Is Civil War Politics in Ireland really dead and buried?

Can you remember the 8th of February? Before COVID? No? Neither can I. There was an election in Ireland that day, but a government was only formed last Saturday. Yes, it took 140 days and on Saturday, Micheál Martin, leader of our ALDE sister-party, Fianna Fáil, took office as An Taoiseach.

Negotiators from Fianna Fáil (FF), Fine Gael (FG) and the Green Party (GP) worked on a Programme for Government (PfG). At the same time, a pandemic sucked the life out of the economy, and public health officials strived to protect people. Each respective government party took the PfG back to their membership for support and won it, allowing for a viable coalition to emerge.

But this isn’t any coalition. It is meant to be the beginning of the end of Civil War politics.

Let’s set the scene.

We have two political parties that for almost 100 hundred years opposed and despised each other over the outcome of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922. Politics has been defined against this backdrop, but the electorate moved on with the times. It moved left versus right and the centre, of which both FF and FG represent, was challenged. In 2016, FF supported the minority government of FG and Independents through a Confidence and Supply agreement. That in itself was a change from the past.

The Green Party went into government in 2007 and lost all their seats in 2011. Under new leadership, it has rebuilt itself going from three seats to twelve. Eamon Ryan, its current leader, has never been shy saying that parties should want to be in government and not be scared of it. Once bitten, twice not shy!

2011 also saw the low point for FF with its worst-ever election result, and Irish politics changed after that. It was said of Ireland that there were three pillars to society – the GAA, the Catholic Church and FF. The GAA is going strong. The Catholic Church lost its power and FF is still surviving. The result – left versus right translated into the rise of Sinn Féin (SF).

SF half-heartedly attempted to form a government with like-minded left-wing parties but gave up after four days, and this suited their agenda. Both FF and FG were adamant that they would not talk to SF believing its internal structures still influenced by the IRA. They claim they have been victimised and kept out of the negotiations. The truth of the matter is that they don’t mind being a party of opposition for another term.

The ultimate end of Civil War politics will be judged by what is called ‘The Grand Coalition’ -where FF and FG become one. Watching an uncomfortable Simon Coveney give his support to a party ideologically opposed to his own said it all. I don’t see this happening anytime soon. FG can bite its tongue to await their turn in a radical new concept called a ‘Rotating Taoiseach’ – yes they will swap around in two years time. Yes, as centrists, they may have a lot of policies in common, but culturally amongst the members, there are many differences. It’s said that you’d a pint with FF, but you’d be bored with Fine Gael. So is Civil War politics truly gone for good? Probably not but the end of the two-party system probably.

* Audrey Eager, Founder of Liberal Irish, the Irish Liberal Democrat Society. If you’d like to join our mailing list, contact us on [email protected]

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22 Comments

  • Paul Brennock 1st Jul '20 - 3:46pm

    I can’t for the life of me understand how or why FF came to be in ALDE in Europe.
    The party doesn’t have a liberal bone in its collective body.

  • Chris Bertram 1st Jul '20 - 3:47pm

    How on earth did FF end up as members of ALDE? They don’t look terribly liberal to me. Then again, it’s awfully hard to work out what the ideological differences are between them and FG. Maybe it’s all cronyism, but they have different groups of cronies.

  • Chris Bertram 1st Jul '20 - 3:47pm

    @Paul Brennock – Snap!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 1st Jul '20 - 4:15pm

    The answer is because Alliance are not there, someone’s got to be!!!!!!!

  • Peter Martin 1st Jul '20 - 4:16pm

    “The party (FF)) doesn’t have a liberal bone in its collective body.”

    What about the “liberal bone” of strong support for the EU?

    There’s lots of stuff on their website about climate change, creating a more equal Ireland, access to education for all etc etc which would only need a few minor edits (like changing the word Ireland to Britain) and it all could slot straight into your website. They are no better nor worse than you are.

  • Mark
    It would be more accurate to say that Alliance re-joined as we had been long members of ELDR but literally couldn’t afford the sub some years ago.
    Fortunately we rejoined in good time before the election to the EP, though we didn’t think (at that stage) that we would elect Naomi Long as an MEP.

  • Peter Martin 2nd Jul '20 - 7:30am

    …. maybe one day will we see a coalition of Labour and the Conservatives in the UK.

    Be careful what you wish for. That wouldn’t happen in the unlikely event of a surge in Lib Dem popularity,

    It could happen if there was a national emergency such as another major war but no-one wants that. It’s more likely to happen if there was a surge in support for the far right as we’ve seen in Germany. We don’t want that either.

    If we’d had a voting system like Germany’s then we probably would already have seen the break up of the two party system. The big winner would have been Nigel Farage and his followers in UKIP and the Brexit Party. You’d have been struggling along just the same as the FDP have always done in Germany.

  • richard underhill 2nd Jul '20 - 8:33am

    Peter Martin 2nd Jul ’20 – 7:30am
    Labour and Conservatives worked closely together in the 2014 referendum.
    Labour are regretting doing so.
    We worked in seats held by Lib Dem MPs.

