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