Micheál Martin TD, Leader of Fianna Fáil

‘One Party Dominance: Fianna Fáil and Irish Politics 1926-2016’
Edited by Seán McGraw and Eoin O’Malley
Wednesday, 17th January 2018

I would like to thank the editors for the kind invitation to formally launch this collection of scholarly articles.  The list of contributors spans a wide range of areas of expertise and includes both long-established academics and newer voices.

This is an excellent and challenging collection and I warmly welcome it.  In spite of Fianna Fáil’s prominence since 1926 there are surprisingly few books about the party written from an independent perspective.  In many ways this publication shows how much we have to gain by paying more attention to academic political science.

In their own way each contributor to this book seeks to provide context and depth to our understanding of Fianna Fáil’s history both electorally and, more importantly, in terms of the substance of its policies and record.

This is not an easy task because in Ireland we very often look at politics and political history with a very narrow perspective.  We do not lack a sense of the importance of trying to understand our politics – but an enormous amount of the discourse is dominated by what is little more than advocacy.  The difference between evaluating and passing judgement is often not respected.  International comparisons are referenced to score points rather than illuminate.

And of course it never ceases to amaze how polling is used to create neat divisions rather than the complexity and uncertainty which is the reality.

Commentators very often love nothing better than broad and sweeping conclusions – which are frequently dismissive and always without subtlety.  It is striking how rarely history is referenced to challenge received political narratives, rather it is used to reinforce established ones.

This is not something which is new.

As Margaret O’Callaghan and Diarmaid Ferriter have shown, the fight to shape political narratives is actually older than the state.  The aggressive use of the media in this way was central to the Treaty debates.  What O’Callaghan christened as the ‘history wars’ became an ongoing Irish phenomenon.

The first and most influential biography of Collins was actually commissioned by the government in the weeks after his death with the direct intention of shaping public opinion.

On the other hand Dorothy McArdle’s equally influential history of the republican cause was subject to many manipulations by de Valera.  Why this matters is that the basic characterisations established in our first decades has demonstrated a remarkable endurance.

The development of a new field of political science in our universities 50 years ago marked an important moment which, in turn, had a significant impact on the writing of history and on independent commentary.  Scholars such as Brian Farrell, Tom Garvin and John Whyte helped set a new standard for a rigorous approach to both theory and analysis.

It is however noticeable how often tightly-argued and sourced work has contradicted the wider discourse and has therefore been all but ignored.  Perhaps the interpretation most resistant to acknowledging contrary evidence has been the idea that everything can be explained by using the two short words ‘civil’ and ‘war’.

As recently as the months following the last general election our newspapers and airwaves were full of commentary about how our two largest parties had nothing to separate them except the civil war and that they should just get on and amalgamate.  This is a portrait of our two largest parties which is dismissive and superficial in equal measure.

And it is founded on the false idea that there is a ‘natural’ party system which has been frustrated by those parties being separate.

What it also does is present a static picture of the last 92 years which is belied by the willingness of large numbers of people to vote for parties which were, for want of a better description, on the other side.

When Eamon de Valera and his colleagues founded Fianna Fáil they did so at a low point.  The republican cause had been defeated and its support was half that of its opponents.  Yet within seven years it had doubled its support and formed a single-party government.  This would have been impossible if civil war allegiances had defined political choice.

It is important to note that members and supporters of Fianna Fáil do find an ideological consistency in the party’s adherence to an idea of progressive republicanism.

I know that republicanism doesn’t fit in the standard list of ways of assessing the ideology of political parties internationally but it is important for us.

At its core it has been seen by us as being about a state being responsive to its citizens and dedicated to their interests and sovereignty.

And in terms of progressive ideas, a commitment to expanding educational opportunity, developing social programmes and a tolerant attitude to the wider world are to be found as a consistent point of reference for our members.

Opinion polling carried out in 1969, when large numbers of people who had been politically aware during the Civil War were still alive, confirmed that Fianna Fáil’s success was determined by people for whom the civil war was not relevant to political choice.

Many of the contributors to this book show ways in which there is a much more complex and evolving reality to be seen.  Of course the basic party divisions originated in the Treaty split, but the differences in the period since then have been significant.

This is a point which comes through in a number of the contributions, with Niamh Purseil, for example, referencing Fianna Fáil’s distinct preference for actions such as radically expanding state-funded housing and education.

Fianna Fáil’s state activism of the 1930s and the radicalism of the early 1960s in no way reflected a common approach to politics in the two largest parties.

Indeed this approach of the state as an enabler was central to major differences in the 2016 election and in the negotiations about the confidence and supply agreement.

Ken Carty’s point concerning a distinct approach to what constituted the national interest provides a good framework for viewing both the constitutional innovations of the party’s early governments and the dramatic shifts in policy towards the wider world during the era of Lemass – in which we are in many ways still living.

I understand the point which is made in the book about an “ambiguous ideology” and “adaptive survival” being a core element of Fianna Fáil’s success.  I would put it a different way.

I believe that the idea of the ‘normality’ of a clear left/right divide should be challenged.

It certainly gives a rhetorical clarity to the practice of politics, but in reality it does not reflect the governing practice of parties in free democracies.

Mario Cuomo once said that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose.  In much of Europe the rhetoric of the public square certainly established the idea of sharp divides, however time and again irrespective of ideological clarity you find overlap in many policies between parties.

