One of the greatest pleasures for a student of politics is to encounter an informed citizen from a nation whose political system you have studied, and to discuss with them the situation there.
Answers to the mysteries of Irish politics, however, can be hard to provide in turn: not least the mystery as to why both conservatism and libertarianism remain chronically unrepresented in our politics.
Distant history of course, holds the key to some of the answers.
Whereas comparable European countries were divided between Left and Right from the beginning of their democratic journeys, in Ireland our Civil War was over the ‘national question,’ and this would later preoccupy the dominant political parties which this war spawned, and which have governed us ever since.
True, the Labour Party predates both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but the economic structure of Ireland meant that there was no large industrial working class for them to cater to.
Without the factory workers and the coal miners which other European socialist parties were based around, Labour had to try to appeal to agricultural labourers and small farmers, which was not fertile ground. Thankfully.
That still leaves us with the matter of the two centrist parties which have dominated Irish politics since the 1930s, parties which have increasingly moved to the Left in both economic and social policy to the extent that neither could now be accurately labelled centre-right.
Fianna Fáil’s great genius for survivability goes back to its founding fathers. Though De Valera and his followers lost the Civil War, they won the peace which followed, and during their first 16-year uninterrupted spell in government, they firmly established themselves as the natural party of government, attracting votes from all classes.
Wrapping themselves in the Tricolour at all times, the party scorned ideology, but it is fair to say that they began life in a more leftist and protectionist vein before eventually adopting a more right-wing, pro-market approach under Seán Lemass.
Nationalist populism was a winning strategy. In their first 22 general election battles, Fianna Fáil won more seats than Fine Gael every single time, and this historical inferiority has shaped the Fine Gael we know today.
Founded in 1933 as a curious amalgamation of the victors in the Civil War, affluent farmers and a substantial Fascist element led by Hitler fanboy Eoin O’Duffy, Fine Gael never really caught on in the same way and has spent most of its existence rotting on the opposition benches.
When the Nazi element of the party died away, its identity became settled on the notion of being a large party for the professional classes: the strong farmer, the small-town solicitor and so forth. It was a sectional party rather than a national one, in contrast with Fianna Fáil.
In the mid 1960s, during one of its longest stretches in opposition obscurity, Fine Gael took a strong swing to the Left when Declan Costello’s ‘Just Society’ program was adopted by its parliamentary party.
It called for the introduction of a range of policies, many of which had been tried and found to be demonstrable failures in Ireland or elsewhere: government targets for agriculture and industry, price controls, the intensification of efforts to establish home industries, etc.
In immediate and practical terms, the Just Society was a failure; Costello’s proposals were never implemented.
However, in the long-run the Just Society left a lasting mark on Fine Gael, and moved the party decisively to the Left.
To this day, it is common to hear Fine Gael politicians describing the Just Society as being a vital part of what drew them to the party, although it is extremely rare to find a devotee who has actually read the short document.
Importantly, Costello’s centre-left acolyte Garret Fitzgerald would within a few decades go on to lead a Fine Gael-Labour coalition which would spend five long years refusing to make the hard decisions to rectify the state’s dire financial situation in the 1980s, in part due to Fitzgerald’s socialist inclinations in economic policy.
While the country suffered with sky-high taxes, widespread unemployment and shocking rates of emigration, Fitzgerald spent his time as Taoiseach pursuing his ‘constitutional crusade’ in areas such as divorce.
Much of this was necessary, but it was still a cynical exercise by Fitzgerald to appeal to social liberals in his home turf of South Dublin while the country remained the sick man of Europe.
He wasn’t even successful as a social reformer, and lost a winnable divorce referendum in a landslide in 1986.
But Fitzgerald was the consummate virtue-signaller before anyone had even heard of the term. He didn’t need to win: he believed in the same things that fashionable and right-thinking people did, and that was enough.
Charles Haughey, the other giant of 1980s Irish politics, was much harder to pin down ideologically than Fitzgerald. Together with his Finance Minister Ray MacSharry, he made the harsh spending cuts which were required to rectify the appalling condition in which Fitzgerald left the country.
Haughey reformed the taxation system to incentivise work and investment, and showed remarkable foresight in establishing the International Financial Services Centre, thus paving the way for the brighter economic days which followed.
This cemented Fianna Fáil’s position as the party of Big Business, and Haughey’s successors Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern continued in like manner. Income tax, corporation tax and capital-gains tax were all slashed, semi-states were privatised and the Celtic Tiger began to roar.
Yet these unmistakably right-wing policies were not underpinned by any genuine right-wing philosophy.
Bertie cut income taxes and privatised Telecom Éireann because he thought the policies would work, not because he believed people had a natural right to their own earnings, or because he thought due to his studying of economic history that the state should not intrude into the telecommunications sector.
When he got into electoral difficulty therefore, Bertie had no reservations about dramatically increasing public spending and public sector pay, sending his Thatcherite Finance Minister Charlie McCreevey off to Brussels and declaring himself a socialist.
This muddled approach – low tax and high spending predicated on a belief that the economic boom was permanent – left Ireland critically exposed when the global financial crisis hit, and the statist impulse of Ahern’s successor Brian Cowen contributed greatly to the decision to issue a ruinous blanket bank guarantee in September 2008.
