For how long will FF be in opposition?

By Michael Gallagher

It’s hard to find anyone who does not expect FF to be in opposition after the next election. And things could hardly be otherwise: when the economy is in the dire straits it is, and the major party of government has held office for 21 of the previous 23 years, it would be extraordinary if there were any chance that it might remain in power. Both FG and Labour have ruled out any possibility of coalition with FF, and it’s impossible to envisage a scenario in which FF, and a shrunken FF moreover, is not evicted from office at the next election.

But for how long will FF be in opposition? FF is not a party accustomed to spending time there. Its longest spell on the opposition benches is still the nearly six years between its foundation in May 1926 and its entry into government in March 1932. Since then, the party has never spent more than one consecutive Dáil term in opposition and the longest spell it has been out of power remains the 4 years and 4 months of the Cosgrave coalition in the mid-1970s.

In the worst case scenario, that could change completely in the years ahead. At the next election, according to all the recent polls, the party will do well to reach 50 seats. Such a crushing defeat could leave it on the outside not just for one Dáil term but for ‘a generation’, as the cliché has it (this seems to mean anything between 10 and 30 years). It will take a great deal of renewal to bring the party back to a situation where it is able to challenge seriously for its usual 70+ seats, and a fair bit of time for the public memory of its shortcomings in office to fade.

And yet, it is possible to envisage an alternative scenario in which FF’s time in exile turns out to be surprisingly short. Clearly, the next government will be a coalition between the other two main parties (whether a FG–Labour coalition or a Labour–FG coalition remains to be seen). But how durable would that government be? The economic fundamentals will remain the same, and anyone who votes for FG or Labour in the belief that a change of government will put an end to cuts, or will guarantee that future cuts are painless, will rapidly become disillusioned. The parties will not be making choices about how to distribute the fruits of growth but about how heavily the axes will fall in various areas. Thus, even a cohesive and united coalition is likely to incur unpopularity from a very early stage.

That might not matter if the coalition really was united, because then it could make decisions for the medium term and hope that the appropriate measures might restore the economy to some degree of health in five years’ time. But would such a coalition be united?

The two parties have fundamentally (one might almost say ideologically except that, as we know, Ireland is an ideology-free zone) different approaches to the current crisis. FG advocates deeper cuts in spending and few or no tax increases, Labour wants tax increases to play a significant part in reducing the deficit; FG wants spending and borrowing reduced as rapidly as possible, Labour favours further borrowing to provide stimulus to the economy, as outlined by Éamon Gilmore at the weekend. There is little doubt that Labour could not live with FG’s preferred method of dealing with the economy, and that FG could not live with Labour’s. The two parties will thus have to find a compromise, and the chances are that this middle way will not look hugely different from the approach being taken by the current government. In office, then, they might find themselves implementing much the same policies as the ones they criticised so vehemently from opposition – the difference being that FF actually believes in that set of policies whereas both FG and Labour would have some distaste for them. It might not be long before many members of both parties begin asking why they should incur such unpopularity for policies to which at bottom they do not feel any attachment.

If the will to make a government work is there then differences on details of policy may not matter, but it is not clear that either side would have that will, and recent attacks on Labour by Alan Shatter and Fergus O’Dowd in particular suggest that FG feels a degree of resentment and irritation, if not outright anger, towards its putative partner.

Thus, it is not at all far-fetched to see a scenario in which the next election – 2011, say – produces a coalition between FG and Labour (assuming for the moment that the former is the larger party, though the probability of this is declining all the time), but this government lasts for only a short time before Labour withdraws, unable to accept a particularly swingeing set of FG proposals for cutting public spending. After the ensuing – 2012 – election, a now once-again coalitionable FF, led by Brian Lenihan (personally completely untainted by the recklessness of the ‘if I have the money I spend it’ era), shorn of any other minister who might remind the public of the bad old days (Dermot Ahern, Brian Cowen, Noel Dempsey and Éamon Ó Cuív would all either be writing their memoirs or firmly relegated to the back benches), and exuding a new-found humility, comes to a coalition arrangement with Labour after the latter has driven a hard bargain. The public sector unions back the programme of the FF–Labour government as representing the least bad option, international markets display relief that there is finally political stability, and Éamon Gilmore enters the history books as the first Labour Taoiseach.

