True, when Labour has a had good show, or Fine Gael a particularly bad outing, as in 1992 and 2002 respectively, the share of the vote for the two “civil war” parties has dipped to around 68%. Nevertheless, the basic two-and-a-half party system has remained unchanged since 1951 while parties like Clann na Talmhan, Clann na Poblachta and the PDs have come and gone.
That’s not to say there has been no change whatsoever. Fianna Fáil was forced to break its ‘no coalition’ rule in 1989, for instance, but the FF-FG-Labour 1-2-3 idiom has endured for longer than anyone can remember. If Fine Gael can translate its current opinion poll lead into a real vote advantage, therefore, it will be nothing short of a political earthquake.
There are all sorts of theories as to why the political equivalents of Pepsi and Coke are still with us, but a quick glance at other countries demonstrates that it’s not just the lack of any substantial ideological basis that makes Irish politics highly unusual.
Take France: the Communists regularly outpolled the Gaullists and the Socialists in the 1950s. In Italy, the Christian Democrats formed the core of every government between 1946 and 1992 — before disbanding altogether in 1994.
There has been a strong shift towards political pluralism elsewhere. In the old West Germany the two big catch-all parties — the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats — secured 82% between them in 1957. By this September that proportion had drifted down to just 62%.
Across the water in the so-called Mother of Parliaments a similarly subtle but significant long-term trend could have important repercussions for Ireland.
It’s hard to believe now but the Tories and Labour took 96% of the British vote in the 1955 general election. That translated into no less than 99% of the seats. By 2005 that proportion of the vote had fallen by almost 30 points; fully 15% of seats in the House of Commons went to other parties. It seems then that while FF and FG in Ireland have proved ideologically flexible enough to incorporate new social currents into their platforms, around one-third of British voters are no longer moved by appeals to class loyalty.
The rise of the Celtic nationalisms, the “Ulsterisation” of Northern unionist politics and the re-emergence of liberalism as a political force all mean the sheer arithmetical probability of a stalemate is greater than at any time in the past 100 years. In the 1959 and 1964 elections Labour or the Tories only needed 10 more seats than their rivals to secure a majority in the Commons. The figure today is almost 100. Now opinion polls suggest a narrowing of the Tories’ lead, a hung parliament — the norm here but rare at Westminster — might be on the cards. That has two possible implications for Ireland.
First, should either main British party find itself just a few seats short of an overall majority, it might find it more congenial to come to an arrangement with some of the North’s 18 representatives than negotiate a new electoral system with the Liberal Democrats. But any Ulster Unionist seats will be added to the Tory tally anyway as a consequence of their electoral pact.
Similarly, the SDLP team is likely to be too small to be crucial to keeping Labour in power.
While Sinn Féin persists in refusing to take its seats, the DUP is letting it be known it is open to offers. The prospect of Paisleyites holding the entire British political system to ransom fills London politicians with as much, if not more, dread than it does those in Dublin.
Now they are working the peace process and have toned down their anti-Catholicism a few decibels, many Dáil politicians no longer view the DUP as toxic. In Westminster, though, where a much more socially liberal consensus prevails, they are still regarded as cavemen.
Irish officials though fret that the DUP, should the seats fall a certain way in May next year, might seek to upset the delicate balance found in the Good Friday Agreement. After all, there is a history here: Irish nationalists kept the Liberals in power following the British election of January 1910 precipitated by Lloyd George’s so-called People’s Budget and inadvertently helped secure key social reforms.
Foreign Affairs mandarins are paid to worry that 100 years later, Ulster might wreak its revenge for the Home Rule bills the Irish Party sought in return. They needn’t: Peter Robinson is no John Redmond. The DUP have made it plain their primary concern is to screw as much cash as possible out of the hard-pressed British taxpayer, not concessions of any lasting political consequence. Needless to say, civil servants find the DUP’s preparedness to shoulder their share of the national burden of cuts touchingly patriotic.
Besides, since the Second World War, only once have the Northern Irish MPs really been in a position to decide who forms a British government. It was not in 1979 when Gerry Fitt and Frank Maguire failed to sustain the Callaghan government in the vote of no confidence that heralded the general election which brought Mrs Thatcher to power. Labour was obliged to call a general election that year anyway. Rather, it was in 1974 when Ted Heath might have been able to form a second administration but the Ulster Unionists refused his offer of the whip.
NO, the real game that might affect Anglo-Irish relations is being played in Edinburgh, not Belfast. The minority SNP administration there has just published its plans for a referendum on Scottish independence. Neither the SNP nor its cherished goal are particularly popular at the moment but Scottish first minister Alex Salmond thinks it might be a “heads he wins, tails you lose” situation.
No one thinks it’s very likely Labour under Gordon Brown will win an overall majority in May. The momentum is with David Cameron’s Tories. Whether the Conservatives win an overall majority or are largest party in a hung parliament, the SNP believes is good news for them. A Tory government with only one or two seats in Scotland but pursues austerity measures which starve Holyrood of cash will provide Salmond with plenty of opportunities to stir up anti-English resentment — even more so than in Mrs Thatcher’s day when the Conservatives at least held a couple of handfuls of Scottish seats.
A hung parliament could also strengthen Salmond’s hand. In return for his party’s cooperation, he wants not just more powers but support from one of the UK-wide parties for his referendum bill to get a hearing. That might precipitate the end of the union much more quickly than any change in the Catholic and Protestant birth rates in the North.
Whither Ulster unionism then? Would an independent Scotland want them? Would they want the union without Scotland? And if the answer is no in both cases, is this state prepared to take on the North?