Ireland into the 21st century – with such a bewildering speed and transformation that future historians will rely on the refrain of ‘all is changed, changed utterly.’ Even the prospective power-sharing alignment in the North only confirms, and conforms to, this modernisation. The exception, of course, is the Republic’s stubborn maintenance of the governing duopoly of parties that is rooted in events decades ago
Not only has little changed in terms of party alignments, we are still looking at the issue in the same time-worn way.
Much attention is paid to Labour’s ‘will-they-or-won’t they’ relationship with Fianna Fail, which way the Greens will jump (with or without their Party Leader); and Sinn Fein – will the attraction of participating in two Governments on this island overrule other considerations? A range of poll findings covering any number of coalition combinations is splashed across newspapers. The only thing they have in common is that the governing options revolve around the mutually exclusive twin poles of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. This is so hardwired into our analysis - that one or other of these two parties will lead a coalition – that it almost becomes an iron law.
However, and following on from the provocative analysis and debate over at Cedar Lounge Revolution, we can look at these and subsequent polls through a different prism.
Yes, there is Fianna Fail and its historical corporatist project and, yes, there is Fine Gael with its traditional conservative critique of that project (although under Fitzgerald the party attempted to shift to the centre, only to be upended by the 1980s recession). It is too easy to state that the differences between the two larger parties are so minimal that they don’t exist. On a purely policy basis this may be true. But their articulation, never mind the deep roots they have in history, suggests they will remain distinct for some time to come, though this doesn’t rule out periodic or informal coalitions (e.g. Alan Dukes’ Tallaght strategy).
But then there is another ‘bloc’: not nearly as cohesive, nor even conscious of itself as a distinct entity, but nonetheless lying clearly outside the ambit of both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael; namely Labour, Greens and Sinn Fein. To even assign a common label to this disengaged grouping is a contentious matter. To call it ‘non’ or ‘anti-conservative’ is unambitious as it defines them collectively by what they individually are not. At the risk of provoking another debate, I’ll use the word ‘progressive’.
Before assessing the desirability or viability of such a ‘bloc’, let’s first examine the polls through this new prism. The last Irish Times TNS/mrbi poll would look like this:
- 37%: Fianna Fail
- 28%: Progressive
- 26%: Fine Gael
Through this prism, things look different. The average over the last five polls would show us the following:
- 36.8%: Fianna Fail
- 26.6%: Progressive
- 26.2% Fine Gael
There is a consistency of support for the ‘progressive bloc’. This, however, disguises some potential shifts. In the MRBI polls of May and September 2003, the ‘progressive bloc’ was actually the largest, recording over 30% and beating out Fianna Fail for first place. Some may put this down to the ‘bump’ factor of Rabbitte's election as Labour leader, but these findings were recorded well after his election (in the first MRBI poll taken after the leadership election, Labour received only a 2% bump). The polls in 2003 were taken after the huge anti-war demonstrations throughout the country, which could suggest a relationship between popular activism and political leadership.
There are two intriguing things about looking through this prism. First, the contest is wide open between three, not two, alternatives. This is, of itself, mould breaking. Instead of considering junior partnership options with either of the two larger parties depending on the post-election arithmetic, the combined ‘bloc’ is actually competing to lead a government.
Secondly, political and electoral debate is reconfigured. Reporters would naturally door-stop the Enda Kenny and ask which bloc he will support in government, instead of just descending on Pat Rabbitte or, to a lesser degree, the Greens.
If anything, politics becomes a bit more complicated, a bit more interesting and, hopefully, a bit more relevant. But it’s not just at the national level that this new ‘bloc’ is taking, at least, numerical shape. In the 2004 local elections the ‘progressive bloc’ received over 430,000 votes, coming in only a few percentage points behind Fine Gael. However, its strength can be seen in the performance in the primarily urban councils. In Dublin City Council, they received a combined 45% of the vote and, with progressive independents, easily command a majority. In the three other Dublin Councils they came first. They ran first in Cork, Limerick and Galway. In Waterford, if they could come to an understanding with the WP, they come first there as well, while in Wicklow they lead the right-wing parties. This could offer a tremendous platform from which to develop this ‘progressive bloc’ – in healthy competition with each other (which Proportional Representation affords) while working towards a common goal.
But all that is just prism-gazing. How can this grouping be even classified as such? Currently, it can’t. It’s not just that the potential components have separate electoral ambitions in the short term. One can’t simply generate slide-rule comparisons of individual policies to show the many similarities as vindication. Nor can it just materialise because our calculators spew out better looking numbers. The three parties have as distinct histories as the larger parties. Labour is rooted in traditional European social democracy, the Greens emerge from the newer environmental and global critique, while Sinn Fein has evolved firmly within the nationalist tradition. This makes a common understanding difficult, though not impossible (in other European countries, such as France, Germany and Italy to name but a few, social democratic and green parties coalesce).
There is no doubting, though, that – whatever the problems posed by a closer relationship between Labour and the Greens – the real challenge is creating common ground with Sinn Fein. The debate opened up by Labour Youth in their Left Tribune over a closer relationship with Sinn Fein exposed many of the problems, with one contributor charging a devastating litany of anti-democratic practices against Sinn Fein. These are not concerns to be dismissed lightly. Turning a blind eye to a difficult reality will not magically conjure up a more comfortable one. However, to merely charge and walk-away is to limit our understanding of that same reality and new opportunities to transform it.
The only way through this is to expose our concerns to a wider dialogue. And while we have the right to insist that our individual perspectives be heard and taken on board, it is also incumbent upon us all to reciprocate. The extent to which this can be done constructively and sincerely will help determine our long-term success.
For at the end of the day, there will be engagement with Sinn Fein. Whether it’s sooner or later will be determined by an array of factors, but mostly by ourselves. Once Sinn Fein is working with the DUP in government, what is the practical argument against at least engaging in dialogue? That Labour and the Greens may worry about the impact of a closer relationship with their own electorate – especially, but not solely, their ABC1 support – only shows how difficult and, yes, risky, that task will be, and how those promoting a new ‘progressive bloc’ will have their work cut out for them. But on so many issues – such as the debate in the Dublin City Council over a Living Wage (to name but one small example) – the line that divides does not divide Labour, the Greens and Sinn Fein.
And what if, in the aftermath of the next general election, the ‘progressive bloc’ finds itself divided on ‘opposite sides of the house’? Does this kill-off dialogue leading to co-operative strategies in the future? Why should it? There’s no doubting that it would be even more difficult than if all parties were on the same side. But if we insist on waiting for the conditions to be right, we may be waiting interminably. The PDs have shown how to be independent, publicly discussing future options that aren’t necessarily tied to their current alignment. Why can’t we? If the project is good in and of itself, then there’s no better time to embark upon it than now.
It is an act of political will. It will happen when participants in each of these traditions begin to realise the potential of a common destiny; that the sum is truly larger than the parts. It will happen when, looking through this different prism, progressives realise that we are stronger and more relevant together. That, ultimately, Irish politics and people are enhanced by having a better alternative than either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, with all the different permutations, could ever offer.
As Antonio Gramsci might have put it colloquially, ‘It may not look like much of a runner now, but today think positive and do positive.’
And if we do, history may be less unkind than we fear.