13 thoughts on “For how long will FF be in opposition?

  1. I think that Michael is mis-estimating a number of matters. He assumes that the Labour Party in coalition would stand up to Fine Gael and would be prepared to leave office and precipitate a general election shortly after being elected. You will recall that Labour did not even try to prevent Albert Reynolds reducing the tax rate on tax cheats in addition to giving them an amnesty from penalties.Labour only moved to ditch Albert after an alternative government became avilable without a general election. Labour will use the threat of a Fianna Fail return to make their supporters bear the burden of the crisis.It will fail to insist on taxing the assets and income of the super-rich. It will linger in office as it loses support making it even more fearful of a general election. (Perhaps its leader may even join Fine Gael as Michael O’Leary did!) When the inevitable election occurs, the Labour vote will collapse as has been customary in the past after coalitions.Fine Gael will maintain it’s support or even increase it, as rich layers of the population tranfer their allegiance from Fianna Fail to the conservative party wielding government patronage. Because the national issue is no longer working for Fianna Fail and it has been seriously damaged by causing an unprecedented recession, it will fail to return as the largest party. Alternative left wing forces will be seriously strengthened and will make big gains at the expense of Labour. Failure to solve the crisis will probably strengthen extreme right wing forces. The country will enter a period of political turmoil.
    Clearly there is no advantage for the poor and those on middle incomes in Labour enterin coalition with Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.Labour should look to the left and persevere in opposition until a left alliance has an over-all majority. Recent polls and the prospect of a ten year slump indicate that this is becoming a realistic possibility.

    • The Golden Fleece of the Irish left, an overall majority, is a pipedream as long as the Irish Left refuse to actually attempt to even convince a majority that they should pay higher taxes for the common good. Even Higgins and Boyd Barrett sound like Newt Gingrich when it comes to espousing actual Swedish style left wing policies on taxation for all. The other problem for the left is that they struggle to deal with the experience of the majority, which is that the Irish state and public sector has consistantly failed to deliver despite taxing them in the past.

  2. One of the key factors is whether FG or Labour leads the coalition. If FG emerges as junior partner, it’s not impossible to see Labour taking a hit but confirming its place as one of the big two in 2016, and a rejuvenated FF taking conservative/business votes and seats off an FG that has become the Green/PD style mudguard to Labour. One other factor has been pointed out by blogger Dan Sullivan, that a lot depends on who in FF gets re-elected. If it’s a non-Dublin Yahoo brigade, that makes it a lot harder for FF to recover, especially if Labour turns out to be less scary than centre right voters fear.

    • Eh,not trying to put 2+2 ttgeoher to make 5,but..would there be an inkling that maybe our Glorious Leader is in the Golden Circle or that he was courted by them?Either way,this looks like a right mess that can bring down a Government..thats hoo etc

  3. @Michael,
    I don’t think you would have to have such an elaborate scenario to get to a Labour led coalition with Fianna Fail. I find it hard to see that Labour would turn down the Taoiseach position if, after the next election, Labour are bigger than FF and their combined seat total gives the coalition a majority. Particularly if, as you say, the contentious characters are out of the picture. Eamon Gilmore can rule out coalition with FF all he wants before the election and I won’t believe him until he rules it out while facing, in reality, the option I have outlined.

  4. FF’s term in Opposition will depend on how badly it does in the next General Election. If it “only” loses 20 or so seats, and some major front-bench personalities survive, they will assume they can carry on as before. This will leave them in Opposition for an extended period and dependent on major errors by whatever FG-Labour combination emerges. If they are dealt a major wipe-out and lose 30 or more seats, then a new generation will be able to reshape the party without the past baggage. This way they could challenge with new ideas rather than old rhetoric. There was considereable speculation last time (2007) that Bertie might pick Labour as his main partner. Would FF still be in trouble but able to hold off the voters until May 2012 rather than a much more current date?

  5. We shouldn’t underestimate the psychological impact on those in FF, left standing after the election.

    Not only will FF have lost power (as in FF it’s all about power not office), but it may very well end up with less seats than Fine Gael, so it will be opposition for two terms.

    The public will understand perfectly well FF made the mess, made it worse, didn’t address the mess, walked away from it and that even if it doesn’t like what FG/L are doing, the alternative of voting for FF again, will be a non starter.

