The long farewell: Ciarán Cannon puts the Progressive Democrats out of their misery

It is the early 1990s. I am enjoying a nice beer in an agreeable hostelry in Greifswald. Günther walks in.

Günther: You remember Martin Bangemann?

There is a long pause, almost a Pinter pause.

Myself: Oh, the politician? Now that’s a name I haven’t heard for ages. What about him?

Günther: He was just in the paper this morning.

Myself: What for? Is he dead or what?

Günther: No, it turns out he’s a European commissioner.

Myself: Holy living fuck. How did that happen?

Günther: Well, I suppose somebody must have thought it was a good idea.

Funny, isn’t it, how people or even organisations can slip your mind? Ciarán Cannon has just called time on the Desocrats, although the last rites will have to wait a month, and a few diehards might be tempted to carry on as Continuity Progressive Democrats. And I’m sure the general public will have reacted in the same way as when you hear that some old Hollywood actor has died and you say, “I thought he was dead years.”

Take Noel Grealish. For months now you’ve been seeing occasional stories in the press that Noel was about to jump ship to Fianna Fáil, and take the party’s Galway councillors with him. Then a few weeks later you’d hear that Noel Grealish was going to defect to Fianna Fáil, and you’d say to yourself, “Has he not gone already? Jesus, he’s taking his time about it.” Such is the fate, I suppose, of the moribund party.

So the Sunday papers were all full of the imminent death of the PDs and their legacy to the Irish political scene. But they really were a curious bunch, weren’t they? It says something about the unideological nature of Irish politics that, when they were launched in 1985, nobody had a clue what they stood for except that they were against Charlie. Des O’Malley had been in politics a very long time, but nobody seemed to know what his politics were. Garret FitzGerald, who knew him better than most, said years later that he encouraged Dessie to form a new party but he had no idea it would be a rightwing party. Oh, how innocent we once were…

And so the new party was launched, and it looked fresh, and it had some impressive-looking personages, and it had a great name – who wouldn’t want to be progressive or democratic? And it quickly surged to something like 28% in the polls. Then the voters got a look at the eclectic Desocrat ideological mix – Thatcherite economics, total political correctness and a neo-unionist line on the north – and the party settled down at the 4% or so that was probably its natural sociological base. Ideology remains a niche market.

Des Fennell described this as D4, which had had a slightly social democratic cast in favour of the public sector (for good self-interested reasons) hiving off a conscious right wing. I think there’s something to that, certainly with regard to the PD milieu in Dublin, as opposed to whatever rural personalities would build up a personal base. On the other hand, you needed those strong individuals, as can be seen from the party’s sorry state since the last election, which has left Cannon in the almost poetic position of trying to lead a moribund party from the mausoleum-like surroundings of the Seanad.

And what of this great legacy? The most extravagant claims of course come from Collins, but the general thrust is that the Desocrats protected Ireland from the demons of nationalism, unreconstructed Catholicism and socialism. Furthermore, they kept Fianna Fáil honest, not necessarily in the financial sense, but in terms of stopping FF devolving into a Blaneyite party. (This derives from a peculiar anti-Haughey reading of history, linked not least to Jack Lynch having acted as the PDs’ grey eminence.) They were the trailblazers of partnership and the liberal agenda. And so on.

This is almost certainly a big overstatement. As was pointed out on Cedar Lounge, the secularising liberal agenda really begins with FitzGerald (who only got inconsistent support on this from O’Malley) and the Boss himself could claim credit for partnership. What has their significance been? In ideological terms, probably as outriders for hard rightist positions that the bigger parties could then water down for public consumption. In Machiavellian terms, which would matter more to Bertie, as a lightning conductor for discontent with Fianna Fáil. One imagines Biffo will miss the lightning conductor, if he doesn’t manage to shuffle that role off onto the Greens.

Ah well, goodbye then. Can’t really say it’s been nice knowing you, but the landscape will be a little less colourful without you.

Party like it’s 1948

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Following on from WorldbyStorm’s great post on the implausibility of the new coalition government in Dublin, I am drawn to reflect on implausible coalitions. Even by Irish standards, the line-up of Fianna Fáil, the Greens, the rump Desocrats, Jackie the Cap of South Kerry, disgraced Fianna Fáiler Bev Flynn, disgraced Blueshirt Michael Lowry and socialist republican Finian McGrath is a doozy.

I have to say, though, that the putative “Alliance for Change” government touted by Electric Enda would have trumped it. Considering Enda’s ruling out of any arrangements with FF or the Provos, and Jackie already having plighted his troth to Bertie, the only line-up possible would have been: Fine Gael, Labour, the Greens, the Desocrats, Lowry, Flynn, McGrath and our old friend Tony Gregory. As implausible configurations go, that one would have had Amanda Brunker beat. But would it have been the least plausible coalition ever seen in Leinster House? No, it would not.

