By Joseph O'Malley,
Sunday June 10 2007
IN 1973, when I was appointed Political Correspondent for the Sunday Independent, Fianna Fail had 46 per cent of the vote and 48 per cent of the seats. Jack Lynch was leader, but the party was in opposition.
And a Fine Gael-Labour (national coalition) government under Liam Cosgrave was in power.
Thirty-four years later in 2007, as I retire and write my final column, Fianna Fail has 42 per cent of the vote and 47 per cent of the seats. And, after next Thursday they will be in power again; this time with a smaller percentage share of votes and seats than in 1973.
Since 1973 the economic landscape has been transformed, utterly, thanks to the benefits flowing from EU membership, and the growth and employment gains that have characterised the Celtic Tiger era. The political landscape, however, remains largely unchanged. There, Fianna Fail's dominance not just stands out. It has become far more pronounced. Worryingly so.
The party's grip on power is tightening, not loosening. No one understands that better than Fianna Fail, much better than the opposition parties do. The last time the electorate returned a Fine Gael-led government was in 1982, a quarter-century ago, under Garret FitzGerald as Taoiseach.
No party has been more pragmatic, more ready to sacrifice principle to secure power, and no one has done so more successfully than Fianna Fail. No party has been more prepared to make a virtue out of political necessity, as Charles Haughey so readily demonstrated in 1989. Then, he abandoned the Fianna Fail core value, no coalition. To retain power he agreed to share government in a coalition with the PDs.
Perhaps unwittingly, Charles Haughey in breaking the "no coalition" taboo, opened a new pathway to semi-permanent power for his party.
For by 2012, Fianna Fail will have been in government for 23 of the previous 25 years. Indeed, since 1922, Fianna Fail has been in office for two thirds of the period. Few parties in the democratic world can surpass such a record, save perhaps the Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Power corrupts. It corrupted the PRI. And, as the tribunals have shown, power has corrupted Fianna Fail.
Charles Haughey provides the case study. And the tribunals, which provide the evidence, now continue in judgement of others.
Fianna Fail since 1989 has become a serial monogamist, changing partners in government where that is necessary to retain power, and thereby establishing a semi-permanent grip on government.
That has left the opposition paralysed: uncertain whether (as the the Greens had done) to play the role of suitors-in-waiting for a possible power-sharing role with Fianna Fail. Or to do as Labour, courageously, did this time, though not in 2002. This time Labour offered themselves and Fine Gael as a non-Fianna Fail alternative government.
No sooner was this election over, and the campaign arguments forgotten, than the Greens were at the gates of Government Buildings, pressing their claims for a coalition partnership, and bringing their own cutlery (long spoons) to the negotiating table. Next time it could be Labour, if they revert to their 2002 policy position of deciding their attitude to government formation after, not before, an election. Or it could well be Sinn Fein seats that are required to make up the Fianna Fail numbers in future.
One thing is certain. Fianna Fail is unlikely to change a winning formula. The opposition parties will have to change a losing formula: by considering merger, amalgamation or whatever is necessary to achieve the critical political mass necessary to challenge what has now become a Fianna Fail monopoly on power. That means Fine Gael and Labour, if they are to build on what has been achieved in this election, may have to take a hard look at the historical facts, attempt to create a new party, and hope that it may be greater than the sum of its constituent parts.
Otherwise, the prospect is for virtual one-party government in perpetuity, with only the minor party changing at elections time, and the role of the opposition being reduced to little more than supplying Fianna Fail with the necessary numbers to maintain a Dail majority.
In December 1973, my first assignment as Political Correspondent was to cover the conference that produced the Sunningdale Agreement. It proved to be a false political dawn. The power-sharing executive collapsed in May 1974. A bold attempt to narrow the political divide was wrecked by the violence of the IRA, and by the strike 'I am grateful for that opportunity. It was a privilege and a pleasure to have served as an eyewitness to so many of the great history-making events since 1973'
action of the loyalist Ulster Workers Council, who shut down the North's power supply.
Martin McGuinness was a self-confessed member of the IRA, at that time, intent on physically destroying the Stormont parliament, if possible. Today he is the Deputy First Minister at Stormont. Ian Paisley, who helped to mobilise the opposition to Sunningdale and to undermine Brian Faulkner as prime minister, is the North's First Minister. The Good Friday Agreement, which was only fully implemented nine years after it was signed in 1998, became, in Seamus Mallon's phrase, "Sunningdale for slow learners".
The "slow learners" extracted a heavy price for their failure to learn sooner the lesson of history: that violence does not pay, and that only government with the consent of the minority can succeed in the North.
As that lesson was being learnt painfully over nearly four decades, 3,722 lives were lost in the Northern troubles. The IRA inflicted the most pain, accounting for 58 per cent of those killed.
And Ian Paisley provided the most opposition to any political settlement being found sooner, sabotaging every effort but the final one that secured high office for him, but at a high price: sharing power with a former IRA Chief of Staff.
Keep your friends close, and keep your enemies closer.
Journalism has been described as the first draft of history. And the vantage point of Political Correspondent in Leinster House for one third of a century has given me the opportunity to share with my colleagues in the writing of that first draft of history; as leaders rose and fell, as governments were formed and dissolved, and as political reputations were won and lost.
I am grateful for that opportunity. It was a privilege and a pleasure to have served as an eyewitness to so many of the great history-making events since 1973.
And I hope, by what I have written, to have offered you, the readers, some insight into, and understanding of, the major political controversies and dramas that have shaped, and defined, our lives.
- Joseph O'Malley, (Sunday Independent)