A decision which took place behind closed doors, with no debate, and naturally, with the support of Fine Gael.
The ensuing election left Ireland with a Fine Gael-Labour coalition which continued the earlier FF approach to the recession by cutting spending and raising taxes, but it did not increase the corporation tax rate of 12.5%.
This element of our taxation policy has gained overwhelming support within our political class, given the importance of foreign investment. Neither of the centrist parties will likely ever change it, and the overtly left-wing parties are also quiet enough on this front.
When in 2016 Ireland was ordered by the European Commission to collect €13 billion in back taxes from the tech giant Apple, there was never any serious debate about whether we were actually going to do it, nor was there ever going to be.
The multinationals in the IFSC, Silicon Docks and elsewhere kept the country alive during the recession, and are still enormously important. Our system of taxation on corporate profits is a non-negotiable element of our economic model and it is perhaps the only good idea that our otherwise clueless pols will stand for at home or in their negotiations at EU level.
This is also what leads some people to wrongly assume that Irish politics is tilted to the right, or that the FF-FG establishment is somehow conservative.
Since the crash, Fine Gael has switched leaders but not changed its identity in a meaningful way. It wasn’t right-wing before and it isn’t now.
Fianna Fáil on the other hand has taken a strong turn towards the Left under Micheál Martin, a content cabinet minister in the age of Ahern and who then discovered his true identity as a pro-choice, left-of-centre progressive while in his fifties.
Most of his barbs against the current Taoiseach boil down to Varadkar’s alleged right-wing leanings, yet no specific charges are ever made. There’s nothing that Varadkar has done which can be called right-wing; more to the point, there’s nothing that Varadkar has done which Martin would not do if he thought it would help him.
Ultimately, any successful right-wing party such as Australia’s Liberals or Canada’s Conservatives draws support from economic and social conservatives. Irish economic conservatives tend to lean towards Fine Gael. Irish social conservatives, conversely, are more often than not Fianna Fáil voters.
Looking at what the two parties have accomplished lately, either faction could feel the least bit satisfied.
Since the General Election of 2016, Fine Gael have devised two giveaway budgets which failed to ease the tax burden on workers significantly.
New nanny-state regulations in the area of alcohol sales and marketing and a proposed ‘sugar tax’ are on the way, and Varadkar is planning to double state spending on the arts. State-funded GP care for under 12s is coming too, which will be labelled ‘free’ in the usual manner of socialist false advertising.
In other news, the Fine Gael Health Minister is giddily preparing legislation to introduce an opt-out organ donation system. This will entail the effective nationalisation of every heart, lung and kidney in the land, along with all other human organs.
On the other side of the fence, Martin has repeatedly shown his contempt for social conservatives, including the majority of his own party members who fit into that category.
Two months after Fianna Fáil delegates voted overwhelmingly to oppose the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, three of the five FF representatives on the Oireachtas Committee proudly voted to introduce abortion-on-demand up to 12 weeks.
The vast majority of Fianna Fáil’s TDs and Senators are pro-life, and the placing of their two most committed abortion enthusiasts – Billy Kelleher and Lisa Chambers – on the Committee was a careful act of stage-managing.
On the important issues of the day – whether people have a right to their own money, whether unions should be able to cripple public services, state interference in the private sector, the right of parents to educate their children in accordance with their own beliefs, the ever advancing nanny state, Ireland’s relationship with the EU, the legality of abortion, our role in the overall EU response to the refugee crisis, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the attitude to American politics, the status of marriage in the Constitution – nothing separates Fianna Fáil from Fine Gael.
In all subjects, the left (or left liberal) side holds sway. The leftist advance continues, slowly enough so that FG-FF voters do not suddenly rebel, but fast enough so that our country’s future ebbs away.
Can this be changed? Yes, but with great difficulty. The easiest thing to do to effect change would be to work within one or both of the large parties and move it in a new direction – this has been done before.
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher moved unprincipled, tired establishment parties to the right before achieving extraordinary feats in the US and the UK, but there does not seem to be any better alternatives than Martin and Varadkar inside their two parties who could replace them.
The lack of a right-wing policy infrastructure also makes the advancing of right-wing policies extraordinarily difficult. In the case of Reagan, the existence of CPAC, National Review and other conservative outlets helped the Gipper to spread his message, while in the UK the Centre for Policy Studies and the Tory press served a similar purpose for Maggie.
Ireland’s media is either left or centrist though, and apart from the Hibernia Forum and the slowly blossoming Edmund Burke Institute, our free-market policy infrastructure is weak.
As a result, a centrist Irish politician can reap many benefits from adopting a left-wing policy no matter how destructive it is. Rent controls, long resisted for their counterproductive effects, were called for by left-wing politicians for years. Fine Gael resisted, but lacking both knowledge and principle they eventually gave in.
There is no such reward for defending the free-market and the policies which have made us, and the rest of the world, wealthy beyond the dreams of our ancestors.
Yet all is not lost. Bleak and all though the present political climate may be, the night is always darkest before the dawn. The Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil duopoly cannot persist forever, and will inevitably break down.
God willing, the Burkean Journal will play some small part in its fall.