With the new year just out of its shiny wrapper, I thought I’d go for a little bird’s eye view of the Irish political parties as they stand today.
Fine Gael: It’s a dead cert that FG will lose seats at the next election. This isn’t really a reflection on the party but on the extraordinary results of the 2011 general election. Having said that, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that FG has a very good chance of remaining the dominant party in Irish politics. It’s also proving to be quite adept at creating a clear identity for itself, as a standard moderate conservative European Christian Democrat party, the party of the haves, the aspiring like to haves, and the let it bes, a section of the Irish electorate who could keep the party in pole position if they remain loyal. Enda’s tough stance on abortion reform has signalled that there is a place in the party for liberals, and a quiet stance on gay marriage (without blocking it) will help keep the FG broad church together. It the economy continues to improve, or at least feel like it is, FG will take the credit.
Fianna Fail: The fact that I’m writing FF in second place on this list says a lot about how FF is recovering. Despite whinging within the party, Martin still remains the least toxic of FF leaders available, and the polls show the party is de-toxifying. The local and European elections next year will show a modest recovery for the party, but nothing spectacular, although it will provide a slate of new young faces. As a general observation, the younger candidates I’ve met are the closest I’ve met in modern Irish politics to British Liberal Democrats, both socially and economically. FF still has to identify what it stands for: some in the party seem to believe that 2011 was a mere anomaly and the party should revert to promising whatever it needs to promise to win votes, regardless of the ability to deliver afterwards. Others see a New Fianna Fail that is humble, rigorous in its analysis and unwilling to do a Gilmore overreach in the run up to polling day. One other issue FF will have to confront is the coalition question: Is a vote or preference for FF candidates like (insert name here*) a vote for Sinn Fein cabinet ministers on the BBC justifying the murder of RUC officers on behalf of the Irish people?
Labour: I remain convinced that Labour cannot secure support from sections of the Irish people if it does not know who those people are itself. Is Labour the public sector party? Why should someone vote Labour over FF, FG or SF? I have no idea. Also, Labour’s refusal (in lockstep with FG) to take political reform seriously is going to cost it. Not in votes, because reform just is not that kind of issue, but by refusing to reform local government to make opposition parties make decisions, or implementing the convention proposal on larger Dail constituencies, Labour is not doing itself any favours. Labour should continue to fear a Shortall led Continuity Labour in the locals and Europeans.
Sinn Fein: If Sinn Fein ditches Adams before 2016 it has a serious chance of becoming the second party in terms of first preferences (but not seats). SF has big issues to decide upon: If it props up FG or FF after 2016 it will suffer the PD/Lab/Green curse. Force FG/FF together and it could be the lead opposition party. It also has to prepare its members for government better. Prediction: when SF enter govt eventually, you’ll see serious membership loss. Irish parties in govt seem incapable of managing their own member expectations, especially as SF is pretending to be far more economically left wing than it will be in government. These guys hang around with Coca-Cola executives, for God’s sake!
The Left Allsorts: One of the great disgraces of Irish politics has been the shocking inability of the Irish Left, in the face of the crisis of capitalism, to build up a serious alternative government. The truth is that the failure of the United Left Alliance, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party (insert today’s cover name as required) is an indictment of either incompetence or a genuine unwillingness to build a realistic platform. The Irish Left is the sort of self indulgent political self-pleasuring act that General Pinochet would have funded in the dark days, to create the impression that there was a serious democratic contest available.
The Independents: There’s going to come a moment when Irish voters realise, if many haven’t already, that the Independent label is no guarantee of anything different. From people who were loyal party hacks a minute before a convention ballot box opened, to simple chancers, the idea that the Independent label affixes a greater purity than a party label has little to confirm it. There are good, decent independents out there, that’s true. But as a group, they’re no better than any party.
*Note: I put an asterisk beside the insert name here to make a point. When I return to this issue in 24 months time, when it’s live, and start putting aspiring TDs names in there, watch the outrage. That’s why I’m giving them a heads up now.