Let us now enter the Tardis and return to the aftermath of the 1948 election. That time around, Fianna Fáil remained easily the largest party, returning with one more seat than all opposition parties put together. However, after sixteen straight years of FF government and the hardships caused by the Economic War and the Emergency, it was not surprising that FF would suffer a dip in popularity, and in the end Dev returned with 68 seats out of 147, six short of a majority with a dozen fairly diverse independents holding the balance of power.

What would have seemed to be the most plausible outcome would have been yet another FF-led government, not least because Fine Gael at that time seemed to be in terminal decline, returning a mere 31 deputies, with its vote bobbing along around the 20% mark and having been wiped out in large swathes of the state – only returning three TDs in the whole of Connacht, for instance. But that doesn’t account for the ingenuity of the Irish TD sniffing a chance at power, and thus the wondrous First Inter-Party Government was born.

Let’s consider the forces involved in this government. You had Fine Gael, the Free State party, the Commonwealth party, the bolthole for dispossessed Unionists and Redmondites. It was the party of Oriel House and the 77 executions, the party that ran the Saorstát with an iron fist for ten years, the party of then barely reconstructed Blueshirtism. It was, by any standard, an extremely conservative party, representing in the main the interests of the South Dublin upper bourgeoisie and the big ranchers.

You had Clann na Poblachta, a party made up largely, though not exclusively, of former IRA men. These were guys who had spent ten years opposing the 1937 Bunreacht, who had tried in 1939 to launch a war against England, and who during the Emergency had dissented from the almost unanimous support for neutrality in trying to line up Ireland with the Axis. Having been ferociously repressed by Fianna Fáil, they then gave that up for a bad job, abruptly became a constitutional party, and began merrily cannibalising the Fianna Fáil electorate. Their programme was militantly republican on the national question and, by the standards of the time, extremely leftwing on social and economic issues – in other words, a souped-up version of Fianna Fáil’s 1926 programme.

You had Clann na Talmhan, who are unfortunately forgotten these days, but were a fascinating formation in their own right. This was a party of impoverished small farmers in the West and its main policy was radical land reform, in line with the Fianna Fáil programme but not with FF’s record in government. The interests of the CnaT base were fundamentally opposed to the big farmers who increasingly dominated FG.

You also had not one but two Labour parties, having split a few years previously and spent the election campaign smearing and slandering each other with wild abandon. If you think the SWP-Militant bunfights on Indymedia are bad, the Labourites of the 1940s make them look like the wusses they really are.

Put all these disparate groups together and you still weren’t close to a majority, so what transpired in 1948 was a coalition of five parties and a technical group of nine – count ’em – nine independents, none of whom agreed on anything except that they wanted to put FF out. These differences were bridged by the simple introduction of the abeyance principle – in other words, everybody forgot about their programmes and concentrated on the division of spoils. And it all went surprisingly smoothly, with the only big stumbling block Clann na Poblachta’s refusal to accept the FG leader, General Mulcahy, as Taoiseach. So FG put forward Costello for the top job, Mulcahy got a seat at cabinet in any case and that was that. And, as we know, this Frankenstein government lasted a whole three years, thus scundering all those smart alecks in Fianna Fáil who expected it to collapse within months.

There is another interesting aspect to 1948, which is that Fine Gael did not dominate the opposition. FG held a mere 31 seats, as against 19 for the two Labour parties, ten for Clann na Poblachta and seven for Clann na Talmhan. There was a distinct possibility of a Labour-Republican bloc, possibly involving the small farmers, supplanting FG as the second force in the state. But that would have required Norton and the other Labour leaders to play a long game, eschewing bums on seats in the short term for the big prize in the long term. We know of course what they chose, and the effect of their choice was to breathe new life into a moribund Fine Gael, and for decades to come condemn Labour to being not a challenger for power in its own right, but a small and docile appendage to FG.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Bertie does the supermarket sweep

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There are a number of stages to dealing with the results of an Irish election. First you stare at the TV and exclaim “What the hell kind of country is this?” Then you sleep on it. Then you sit down with a cup of tea and a chocolate gravy ring, crunch the numbers and convince yourself it all makes sense.

The results are, I suppose, only dramatic in that they falsified the polls. It’s remarkable, but five of the six parties were pretty much within a 1% deviation from their 2002 result, Fine Gael being the exception. So it’s pretty much as you were for Fianna Fáil, Labour and the Greens; the Provos were a bit unlucky in that their big surge in Donegal didn’t deliver at least one seat to compensate for their loss in Tallaght; and the Desocrats, the weakest of the big six, fell below critical mass. If there hadn’t been a slew of opinion polls, we might have thought the results pretty dull, but consistent polling predictions of a Fianna Fáil meltdown and big gains for the Greens and PSF had skewed our expectations.