    That’s a triple whammy on a scale FF has never ever had to face – it is also worth bearing in mind the sheer terror the thought of actually winning an election induces in Fine Gael – as in FG winning more votes and more seats than FF.

    The loss of patronage will be a good thing for FF as it will forced to look into itself and have the debate it never had, about what sort of party it is, what sort of party it wants to be and more importantly, what sort of people it wants to attract.

    It will give the party the breathing space to make a break with the past and for those in it who are policy driven people, if there are any, as opposed to your bog standard crony, of which Ireland seems to produce an inordinate amount, to rise to the top.

    The loss of patronage powers will mean the bloodsuckers will latch onto Fine Gael and Labour and then we will really see whether they are in fact any better than FF when they rack up similar amounts of time in office.

    An election can’t be too long now, as there is not one single section of government that anyone can say is fit for purpose – can anyone name any department or part of department that would pass a best practice test? The government is starting to buckle under the weight of its own incompetance and the more people dig the more is revealed about the waste and, just sheer bad management of things, all across departments.

    The government simply doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to produce the sort of budget the country needs in a mature way, as in through a line by line spending review, and all the current little forest fires currently smouldering, will soon take hold.

    I’d be surprised if the government lasts until Xmas?

    Fianna Fáil will be in opposition ofr 10 years and who knows what sort of FF will rise from the ashes – a FF and SF merger perhaps?

    The real end to the civil war …

  6. @Michael
    Your analysis is party-based (which is reasonable, once once is relying on opinion polls) and pays no attention to the possibility of independents forming a group that is needed to keep a majority in the Dáil.
    FF has demonstrated a capacity to cope with independents, in a way that I do not remember other Coalition governments doing. This includes those not in the “FF gene pool” eg. the late Tony Gregory, Michael Lowry, Finian McGrath and others even during the 1960s eg. Frank Sherwin.

    The other possibility is a complete upset – a la 1) 1977, when Labour Minister Frank Tully’s redrawing of the constituency boundaries was desinged to ensure that FF spent a second consecutive period in opposition or
    2) 1997, when a (surprised to be in power) FG-Labour-WP coalition lost despite the tail-wind of an improving economy and perhaps bad timing on the actual election date, given the findings of the McCracken tribunal eg. see here on

    re. Brian Lenihan – leading FF?
    Well, he was a TD during the “If I have it, I spend it” era. It is not clear that he took issue with any of the things done then eg. inter alia, the gutting of the 1997 Freedom of Information Act – see my guest posting here.

    It remains to be seen just how sure-footed his management of the bank crisis has been and also the fiscal situation has been. At present, the bond markets are not impressed.

    That he is an articulate middle-class Dubliner may not be enough to make him FF leader. The last two Dubliners leading FF left legacies that are proving uncomfortable for that party.

    Lastly, his health cannot be ignored in looking beyond the issues of budgets, Finance bills, fiscal programmes to possibly two general elections – even in quick succession.

  7. FF deserve to become as extinct as the great white whale. I would like to see them as destroyed as the destruction they have wreaked on this country but that is not going to happen is it? Because the 550,000 government workers who have sold their souls to them will continue to vote for them along with Labour and its myriad unions screwing and leveraging the public purse and sovereign indebtedness at every opportunity all the time mumbling platitudes about workers rights and James Connolly who is spinning in his grave.

    In 2002 Blair Horan was looking for 600 million from Bertie and was tossed 1.2bn for his troubles. The IMF will tear up the Croke Park Betrayal and that will lead to a year or two of self immolation by the unions who have become used to strolling in and out of government buildings to leverage the system some more.

    What we are going to have in this country very shortly is a puppet government of Labour and FG operating under the remit of the EU and IMF. I look forward to it and see it as a very positive and most welcome development. Social Partnership, political cronyism as evidenced by the FAS and HSE scandals, is only the tip of a very large iceberg. The unions have demonstrated that the unions excel at waste and cronyism just as much as their political masters.

    Loose or non existent monetary policies where the money was handed out along with voting for “the most cunning the most devious of them all” after being warned by Haughey himself, has delivered the loss of our sovereignty. Our desire for stroke politics cute hoor and gombeenism has led us to the gates of hell. What a way to celebrate the centenary of 1916 the words treason and firing squad come to mind.

