Gary Murphy: Fine Gael is back in power, but faces an identity crisis

What now for Fine Gael in a government where it holds just six cabinet seats, has a host of disgruntled backbenchers, and is facing an existential crisis of identity?
Gary Murphy: Fine Gael is back in power, but faces an identity crisis
President Higgins presents new ministers with their Seal of Office. Pic: Maxwells.
President Higgins presents new ministers with their Seal of Office. Pic: Maxwells.

What now for Fine Gael in a government where it holds just six cabinet seats, has a host of disgruntled backbenchers, and is facing an existential crisis of identity?

While most of the focus of Saturday’s historic government was on Micheál Martin’s remarkable rise to the position of Taoiseach, and his rather odd selection of cabinet ministers, there was much less concentration on the fact that for the first time Fine Gael will be in power for three successive terms.

It is a historic achievement but has come at a serious electoral cost. It was hardly surprising that some of the party’s older figures such as Richard Bruton, Michael Creed, Charlie Flanagan and Michael Ring were sceptical of entering government after February’s calamitous election results.

All four were, as expected, not reappointed to Cabinet and can hardly be looking forward to life on the backbenches in this three-headed hydra of a coalition where party identification runs the danger of getting seriously lost.

At its simplest, the 2020 general election result was a repudiation of Fine Gael’s nine years in office. In one way Fine Gael had a positive story to tell the electorate. From its re-election in 2016 it was generally seen as having performed well in relation to Brexit and it had presided over a surging economy with record numbers in employment.

Fine Gael could never overcome, however, its failures in health and housing. Motions of no confidence in Eoghan Murphy in Housing and Simon Harris in Health led to Leo Varadkar calling the election earlier than he had wanted to.

While Leo Varadkar’s plan was to run on how his government had overseen the economy and the Brexit negotiations he misread the electorate which didn’t pay Brexit a blind bit of notice and instead worried about twin perils of housing and health.

The result was the reduction of Fine Gael to 35 seats on barely 21% of the vote. That was a crushing electoral defeat that sent it spiralling to third place for the first time in its history. It is no wonder that many of its senior members and disgruntled grassroots wanted to go into opposition.

Only nine years earlier in February 2011, it won 76 seats on 36% of the vote. While the party’s success in the 2011 general election might have been somewhat inevitable given the collapse in support for Fianna Fáil, it was nevertheless an impressive achievement.

Fine Gael, however, misinterpreted the result. If the 2020 election was a voter rejection of Fine Gael, the 2011 election was a voter repudiation of Fianna Fáil. It was not a declaration of love for Fine Gael.

Not having been in power since the 1994-97 coalition with Labour and Democratic Left, Fine Gael under Enda Kenny was given little credit in 2016 by the electorate for ridding the country of the Troika of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and European Union.

It had promised to end austerity, did not deliver, and a significant proportion of the electorate took its revenge. Its 50 seats and 25% of the vote were a direct result of over-promising what it could achieve in office.

At its heart, Fine Gael is mainly a party of the centre-right with a reputation for being fiscally conservative and economically prudent, although like Fianna Fáil it can best be described as ‘catch-all’. Fine Gael had finished second in every election to Fianna Fáil from its foundation in 1933 until 2011.

As recently as 2002 it won a historically low 31 seats on just over 22% of the vote and its long term future seemed in grave doubt particularly as by accepting coalition Fianna Fáil opened itself up to alliances that would once have been the sole preserve of Fine Gael.

If the economic crash nearly killed off Fianna Fáil, it certainly rescued Fine Gael. Yet if Fine Gael assumed that its 2011 result would presage an era of political dominance and the crushing of Fianna Fáil it was rudely surprised by the electorate in 2016.

Saturday’s ministerial bloodbath for Fine Gael was a result of the rather false nature of the 2016-2020 minority government. The unique nature of confidence and supply meant that bizarrely Fine Gael had more ministers and ministers of state than it had backbenchers. The spoils of office were never more clearly articulated than by that fact.

Yet it was not only the old guard who fell by the wayside. Two of Varadkar’s most loyal lieutenants, Eoghan Murphy and Josepha Madigan, have been jettisoned without a backwards glance. Murphy’s masterminding of Varadkar’s leadership win in June 2017 seems a long way away now.

Micheál Martin’s, and by extension Fianna Fáil’s, insistence on not speaking to Sinn Féin after the election meant that it had to turn to Fine Gael if it wanted to form a government. In that context Fine Gael’s genuinely held commitment to the state led it into agreeing the historic coalition with Fianna Fáil.

But the coalition itself and Fine Gael face serious difficulties in the years ahead. The government runs against the mantra of change that dominated the election but having the Greens involved helps both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Still the Government has the support of barely 50% of the voters and it will face constant attack for having no real mandate out of the change election.

A greater danger is that it lets Sinn Féin grow exponentially in opposition to the point where it becomes Ireland’s most popular party and wins large numbers of seats in the next election if the quality of life issues that dominated the February election campaign are not fixed.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made the economic difficulties even more pronounced. In that context the stimulus package promised for next month will be the most important decision the government makes no matter how long it lasts. It will be Paschal Donohoe’s defining moment in government.

It will also be central to the legacy of Leo Varadkar. February’s election result was calamitous for him personally. His handling of the Covid-19 crisis has been generally surefooted notwithstanding his weird penchant for celebrity quotations in his speeches. He has regained much of the confidence that had drained out of him during the election campaign and in its immediate aftermath. But the country needs its people at work and that is now his responsibility.

Fine Gael must define its identity while in government. In that context, there is huge pressure on its six ministers including newcomer Helen McEntee in Justice and super junior Hildegarde Naughton to rebuild the party from within the corridors of power in Leinster House.

McEntee was flawless in her role as Minister for State for European Affairs. Unflappable and steely, she will need those qualities more than ever in Justice. But she is the symbol of the change in generation in Fine Gael. If Fine Gael is to thrive and flourish it will need her at its forefront.

That is no unenviable task. For now, Fine Gael is back again at the centre of power. For its own future, it needs to make this government work.

Gary Murphy is Professor of Politics at Dublin City University.

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