On one level, this is sort of the antimatter version of the Scottish election – the reassertion of the competitive two-party system, after a collapse of the main opposition last time out, resulting in a squeeze on the small parties and independents. On another level, the presidential factor would have played a role. Not for the first time, Bertie has played chicken with the electorate and, faced with the very real prospect of Electric Enda becoming taoiseach, the electorate folded. Besides which, one can assume that with the bien-pensants’ predictions of an FF meltdown, the wish was father to the thought.

I’ll write separately about the republican and left votes, because they have some implications for how we might build an opposition in the future. But there are a few observations worth making.

Firstly, I was taken aback by FG’s enormous gain in seats, from 32 to 51. In retrospect, this could have been predicted. The Blueshirts had a genuinely horrible result in 2002, not only seeing their vote slump but, due to a lack of transfers, losing out badly in terms of seats – they should really have scored around 40 last time out. So, Electric Enda has energised Fine Gael and made it look like a halfway serious party again. Factor in a 5% gain in share of the vote, plus a decent level of transfers from eliminated Labour candidates, and you have a recipe for substantial seat gains. However, these gains come at the expense, not of Fianna Fáil, but the forces who capitalised on FG’s collapse last time – the Desocrats and centrist independents.

Speaking of the Desocrats, who may well end up folding as a party, I’m surprised to find myself rather sorry at McDowell bowing out of politics. He’s one of those people, like Alan Shatter or Bob McCartney, who I’ve never had time for politically but who do add something to public life. As in: he may have been a bastard, but he was a bastard with substance, and it says something about our political culture that he can be ousted by a lightweight like Lucinda Creighton.

As for Labour, well, Rabbitte made a rod for his own back with Mullingar. I could have told him this ages ago – the only time Labour ever gained from a close association with Fine Gael was in 1973, and the resulting government was so atrocious you wouldn’t want to see it repeated. He then made a second rod for his back by trying to give himself wiggle room for an alternative coalition. And, while the Green and Provo hordes may have been held off for the time being, a vote share below 10% and a notably elderly parliamentary party should give Labour members pause for thought.

As for Bertie, he has a few tasks ahead of him, not least putting together a stable majority. One may guess that Bev Flynn will get the whip back in the near future, but even so, the two “gene pool” indies and the two Desocrats won’t get him to the magic 83. Will he be willing to reach a non-coalition understanding with the Provos? Will Clever Trevor get his feet under the table? Only time will tell, but things don’t look long-term stable just yet.

And that’s just the electoral end of things. Will the multiple judicial tribunals into corruption actually start claiming scalps, bearing in mind that Mahon will be reconvened soon? What happens when the boom goes tits up? And what of the factional manoeuvring within Fianna Fáil itself? As Kinky Friedman sang, when the Lord closes the door, he opens a little window.

The mathematics of coalition

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God, but wasn’t Prime Time desperate? It had the wholly unforeseen consequence of making me warm slightly to McDowell. Gerryspeak does my head in at the best of times, and between Grizzly’s torrent of abstract nouns and Rabbitte’s continuing impersonation of an 18th-century parliamentarian, I could well empathise with Dirty Mike’s eye-rolling.

OK, so we are now going to look at possible outcomes of the election. I’m not so daft as to try to predict the result of an STV election, but some hazy outlines can be discerned. And I’ll stick my neck out and say that the most likely new government is Fianna Fáil and Labour, although Bertie and/or Pat may have to make way for Brian and/or Brendan in the process. There are of course other possibilities, but this is the most credible one.

The consensus is that Fianna Fáil have had a shocking start to the campaign, which is true in the sense that the party hasn’t dominated the media agenda and its poll ratings have slumped. But there are a few factors militating against that. One is that the punters don’t seem as exercised about Bertiegate and stamp duty as the chattering classes. Another is that, as any fule kno, you can’t place any credence on a national poll. The constituency polls are more interesting, especially the batch of eleven done by Red C for the Examiner group and helpfully summarised in this week’s Phoenix. These indicate that, while FF support is dropping and Fine Gael support rising quite markedly in most areas, this isn’t translating into a big net shift in seats.

There are good reasons for believing this. One is that FF’s higher starting vote makes it easier for them to convert votes into seats, a situation strengthened by the new (and almost certainly unconstitutional) boundaries. The Blueshirts have the converse problem, that Big Phil has failed to crack the whip and therefore they are running far too many candidates to take advantage of the swing. It is of course true that the Red C batch doesn’t cover Dublin, where FF are likely to do very badly, but then the capital is virtually a Blueshirt-free zone and one expects FF losses there to benefit the Provos and Greens rather than the official opposition.

