By Mel Farrell (Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS) scholar, Department of History, NUI Maynooth
Election 2011 carries the potential to realign Irish politics. As such, this electoral contest promises to take its place among the critical elections of Irish history in 1918, 1922 and 1932. Going on the opinion polls, Fianna Fáil, the dominant force of Irish politics since 1932, entered the campaign fighting for its political survival.
Having stabilised in the first week of electioneering at around 16-18% in most polls, it seems as though Fianna Fáil will have a critical mass of deputies in the next Dáil. In that regard, this election seems set to more closely resemble that of 1932 than that which saw Sinn Féin sweep the boards in 1918, obliterating the Irish parliamentary party in the process. In 1932, the outgoing government wasn’t subjected to an electoral meltdown, but arguably never recovered from the defeat. No doubt glad to avoid the fate of the Home Rule party in 1918, should Fianna Fáil today take solace in that which awaited their arch rivals in Cumann na nGaedheal in 1932?
In February 1932, W.T. Cosgrave’s Cumann na nGaedheal faced the Irish Free State electorate having spent the first ten years of independence as the ‘government party’. By then, the party’s broad adherence to the principles of economic liberalism had been largely discredited by the global economic collapse traced to the Wall Street crash of October 1929. Everywhere, the initial response to the depression was a politically damaging fiscal rectitude that sought to balance national budgets by cutting government spending. Cumann na nGaedheal’s reaction to the crisis was no different. To help bridge the gap in revenue caused by the collapse in trade, the party prescribed tough medicine: retrenchment which cut the pay of teachers and gardaí. However, as a way out of the economic crisis, the old policies of financial orthodoxy proved insufficient in the long term. New solutions were needed.
By the time of the 1932 general election in Ireland scorned voters were ready to exact their revenge on Cosgrave and his colleagues. Moreover, the government’s position was further undermined as numerous European countries began to abandon free-trade and financial orthodoxy in favour of new policies, usually encompassing some form of economic nationalism. Autarky came to replace liberalism as decades of economic interconnectedness were reversed. In Ireland, that Fianna Fáil had long advocated such policies further eroded Cumann na nGaedheal’s credibility. De Valera’s party preached economic self sufficiency by promising to protect Irish industry through the imposition of tariffs and to move away from the state’s reliance on cattle exports by putting more acres under the plough. In keeping with world trends, Fianna Fáil won the election on its protectionist platform, consigning Cosgrave and his party to the opposition benches. However, Cumann na nGaedheal had not been roundly defeated in the election, dropping a mere three points to 35% of the national poll and fifty seven seats in the 153 seat Dáil.
After the election, de Valera relied on the support of the Labour party to form his first government. In order to fully implement his programme of social, economic and constitutional change, the new head of government desperately wanted to win an overall majority. After ten months in power, de Valera caught the opposition off-guard by calling a snap general election. The election came at a particularly propitious time, disrupting as it did efforts to forge a new, united opposition party under Cumann na nGaedheal hegemony. In the January 1933 election, Fianna Fáil won their first overall majority copper-fastening its newfound position as the dominant party in Irish politics. Cumann na nGaedheal, in its second electoral reverse in less than a year, lost a further nine seats, slumping to 30% of the vote nationally and forty-eight seats in the Dáil. A prolonged spell in opposition beckoned.
Demoralised and seemingly dislodged from its space at the centre of the political spectrum, Cumann na nGaedheal and other opposition groups of the right set about melding into a united entity to take on the emboldened Fianna Fáil government. Frank MacDermott’s newly founded National Centre party, and the pro-Treatyite National Guard (Blueshirts) fused with Cosgrave’s Cumann na nGaedheal to form the United Ireland Party known more commonly at the time and since by its Irish title Fine Gael. The formation of Fine Gael is popularly regarded simply as a re-branding of the pro-Treaty party but, alternatively, can also be looked upon as the foundation of a new political force. If accepted as merely a pro-Treaty re-branding exercise, the launch of Fine Gael must be regarded as a clear attempt to move away from the legacy and policies of the defeated Cumann na nGaedheal party. As a distinct label, Cumann na nGaedheal had fallen victim to the Great Depression as the party that had formed the state’s first governments jettisoned its unique identity in order to survive the political convulsions caused by the economic collapse.
