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Fianna Fáil, A Biography of the Party by Noel Whelan, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2011, pp. 373, €24.99 hb, ISBN 978 0 71714 761 8

Reviewer: Gary Murphy*

A major part of the public astonishment over the result of the 2011 general election in Ireland was due to the fact that the collapse of the Fianna Fáil vote, although heralded by the opinion polls, still came as a significant surprise to much of the population including many within Fianna Fáil itself. Fianna Fáil, the so-called natural party of Irish government. The party that had dominated the state since it first took office in 1932 was reduced to 17 per cent of the first preference vote and 20 seats out of 166 in Dáil Éireann - the mother of all Irish electoral defeats. Such a result was something that no sane observer of Irish politics could ever have predicted only a few short years earlier when Bertie Ahern had led the party to its third general election victory in a row in 2007. For many within the party itself the looming electoral disaster was something that could not be countenanced, the view being that ‘surely things will get better when the election actually comes around’, a common view within the parliamentary party as recounted by Noel Whelan in his welcome biography.

Whelan’s history of Fianna Fáil could not come at a better time as the election result sinks in and opinion polls, a year after the voters savagely booted them out of office, show the party in exactly the same position. This is not a ‘where did it all go wrong book’ but rather a valuable study of how Fianna Fáil built itself up on a reputation of economic competency and prudence into the dominant force in Irish politics and then lost that said same reputation through a mixture of political and economic hubris.

A classically populist party since its foundation in 1926, Fianna Fáil, as Whelan ably shows, was able to draw support from all sections of the population. Small and large farmers alike, businessmen, the skilled artisan middle class, the manual working class, labourers and the unemployed - all saw Fianna Fáil as a party that could represent them and their ambitions. That it consistently took over 40 per cent of the vote at general election time was testament to this remarkable chameleon-like ability to attract support from all groups and social classes. Its grandiose plans for the reunification of the country and the restoration of the Irish language co-existed nicely with its more prosaic but necessary efforts to build up its own organisation and to offer the Irish people pragmatic solutions to their economic woes.

Whelan, coming from the Fianna Fáil gene pool as he freely admits, is empathetic towards both aspects of the party’s history and traces its remarkable success by showing how its appeal to the Irish people was based on this twin-pronged approach of appealing to romantic notions of idealism and more hard-nosed notions of economic competency. Thus the party was able to sell the diametrically-opposed policies of protectionism in the 1930s and free trade and economic interdependence with Europe in the 1960s as being central to the country’s economic progress and in tune with the party’s vision of itself as the only political entity capable of providing real independence, both political and economic, to the Irish people.

Likewise, in terms of its policies towards the fourth green field of Northern Ireland, Fianna Fáil was able to present itself as both the bellicose and moderate face of Irish nationalism at different times of its history without necessarily displaying any contradiction between the two positions. The party was never shy of playing the ‘Green Card’ and presented to successive British governments, and to unionists in Northern Ireland, its own belief that it was only a Fianna Fáil government in the Republic of Ireland which could deliver a solution that would satisfy the Irish nationalist constituency. Never was this more prevalent than during the elongated arms crisis of 1969-71 which threatened to split Fianna Fáil and in which both the Lynch and the Haughey-Blaney factions claimed to be representing the true spirit of Fianna Fáil. The problem was, as Whelan perceptively shows throughout his analysis, that Fianna Fáil meant different things to different people. This was as much the case with Northern Ireland as it was with the battles between Seán Lemass and Seán MacEntee over economic policies for close to three decades up to the time Lemass became Taoiseach in 1959.

Whelan begins his study with de Valera’s famous plaintive declaration to Lemass that he was leaving public life in March 1926 while the de Valera Lemass dichotomy of idealism and pragmatism infuses Whelan’s analysis throughout. This is particularly the case when he analyses the career of Bertie Ahern who, as leader of Fianna Fáil, had extraordinary electoral success and played a hugely significant role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland but whose ultimate stewardship of the economy and tortuous personal financial arrangements meant his career would end in some ignominy. Whelan maintains that future historians will likely treat Ahern more kindly than his present standing with the public would suggest. Whether the same will be said of the party itself is much more open to debate.

Its new leader Micheál Martin has claimed that the party lost its way in recent years by forgetting its radical roots and that it can recover both its zeal and purpose by returning to the original progressive policies of de Valera and Lemass. However, as Whelan points out, the party for the most part has failed to come to terms with its ‘loss of power, position and prestige’. The lesson from Whelan’s study, which Fianna Fáil would do well to consider now, is that the party lost its way during the Haughey era when it failed to differentiate between party and state. The result of this was that the party would eventually lose the trust of the people once the economy came crashing down in 2008.

Whelan’s book is the first full-length history of Fianna Fáil and, while we might bemoan the fact that most of his research is confined to secondary sources, he has nevertheless produced an immensely valuable study of Ireland’s most successful political movement. It should reside on the bookshelves of any one interested in Ireland’s past, present and future.