Fianna Gael? The grand coalition and a lesson from the history books

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.

7 thoughts on “Fianna Gael? The grand coalition and a lesson from the history books

  1. The only people the orchestrators of this rumour might fool are those that had never heard of Ireland until the week before they got on a plane to come here. And those people can’t vote! Everyone else knows well that Labour will do a deal with Fianna Fail if it is in their interest. A Labour led coalition with FF is more likely than a FF/FG coalition. A lot of people in the two main parties would never accept the latter.

  2. Interesting post, Gary, especially the historical perspective. Some analysis I did in Irish Political Studies of the 2007 Irish candidate survey indicated an striking pattern of ideological similarity between the two parties.

    While Labour, SF, and Green candidates all coherently exhibited leftist sentiments as groups, FF and FG candidates both had near-normal distrbutions of ideological sentiments – with both groups cenetered around neutrality towards left and right – but with both containing pro-left and pro-right members in similar proportions (towards the tails of their respective frequency distributions). Also, in terms of the party positions, the Benoit-Laver survey, which had experts place all of the parties on a 21 point left-right scale, could not seperate the 2 parties with statistical certainty!

    All of this goes to show that, in terms of left-right ideology, a merger certainly looks feasible, although I agree with your analysis that it’s politically highly unlikely. The Civil War is clearly losing ground as a salient political divide. I’d say that FF may have to put together some sort of ‘rebrand’ after the next election, if they want to capture the attention of younger voters.

    A really interesting question is how long SF have to wait to be brought in from the wilderness? In terms of ideology, SF, Lab, and the Greens are fairly coherent grouping. But perhaps coalitional arithmetic will favour a minimal winning grouping that will freeze out SF.

  3. Name any country where the main parties are actually different to each other in policy terms.

    Any differences are style over substance – so Enda Kenny won’t be winning money on the horses but does anyone really think he has the desire to push through the sort of monumental reform Ireland needs? Will Gilmore be any different – he won’t be as bad but that doesn’t mean he will do what needs to be done.

    Ireland is not unique in having 2 main parties that differ little on policy.

    In Ireland’s case though isn’t that also because Fianna Fáil is a policy free zone so it morphs into whatever it needs to morph into. Is there any difference between FF /Labour or FF/SF or FF/Green or FF/PD.

    It’s easy to say FF can merge with FG but can FG merge with FF?

  4. There have been rumblings – and reports of rumblings – for some time, but I don’t think it relates to a merger of the parties. My sense is that some people in FG (possibly some of the defeated Brutonistas) may be talking to people with a similar political temperment in FF with a view to forming a liberal-centrist grouping.

    It seems clear that thrashing out a programme of government between FG and Labour that addresses the current economic challenges appropriately will prove very difficult. And even if one were agreed, there is no guarantee of cohesive governance subsequently.

    There is also a sense that many voters are looking for some re-aligment of the existing political factions. Any movement in this direction will be shrouded in secrecy. I expect we’ll have to wait and see if there are some with the guts and gumption.

  5. Wasnt the Tallaght Strategy a sort of unilateral grand coalition? If so its not all that unprecedented. However, why FG would offer this sort of escape route to FF, regardless of any difficulties reconciling itself to Labour, is beyond me. And Gilmore isnt exactly Castro, after all.

  6. There can’t be any grand alliance until the Irish public reform themselves and chose who they vote for more carefully. It is not the system that is the problem it is the people in the system, people put their time and time again by the public.

    So because of their actions they system now needs to be replaced but there is little evidence the public are prepared to do what needs to be done to get the sort of country they claim to want.

    There has to be some sociological reason to explain why the Irish public are so passive – when you compare say Iceland and Greece – the Greeks seem more like us in that they are deluding themselves that they too are part of the problem as the levle of corrutpion there continues because it’s what Greek people want, just like the cronyism in Ireland continues as it’s what enough Irish people want.

    Yet in Iceland, they were genuinely horrified at what happened and they got angry, expressed and ejected the government, reformed the banks, got rid of those at the top who caused their problems, redirected and refocused the economy and their recession is now over.

    While in Ireland 3 years later the two clowns Brian and Brian can’t even explain why they did what they did and we haven’t even begun to face up to the problems that caused our ongoing meltdown – the complete lack of anger from the public can only be read to mean that Irish people are not angry about the mess but maybe angry they weren’t one of the insiders.

    The difference between FF and FG is not policy as FF will morph to whatever policy it needs to to stay in power, it’s a difference in mentality. FG are by no means offering the sort of radical reform needed but a FG government will be lights years better than the best FF can provide and I find it hard to believe Lenihan doesn’t understand that the moment he becomes leader of FF, if he wants it, his honeymoon will be over – for now people choose to overlook he also sat at cabinet when Cowen and Ahern were making their worse decisions, or rather avoiding them, and now he has the luxury of the sympathy card – that will pass the moment he takes the top job and I think he knows it which is why he isn’t letting the priase from outside the country go to his head.

    Perhaps, the next new leaders of FF and FG will only be elected in the coming election and only then can the realignment take place – a post crony FF party cut to its core and a FG party matured in government properly for the first time – that’s when the realignment might happen?

  7. Take my word for it, a merger of FG/FF is not on the cards,FG is a party of two wings, social democratic and christian democratic, neither wing are stupid enough form any sort of an alliance with any wing of FF, some FF people would be acceptable as new members of FG, along as they left their baggage behind, don’t believe everything you hear folks,it’s usually a FF ploy to muddy the waters

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