Charles Richardson’s inability to fathom the depths of Irish politics yesterday was most amusing. True, the parties have funny-sounding names and seem to defy ideological description. But the Irish have a natural genius for politics: there are some 50 million of us in the global Irish Diaspora who will disagree with what he says but defend his right to say it. To us, the modern Irish political parties are works of art, in progress. And are much loved for their adaptability to the zeitgeist.
Except for the parties of the left, there is nothing anachronistic about them – they are in the right place at the right time. They are totally promiscuous cross-dressers who regularly sleep with the enemy and betray alliances if the numbers are right in the back room.
It was Irish politicians that gave us Tammany Hall in New York, Mayor “Boss” Daley in Chicago, and the rotten ALP boroughs of Richmond in Melbourne and Leichhardt in Sydney.
If someone told you 12 months ago about the miracle of Belfast and that Ian Paisley would be sharing power today with Martin McGuinness you would consider it an Irish joke. Similarly, expect the unexpected in the Irish general election held yesterday but it will take at least a week to unravel because of the complex preferential, proportional multi-member electoral system that guarantees a multi-party coalition government.
First, those gorgeous names. Sinn Fein (literally “we ourselves” in Irish) is the oldest political party in Ireland formed in 1905. Originally an Irish monarchist party formed by Arthur Griffith it is now synonymous with republicanism. Won the first three elections before independence hands down when Sinn Fein was the mother party for the nationalist cause. It destroyed itself in the civil war that followed the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. Has evolved from nationalist to terrorist to social democratic government.
This one was formed by Gerry Adams in 1970 in Belfast and was the political arm of the provisional IRA before going legit and sharing power with the DUP in the North. It has five seats in Westminster which it never uses, 28 seats in Belfast, five in Dublin and two Members of the European Parliament. Predicted to double its TDs (MPs) in the Dail (Parliament) to 10 and play the mating game. Slogan: “Others promise. We deliver.”
Fianna Fail (traditionally the “soldiers of destiny” in Irish) is the natural party of government and styles itself as the Republican Party. It was founded as a social democratic party by Eamon de Valera in 1926 but has gradually evolved into a right-of-centre establishment party with, some say, the best politicians that money can buy. Has been in power since 1997 under Bertie Ahern and is seeking a third term on the back of the Celtic Tiger (slogan: “Now, the next steps”). Predicted to lose up to 13 seats but will still be the biggest gorilla at the coalition card table.
Fine Gael (meaning the “family of the Irish”) is the second largest party even though it copped a trashing in the last election and lost 23 seats. It styles itself as a progressive centre party these days but its origins go back to the pro-treaty nationalist forces that won the civil war with the republicans and set up the Irish Free State under Michael Collins. This former conservative law and order party formed the government for first 10 years of independence.
It is very Irish that this anti-republican party actually established the Republic of Ireland in 1949. In 1994 it formed a centre-left Rainbow coalition which claims credit for kick-starting the booming Celtic Tiger economy. Its slogan is: “Ireland deserves better!”) and is predicted to be the big winner this weekend with a gain of 15 seats. Will form a coalition with anyone but Sinn Fein.
The Irish Labour Party (slogan: “Ireland can do better with Labour”) is a Socialist Party formed in 1912 as the political arm of the Irish TUC. Its Citizens Army fought in the 1916 Uprising but kept out of elections to the Dail until 1922 to support the nationalist cause. Classic class warfare warriors who are not expected to improve on their 21 seat rump hand in the coalition card game. Made respectable by the six loony-left parties to the left of them. Appalling website for a party that claims to have invented the Celtic Tiger economy.
The Progressive Democrats are a small right-wing Liberal Party which formed in 1985 and are presently Fianna Fail’s coalition partners in the government. Their slogan is: “Left-Wing Government? No thanks!” They are predicted to lose up to six of their eight seats and are desperate to find partners to sleep with. It is unlikely to be Labour.
Last, but not least, comes the Green Party with the magnificently original slogan of “It’s time!” Predicted to pick three seats to take its tally to 10. Will sleep with anyone and probably will.
Let the show begin and the road rise up to meet them…