Now, for Electric Enda to become taoiseach a number of criteria have to be fulfilled. First, Fine Gael needs to up its seats from 32 to a minimum of something like 55. These enormous gains have to be overwhelmingly at the expense of FF, and without causing collateral damage to Labour or the Greens. Assuming Labour hold steady at about twenty and there are eight or nine Greens, a bare majority could be achieved – assuming Labour prove resistant to FF blandishments and also assuming that the Greens will come on board, which Clever Trevor to date has conspicuously not done. That’s a hell of a lot of assumptions, and for starters I would be astonished if FG break 50.

Fianna Fáil are likely to remain easily the largest party, despite significant losses. That gives them more options, although they certainly won’t be nearly close enough to the magic 83 that a government could be formed with the support of a couple of indies or the wreck of the Desocrat Hesperus. If the FF tally is in the low seventies, then FF-Green or FF-Provo become possibilities, although either of those parties would have some hard thinking to do first. If FF suffer a bloodbath in Dublin and fall significantly below 70, then Labour becomes the only realistic partner. And it is of interest that Rabbitte, previously viscerally hostile to FF, has been allowing himself sufficient wiggle room lately to make it look plausible for him to do the patriotic thing and become Tánaiste either way.

Obviously this is all just speculation at this point. But I strongly suspect that there won’t be an obvious winner next week, which will make for some fascinating horse-trading.

Feel lucky, punk?

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So the early stages of the southern election campaign have been dominated by Bertie’s finances. This is probably entirely predictable, when you bear in mind that the timing of the election was very specifically designed to get the Mahon Tribunal adjourned. But apart from the usual to and fro, there are two aspects to this thing that interest me.

The first is the intervention of Tánaiste, interior minister and Desocrat gauleiter Michael McDowell. Given that his party’s supposed raison d’être is to keep Fianna Fáil honest, Dirty Mike could scarcely fail to come out with a hard-hitting response. Nor did he. What McDowell said was that, while the Desocrats would not leave the government, he, McDowell, could not vote for Bertie’s re-nomination as Taoiseach unless he, Bertie, gave a full statement on his personal finances to the Dáil. Now remember that neither of these things – the statement or the vote – could take place until the Dáil reconvenes, namely until after the election.

Bertie, who has more front than Amanda Brunker, treated this flapdoodle with the contempt it deserved. Of course, our leader said, he had no objection to giving a statement to the Dáil after the election. And why should he have? The worst that could happen is that he would be subjected to a more than usually sanctimonious speech from Rabbitte. And Bertie, with the wicked sense of humour one expects, went on to make Dirty Mike look even more ridiculous by offering to answer detailed questions on his finances, but only to the proper authority – the Mahon Tribunal, conveniently adjourned until after the election.

Our Bertie is a lot sharper than he lets on. He’s well aware that in the next Dáil the Desocrats – who could well see their parliamentary party reduced to just McDowell and Harney – won’t exactly be in a position to issue ultimata. And we’ve been in this selfsame situation before. Last year, McDowell had a perfect opportunity to bring the government down over Bertie’s brown envelopes trouble. Bertie played chicken with him and Dirty Mike, whose desire to remain Tánaiste far outweighs his concern for the probity of public life, bottled it.

The second interesting aspect of this affair is that, far from this corruption row being a disaster for Fianna Fáil, FF’s poll ratings are starting to pick up a little. This of course also happened during last year’s Bertiegate storm, and it puts me in mind of Sir Garret’s dictum that the Irish political class isn’t really all that appalling when you consider the Irish electorate. It seems the great unwashed aren’t quite as high-minded as Electric Enda, Rabbitte and the Irish Times. Plus, many of those most loudly proclaiming their outrage at FF corruption would never go near FF in the first place. Indeed, I come back to a recurring theme of this blog, that the state class of tofu-eating South Dublin neo-democrats exist in an antagonistic relationship to most of the Irish nation. So, when IT editrix Geraldine Kennedy berates the peasantry for being so morally derelict as to vote Fianna Fáil, it only makes the peasantry even more likely to vote Fianna Fáil.

Besides, so what if Bertie is on the take? If you believe Frank Dunlop, so is most of the political class, and FF more so only because FF is the dominant party in the state. In fact, what is more surprising is the relatively modest amounts quoted. Bertie is no Robert Mugabe – he isn’t even a Charlie Haughey. And I have a feeling that it does his image as a lovable Del Boy figure no harm at all.