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Column: They promised an end to stroke politics – has it worked out that way?

Gary Murphy looks at Ireland’s history of ‘stroke politics’ and asks: should we simply accept that this is the way things will always work?

Gary Murphy

BACK IN 1987, the UCC sociologist, JP O’Carroll published a piece in Irish Political Studies with the iconoclastic title Strokes, Cute Hoors and Sneaking Regarders: The Influence of Local Culture on Irish Political Style. In this article O’Carroll posited the view that the notion of community in Ireland was best seen as a set of locally shared attitudes to place, territory, property, time and language.

He went on to argue that Irish politics was more an exercise in expressiveness than an expression of choice and that such expressiveness was manifested in the assertion of inherited loyalties and partisanship where Ireland was full of politicians, or cute hoors, able to pull strokes on behalf of a grateful public full of sneaking regarders. By its tendency to limit choice, political culture Irish style contravened the first two characteristics of modern democracy, the possibility of open discussion and the exercise of individual will and consent. Ireland wasn’t really a democracy at all. It was a country in which you were for Fianna Fáil or you weren’t.

Fianna Fáil

The great genius of Eamon de Valera lay in his recognition of what was needed by the body politic at the time of independence: identity-building, and in the use of the most appropriate tool, the rhetoric of community, to achieve it. De Valera’s rhetoric not only created a national political community by using an image of Ireland as a parish at large, he also built a most effective political machine for the creation and expansion of political power. This political machine, once the most successful in Western Europe, now lies in ruins but is not dead yet and in fact is threatening a comeback. Historically Fianna Fáil saw itself as more of a political monument than a political party and through this monument had created a strong moral sense of community for itself. Coalition was an anathema. ‘Moral Community’, the term coined by John Healy in 1983, highlighted the exceptionally strong pull of Fianna Fáil for its members – with Healy even suggesting that it substituted for sex in the case of many of Fianna Fáil’s celibate supporters. Those who defected from Fianna Fáil in the 1980s were apostates as outside the party there was no salvation.

The trouble was that the chief of this tribe, Charles J Haughey, did not seem to view the national monument in much the same way as the members of his tribe. Single-party government was jettisoned on the altar of maintaining Fianna Fáil government. That Fianna Fáil’s first experiment with coalition government should be in partnership with the apostates from the PDs suggests that for the elected members of the national monument, political survival meant much more than membership of a moral, pure community; a community that was now infected from outside by those who had once been part of the said same community. Fianna Fáil had been able to penetrate very deep into the Irish bureaucracy precisely because it had practically a near monopoly on public office for close to 70 years and had by its own success, to use Tom Garvin’s words, ‘generated social categories in its own image’.

This then allowed them to pull strokes on behalf of the sneaking regarders who subsequently and continually rewarded them at the ballot box. Going into coalition fundamentally changed the nature of Irish politics but Fianna Fáil as the largest party in coalitions with first the PDs, then Labour, back to the PDs, and lastly the Greens was as the dominant party still able to claim the allegiance of the 40 per cent who always voted for it. Moreover Fianna Fáil’s embrace of coalition politics also promised for them the possibility of permanent government. After all they had received the most votes in every election they had ever fought.

The crash

Then came the economic crash. There has long been a view held by practically all sections of Irish society that Fianna Fáil had an especially close relationship with property developers and the construction industry. This was particularly important in relation to planning decisions where county councillors charged with deciding on land rezoning were continuously and vigorously lobbied by property developers. The political consequence of the economic mayhem in Ireland caused by the reckless lending of the banks to property developers was the collapse of Fianna Fáil’s popularity. The sneaking regarders took a heavy revenge at the ballot box, reducing Fianna Fáil to 20 seats and 17 per cent of the vote. The electorate was promised a new style of politics. Political reform became a dominant theme of the 2011 general election. The era of stroke politics was over.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. Political reform is but a chimera. The farce that has become the Constitutional Convention is but a singular example of this. A third of the convention are to be elected politicians, and of the remaining 66 we now found that these citizens can remain anonymous so as not to be influenced by lobbying groups. Moreover their itinerary is disappointingly small. And over and above all this stroke politics has re-entered the lexicon of Irish politics once more, as Minister for Health Dr James Reilly cannot adequately explain how he came to add extra towns including two in his own constituency to the list of areas being considered for a new primary care centre.

So has Fine Gael simply replaced Fianna Fáil in the Strokes, Cute Hoors and Sneaking Regarders stakes? Has anything really changed in Ireland over the course of our country’s independence? Have we as a country simply accepted that this is the way politics always has worked and always will work? Notwithstanding the kicking given to Fianna Fáil in 2011, is Irish politics doomed to repeat its mistakes as the electorate seeks to reward those who give it favours? We were promised that this wouldn’t be the case during the general election – but the evidence of the Reilly case suggests otherwise.

Gary Murphy is Associate Professor of Politics and Head of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University.

Read: Swords and Balbriggan added to primary care list night before announcement>
Read:FF leader calls for James Reilly’s resignation because of a ‘pack of lies’>

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Gary Murphy

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