‘Fine Gael: A Family at War’ is a documentary about Fine Gael. Fine Gael is the second-biggest political party in Ireland and was responsible for founding the Irish Free State in 1922. It is traditionally a conservative party, but embraced social democratic ideals in the 1980’s. Unfortunately the party has been in free-fall in the polls since about 1987, when its popular leader, Garret Fitzgerald left coalition, resulting in a snap election in which Fine Gael lost very badly.
The underlying question in the documentary is: ‘What went wrong?’. Why was Fine Gael never returned to government as an alternative to Fianna Fail, the dominant party in Irish politics.
The basic answer the program’s contributors drive at is that Fitzgerald’s ideology did not provide a sustainable long-term platform for the party. I don’t think this interpretation fits the facts or the interviews well. No matter what leader they could have had, and no matter what he could have done, the result would have been the same.
The blame for the demise of the only party that could possibly provide an alternative government in Ireland lies squarely on the shoulders of Fine Gael’s coalition partner, the Labour Party, and with its leader at the time, Dick Spring in particular.
Fine Gael failed to get reelected because the coalition government failed to deal with the underlying problems in the Irish economy. It failed to get borrowing and spending under control. It failed to show that there was an alternative to Fianna Fail. The reason it failed is because the Labour Party was unwilling to accept the hard decisions that were needed.
Two interviews from the documentary illustrate this clearly.
The first was the description of Ruairi Quinn, a senior Labour party member. He complained that Fine Gael was arrogant and that it treated the Labour Party as a junior partner in Government, who were just there to make up the numbers.
The Labour Party clearly failed to grasp two important things. The Labour party was only a fifth of the size of Fine Gael in terms of Dail representation, and therefore could not expect to get its own way very often. The fact is that they were the junior partner and could not expect to get their own way all that often. Labour also failed to grasp the clear message the Irish electorate had sent when it returned the coalition to power. The electorate wanted to see a change from the deficit- and corruption-driven Fianna Fail antics of the previous government.
The second was a description of how coalition government cabinet meetings were carried on. Every topic was discussed until there was full unanimity, because Fitzgerald believed (rightly) this was the only way to keep the government together. Often this entailed very long meetings which only terminated around midnight, and a police driver had to be sent to buy fish and chips to feed the worn-out debaters. This story illustrates the hopeless situation the government was in. It could not take hard decisions, and young unemployed irish people had to suffer the consequences of this cowardly ineptitude. It also gives the lie to Quinn’s argument that the Labour Party was not listened to.
The underlying story is clear: The Labour Party of the time was a party of opportunity, not principle. It was unrealistic in its expectations of what it could do in government. It wanted to spend money at a time when spending needed to be cut back. It was interested only in its own political sustainability, not the sustainability of the coalition partnership, the government or the country.
As a result, the idea of having an alternative government to Fianna Fail failed. Because of the electoral arithmetic, an alternative government in Ireland had to be a coalition and had to include Labour. A coalition has to work as a team, and Labour refused to behave like a team player. That is why Fine Gael nose-dived after 1987. We will probably not see another non-Fianna Fail government this side of 2015.