    Even Ray McSharry former finance minister said today that FF and FG should finally join forces as the civil ware raison d’etre for both is long gone and there is little if any perceptible difference between them. They would get about 90 to 100 seats. The rest of the parties could then make up their grand coalition of the left all of this against a background of the IMF sorting out the state and putting it on a sound financial footing which will take a decade at least to decommission our debt.

  8. @Michael,

    Your speculation about possible future factional strengths and configurations is timely. However, the events – or the anticipation of events – that will trigger the next general election may have a significant impact on these. It is possible, but unlikely, that the Government will fall on the Budget. Every attempt will be made to subborn the opposition parties and the fear of the IMF will be used to maintain backbench loyalty. The 3 by-elections, on the other hand, may not be postponed for ever and it is possible that the Government may decide to opt for a general election if dates for these by-elections are fixed, on the simple calculation that FF has a better chance of holding the Donegal and Waterford seats in a general election.

    In addition, early in the new year, the NTMA will be forced to re-enter the primary sovereign bond market. The Government (fully supported by the political and institutional EU) will strain every sinew to ensure that the NTMA can get away a largish, longish-dated issue at a reasonable cost. But the jury is out on how the market will react. My opinion is that the scale of the bank resolution costs on top of the underlying fiscal deficit (irrespective of the political commitment to deficit reduction) is simply too much for a small, battered economy to bear without external, multilateral assistance – and that the bond market will take this view as well.

    My sense is that FF will not want to have this definitive stripping of national sovereignty to happen on its watch, will take its lumps before it happens and will allow an incoming government to take the heat. This possibility, combined with the inevitability of the by-elections, will probably provide the trigger.

    In the meantime, while FG retain Enda Kenny, the probablity is growing that Labour will comprise the larger faction – giving Eamon Gilmore the post of Taoiseach. The scenario you paint is entirely possible given that FG and Labour are likely to prove a contankerous and incompatible combination.

    However, there is a view that Labour should play the long game and force FG and FF to combine to take the heat of the fiscal adjustment and economic restructuring that will be required. This would compel the factional realignment of Irish politics that is long overdue. But the prize of power is so great since the extent of executive dominance is so extreme in Ireland, that I can’t see Labour willingly forgoing this opportunity. Despite Labour’s opinion poll position it is still only achieving what moderate left-of-centre parties elsewhere in Europe would consider a core vote.

    The long game or the short game? I expect the latter and a continuation of the cycle of misgovernance that has led to the current financial and economic crisis.

  9. Historically Labour & FG tend to go into power when there is some national crisis when the economy is in bad shape, and perhaps as a result their governments don’t seem to work out (1994-97 may be an exception). As you point out, the return of FF becomes viable in this context.

    I suspect you underestimate the anger at FF, which I’m not sure it can just cast off like an unwanted leader. You’ll also see a much stronger Labour party that will wish to assert its mandate. To achieve the scenario you suggest FF would have to move to the left to accept Labour policy. And would Labour/ the public really see Brian Lenihan as untainted (his Bank Guarantee and Nama decisions are for many as much the problem as the earlier profligacy)? Although FF is thought an ideology-free-zone, this is a bit inaccurate; people in there do have ideas and many are if anything right-leaning.

  10. “And nothing ever happens
    Nothing ever happens at all
    The needle returns to the start of the song
    And we all sing along as before…”

    Here’s how I see things as panning out…
    Fianna Fail and the Green Party cling to power until early 2012
    With support having bottomed out at the low 20s in 2010, Fianna Fail claw back some lost ground over the next 12-18 months and especially in the wake of a strong Brian Crowley presidential election performance…
    In the March 2012 election Fianna Fail actually end up as the largest party with roughly 32-33% of the vote, although Fine Gael and Labour are in position to form a comfortable majority govenrment…
    This government now has to bring in unpopular policies while Fianna Fail resort yet against to out and out opposition…
    In late 2016/early 2017, Fianna Fail are returned to power in a coalition government with Sinn Fein.

    “And nothing ever happens
    Nothing ever happens at all
    The needle returns to the start of the song
    And we all sing along as before…”

  11. Pingback: How will Fianna Fáil do after the next election? «

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