Parallels between the elections of 1932/33 and 2011

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?

6 thoughts on “Parallels between the elections of 1932/33 and 2011

  1. Excellent post. I think there are many parallels with the 1932 election and these will need to be heeded by all sides. I think FF could well be in a much worse position in terms of seats than CnaG were in 1932 once the election is over but the have a number of advantages if they are willing to face reality.

    Rebranding or merging is a recipe for disaster, whatever hope exists centres around FF being able to reclaim its message and mergers or name changes etc, would likely follow the route of CnaG with many of those committed to the party feeling its over and using that as a chance to walk away.

    FF still has a strong grassroots machine but an even bigger challenge than this election awats Micheal Martin once it is over if he is to re-engage that organisation. He will have a limited window of opportunity and will need to act fast to avoid a ‘drop off’ in activity among grassroots after a defeat. He will also face his toughest decisions in this period.

    While FG will form the next government, the main difference is that unlike 1932 there is little appetite for single party government in Ireland now. Even if FG managed it it would be a slim majority, so the long years of settled government does not beckon the way it did in 1932.

    Should FF come back with over 30 seats, they will be the main opposition party as in order to have a steady gov FG& Lab will need the numbers they give each other. This will give FF a clear run of the opposition, and while SF will also make gains on the back of this, FF will be seen as the more stable and acceptable face of opposition to the new government. I have long said that I do not believe that one election can be a sea change, FF must stop the rot in the next locals and if they do that they can plan for significant gains in 5 years time at a general election. FF will need to find its ground and ideals and your point on an etos etc is critical to this and central to the argument of whether FF will follow CnaG. I think the parallel you draw here is a real warning for FF and an example of an opportunity for FG. It is a perfect lesson from history for ge11

  2. The say that history is a farce when it repeats itself. Maybe it is we as a people who are the farce tghis time round? But the circumstances are much different now than back then when there was actual widespread starvation in a desolate land anxious only for peace and bread after the War of Independence , the Civil War and their aftermath during that decade.

    Today there is no starvation and little poverty as even the masses of the enemployed have not only a decent dole and family and childrens allowances and free health and education but services and home entertainment too that would have had a man considered well off back there in the Twenties and Thirties envious. Here, today, let’s face it, you have a Spoilt Generation that has grown used to constantly getting more, in rebellion against a Fianna Fail government that has to give them a little less, and tax incomes a little more.

    It is amazing that there is all this virtual rebellion against a Fianna Fail-led government that has indeed maintained living standards against the backdrop of the greatest financial catastrophe of the past seventy years in this country ( though people suffered a lot more than today through rationing in the Emergency) .

    Nobody has suffered that much at all yet in this crisis, not even those whose homes are threatened with repossession – many of them beneficiaries up to now of massive loans , many unsecured, and not complaining up to now either , understandably.

    Fianna Fail could well talk about ” Eaten bread” as Finance Minister Brian Lenihan did when he spoke about ” Partying”

    But you now have the politics of despair , despite the fact that nobody is hungry, poverty-stricken or homeless and not likely to be , as the people follow the hollow promises of Fine Gael and Labour who they should know by now will hit them even more because they will have to.

    And , now, you had today on Joe Duffy Show the emergence of finger-pointing at the immigrants taking the jobs with mine host blaming EU membership incorrectly – it was the Irish Fianna Fail government who invited all the Eastern European immigrants to Ireland , and facilitated them accordingly , it was not and is not as a result of any EU rules or regulations or EU decision, ot is our own government decision and therefore ours , so , Spoiled Generation , please live with what you voted for! The entry of Eastern Europeans into Ireland could have been delayed up to the 1st May 2011 as Germany and Austria did! But , no, Fianna Fail miscalculated back there in 2004, thinking they would need a million foreign workere – even proclaiming this to popular applause, just as they miscalculated the property drop and the resultant banking crisis that is of their making and therefore our own making as a people who voted for them as our government.

    We have to learn to be discerning voters, the Spoilt Generation will have to learn not to expect to be molly-coddled any further, even in such seemingly small things as a significant proportion of them still drinking their Dole every week in the midst of crisis. So, no, we cannot blame the migrants or anybody else , we have ourselves as well as our government to blame , we have to learn how to pull up our own socks.
    There really is therefore no parallel today with the Twenties/Thirties when people were starving and seriously homess , today they have the Rent Allowance:-)
    There is no comparison even with the the more recent Sixties when the Dole was 35 bob a week for a single man 🙂

  3. brian cowen will take his place in history alongside great irish leaders of the past :

    eddie macateer.
    john redmond.
    brian faulkner.
    dermot mcmurrough.

    his legacy ? a family seat in the midlands, and four green fields, two thirds of one field occupied and the rest in negative equity.

    his party ? it cannot return to its core values, because all of them are past their sell by dates – sovereignty? protectionism? anti-partitionism? revival of the irish language via compulsory inclusion in the syllabus ?
    prosperity ? (where did that go ?) planning permission ? (to build what ?) taking donations from developers ? (try their wives, perhaps ?)

    everyone is in favour of the g.a.a., motherhood, and microwaved apple pie. everyone hates paying the mortgage, taxes, and going to the dentist. no unique selling point, there.

    looks as though the big house on kildare street will be repossessed.

