Ryle Dwyer: Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are far more alike than they admit

If the two main parties acknowledged that there is no policy difference between them, they could form a coalition and agree to rotate the office of the taoiseach, writes Ryle Dwyer

Ryle Dwyer: Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are far more alike than they admit

If the two main parties acknowledged that there is no policy difference between them, they could form a coalition and agree to rotate the office of the taoiseach, writes Ryle Dwyer

Then taoiseach Charles Haughey came under party pressure in 1989 for having called an unnecessary general election, in a misjudged bid to secure an overall majority. Instead, Fianna Fáil lost four seats.

Alan Dukes, then Fine Gael leader, who had supported the outgoing Fianna Fáil minority government — in much the way that Micheál Martin has propped up the Fine Gael government — offered to back Fianna Fáil in a coalition, provided Haughey agreed that the two parties would get half of the cabinet seats each, and that the office of Taoiseach would rotate after two years.

If this had been Haughey’s only chance of retaining office, he might well have agreed, but the Progressive Democrats (PDs), with their six seats, could provide Haughey with enough votes to form a majority government, if the sitting Ceann Comhairle, Seán Tracy, an independent, was left in the chair.

The PDs had initially come together to block Haughey from power, so some thought it inconceivable that all of them would now turn around and prop him up. But they were the biggest losers in the general election, having lost 14 of their 20 seats.

his may have had a salutary effect on them, because they offered to back Haughey in a coalition. After this, it seemed that no combination should ever again be ruled out during a general election, because the numbers afterwards will be the determining factor.

In the first television debate of the 2020 general election campaign, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he would form a coalition with Fianna Fáil, as a kind of final option:

My preference would be to form a coalition with old partners, like Labour and independents; maybe new partners, like Greens.

"But if it’s the case that people vote in a certain way, and the only way we can form a stable government is for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to work together, well, I’m willing to do that,” Varadkar said.

Micheál Martin did not dismiss this during the debate, but he ruled it out the next day. In the second TV debate, however, he reversed himself:

If the numbers fall a certain way and the only way to form a stable government is for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to co-operate in coming together, I think that’s the responsible thing to do for the country.

Fine Gael had been propping up Haughey’s minority government in 1989, as Fianna Fáil has been bolstering the outgoing government. Both parties are conservative, and there was never really much difference between them, going back to their formation in the wake of the Treaty controversy and the Civil War, in 1922.

Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins were the motivators of both parties, but there was very little real difference between them during the Treaty controversy and the run-up to the Civil War.

When Collins challenged de Valera to propose an alternative to the Treaty, the Long Fellow produced ‘Document No. 2,’ which included the partition clauses of the Treaty verbatim. De Valera admitted there was only a “small difference,” or just a “shadow of a difference,” between Collins and himself.

This, he said, was over a “little sentimental thing”. The difference was so small, he added, the British would not fight over it. This revolved around the Treaty oath, which had been worded by Collins with IRB backing.

Even though the Treaty did not meet his own full aspirations, or those of the Irish people, Collins contended that the agreement provided the freedom to achieve their aims without having to resort to further warfare.

After negotiating with the British, he was convinced they would fight, even though it was not worth fighting about, especially when he believed that the full Irish goals could, in time, be achieved by peaceful means.

The small difference between Collins and de Valera was allowed to distort Irish politics, and led to the Civil War, the greatest Irish tragedy of the 20th century. It poisoned Irish politics for much of the rest of the century.

On coming to power, in 1932, de Valera proved that Collins had been right about the Treaty. He did this by abolishing the controversial Treaty oath and getting the Irish people to ratify the 1937 Constitution, before persuading the British to drop their claim to any Irish facilities in time of war.

This paved the way for Ireland to stay out of the Second World War, the ultimate proof of Irish independence and sovereignty.

When invited to address the annual commemoration ceremony for Collins, at Béal na Bláth, in 1996, I stated that it was “time for both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to end their posturing and their continuing pretence that there are real differences between them.”

That was almost a quarter of a century ago, and such senseless posturing is even more absurd today.

If a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition is the only form of workable coalition after the coming election, Micheál Martin would take a real risk in rejecting the kind of offer that Alan Dukes made to Charlie Haughey in 1989 (i.e. rotating Taoiseach and half of the cabinet seats).

If this were refused, the Taoiseach could argue persuasively that he had little choice but to call another general election, and the electorate might well blame Fianna Fáil for all the unnecessary expense. It is time the two main parties parked their posturing and co-operated in the interest of the people.

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