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From 'unthinkable' to inevitable: How FF and FG learned to stop worrying and enter coalition

It was “unthinkable” a few generations ago, but the two old enemies have now entered government.

FF's Charles Haughey was constantly at loggerheads with FG's Garret Fitzgerald in the 1980s.
FF's Charles Haughey was constantly at loggerheads with FG's Garret Fitzgerald in the 1980s.
Image: Eamonn Farell/Rollingnews.ie

AFTER THE 2016 general election, the path to forming a government was by no means clear.

An article in the Irish Times turned to Kerry’s Jackie Healy-Rae in an attempt to sum up how unlikely a union between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would be. Asked, once, to explain the difference between the two parties Healy-Rae is reputed to have said: 

“Them that know don’t need to ask and them that ask will never know.”

Now, almost 100 years on from the Civil War, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have entered government in a formal coalition for the first time in the wake of a divisive February general election. 

Both parties spurned the idea of forming a government with Sinn Féin after the election. 

No party got over 40 seats in that poll, so once FG and FF they made that position clear, it was apparent the only way a government could be formed with a majority in the Dáil would be with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

That same Irish Times article from four years ago referenced focus group research the paper had conducted on how the parties were perceived by voters. 

One group from a Dublin suburb was asked who they’d rather go for a pint with. They said Fianna Fáilers would be more fun to drink with while Fine Gaelers would be worthy but boring. 

Eoin O’Malley, an associate professor in political science at DCU, told TheJournal.ie that while there are some social, historical and cultural differences between the two, much of the difference comes down to a certain wariness and mistrust.

“Fine Gaelers think of themselves as a bit more honest and straighter,” he said.

“They regard Fianna Fáilers as the type who will cut corners. On the other hand, Fianna Fáilers would regard Fine Gaelers as a bit straight-laced and not very pragmatic.”

They’ve traditionally been the two main parties in the Dáil for the best part of a century. Not ideologically very different – certainly not in the way that the current Sinn Féin is from the two – but nevertheless major rivals when it came to winning votes up and down the country. 

Historian Donal Fallon told TheJournal.ie that a union of the two in a coalition government would have been “unthinkable” as recently as the 1960s or 70s.

charles-haughey-exhibition-2015 FF leader Charles Haughey and FG leader Garret Fitzgerald shake hands prior to a debate in 1982.

“One of the best political memoirs to come out of Ireland was Noel Browne’s Against the Tide,” he said.

“He describes the first day he went into the Dáil in the 1940s. And it was a free for all. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The Civil War divide. And this was a generation on from that in Irish politics.”

Fallon said the difference in how the parties were perceived was far more pronounced back then. 

“Fianna Fáil were at least a party quite synonymous with public housing and waging war on the slums in the 1930s.

“They had a base in urban, working class areas. The perception of Fine Gael was of a more rural, middle class. That was the big division. But for Fianna Fáil, that vote in Dublin has largely gone away.”

He said that while it’s significant that the two parties are finally going into government together during the decade of centenaries, a coalition was a “long time coming” given how ideologically aligned they are and have been for some time. 

This view was echoed by Gail McElory, political science professor at Trinity College Dublin, when speaking to us for a piece about the party manifestos prior to the election. 

“Fianna Fáil are perhaps socially more conservative but they’re both broad churches.

“Maybe Fianna Fáil are slightly to the left of Fine Gael, but only slightly. They’re both centre-right parties and their fiscal policies are really not that far apart.”

Fine Gael emerged from the pro-treaty side of the Civil War and its forerunner Cumann na nGaedheal formed the first Irish Free State government, in power from 1923 to 1933.

The anti-treaty side of Fianna Fáil, lead by Éamon de Valera, then came to power and ruled for much of the next few decades. 

The parties have traditionally been seen as being at loggerheads and the rivalry perhaps manifested itself most strongly in the combative relationship between Charles Haughey and Garret Fitzgerald in the 1980s.

However, going into government together for the first time now perhaps isn’t as big a step as it would have been – had the decision been made, say, four years ago.

“Nominally it is [significant], but it isn’t that big a shift,” O’Malley said.

“The big shift took place in 2016. What’s happening now is just formalising that.”

In 2016, the lack of a clear way to forming a government led to protracted talks and, while a formal coalition was ruled out, Fianna Fáil agreed to support Fine Gael going back into government in a confidence-and-supply arrangement. 

irish-election Fianna Fail leader Taoiseach Bertie Ahern shaking hands with Fine Gael Leader Enda Kenny before their televised debate in 2007 Source: PA

It was seen as a momentous shift for one of the two traditional main parties to support the other in government.

This time, of course, it is happening in a formal coalition.

O’Malley said:

It is significant for the party system in Ireland. If it goes ahead, it’ll create a left-right divide. With Sinn Féin being the one saying it’s on the left and two centrists on the other side. It’s likely that one or the other (FG or FF) will become the dominant of the two.

At the moment, it appears that Fianna Fáil could be the ones who lose out if this scenario were to transpire.

Fine Gael’s handling of the pandemic appears to have gone down well with the electorate according to recent opinion polls. One poll, carried out this month, showed them with a commanding lead on 37%.

Sinn Féin was a clear second on 25% while Fianna Fáil saw its support fall as low as 14% even as Micheál Martin prepared to become Taoiseach. 

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“This government could see the end of that two-party system for good,” O’Malley said. 

For Martin [to become Taoiseach] is a great political success. But if you’re in FF – oblivion is too strong a word but it has declined from the political force it was.
Now it’s just another party. And that party is going into government with what’s traditionally been its main opponent. Going into governnent now looks like it could represent a deep, existential crisis for members of Fianna Fáil but Fine Gael are more relaxed about it. 

Now as they go into government with a shared programme they devised along with the Greens, it may soon become apparent that it will be personalities rather than policies that continue to divide them going forward.

“It’s a little bit unpredictable at the minute as to what issues will divide them,” O’Malley said.

“When it comes to the Greens, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will know in advance what topics or issues present a problem for them. 

It won’t be the obvious the problems that will come up between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. There could be random, minor issues that threaten to bring down the government. 

With Sinn Féin now set to be emboldened as the main opposition party, they look set to seize upon any public dissatisfaction with the government going forward. The two-party paradigm has been shifted, perhaps for good. 

Fallon said: “That was the story of the election. Sinn Féin now the main opposition party. Even last time, confidence and supply served to ensure Sinn Féin weren’t the main opposition. Now they are.”

He said Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have the chance to try and reinvent themselves by appealing to younger voters and laying the ghosts of the Civil War divide to rest could be one way of doing so. 

“What is clear is that we’ve seen the death of the two-party system.”

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Sean Murray

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