  • The electoral system in Ireland is the one we have been campaigning for for a long time. Perhaps we need to study Ireland in an objective way to know how to deal with the debate that would have to happen if we are to win support for electoral reform. The North of Ireland that is) uses the system, except for Westminster.
    As far as the nature of parties is concerned, the policies of parties will change depending on who joins, and who funds them. When a party is run by a limited company there is a need for a different analysis.

  • @Paul Brennock , if you’l look at the list of the member parties of the Renew Europe group (former ALDE group, former ELDR group), there are several, which can’t be called liberal in any meaning of the word. There is the populist, Russia (read Putin) leaning, in no way at all liberal Centre Party from Estonia, there is the agrarian socially conservative (for instance, most of it’s MPs voted against same-sex marriage) Centre Party from Finland, there is is the populist, catch-all ANO 2011 from the Czech Republic,

    Former members of ALDE group and it’s predessor ELDR include Vladimír Mečiar’s populist party HZDS from Slovakia and Viktor Orbán’s (need I to describe it?) Fidesz party from Hungary.

    Why were these parties accepted into ELDR/ALDE/Renew? Because they increased the group’s weight in the European parliament, no matter that it happened in cost of the liberal consistency.

  • Cornelius Logue 2nd Jul '20 - 1:30pm

    A good shorthand for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is that FF are conservative liberals and FG are liberal conservatives. Micheál Martin coming out for repeal of the 8th Amendment was definitely against the grain of the FF organisation in Donegal, where I now live. Our local FG member of the Irish Parliament came out late in favour of repeal. I was a long standing member of Fine Gael and also joined the Lib Dems as I have family connections in Great Britain. But I’m more Liberal Reform than Social Liberal. I would however take issue with Fine Gaelers having no craic – our Ard-Fhiesenna were every bit as libacious as an FF one. Perhaps FF more pints and FG more G&T but that would be a generalisation too far!!!

  • @Mark Valladares, I recall, that Fidesz used to be /somewhat/ more liberal, but from the beginning there was something about it, a seed, that grew into the populism it now represents. And Victor Orban was along from the beginning. One thing I remember was, that after the one party -system in Hungary fell, there was another liberal party, SZDSZ, initially enjoying more support than Fidesz, and from which Fidesz wanted to keep apart, though they had some co-operation. I wonder if the history would have been different, had the SZDSZ not allied with the Hungarian Socialist Party, the successor of the communist, to form a coalition government, after which SZDSZ lost its support, mostly to the Fidesz… Oh well, now that’s water under the bridge.

    I don’t quite buy what you are telling about HZDS. It was Left-wing, nationalist and populist from the beginning, and in no point of its journey did it become liberal. It just needed a group in the European Parliament, and ELDR was willing to take it, because it increased the number of their MEPs.

    I never understood, why the Estonian Centre party was accepted into the ELDR. ELDR already had as its member the other big Estonian party, the Reform party, which perhaps represents more similar brand of liberalism as VVD and FDP than that of the Lib Dems, but the Centre Party certainly doesn’t represent either.

    As for the Centre Party of Finland, I guess it would have felt more comfortable in EP, but that spot was already taken by another Finnish party, the National Coalition Party. The main difference between these two Finnish parties isn’t that one would be liberal and the other conservative (actually, the National Coalition Party is arguably more liberal than the Centre party, since most of the MPs of the National Coalition Party voted for instance for the same-sex marriage, unlike the MPs of the Centre Party). The dividing line is, that the Centre Party gets most of its votes from the countryside, whereas the National Coalition Party gets most of its votes from the cities. I guess the situation is comparable to Ireland; there is another dividing issue than being liberal or conservative between the two centrist/centre-right parties, but one of the two was quicker to join the EP, so the other didn’t have any other choice than to join the ELDR/ALDE/Renew.

    As for ANO 2011, well, I believe it’s going to be as short-lived as so many similar parties in the new democracies of the Central and Eastern Europe.

  • richard underhill 2nd Jul '20 - 3:04pm

    Patrick 2nd Jul ’20 – 1:44pm
    “Fidesz used to be /somewhat/ more liberal,”
    FIDESZ had a rule that their candidates had to be under the age of 30 years. Most of the communists they were standing against were much older than that and so were many of their electorate. This rule was considered illiberal and was revised upwards after an election as the FIDESZ MPs got older. David Steel was somewhat critical of their preferences for electoral systems.
    I met their leader briefly in Budapest. As others had commented in our party newspaper the Liberal Democrat News, he was somewhat arrogant.
    I was the Country Officer for Hungary. We only had seven asylum applications from the whole country, mostly against communism, none referring to the events of 1956 when Moscow took advantage of Anthony Eden’s Suez crisis to send tanks into Budapest, so that Hungarians sought freedom in Austria and thence across the world.

  • richard underhill 2nd Jul '20 - 3:13pm

    We were on the ELDR trip to Finland, well aware of Big Brother next door and Stalin’s invasion and subsequent military performance. We were met by the Defence Minister of the Centre Party which, we were told, had a farming background.
    I got lost and was lucky to meet a Ghanaian university student who spoke English and gave me directions to the airport.

  • Chris Bertram 2nd Jul '20 - 4:48pm

    @Steve Comer – FF seem to be developing an understanding with the SDLP in the North, not with Alliance. That may say more about SDLP than FF (such as, why aren’t they aligning with Irish Labour?), but it does put them at odds with us when that is considered.

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