Evidently, the economic crisis in the early 1930s brought about what has proved a lasting political realignment of Irish politics. Since 1932 Fianna Fáil has dominated Irish politics, emerging as the largest party at every general election up to and including 2007. Unlike its parent party, Fine Gael has never managed to form a single party administration, serving only eighteen of the past seventy nine years in coalition governments that have always included the Labour party. The political change brought about at the onset of the Great Depression has endured and the heir to the Cumann na nGaedheal tradition has never fully recovered from the electoral defeats of 1932/33.
For Fianna Fáil today, the parallels with Cumann na nGaedheal in the early 1930s are stark. A large portion of the electorate believes that its response to the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression has been disastrous with record numbers expressing dissatisfaction with the government. Moreover, its economic policies before the crash, in the decade 1997-2007, are considered by many to have amplified Ireland’s domestic woes. Opinion polls leading into this election campaign have consistently placed Fianna Fáil on record lows. Moreover, the retirement of high profile deputies, and attempts to limit the number of candidates selected in each constituency are tacit acknowledgement that the party is likely to cede its dominant position to a resurgent, Enda Kenny led Fine Gael. Already rumours are circulating that there are moves afoot to re-brand Fianna Fáil after the election. However, whether the soldiers of destiny in their original form, or as ‘Fianna Fáil nua’, can endure the coming political realignment and re-emerge as a political force remains very much in the balance.
Might it be, that Fianna Fáil’s problems actually run deeper than those of Cumann na nGaedheal almost eighty years ago? On assuming its new identity, Cosgrave’s party had forty eight Dáil seats and was the undisputed leading party of the opposition. In addition, it added to its existing strength by incorporating new elements who occupied similar space on the political spectrum thereby consolidating its position as the party of a constitutional and somewhat accommodating Irish nationalism. Given the opinion polls, a result like that of Cumann na nGaedheal in 1933 for Fianna Fáil on 26 February would actually be regarded as a triumph for their new leader Mícheal Martin. While stabilising around 16-18% in the polls, the party still risks falling to fourth place behind Sinn Féin. Even if it avoids that particular ignominy, the prospect of a Fine Gael government without Labour could see Martin’s party play second fiddle in an Eamon Gilmore led opposition. Moreover, Fianna Fáil was able to emerge eighty years ago by muscling in on the centre ground and pushing Cumann na nGaedheal and Labour to its right and left. Today, voters seem to want definition and a mood for a centre left/centre right divide is discernable in the increased support for Fine Gael and Labour. Given these circumstances, and the fact that it is indelibly associated with the policy mistakes of Bertie Ahern’s governments, re-branding may not even be enough to ensure Fianna Fáil’s survival as a major political party.
Whatever the outcome of this general election, it seems almost certain that Fianna Fáil as we’ve come to know it since 1932 will be no more. A period of soul searching and rebuilding from the opposition benches awaits it. Whether Fianna Fáil can play a significant role in the future will depend on its capacity, not just to re-brand, but to address fundamental questions about its political ethos and identity as a party for the twenty-first century. It must be remembered that Cumann na nGaedheal only dropped a total of 8% between the elections of September 1927 and January 1933, but still left a largely fruitless inheritance to its successor, Fine Gael. For only the second time in almost eighty years, Fine Gael is challenging to regain Cumann na nGaedheal’s position as the largest party in the Dáil. With Labour set to emerge as the second biggest party in the state, could an even worse fate than that of W.T. Cosgrave’s party await the soldiers of destiny?