Can Ireland sustain an openly conservative party?

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

I was chatting with someone recently, and mentioned that I was going to write a column questioning whether there was room in Ireland for a conservative party. He made a joke about an Irish Tory party, which of course is the key point: is it possible to have a conservative party that isn’t immediately compared to the auld enemy?

If anything, the question demonstrates how much Ireland has changed. Up to the mid 1980s all we really had were conservative parties, with FF very socially conservative (in public but not in Haugheyite practice), FG slightly less conservative (but still with its Alice Glenns. Remember her?), and Labour looking over its shoulder every time it used the phrase “rubber johnnies”. 

Economically, it wasn’t much different, although with an Irish twist: all three parties were pretty comfortable with state involvement in the economy, social spending and high taxation, but God forbid you interfere in any economic way with The Land in a nation of Bull McCabes. 

It wasn’t really until the arrival of the Progressive Democrats in 1985 that free enterprise and low taxation became options worth considering, and even the PDs were very cautious about going too far. Indeed, the PD economic record in terms of tax and spending turned out to be pretty centrist: nothing that would be keeping Joe Biden too much awake. 

The awkward fact is that we’re a great people for setting up things before we decide what they’re actually for. It’s all well and good wanting a conservative party but first you have to decide what Irish conservatism is. After all, the old Fianna Fail tried and tested Whatever You’re Having Yourself/I Knew Your Father Well approach just isn’t working anymore.   

Is it peering through curtains worrying about The Gays? Is it repealing the eight amendment? Is it bringing back the ban on abortion and restricting contraception again?

Probably not. One thing about Irish conservatism is that it has nearly always accepted change when it happens, and starts instead worrying about the next thing coming over the hill.

The solution is probably, as American republicans did, to build a coalition around issues that you either feel very passionate about, or don’t care about. The US Republicans built an alliance of free enterprise tax cutters, gun rights activists and cultural conservatives, all willing to turn a blind eye if they didn’t like what the others were looking for in order to achieve their own objectives, and it has been electorally very successful. 

Could Irish conservatives do that? What issues would unite them?

That’s the tricky bit: putting, say, Keith Redmond and Eamon O’Cuiv into the same party would certainly be interesting. Both are pro-life to differing degrees, although you’d wonder what’s to be done on that issue. Both are also euro-critical, and could probably ally on a Thus Far And No Further approach to European integration. But on tax and public spending, Redmond would be closer to American conservatives whereas O’Cuiv would be closer to continental Christian Democrats who are quite comfortable with high public spending. 

Overall, the problem is that Irish conservatives are not particularly comfortable debating openly what it is they want. Even on issues like transgender rights or immigration many conservatives are reluctant to openly debate not only for fear of labelling but because both those issues attract a very nasty (and often Nazi) element that many Irish conservatives want nothing to do with. 

But it remains the core issue: you can’t create a conservative party if you can’t agree what the distinctive aims of that movement are. 

One you decide what you want to achieve, next is the how. The obvious answer is that rotting twisted hulk that once enforced the will of a thousand judgemental clergy, Fianna Fail. There are many on the right who argue, possibly with some truth, that Fianna Fail, in chasing the votes of social liberals pursued those who who never vote for them at the cost of insulting and abandoning those who actually did. 

There may be some truth to that, but it should be remembered that there was no shortage of Fianna Fail TDs happy to come out and oppose repealing the eight amendment, and you’d have to wonder if that helped the party much. You could argue that it helped many of them keep their seats in the following election. But you’d have to be sceptical: look at Renua, where three deputies resigned from Fine Gael over the abortion issue. Despite the 66% yes for repeal in the 2018 referendum the No vote in nearly every single constuituency, including their previous constituencies, should have easily elected a pro-life TD, especially one who made a principled stand on the abortion issue itself.  Yet where were those voters when they were needed at the previous election?  

That’s the question: is there enough of an electorate willing to put their first preference vote beside a party based on its ideology? There are some, who vote Green or Sinn Fein based purely on the party values rather than candidate, but are there enough of those voters to back an openly conservative party? 

Could Fianna Fail be seized by Irish conservatives as their vehicle? It certainly makes sense, and it has happened to parties elsewhere. The US Republicans were once the party of black Americans. The Tories were once the party of Europe. European socialist parties were once the parties of the poor.  

But there’ll almost certainly be a fight, with many in Fianna Fail being very comfortable sitting with other centrist and liberal parties in the European Parliament.

It’ll be bloody and distracting for FF. But for the country, an open punchup in the party would be both healthy for the country and the party itself  and, let’s face it, fairly entertaining too.