  4. The government has taken the correct approach because its approach is to try for to stop the country reaching a situation where 19 billions a year would have to be chopped off public government expenditure all at once, mostly in the areas of Health, Education, Welfare and Public Service pay.

    Now, there are other sub-choices with the broad sweep of the choices that the government has made that Fine Gael in particular will work within, Labour too, because there is no other general direction to go although there are little detours and byways possible along the way.
    Now if you go the Sinn Fein/ULA way you are going straight to the point that the FF government , and Fine Gael and Labour wish to avoid , and that is an immediate ( within 18 months at the very most) one-third slash in public expenditure across all areas of all government spending without exception!

    SF and ULA will hotly deny this , but then they are candidates in the middle of a general election campaign – this would be the outcome of their policies.
    It is also the outcome of deliberate default and ‘burning’ bondholders who several commentators both on RTE 1 and TV3 current affairs programmes have just reminded us tonight , are people like Credit Unions whether here at home or in Europe generally.

    All that said , there is not much that can be done – and this is the alternative argument – to build up our credit rating internationally in the short term, no matter what we do , but going as we are we would rwestore matters to the point of recovery in another five years.

    And again, people on the dole for instance would survive with a one-third cut , they’re living on half as much in the UK on social security right now. This is what they will have to do , and within 18 months , if those who want for deliberate default, burning bondholders and letting the banks go to the wall, get their way. The problem with taking this road is that we would probably have nobody in the world left to lend to us, even on any interest , when the Bail-Out money runs out – our name would have gone!

    There are no Easy Fixes!

    So I think we should vote in this election to allow the four-year plan to proceed by choosing carefully who and what parties we will vote for.

    The worst fellow of all to vote for is the fellow, or the party , promising to create thousands of jobs out of a hat , government does not create jobs, it creates the right environment for economic growth that leads to jobs which in turn leads to more jobs in a cascade effect. And this is our only way out of the present crisis – jobs!
    Small business too, but if the swingeing rents charged for shops and business premises on every Irish High Street are not lowered, small business is not going to get to any immediate start-up again.

    Leaders are important as ever , not so much any longer with in the country, but rather those able to be the best spokespersons and negotiators for us abroad especially within the EU councils and circles. We’ve learned that the best man for Taoiseach is preferably not a drinker, nor anyone who may be inclined to petulance or even personal mania , God forbid!

  5. Excellent post, but there are quite a few variables in your analysis. Unlike 1932, the FF incumbency has lasted for nearly eighty years, so parallels with 1932 are difficult, given that Irish politics in 1932 was only beginning to stabilize in the aftermath of the revolution and civil war. The election campaign is beginning to open up deep divisions about the course of action needed in the next few years, whereas up to now there has been broad consensus about the need for retrenchment. This may change completely over the next few years depending on whether the four-year plan works or not. If it does, with some adjustments, then the next government might get the credit for saving the country from ruin and push FF into a long period of opposition or even decline. The pessimistic view would see the next government suffer if the crisis deepens, which could lead to a FF recovery or, equally likely, a greater fragmentation of politics and greater instability. So far FF looks like it has learned nothing from the past four years. It doesn’t even pretend to be interested in forming the next government and seems to be more concerned with consolidating its core support so as to bid for power at the next election. Martin’s promise of responsible opposition is hard to believe and is at variance with the party’s culture, which is precisely what he’s counting on to save them from a 1918-style meltdown. It would probably be better for everyone if FF was forced to reconstruct itself and this would take a long period in opposition, rather like the two major British parties between 1979 and 2010. In both cases it took ten years in opposition before either of those parties learned many lessons.
    Of course we still don’t know how badly FF will do. The constituency profiles in the Irish Times are predicting relatively good results all over the place (e.g. 2 seats in Wexford, seats in Dublin NW and NC etc) at variance with the IT polls. This may simply reflect cautious journalists, but it also suggests that many people still can’t believe that FF will lose so disastrously as to force them to change or deliver a sea-change in politics.

  6. Great post alright – some very interesting parallels. I think a crucial point has already been raised by Johnny Fallon: the grassroots. A good measurement of this is in FF’s 407 council seats (v FG’s 556 – figures have changed since election, I know). Despite the current climate, an organisation this size will not die off over night, particularly when you consider a new government will take office and the conversation will move on from the past.

    Again, as was already said, the revitalization of the grassroots – or what’s left of them – will depend hugely on the actions of Micheal Martin within a short period of time. On this particular point, perhaps a parallel can be drawn with Enda Kenny’s actions to rebuild FG post-2002 election?

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