they once were.

  25. Clare says:

    I have to say that I would consider voting Conservative as a Catholic.
    If the policies were right it wouldn’t cause me concern because they don’t have all the sectarian baggage that comes with the unionist parties.
    I think they made a grave error of judgement getting involved with the UUP, and they seem to have still not learned from that which appears utterly foolish.
    I agree with Richard that if the issue dosn’t take huge priority it is ok. Many middle class moderate catholics could be persuaded. Some catholics I know are really Tories at heart and if they lived in England would vote that way.
    I have voted Alliance and will probably continue to do so because they have the best chance of getting seats and for as far back as I can remember seem to offer the only voice of sanity!

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