Gerard Howlin: After nine years on the outside, Fianna Fáil still out in the cold

Gerard Howlin: After nine years on the outside, Fianna Fáil still out in the cold
Picture: Dan Linehan.

I have a childish liking for unusual words. They are a weakness to be resisted when writing. Good writing is simplicity of language expressing originality of thought.

There was a word I was searching for on Sunday: Insouciance. One dictionary defines it as “a light-hearted lack of concern”. In literature, it is sometimes an attribute of the leisured or the in-love. It’s an attitude that expresses the surfeit of the materially or emotionally well-off.

Fine Gael had it in spades as the ramparts were mounted and the barbarians entered the gates. So many so instantly responded similarly it must have been a shared attitude and not a co-ordinated response.

Those re-elected were heading towards opposition with the relief of heading to a country house weekend after a busy week in town. They had tried their best, of course. It’s a pity it wasn’t enough.

Of course, more needs to be done. They would, if they could, continue. But good sports that they are, they recognised they had lost, and now it’s someone else’s turn. To help, they would talk to anyone. Anyone, except Sinn Féin.

A lady I know, full of years and life and who has been a great influence on me, summed it up years ago.

Beware, she said, the cruelty of the beautiful, the indifference of the rich, and the strength of the weak. There was something of that about Fine Gael walking off the pitch. It was clever, smug, and likely successful in its aim of self-serving.

By teatime on Sunday, Fianna Fáil was politically between the crosshairs. The rubble of a demolished two-and-a-half party system was dumped at their door.

The curtains were moving inside so they must have been at home, but I doubt there was an appetite for fruit cake.

On the topic of words, recurring reference on radio and television to “teatime” and the first counts that would not be known until then, echoed in redundancy the political architecture being pulled down by popular demand.

“Teatime” may overhang as a word but the institution is over. It is not a coincidence either.

The life lived when people had dinner in the middle of the day and a lighter meal called “tea” in the evening is done.

Meals together that took time to prepare, a family around the table, and a working life that was ordered and pensioned are either past or an occasional treat.

The successful are busy and they are time-poor.

They are also insecure, and unfulfilled. That’s the better half of our society. It will take time to realise but there isn’t a political answer for what ails them.

Certainly, specific issues can be addressed, but the canker of modern life cannot be cured by politics because it is cultural, technological, and personal, as well as economic.

That teatime which is past is the exact co-ordinate of the crosshairs which Fianna Fáil is between now. It is in a world that has passed and a constituency that has largely left them.

In 2007, the party got 41.6% of the vote. That is a bygone age. In 2011, it was 17.4%. In 2016, it was 24.3% and a remarkable recovery in the circumstances.

Last Saturday, it was 22.2%. Six Dáil seats fewer, it was more than a setback. It may be a deeper, more intractable crisis than the 2011 economic crash.

The continuing political recovery it enjoyed since the local and European elections of 2014 was to have returned the party to government.

There was a consensus on this, and I shared it. My caveat was that on a number of seats in the early 50s, what sort of government would it be and how long could it last? But no matter.

From excoriation to government in nine years in any circumstances would be remarkable. Now everything is changed.

There are still opportunities for government. All of them are dangerous and unpalatable. The rise of Sinn Féin isn’t just a loss of votes, it is a loss of purpose.

Paradoxically, although it has notionally lost more, Fine Gael is in a better place. It’s the place to which it instinctively, immediately retreated to rest and reflect. It may be out of office, but in the mind of those affected, it is never out of power. That’s insouciance for you. It is also a lived reality for people with businesses or professions. Government is only one expression of power. In this era it is no longer the dominant one either. The sense of being connected, of being ‘in’ continues in and out of office.

The Fine Gael tribe, if fractured in this election, remains largely intact. Its enduring strength is self-identity that transcends Fine Gael but allows it represent it politically. Those confident and assured of their place socially, in a world where the successful can operate almost anywhere, won’t be represented by Sinn Féin.

Fianna Fáil has failed further in this election to speak to an educated, urban Ireland and has largely long since vacated the housing estates where Sinn Féin now thrives. Partly, that has been an absolute physical absence.

More deeply it is cultural.

Once the greatest, most enduring political machine in the democratic world, its increasingly middle-class personnel are out of touch with working-class people.

Thought to be middle class in their own lifestyles, they don’t speak for or to the cultural flotsam in our time. It is a party of some competence without any charisma. That’s a problem.

FINE Gael, having a nesting place above the killing fields below, will regrow its natural minority. Largely capable of looking after itself, it doesn’t see government as a panacea for other people’s needs.

Now firmly against their money being recycled as others’ subsidies, the people will soon abhor the politics of tax and spend. Riled, they will revive Fine Gael a little if it platforms their concerns.

They will also forget again that Fine Gael talks Tory in opposition, but hardwired to the institutions of the State, generously funds them in office. But that disappointment is far away for now.

For Fianna Fáil, the day between teatime on Sunday and teatime on Monday was a vision of hell. What was already deep disappointment became potentially catastrophic loss of political anchorage.

The issue is much more than votes or seats. They can, albeit only with difficulty, be regained.

What has slipped out of reach is more. It is definition, relevance, and purpose. We know it is not Sinn Féin and decided that is not enough. It can wait for that party to be found out and to fail. But the world moves on relentlessly.

When the falling out with Sinn Féin comes, don’t think the disgruntled will think of Fianna Fáil as home. They live differently and I don’t think they will come home in time for their tea.

Fine Gael, having a nesting place above the killing fields below, will regrow its natural minority

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