You could say that the standard left/right divide which so many have yearned for is actually, to misquote Freud, the narcissism of large differences.  Equally, ideological inflexibility, remaining committed to the same programme as realities change, is not something to be admired

Liberal democracies which respond to the needs of the public are inherently centrist and throughout its history Fianna Fáil has been a responsive and evolving centrist party.  Just as the demands of particular times have changed, so too has the party’s programme.  In response to significant failures and new problems different approaches have been taken.

This should not really be a surprise because this core idea of being responsive was the very reason why the party was founded.  Our founders believed that simply sitting around and basking in ideological consistency benefitted no one and was causing real harm.  Lemass and his colleagues were willing to question whether policies appropriate to the 1930s should still be in place in the 1960s and acted accordingly.

Rather than seeing this as ambiguous or about political survival, I would see it as being responsive and evolving – which is surely what democratic politics should be about?

Another important point about Fianna Fáil’s programme is that it has been unique in Europe in being a nationalist party led by former revolutionaries which attained power and actually increased individual rights and checks on the executive.

De Valera’s decision in 1937 to give up the right to amend the constitution with a parliamentary majority, give the courts power to check the government and to completely reject the extremism then dominating much of Europe is something which has always inspired Fianna Fáilers but has been absent from most commentary.

Both the 75th and 80th anniversaries of the first constitution in the world adopted in a free referendum were ignored by the government largely because they would complicate their partisan narrative.

I think a fair look Fianna Fáil’s record also finds a consistent approach to the idea of the need for strong rules-based international organisations.  De Valera’s call for respect for the League of Nations is well known, less so is the inclusion in Bunreacht na hÉireann of an explicit statement that this is a state which acknowledges and respects international law.

This is an approach evident in Fianna Fáil’s leadership of the cause of joining what is now the European Union and campaigning for the ratification of every subsequent treaty.  This is the exact opposite of the populist nationalism evident in too much of Europe today.

If you compare this record in relation to internationalism, the balance of powers and centrist policies responding to contemporary needs the charge of some that we are a populist party is shown to be absurd in the extreme.

There is an important point in relation to approaches to government which arises from many of the areas examined in the book.

The idea of electoral strategy being an obsession of Fianna Fáil in government is casually adopted by many partisans as a way of refusing to engage in a more substantive discussion.  The evidence provided by many of the contributors directly contradicts this.

I think it is worth noting that much of what is pointed to as unique in Fianna Fáil’s organisational and campaigning approach actually reflects wider international developments.

To take one example, the major reform in members voting rights which we enacted in 2012 emerged from a detailed look at parties in other countries.  The final proposal for a system of One Member One Vote and a move away from cumainn-based selections is something we reflects the now widely accepted idea that modern political activists want a more direct influence and that this is the only way of enabling a campaigning organisation.

Equally, there really is no mysterious alchemy to many of our communications practices.  They have been an Irish reflection of international developments.

What the Taoiseach is doing with his new Communications Unit is not, contrary to his claims, a modernising step in line with international best practice.  In fact it’s a step backwards to a very traditional and discredited mode of communications.

Genuine communications in the modern world involve a two-way process, and for a government this should involve both increasing access to information and providing a means of expressing individual opinions.

In contrast to this the new unit is solely about advertising a message that the public should bow down and be grateful to a generous government.  It is a one-way process and which ignores most areas.

It is notable that an increase in the minimum wage decided by an independent process is advertised as coming from “The Government of Ireland” but the advertising demanding we pay the TV License comes from “The Department of Communications”.

We have no problem with spending money on pushing information out to citizens, but unless this involves information which allows people to make up their own minds, for example by providing independent information on a critical issue such as waiting lists, it will be more about old-style propaganda than modern communications.

There is also a real sense of current attempts to repoliticise the process of allocating funding in many areas.  A decades-long process of developing independent allocation procedures is being reversed.  For example you see this in the efforts to give the Minister for the Arts a much greater share of the budget to allocate directly rather than through independent agencies and the process underway to decide on projects for the new capital plan.

Many of the casual stereotypes of used to dismiss criticism of these developments do not stand up to basic scrutiny.

The fall in partisan attachment seen in much of the democratic world has bene a factor here as well.  In many ways, Fianna Fáil’s successful elections over the last thirty years involved an increasingly high effort.  While overall support levels remained consistent, much more intense campaigning was required to achieve this.  As the book correctly points out, the evolution of candidate strategies and programme priorities was essential.

While the fall in party-attachment played a role, the 2011 result was a result of being held accountable for a deep recession.  We have not been obsessed with the idea of returning to the past, because we have no doubt that Ireland has and will continue to have a complex multi-party system.  It could be said that Ireland is in the process of finally moving away from the Westminster model of governing and is becoming more like other Northern European countries.

A substantial competition in the democratic centre remains and I believe it will remain because it offers a credible choice to people and avoids the sort of polarisation which has directly enabled extremism elsewhere.  The differences between parties are significant but proportionate and do not force unreasonable choices.

The confidence and supply agreement reflects a legitimate democratic response to an unclear election.  It respects differences but enables a constructive approach.

As I have said repeatedly, the government’s focus should be on implementing its commitments and delivering on its promises.  The attempt to distract by talking about process rather than substance is something we will not be engaging with.

What this collection does is to once again ask us all to push aside limited and partisan narratives and to look at our politics in a more challenging way.  I want to congratulate the editors and the contributors for their work and for once again demonstrating the importance of rigorous and independent scholarship to a healthy political discourse.  I hope that many of the questions which they have raised will lead to further work and a greater understanding of the complexity of our political history and our political direction