Fintan O’Toole: The three pillars of Ireland’s political system are crumbling


To understand the strangeness of current Irish politics, you have to start by recognising that it is a system held up by three pillars. And each of them has crumbled like a mica-infected house.

The first pillar was the indivisible alliance of Church and State. Catholicism was the matrix of politics.

Whatever one thinks about this partnership – and I think it was disastrous – it was immensely effective. It linked the daily lives, thoughts and yearnings of most citizens to their politicians and their governments.

A Catholic state for a Catholic people may have been a travesty of republican values. But it didn’t just give the Church political power – it also gave Government a kind of spiritual glow as the political wing of the Church militant.

The second pillar was party tribalism. The Civil War split may have been a catastrophe, but it produced a convenient and effective duopoly of political power.

It meant that the natural party of Government, Fianna Fáil, and its “alternative”, Fine Gael, had essentially the same ideology. Partisan sentiment was certainly powerful, but it was a product, not of contested world views, but of familial inheritance and loyalty.

Again, you do not have to think this was a good thing to recognise that it was astonishingly successful. For 90 of the State’s first 100 years, the duopoly harvested an average of 70 per cent of the vote at every election. In the miserable 1980s, it won more than 80 per cent in three successive elections.

The third pillar was clientelism. Machine politics was one of the great Irish inventions (perfected in the cities of the United States).

A lot of Irish people quite liked the idea that influence was being used on their behalf

For historical reasons, many of them rooted in colonialism, Irish people with few resources looked to local operators who could mediate between themselves and power. They had little sense of entitlement and even less trust in the fairness and transparency of public institutions.

Everything was about “pull”. And political pull was transactional. You vote for me and in return I “get you” benefits: a local authority house, a social welfare payment, a bed in a public hospital.

Most of this was best characterised as “imaginary patronage”. The TD seldom really got the clients anything to which they were not already entitled. But a lot of Irish people quite liked the idea that influence was being used on their behalf. It made power feel personal and intimate rather than abstract and remote.

The combination of these three mechanisms created one of the most stable political systems of any democracy. It survived mass emigration, the opening of the economy, huge social change, the challenge of the Troubles, the direness of the 1980s and the increasing level of conflict the role of religion in society and politics.

But none of the three pillars is now intact. Each is fissured beyond repair.

There is still a great deal of unfinished business left behind by the rapid decline of political Catholicism. But the Church-State partnership has been dissolved.

Clientelism thrives on poverty and ignorance, and most citizens are no longer either poor or ignorant

The old party duopoly is also over. In 2016, the combined vote for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil dropped below 50 per cent for the first time in the history of the State. In 2020, it fell to 43 per cent, forcing the parties, if either of them was to retain power, to declare a formal end to their tribal division.

And while clientelism is not gone, it is hugely diminished. Most Irish people are too well educated and assertive to feel grateful to a politician for “getting” them their rights. Clientelism thrives on poverty and ignorance, and most citizens are no longer either poor or ignorant.

This is why there is such a strange sense of purposelessness in Government. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are organisms superbly adapted to their environment – but the environment has changed rapidly and radically.

In explaining the crisis of biodiversity, scientists point to the lag factor: species cannot respond quickly enough to climate change and struggle to survive. The lag factor in Irish politics is that the DNA of the governing parties no longer matches the contours of the society.

Objectively, the centre of gravity of Irish politics is Green, social democratic and pluralist. Ireland is a multicultural society, with an urgent imperative to decarbonise its economy and a crying need for an expansion of the State and public provision.

Is Sinn Féin capable of transcending religious identity politics, party tribalism and machine-based clientelism?

Yet the Green, social democratic and left parties got fewer than 20 per cent of the votes between them in 2020. There’s an obvious mismatch between the socio-economic ecosystem and the political culture that operates within (and increasingly against) it.

The big question is whether Sinn Féin, as the great beneficiary of this disjunction, can be the force that brings the political system back into line with Irish society. An awful lot of voters clearly hope it is.

Is Sinn Féin capable of transcending religious identity politics, party tribalism and machine-based clientelism? Or is it just better at doing all of those things than Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil now are?

If it just does the old stuff more vigorously, it will inject new energy into a dying system, like Frankenstein galvanising the lifeless body of his monster. But that project won’t sustain itself for long.

  • Pictures of Fintan O’Toole at the Edinburgh Book Festival and Dublin GPO by Bill Heaney 
  • Fintan O’Toole is the author of We Don’t Know Ourselves, a personal history of Ireland since 1958. The book is available from the usual sources online and from all good bookshops and costs £25.

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