By Gary Murphy 23 August, MMX
It may be the silly season but the front page article in the Irish Daily Mail on Sunday suggested that a number of disaffected Fine Gael politicians were secretly discussing a type of merger with Fianna Fail after the next election as they do not want to go into coalition with those dastardly left wingers in the Labour party.
Calls for the grand coalition or even a national government often raise their head as the panacea for the woes of the Irish state. For example in late 2008 early 2009 numerous letters to the Irish Times called on the political parties to form a government of national unity given the spiralling out of control of the national finances, the nationalisation of Anglo-Irish bank, the collapse in the share price of the other major banks, significant increases in unemployment and a burgeoning public sector pay bill. One correspondent to the Irish Times maintained that a ‘Government of National Unity is the only way forward if we want to manage the crisis. It makes more sense than social partnership, now proving so costly. A resolute national government can face down those who would protect their own situation regardless of the plight of the country despite weasel words of sharing their concern for the nation’s vulnerable citizens’. Now while this could be seen as more an attack of social partnership than anything else it is instructive to note that calls for a national government or a merger between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael become much more pronounced during times of economic crisis.
National governments in democracies usually derive from circumstances of extraordinary crisis such as world wars and political revolutions. In Ireland there had been significant calls for a national government at various times during the Emergency which were always repudiated by Eamon de Valera. These calls became more pronounced in the 1950s. Given the precarious economic situation at the time the main national newspapers the Irish Times, Irish Independent, and the Cork Examiner all expressed support for the idea of a national government to address the mounting crisis facing a country with spiralling debt problems and massive emigration. By the 1957 election rumours were rife that a merger between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would come to pass after that election and the only possible impediment was de Valera. Meanwhile de Valera’s deputy Seán Lemass was, according to the American embassy in Dublin, openly plotting with other senior Fianna Fáilers to ensure a national coalition after the election if the result was indecisive. Looking back over half a century ago there is no evidence at all to suggest that these rumours were anything but that. All we know of Lemass, MacEntee and others in Fianna Fáil who had committed themselves to the service of the state suggests that no matter how severe the economic crisis a national government was not an alternative they were willing to embrace.
Fine Gael, however, has some form when it comes to advocating mergers with Fianna Fáil and national coalitions. It had attempted to avert an election in 1957 when it approached Fianna Fáil on 5 February with a view to forming an alliance. Rumours of Fine Gael’s overtures caused de Valera to issue a statement on 10 February wherein he admitted to receiving two members of Fine Gael and “listening” to a proposal which he found “impossible”. A policy document produced for Fine Gael at this time by one of its members outlined various proposals on how a national government would be constituted and was discussed among its senior ranks but never made it as official policy. This is not terribly surprising as it called for nothing short of a renunciation of the constitution by advocating the abolition of the proportional representation system of elections and a significant decrease in the numbers of TDs, suspension of the office of President of Ireland, the substitution of the Seanad with a vocational council, and the abolition of the compulsory teaching of Irish. In any event all such talk of a national government disappeared after the 1957 election when Fianna Fáil won a comfortable nine seat majority at the polls.
We should not be terribly surprised that talk of a merger between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael has reared its head again. This tends to happen during times of economic crisis. In this case it’s unlikely to be any more than silly season talk in that what this story does is actually weaken Fine Gael’s hand in any prospective deal with Labour. Given the high levels of dissatisfaction with Fianna Fáil, voters might well be more inclined to vote for Labour rather than Fine Gael if they feel that a vote for Fine Gael might end up actually keeping Fianna Fáil in power. In 1957 Lemass said it was nothing but a ‘scheme designed to give people the idea that they could vote Fine Gael, and almost by proxy get a Fianna Fáil led government’. In 2010, 2011 or 2012 voting Fine Gael and potentially getting by proxy a Fianna Fáil government will almost certainly lead to a significant rise in Labour support and more troubles for Fine Gael.