Cork South West is a really good example of how change has happened because, for a half a century, it mirrored the two-and-a-half party system we had in Ireland, writes Harry McGee
THE late political journalist Dick Walsh used a great anecdote in his book about Fianna Fáil published in the 1980s.
He remembered talking in his native Co Clare to an old man who told him his family had been loyal Fianna Fáil supporters since the ‘old days.’
Walsh asked the old fellow did he mean the Civil War?
Not at all, replied the old fellow, informing the younger man that his family had supported Fianna Fáil since 1798.
It was the standout line from a not-great book by Walsh. It was a fine illustration of how deep and ingrained the fealty of families was to Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour in the past.
Many households in Ireland, urban and rural, were divided between those where you could not say a word against Eamon de Valera, or you could not mention his name, or else there would be a conniption.
Until this Dáil, the 34th since the foundation of the State, you would hear politicians from other parties hammering on about ‘Civil War politics’ and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael being Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee – in other words, the same.
Well, now they have coalesced in government and, by that very act, if it was difficult to differentiate between them until now, it will become almost impossible by the time they emerge from government.
Is it just in the past year that ‘Civil War politics’ has come to an end? I’d argue that it has been over for almost 30 years. The generation that came out of the Civil War had emotional and visceral ties to their political parties. The society that emerged was a traditional and a conservative one, and what became the orthodox values were passed onto the next generation, almost without quibble.
The seed for the demise of that two-party hegemony was probably planted in the 1960s with the increase of urbanisation, mobility, and disposable income that followed the modernisation programme devised by Seán Lemass and TK Whittaker.
My late mother was a GP who was based in Connemara in the early 1960s. There were some places which were still inaccessible by road and you needed to take a boat to get around to the small holdings. A trip into Galway city and back would have taken a long day and many did it on foot. Mechanised transport began to become a reality for most people from the 1960s (the humble Honda 50 had a major and undervalued role in the modernisation of Ireland). It also saw the beginning of the drift in settlement patterns from rural to urban.
Those changes were happening on the ground during the 1970s and 1980s. A really good example of that is the recent report on the mother and baby homes. The number of young women who went into those institutions with their Victorian notions of shame remained high, right until the end of the 1960s. And then in the 1970s and 1980s they dropped, at first moderately, before plummeting to almost nothing.
Political change seemed to lag behind these societal changes in Ireland. The Labour Party boasted that the 1970s would be socialist. That didn’t happen. They were still Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. There were many reasons behind that, not all of them easily graspable.
There was the ongoing violence in the North that conditioned politics in the South. Society was more urbanised but was still traditional.
Perhaps it was to do with the big personalities that dominated Irish politics during that era.
The mathematical reality was that until the 1980s, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael commanded 80% of the vote between them. My own theory is that by the time Bertie Ahern became Taoiseach in the late 1990s, the base of his support was no longer the dyed-in-the-wool Fianna Fáil footsoldiers, but the increasing cohort of ‘floating voters’ without loyalty to any particular party.
They voted Fianna Fáil because the country was going through an unprecedented boom and because Fianna Fáil had managed to latch onto a compelling identity that had nothing to do with the Civil War.
Its new role was the ‘natural party of government’. De facto, that’s what it had been for most of the time after 1932, but that image cemented itself during Bertie’s time.
And it lasted only until the economy collapsed and the party could no longer trade on a message of being competent in government.
In truth, both big parties have been involved in irreversible slides since the 1980s as society has become more complex, more urban, more globalised, more fickle and more volatile.
Fine Gael was in crisis from the late 1980s until 2011. Fianna Fáil has been in crisis since 2011. But if Sinn Féin or the Social Democrats – or whatever the new party du jour happens to be – think for a moment that the fealty of voters to them will be permanent, they are deluded.
Parties that are on the pig’s back at the moment will find that, once they go into government, the electorate will astound them with their ingratitude and dump them out of government as quickly as they voted them in.
Truly, we are now entering an era of politics where stable governments will be few and far between. Our electoral system lends itself to giving the best representative spread of TDs. In Britain, it is first past the post, which is black and white. That system lends itself to more decisive results. For us, it doesn’t. Not any more.
In the future, our political system is going to be similar to the Scandinavian countries, where a whole heap of parties come together to form a (minority) government.
There are good sides to this, such as the tendency to ensure an absence of extremist policies. But there are downsides, too. Those administrations tend to last an average of only two-and-a-half years.
That can lead to short-termism when it comes to policies. Also there are times when policies are needed that are not crowd-pleasers – it’s very difficult to do it when you have lots of parties involved in government.
Cork South West is a really good example of how that change has happened. For a half a century, it mirrored the two-and-a-half party system we had in Ireland.
For 20 years, between 1961 and 1981, it was one FF, one FG and one Labour. Michael Patrick Murphy represented the traditional Munster Labour vote throughout his career.
For three decades, between 1981 and 2011, the three seats were shared between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, with Fine Gael mostly taking the lion’s share, thanks to Labour Party support.
And after 2011? It’s been more changeable in this decade than it was in the preceding half a century. Fianna Fáil had no sitting TD in Cork for the first time ever, after the 2011 election. In that poll, Labour (through Michael McCarthy) regained a seat after 30 years. He was then dumped in 2016, like most Labour TDs. In that year, Michael Collins became the first TD since Florence Wycherley (the actor Don Wycherly’s father) in 1957 who did not represent a traditional party.
In 2020 we saw the astounding phenomenon of Fine Gael winning zero seats in a constituency it dominated for generations. Holly Cairns from the Social Democrats got elected on 0.4% of a quota, thanks to the growing support being received for none-of-the-above parties such as Sinn Féin and the Greens. Labour, for the first time in 30 years, ran no candidate.
The statistic that is most telling is this: In 1989, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael won exactly 95% of the vote between them in Cork South West. In 2020, that had fallen to – wait for it – 32.1%. That’s more than a fall. That’s a collapse. And it’s not going to be reversed any time soon.
• Harry McGee is political correspondent with The Irish Times and on Twitter @harrymcgee