I’ve been meaning to post something more about the Blueshirt putsch, but there’s already been plenty of good commentary over at the place where the cool kids hang out. It’s hard to imagine a worse scenario for Fine Gael, who have never learned from their FF rivals the fine art of despatching a leader quickly. So there’s now the scenario where Kenny survives in charge with a slim majority, the precise size of which is a secret but which may not be unadjacent to six (in a parliamentary party of 70). Therefore Enda is in a position where he knows, and everybody else knows, that half of his party has no confidence in his leadership, and if you consider his strong support from party senators and MEPs, he probably has the majority of his TDs against him. The words “lame” and “duck” spring to mind, and all that will keep Enda in charge for the time being is a mixture of inertia and the Bruton camp’s making a complete balls of their heave.
Anyway, the thing I wanted to remark on was the geographical spread. Let’s take as a reasonable estimate of support the Irish Times breakdown that showed 33 for Kenny, 30 for Bruton and 7 fence-sitters. This may not be entirely right, so caveat emptor, but it’s unlikely to be wildly inaccurate. Some commentators have remarked on the east-west split, which is true, but it’s slightly more complicated than that. Breaking down the IT list by constituency, we arrive with the following stats:
The 33 for Kenny breaks down as Dublin 6; Leinster 6; Munster 10; Connacht-Ulster 11.
The 30 for Bruton breaks down as Dublin 7; Leinster 9; Munster 11; Connacht-Ulster 3.
And, for what it’s worth, the seven others were Dublin 1, Leinster 1, Munster 2, Connacht-Ulster 3.
You see the Bruton camp, then, having a lead in Dublin and the commuter belt, and Kenny having a near-complete stranglehold on the Connacht organisation, which would probably be crucial. The near-even split in Munster results from Bruton pulling in strong support from around Cork, which would be a Coveney faction rather than a Bruton one, Coveney having medium-term leadership aspirations of his own. There are anomalies, but they are mostly explicable, with Noonan down in Limerick having his own beefs with Kenny, Deasy in Waterford being a serial malcontent and Joe McHugh of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Donegal North East) being married to Brutonite siren Olwyn Enright. Conversely, Electric Enda does have some support on the east coast, but much of that can be identified as people who owe him for patronage reasons.
However, the fact that the anomalies are explicable tends to strengthen the overall picture of a Kennyite faction based firmly in the party’s country-and-western tendency, while the Brutonites huddle around the east coast, with opportunistic support from the Coveneyites in Cork plus scattered malcontents. You will notice the marked resemblance to geographically-based factionalism in Fianna Fáil.
And, as with the FF factionalism, we can pose the question – is there anything political in this? Well, there is and there isn’t.
As is well known, neither of our two main parties is very ideological, and both are what we might politely term broad churches, or impolitely term masses of contradictions. FG’s protean nature through its history borders on the bizarre. Starting out as the pro-Treaty faction of Sinn Féin, by the end of the 1920s it had become a halfway house for disenfranchised Redmondites and unionists; in the 1930s it was fascist; in the 1950s it was vocationalist; in the 1980s it aspired to be social democratic; and these days nobody quite knows what it stands for.
The southern Irish political system being what it is but, nobody knowing what a party stands for is not necessarily a disadvantage. FF for decades refused to produce party manifestos on the grounds that the government should run on its record; the Boss attempted to bring back that culture following the disastrous 1977 manifesto. Under the Irish system, you can be an ideological party and occupy a niche, or you can be a vague amorphous party and have large-scale support. Nobody has ever figured out how to do both.
In fact, political culture, often handed down through families, is usually more important than ideology. Most observers don’t realise – and perhaps Enda Kenny doesn’t realise – how peculiar are the roots of Fine Gael in Connacht and the border counties. Back in the 1940s, FG was virtually extinct west of the Shannon, and only managed to regain a serious base in the 50s and 60s by cannibalising the votes of independent TDs, Clann na Talmhan and, weirdly enough, Clann na Poblachta. (Specifically, the strong FG vote in Cavan derives directly from the old CnaP base there.) Western Blueshirts therefore can be somewhat more economically populist and socially conservative and even republican than their counterparts in and around the capital; but it’s not so much an ideological division as one of culture. With FG having a support base that tends towards the elderly and rural, that’s an important thing, and it lies behind much of the idea that Kenny, hailing from the badlands of Mayo, couldn’t connect with the Dublin voter.
The problem, though, is whether the Brutonites have a solution to that. Observers will have noticed the presence in the Bruton camp of the noisy rightwing faction of Brian Hayes, Leo Varadkar (who, terrifyingly, seems to aspire to being a young Brian Hayes) and the Unbearable Lightness of Lucinda. These people do have an idea of what FG should stand for; it involves FG becoming, to all intents and purposes, the Progressive Democrats Mark Two. If you’re really serious about that, then you should be prepared for Desocrat levels of support, for the Irish electorate remains resolutely resistant to ideology. Further, if FG’s problem in Dublin is that formerly FF-supporting public sector workers are switching en masse to Labour, you want to consider whether you actually want to deepen those guys’ antagonism to FG. It may well be – in fact, I’d take it as a given – that Labour will do frig all for the public sector, but there’s a difference between that and an FG front bench positively promising to screw the public sector.
Garret FitzGerald was so good at winning over the Dublin middle class not because of the detail of what he said – his pronouncements on the PSBR went over most voters’ heads – but because of who he was. He was the sort of politician middle-class voters liked, because he reflected well on the electorate, and he was brilliant at mood music. Gilmore is also great at mood music. I doubt many people could tell you what Gilmore’s policies are, but at the moment he’s more popular than Nelson Mandela. I submit that the two things are not unconnected.
Rud eile: just a passing thought on That Poll. It’s often said that FG needs Labour more than Labour needs FG, because Labour has two options for coalition. The FG preferred scenario, I suppose, would be FG on 70-plus seats and Labour on 15-20, just like it used to be. That would mean a clearly Fine Gael-led government with Labour making up the numbers. But, since FG-SF is not an option (yet), FG could be faced with the appalling vista of coalition on parity terms, and no other option. On the other hand… it’s assumed that FF is so electorally toxic Labour couldn’t possibly prop the Soldiers of Fortune up for another term. But what about the prospect of a Labour-led government with FF as the junior partner? Might Gilmore see that as an opportunity worth considering?