Alison O’Connor: Putting aside petty differences and taking what’s put on the table

Alison O’Connor: Putting aside petty differences and taking what’s put on the table
Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin and Eamon Ryan

The perception is that Fianna Fáil ministers would be more flexible and creative in trying to find a solution, writes Alison O'Connor.

IT WAS during the last general election campaign. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was sharing the Fine Gael vision in a lunchtime party political broadcast. At the beginning of his pitch, he apologised if he was interrupting anyone “making the dinner”.

It was an odd thing for a Fine Gael leader to say in such a setting, not least a city sophisticate like Varadkar. No matter how hard you’d try, you’d find it impossible to imagine him tucking into a plate of bacon and cabbage at the kitchen table at 1pm. Was this faux apology some of his occasional smart-aleckry, or an attempt to encroach on the territory of others?

The people who have their main meal at that time are seen as Fianna Fáil’s natural heartland. The late Mark Killilea, former Fianna Fáil MEP, TD, and senator, once said he represented “ordinary” people, who “eat their dinner in the middle of the day”. 

These are small things, but when you are trying to work out the differences between the two auld enemies, these habits and approaches have to be mined. Books have been written on Fine Gael’s and Fianna Fáil’s political beginnings and subsequent enmities. But for the most part, when it comes to policy and definition, you’d find it impossible to tell the difference between them in the dark.

Fianna Fáilers will tell you their party always looked after everyone, especially the small people who needed looking after. They don’t get hung up on policy at the expense of what needs to be done. 

Fine Gael, they will tell you, can become prisoners of their own ideology. Fine Gael, you will not be surprised to hear, outright reject this thesis. They say Fianna Fáil are devoid of principle and policy, and Fine Gael are the only ones capable of keeping us on the straight and narrow. The spectacular crash and burn of the Celtic Tiger is their favourite example of this.

It’s being said we are not paying enough attention to this incredible notion that the former Civil War enemies look like they are going to end up in government together.

Admittedly, there has been a pandemic to distract us, and this, married to the snail’s pace of the government negotiations, which include the Green Party, has meant far less impact. What has been going on, though? Are Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil really so different? 

Do feelings run so deep they might stop a deal from being struck? If they do sort a deal, will the differences and niggles interfere with the effectiveness of a new government? Do they both really look on the Green Party as “nutters”, as described by John Paul Phelan, Fine Gael junior minister.

Clearly, there is the very salient political point of one big party worrying the other will “cannibalise” it in such a coalition arrangement. That neatly sums up how alike they are, in truth. Political differentiation would become exceedingly difficult with both on the same platform. 

But what are the other reasons that keep them so far apart, so apparently different? I phoned people from both parties, to try to pin down those differences. I was asking them to bring it into the present day, to give solid reasons, other than historical ones, that might be in the way of the two parties getting on.

Independent Waterford TD John Halligan, who did not run at the last election, laid out his “honest opinion” to RTÉ’s Sarah McInerney.

“Fianna Fáil can’t stand Fine Gael, essentially, and Fine Gael can’t stand Fianna Fáil, essentially. None of them can stand the Green Party. So what’s this all about?”

Much of the struggle against this coalition is hard to pin down. Some define it as culture — epitomised, in some ways, by the time of day you eat your main meal, but impossible to explain fully to others who are not “of your kind”. The differences are not something, I gathered, that can be sorted out with a few robust team-building, paintballing sessions in a forest.

One prominent Fine Gaeler, who was knee deep in examining “target seats and how many of FG’s seats in the general election were lost to Fianna Fáil and the Greens”, described Halligan’s remarks as “in some ways classic John, and in others ways absolutely true”.

“We attack Fianna Fáil and they attack us. It’s the way we are built.” Asked if he thought a coalition could be successful, he quickly responded: “I just don’t see it happening. 

The DNA of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will emerge. Or it might happen for a short period, but not last, with the added tension of the huge economic crisis. Throw the Greens into that mix, then. 

In previous times, the Greens had a number of solid citizens, like Eamon Ryan, John Gormley, and Trevor Sargent, and then you had Paul Gogarty, who certainly marched to his own tune. Now, you have up to five ‘Paul Gogarty’ types. You could lose up to five of them in your first budget.”

Speaking to a senior Fianna Fáiler, it was clear there was no love lost for the Blueshirts, but there was a pragmatism born of knowing Fianna Fáil desperately need to get into government this time. “I see Paschal [Donohoe, finance minister] as a normal bloke — you’d go for a pint with him — but most of them see themselves as born to be in a leadership role, with an elitist, always-right attitude: The posh-boy dynamic.”

NOT many people have worked in a political advisory role for both parties, but one who has is Richard Moore. He has worked over the years for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil ministers. He does see differences between the parties, not least in how they are viewed by the voters.

“The general perception is that Fianna Fáil ministers would be more flexible and creative in trying to find a solution to a problem. The Fine Gael minister would be seen as the safe pair of hands. Fianna Fáil has a reputation as feckless, but if you ever need to go into fifth gear with something, it’s Fianna Fáil that would look outside the box.

“There’s that famous line in Irish politics — maybe less relevant now than when the two big parties were the only game in town — that the Irish public at large wanted Fine Gael policies: Sensible on the economy, steady as she goes, law and order; the sensible older brother, shirt-and-tie approach. But they then wanted Fianna Fáil to implement the policies. For instance, you’d agree there has to be a pub closing time, but also want a bit of flexibility, if you find yourself in a lock-in. So that’s the Fianna Fáil, more rogueish, Jack the Lad, younger brother approach,” Mr Moore said.

That’s it in a nutshell: Brothers, differences in approach to things, but of the same family; hard to tell apart at a distance, in a certain light. Not that much to surmount when you add it all up and very possibly a very good combination, if they set their minds to it.

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