September 22, 2023
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Fading away … the decline and fall of Fianna Fáil

Micheál Martin narrowly avoided the dubious distinction of being the first Fianna Fáil leader not to become Taoiseach. That unwanted title seems likely to fall on whoever succeeds him as head of the party.

I never rule out anything in  politics, but it is hard to see Fianna Fáil ever again becoming the senior partner in a government coalition, much less forming a single-party government, as it did several times between 1932 and 1982.

The party that totally dominated Irish life for that half-century is in tatters. It has become irrelevant  and seems doomed to suffer the same fate as the party which dominated for the previous 50 years.

The Irish Parliamentary Party, the party of Butt and Parnell, had its greatest achievement under John Redmond when it got a Home Rule Bill through the British parliament.

But Redmond underestimated reaction to the delay in enacting the legislation and completely misjudged the mood of the country after the Rising of 1916. The Waterford MP did not live to see the annihilation of his party in the general election two years later.

Parliamentary Party survivors, such as John Dillon, Joe Devlin and Redmond’s son William, squabbled over the leadership, but they were fighting over a corpse. There are obvious similarities with those now agitating to replace Micheál Martin.

The Dublin Bay South by-election was the worst result Fianna Fáil has ever recorded. But even before the count, the extent of the party’s decline had been laid bare.

Forty years ago, when I worked for Vivion de Valera’s Irish Press, there was not a constituency anywhere in the country where a Fianna Fáil by-election victory could be entirely ruled out.

In 2021, nobody gave the party the slightest chance of winning Dublin Bay South. As it turned out, the FF candidate’s performance was even worse than expected and I have to wonder if there is now a constituency anywhere that the party could be certain of winning in a by-election.

Will Fianna Fáil join Redmond’s nationalists as a chapter in Irish political history, interesting but of no modern relevance? It has some good representatives who won’t vanish overnight but the party seems likely to fade away with the best of its activists drifting into Fine Gael, as Parliamentary Party members drifted into Cumann na nGaedheal in the early years of the Free State.

The alternative may be a merged party, Fine Fáil as the joke already goes. Either way, the party of Dev will be no more.

And what of Labour, the victors of Dublin Bay South?

Down the years that party has done the State some service as has its new TD, Ivana Bacik, who has been to the fore in campaigns that have changed Ireland for the better.

She was an exceptional candidate, but she will have to work hard to retain the seat at a general election and those who see her victory as a new dawn for Labour may be disappointed.

Labour has fallen to a level from where it may be impossible to regain its position as a major player in Irish politics. I’m not sure what the cutoff line is, but with only seven TDs the party is perilously close to it.

If Labour slips further at the next general election it will join the huddle of little leftish parties whose elected members operate like independents, treating  the Dáil more as a debating society than as a chamber in which they can effect important legislation.

During the half-century from 1932, Labour partnered with Fine Gael to give Ireland an alternative to Fianna Fáil governments. The party has its own policies and traditions, but the decline of FF  has taken away an historic reason for its existence. If FF goes, can Labour be far behind?

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