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Column How badly does one have to behave to be knocked out of politics?

After a string of tribunals, political scandals and economic catastrophes, reports of Fianna Fail’s death were greatly exaggerated – but why? asks Maura Adshead.

IN JANUARY 2011, Micheál Martin apologised to the nation for ‘the mistakes we made as a party and that I’ve made as a minister’.

In the same speech the man who served as a government minister and cabinet member throughout that 1997 Fianna Fáil led government that is widely regarded as responsible for the depths of the current financial crisis, admitted that:

The biggest mistake we made – Fianna Fáil ministers and collectively as a government – was that we didn’t stand back from the general consensus in terms of raising expenditure and reducing taxes. Basically we reduced our tax base too much, we spent too much.

Now it looks like he and his party are on the up again and you’d be forgiven for wondering whether large parts of the electorate are suffering from collective amnesia. Who are these voters and don’t they remember how cross we all were with Fianna Fáil for leading the country into ruin?

They are, more likely than not, the ‘Fianna Fail faithful’ and they are not called faithful for nothing.

Fianna Fail’s relationship with Irish body politic

I’m reminded of the old joke about the Catholic who was asked if they’d ever considered divorce? “Never” was the reply, “but murder every day”. It’s funny because it’s true. The relationship between Fianna Fáil and the Irish body politic is just as deep and just as fraught, its both reflects and reinforces our political and social conventions and in doing so helps to shape the way that Irish politics is understood. It is cultural as much as political. And we are by no means the only European voters to forgive the mistakes of our political leaders.

In Italy, the extent of the full-scale sovereign debt crisis in autumn 2011, accusations of fraud and a touch of underage sex, led to Berlusconi’s resignation; yet barely fifteen months later his extravagant campaign promises make it impossible to discount his influence over the composition of the next government.

So, how bad does one have to behave to be knocked out of politics? Plenty bad and then some!

MacArthur case

In July 1982, Malcolm MacArthur bludgeoned a nurse to death in the back seat of her car, which was parked just outside the American Ambassador’s residence in Dublin. He was then escorted away from the scene of the crime by an ambulance whose driver, seeing the hospital sticker on the car windscreen, mistakenly mistook him for a doctor with patient. In August, MacArthur was arrested at the Attorney General’s residence, where he had been staying as house-guest for some weeks.

The Attorney General, no doubt in a state of shock, continued with his holiday plans and left the country for New York without making a statement to the police, thus adding to the immense damage to government. The Taoiseach subsequently described the affair as ‘grotesque’, ‘unbelievable’, ‘bizarre’ and ‘unprecedented’, leading to the invention of a new word, GUBU, coined by the journalist Conor Cruise O’Brien and widely used to describe some of the strange incidents that continued to dog that Fianna Fáil government and its leader, Charles Haughey.

Grassroots supporters

Did that lead to the end of Fianna Fáil?  No, of course not. Years later, after a string of tribunals, political scandals and economic catastrophe - just like Mark Twain’s unwarranted obituary – reports of Fianna Fáil’s death are greatly exaggerated. Why?

There are many reasons – some to do with our political culture and some to do with our political system – and only some of them related directly to Fianna Fáil and Irish voters. What is clear is that in our electoral system, the importance of political teams operating on the ground is hugely significant. In our system, a candidate with good ‘ground coverage’ in terms of party workers, constituency clinics, canvassers and supporters, will always have the advantage over candidates who do not enjoy this level of support.

The Fianna Fáil party has this in spades. So, the only thing that is really remarkable about Fianna Fáil’s fortunes during the last eighteen months is that even their own supporters and canvassers were so sick of them that they did not vote for them in the last election. What we’ve seen is a trial separation: but in a committed relationship, you can only stay mad for so long. After the heat of the row is over, you have to look to your options. Are you better off leaving a long term relationship that you’ve invested all your young years in to go find someone else? Are you really sure that anyone else is any better?

Fianna Fáil is up on the polls because the relationship it holds between its party and its people is for the most part a long-term and co-dependent one. Fianna Fáil people have forgiven the party and now they want to move on. The rise of Fianna Fáil in opinion polls is the return of its support base, picking up the pieces and moving on. For the rest of us who are still holding out for something better, the future is less easy to predict.

Maura Adshead is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick. To read more articles by Maura for, click here.

Video: ‘I’m not ruling anything out’ – Micheál Martin on Fine Gael or Sinn Féin coalition>

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