Fianna Fáil as Ireland’s ‘natural governing’ party

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By R. Kenneth Carty (University of British Columbia)

Making sense of Irish electoral politics has always required coming to grips with Fianna Fáil: just what kind of a party is it? Long dominant, as the most successful party in Western Europe, it seems to be an exception to our understanding of the patterns of democratic political development and the fundamental expectation that political parties represent some clearly identified idea or interest in society.

John Whyte argued that Fianna Fáil was simply sui generis; Tom Garvin claimed it just defied political scientists; and Michael Gallagher called it an early version of the European catch-all party. All that analysis seems to want to compare the party with others in Europe, but those parties may not be its natural comparators.  Expanding our perspective allows us to see Fianna Fáil as one example of a very distinctive kind of party – a ‘natural governing’ party – able to dominate its country’s domestic political life for generations.  Other examples include Canada’s Liberal party and India’s Congress (both also working in pieces of the decaying British Empire) as well as Japan’s Liberal Democratic party and Italy’s Christian Democrats.

These parties reject the traditional function as representative of a part of the community and seek themselves to speak for the entire polity in nation-building and/or state-building roles. Thinking through their distinctive origins and organizational structures and practices identifies their unique style of ‘big tent’ politics and its impact on structuring the wider system of party competition in each country. So Fianna Fáil’s long antipathy to coalition politics, its instinctive centrism, its claim to a national mission, its capacity for long dominance, its strong (but contestable) leadership, and its stratarchical structures is recognizable as just one version of this type of party.

Comparing Fianna Fáil with these other dominant parties helps identify the extent to which the electoral system is or isn’t critical to its continued success, the particular demands made on party leadership and the governing consequences of the choices made in response to them, and the effect of long terms decline in its vote share. Some dominant governing parties, like the Italian Christian Democrats, ultimately disappeared in response to electoral collapse while others, like the Canadian Liberals, have managed to rebound (more than once) and resume their mastery of their country’s electoral politics.

Soon after the 2016 election I wrote on this blog that there were a number of very good reasons not to be surprised that Fianna Fáil was recovering from is 2011 election collapse.  The jury is clearly still out on whether it is likely to follow the Italian example and disappear, or emulate the Canadian one and reassert its special place in the country’s politics. Given the wider fragmentation of the party system, and especially the rather unique proliferation of Independent candidate successes, it may several electoral cycles for a new political equilibrium to settle in. Its ultimate pattern will be inevitably shaped by the extent to which Fianna Fáil is able to reestablish its big tent orientation and practices or whether it finally morphs into a more conventional party of the traditional European sort.

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The Irish Political Studies article on which this is based is available here. It is from a special issue on Fianna Fáil.

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2 thoughts on “Fianna Fáil as Ireland’s ‘natural governing’ party

  1. Is it a coincidence, that worldwide, most of the established government parties have lost ground since the creation of the World Wide Web? I grew up in the 40s and 50s and married in the 60s and most of my contemporaries accepted the government as just the government, It’s not as if we didn’t know about the brown envelopes, most of us had experienced or witnessed it on a small scale and read JB Keane’s stories of the dodgy dealing politicians and village pump politics but some of us benefitted from it and the world was a much smaller place and the majority only knew or cared about our immediate neighbours. Now that we are a more educated electorate we are daring to dream about a fairer system of government and are beginning to question the elitist nature of our elected leaders. I am disappointed every time I see a rebound in popularity for one or more failed political party or politician and some of our voting decisions and it makes me think we have a long way to go before we drastically changed the Irish village pump electorate mentality.

    • Margaret,
      Even before the web, there is evidence that we have been unhappy with our “governors” during the past 50 years
      1) Since 1969, we have only re-elected an outgoing government once. That was in 2002 (FF-PD) and that ended badly. In that near 50-year period, three new parties emerged and got into government (PDs, Democratic Left, Green Party) as part of coalitions, even if FF dominated government during that time. Now we have independents in government as part of another government arrangement.
      2) This suggests that we the electorate have been using our power to try to get the powerful (elected and appointed) to do things differently.
      3) The powers-that-be seem incapable of learning from this and their own mistakes. Consider the following responses to the social, exonomic and fiscal crises of the 1980s and late 2000s. During both periods the government set up
      a) two public expenditurre review bodies – An Bord Snip Nua was set up in 2008, about 20 years after it predecessor An Bord Snip was set up;
      b) two Commissions on Taxation;in 1982 and 2009.

      Taken together, this indicates that central government cannot control itself. It also suggests that central government (elected and appointed) lacks a capacity to learn, given the centralised incompetence that we have lived through durng the past 50 years.

      We, as citizens who are the source of all governmental power in this state, will probably continue to change governments after elections. We can also seek new means of governing ourselves so that we can exercise our power directly between elections.

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