Seamus Mallon’s death less than two weeks ago meant his chastening analysis of the Belfast Peace Agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners” was recalled.
Its sharpness, its undisguised scorn poured a deep disdain on failing, entrenched tribalism. However, it, or at least an adaptation of it, has, as we enter the closing days of our election campaign, a pressing relevance south of the border.
To suggest that “the continuing existence of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as separate entities is politics for slow learners” might offend those who inherited allegiances genetically — a kind way of saying unthinkingly.
However, the majority of those voting on Saturday, especially the ever-more numerous floating voters, might wonder how the utterly insignificant, almost invisible differences between the two parties can provoke such passionate debate.
Especially so as pretending there are differences undermines both parties’ credibility and weakens the character of our democracy. Which, in turn, creates opportunity for others. This eye-off-the-ball indulgence was confirmed by weekend opinion polls that put Sinn Féin on an unprecedented 24%.
August will mark a decade since the late Brian Lenihan became the first Fianna Fáil minister to speak at the Michael Collins’ memorial at Béal na mBláth.
He took that opportunity to acknowledge that the fate of either party was secondary to the country’s needs. The significance of that concession is underlined by the date. It was made during some of the darkest days faced by modern Ireland.
In 2010 we were, lest we forget, on the verge of collapse. Stability, economic or material, was not at all assured. Despite that, Lenihan was on well-harrowed ground. Fine Gael grandee John Kelly, just before he quit politics, wrote to party leader, Alan Dukes in February, 1989, saying Fine Gael had run its course and should integrate with Fianna Fáil or Labour.
That must have seemed treasonable to those zealots who ended Dukes’ leadership over his Tallaght Strategy — an early supply and confidence agreement. Lenihan and Kelly were not visionaries, that view had a long history. In 1957, while basking in the glow of Fianna Fáil’s election victory, Seán Lemass, when asked to define the differences replied with a cat-who-got-the-cream smile: “Well, the main difference is: we’re in and they’re out.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has acknowledged that this has been a very difficult campaign for his party. That he did so before a poll putting Fine Gael on 21% — three points behind Sinn Féin — was published suggest difficulties greater than imagined.
Fianna Fáil may have a different view but on this day week that difference might be, well, of no significance.
Referendums show this society wants huge change yet the two main political parties — if they can be called that one more time for the sake of nostalgia — cling to their shabby tribalism.
Their intransigence, their vainglorious posturing means we, as Brexit’s endgame begins, face a fragmented, half cocked political future. They, by pretending to be different, deserve the kind of scorn Seamus Mallon directed at slow learners standing in the way of possibility and progress.
And those eyeing the carcase smack their lips in anticipation.