The Blanket

Why the Earth Moved

Ciarán Irvine

In the aftermath of the May 17th General Election in the Republic, the landscape has radically changed. But why? Not one of the commentators and pundits got the results of either last year’s Westminister election in the North, or the more recent southern General Election, even remotely right. A close examination of each party’s campaigns and subsequent fortunes will reveal one answer…

1. The relegation of the SDLP to second-fiddle status in 2001’s British Westminister Elections

The wilting of the SDLP before the aggressive nationalism and militarily-efficient electioneering of Sinn Féin was a cause for concern amongst all the “Establishment” parties across the island from the UUP to Fianna Fáil. Clearly, young northern nationalists were unimpressed with the SDLPs soft-focus “Why Can’t Everybody Get Along?” style of politicking - despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the SDLPs 30-year-old policy stance was, and is, the core of both the GFA and Sinn Féin Nua’s revisionist platform. A combination of an old, tired leadership; a perception of being too weak-willed in negotiation with “the enemy”; the blatant confusion in seeking to remain the largest Nationalist party while talking about “post-Nationalist Ireland”; and quite hopelessly out of date PR and electioneering tactics resulted in the SDLP getting mauled. Despite their outstanding achievements in getting their entire policy platform into the GFA and ratified by both Governments and all the people of Ireland…

2. The collapse of Fine Gael

Once the party of rural conservatives (in a fiscal and law-and-order sense), large farmers and the remnants of the Aristocracy, FG in the 1980s under Garrett Fitzgerald allied their core vote with the new urban, liberal, professional classes in Fitzgerald’s “Constitutional Crusade”. The strategy took them to new heights, almost overtaking Fianna Fáil as the largest southern party. But the contradictions inherent in such an alliance, while concealed under the reign of a popular leader, were never resolved, and have torn the party asunder ever since. Unsure whether it is a Social Democratic party in the European mould, a Christian Democratic party or something else entirely; shackled to an increasingly unpopular extreme Europhilia; and tainted by association with the negative, inferiority-complex-ridden bewailings of the Revisionists, Fine Gael is a party that has seriously lost its way. Yet another case of a confused message and a lack of an identifiable platform of principles leading to electoral suicide.

3. Labour Adrift

For decades, certain commentators have been predicting the end of “Civil War Politics” in the Republic. The merging of FF and FG or the collapse of one of them (preferably FF!) would herald the long-awaited “re-alignment of Irish politics” into a “standard” Left-Right model so familiar elsewhere. According to this thesis, Fine Gael’s collapse should by right have led to a triumph for the one truly Social Democratic party in Ireland, Labour. But as we know now, Labour stayed stuck in neutral. Not only did Labour fail to increase their overall tally of seats from 21, but two of the party’s leading lights, Dick Spring and Derek McDowell, lost their seats. Clearly, the electorate did not see in Ho Chi Quinn’s “Champagne and Salmon Socialists” the social-democratic alternative to Fianna Fáil that they were looking for. The bitter truth for Labour must be that under Quinn they have become bland, boring, centrist pragmatists. Standing for nothing in particular with a weak and uninspiring message, only party loyalty saved Labour from Fine Gael’s fate this time round.

4. Green Growth

No longer the chaotic, bumbling, middle-class hippies of yesteryear today’s Green Party is organised, with a much more comprehensive policy platform and a range of well-dressed articulate young candidates. Moving squarely into the “conscience of the middle-class” market that until now had been sown up by Labour the Greens surprised everyone (including themselves) with their haul of 6 seats. A coherent and comprehensive package of policies and a professional, modern electioneering approach paid huge dividends for the newly-confident Green Party.

5. PD Revival

Written off by just about everybody before the campaign, the PDs played a blinder. Their election literature, delivered to every home in the country, unashamedly claimed credit for the boom years and spoke directly to the “Tiger Cub” generation of affluent young professionals, while at the same time warning anyone who would listen of the dangers in giving FF the dreaded “overall majority”. Another case of focused, targeted niche marketing with a clear message providing spectacular seat gains.

6. Sinn Féin Storm The Barricades

Or so the party press machine would have us believe. As the Greens moved into Labour’s “conscience of the middle class” territory, SF were doing exactly the same to Labour’s old disaffected working-class constituency. A formidable on-the-ground machine, highly visible presence in poorer areas and clear distancing of themselves from the “established” parties who had all, without exception, abandoned the poor to their fate during the Tiger years paid off handsomely with 5 Dáil seats.

Here we can see, in action, the very opposite of the mistakes made by the SDLP, Fine Gael and Labour. The public is tired of bland centrism, and especially tired of that brand of centrism that has infected the mainstream Irish parties in recent years. The brand whereby politicians will refuse to give a straight answer on the basis that on no account should you antagonise any special-interest-group. Having a reasonably coherent set of principles (even bizarre ones!), that inform a broad range of policies, and sticking to that message in the full knowledge that it annoys some people, is plainly appreciated by the electorate. Even Fianna Fáil, while running a fairly cautious campaign, also made it clear who they were standing to represent this time round and “to hell with the rest of ‘em”. The firm stance taken by FF in Government on such matters as tax individualisation and the taxi drivers was obviously remembered and appreciated by a large section of the electorate on polling day.

So much for 90s style “Third Way” style-over-substance. The public has seen it and decided they don’t like it. The parties that failed to put together a coherent platform, based on core ideals/principles/beliefs, and marketed aggressively all either collapsed or drifted. The parties with such a platform - from Sinn Féin to the Progressive Democrats - were lauded by a grateful electorate.

The real lesson of recent Irish elections - one apparently lost on the media, the SDLP, Fine Gael and Labour - is that when it comes right down to it, Substance Rules.



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In a democracy,
dissent is an act of faith.
- J. William Fulbright

Index: Current Articles

20 June 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Against Suicide Bombings

Carrie Twomey

The Power to Force Respect
Anthony McIntyre


Ciarán Irvine, decentralisation, and "Eire Nua"
Seaghan O Murchu

Why the Earth Moved

Ciarán Irvine


16 June 2002


Zionism, Palestine & The Spirit of the Warsaw Ghetto

Brian Kelly

Avoiding Park Benches
Anthony McIntyre


A Case For Change
Ciarán Irvine


The Terrifying Power of Life and Death
Brendan Hughes



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