Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Team Micheál or Team Tubs: Who Are Fianna Fáil Really?

An exasperated journalist remarked on the Tonight with Vincent Browne show last year that it was a mystery to her how anyone, ever, votes or voted for the Fianna Fáil party.

This question has stuck in An Spailpín’s head since. Because there are two mysteries here: the first is the journalist’s original question, just who people this entity known as Fianna Fáil, and the second is why isn’t their identity known to a political reporter with a major national newspaper?

Fianna Fáil has governed this country for three of every four years of the party’s existence. While this may change at the next election, it has been a fact until now that there has never been a constituency in the state without at least one Fianna Fáil TD since the party’s first election to Government.

How can someone aspire to expertise on Irish politics and have no idea either who votes Fianna Fáil or why they do so? Is it not like being a chef and never having seen a chicken?

Do parallel Irelands exist, with no interaction between them? The world of the Vincent Browne panel fretting over inequality in their south Dublin demesnes, and the world that elects Fianna Fáil governments, year after year? Where do they cross over? Do they cross over at all?

Irish politics is a mass of contradictions. Ireland has never elected a socialist government, yet the public service is huge. How did this happen? If policy doesn’t drive Irish elections, what does? If you wish to be involved in politics, how do you decide which party to join? James Lawless describes the typical Fianna Fáil spear-carrier on his blog, but he does not point out why these GAA people and meals on wheel people and so on join FF specifically and not Fine Gael, or Labour, or Sinn Féin, or one of Richard Boyd Barrett's (many) groups. Is it simply tribal?

The comedians who perform as Après Match appeared in character on The Late Late Show before Christmas. Barry Murphy appeared as a character called Micheál, whom many would see as the archetypal Fianna Fáil backwoodsman. But he wasn’t the most Fianna Fáil-y person on the Late Late that night. Not by a long chalk.

If bloodlines count for anything in Irish politics – and they always have so far – the most Fianna Fáil person on the Late Late Show that night, or any night, was your host, Ryan Tubridy. He is Fianna Fáil on his father and his mother’s side. His maternal grandfather, Todd Andrews, was one of the founding architects of the party. His brother is a councillor and two of his cousins are TDs. How much more Fianna Fáil can you get?

In what way does the Fianna Fáil ethos manifest in Ryan Tubridy? Tubridy comes from a current affairs background professionally, and to have missed current affairs discussion in his private life growing up would surely have been impossible. It would be like growing up on the land and never hearing of headage. But the popular image of Fianna Fáil in the media is of Micheál the Backwoodsman – it is not of urbane, smooth, Dean-Martin-listenin’, finger-clickin’, pints-in-the-Bailey drinkin’ Ryan Tubridy. But they are both said to be Fianna Fáil the same way a trout is said to be a fish.

Is Team Micheál or Team Tubs the real spirit of the party? Or does Fianna Fáil exist a bridge between these demographics, neither one extreme or the other, like a half and half latte and pint of stout? What common interest do they campaign on? Do the Tubridys of the world get shouted down at meetings in the smoke-filled rooms by the Micheáls? Or do the Micheáls pump the wheels while the Tubridys ride the bikes?

There is a doorstopper history of the Workers Party on sale currently. 688 pages. Where are the histories of Fianna Fáil, the single most influential Irish political party since the foundation of the state?

Dick Walsh wrote one in the mid-eighties which is out of print, out of date and probably not that good in the first place. Pat Leahy, political correspondent of the Sunday Business Post, wrote a gossipy recent history called Showtime, but didn’t try to join the dots on the stories that he was told about what where all Irish politics are decided – behind closed doors. The peculiar attitude to the notion of collective cabinet responsibility with regard to the setting of the budget seemed worthy of further discussion, to say the very least of it, but it raised nary a flag. Extraordinary.

We are told that the nation is heading to an election that may be a watershed in the history of an Ireland that has taken her place among the nations of the Earth, and it seems we really don’t know for whom we’re voting. Fianna Fáil’s struggle to not be wiped out is one of the stories of the election, and yet we don’t really know who Fianna Fáil are – Tubridys, Micheáls, or someone else again entirely. There’s at least one writer in a national newspaper who badly needs to find out. To say nothing of the rest of us.