By John Kelly
An American friend once asked me to compare the Irish political scene to the U.S. I had to explain that there are more parties in the Republic of Ireland. And I added that in years gone by, there was a similarity between the two countries in that it sometimes seemed there were only two rivals, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
Historically, I then had to explain that other political parties had bitterly fought their corners in Ireland. Labor, for example, has been around for good many years, claiming its parentage from the most socialist of the 1916 leaders, James Connolly. In its history, it has experienced fluctuating political fortune.
In the 1950s, Irish political life was particularly active. Several strong parties emerged, particularly Clann na Poblachta, translating very roughly into English as "The Public Family," and the strong farmer’s party, Clann na Taluin, or the "Party of the Land."
Famously, during that decade, another emerged that was to represent the unemployed. There were many thousands who were out of work in that time, especially in Dublin. Young men and women shared ships along with cattle raised for the English market.
While Eamon de Valera had his own unique social vision of Ireland, he had little time for economics or the necessity for enterprise. This is a little surprising when you take into account the fact that he was pretty enterprising himself.
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For example, not alone did he raise the money to fund the ill-fated Irish Press Group, but he also set up Irish Press Films. That particular company completed at least two historical documentary films during the 1930s, one, in color, on the Shannon hydroelectric scheme and the second on aviation. Their whereabouts are now unknown. Both were stored in the old Irish Press building on Burgh Quay.
Whatever about de Valera’s personal enterprise, it was not until the advent of Sean Lemass as Fianna Fail leader that the young Republic of Ireland made a successful attempt to drag itself into the modern capitalist-dominated world.
Lemass, an old IRA leader whose brother Frank was assassinated during the Civil War, was an astute leader. He was, as it turned out, also lucky. Within a few short years, he even made the cover of Time magazine, credited with lifting the "green curtain," to usher Ireland into the modern world.
Faced with such an enterprising leader, minor opposition parties withered away, leaving the political stage to Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
The Labor Party almost died. Lemass played with it like a cat with a captured mouse. Once, he categorized the earnestly socialist party by commenting: "The Labor Party will always struggle with its conscience — and the Labor Party will always win."
The Fianna Fail party, which held its 64th ard fheis recently in Dublin, is largely the product of the Lemass leadership. The majority of the party membership regard de Valera as a rather austere, remote figure, the inheritor of an Ireland, now dead and gone, with O’Leary in the grave, so to speak.
While the beleaguered Charles Haughey was still welcomed as a VIP, he was one of the few among the attendance at the Royal Dublin Society who knew Eamon de Valera personally. Only three ministers who served under him still hold office.
It is Haughey, more than any other single person, who epitomizes all that is bad — and good — about Fianna Fail.
Politically a loner in his old age, discarded by many he placed within the party hierarchy because they avoid potentially damaging public contact with him, Haughey is treated as something of a pariah.
For that, he can thank his own activities and two tribunals that have exposed many of his questionable financial dealings.
Although he has been operated on for cancer of the prostate and recently underwent treatment at the Sloan-Kettering clinic in New York, there is little sympathy within the party rank and file.
Haughey faces trial on a charge of obstructing the work of the McCracken tribunal, which first unearthed details of his lucrative dealings with his former advisor, the late Des Traynor.
Even more unsavory details have emerged in the course of the ongoing Moriarty tribunal. If he ever does appear to give testimony, the former taoiseach will have a raft of questions to answer. His answers will lead to even more disclosures.
In short, it will go on and on, which is something that members of the present Fianna Fail party, particularly its leader, Bertie Ahern, do not wish to face, near or, especially, during yet another general election.
Denis Foley, the North Kerry T.D. from Tralee, who has been effectively expelled from the party, is another who has resurrected all of the widespread public suspicions concerning corruption within the party.
Apart from such suspicion, there is practically nothing to differentiate Fianna Fail from Fine Gael, just like the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S.
There are no huge ideological differences. Both of the main Irish parties are pragmatic in approach, intent on vote catching rather than powerful personal leadership in the public interest, such as that once exercised by de Valera.
The only real interest continues to spring from their different roles during the Civil War.
However, there is something else, something that you cannot quite finger.
Fine Gael tends to paint itself as the "moral party," the model of rectitude and selfless public interest for the public good. It tends to be holier than thou, especially under the leadership of John Bruton, a rather colorless type who is certainly the best thing that Fianna Fail has going for it.
Ahern continues to tower over him in the personality ratings. Even more unfortunately for Fine Gael is the fact that there seems to be nobody to replace Bruton.
Fianna Fail now projects itself as being politically correct in the public rectitude stakes. During the weekend ard fheis, motion after motion reflected the grassroots concern over bad publicity on the issue of political corruption.
All sorts of remedies have been suggested. Most famously, the Laois-Offaly T.D., Sean Fleming, proposed last weekend that the party should not accept any funding from big business. He claimed that it lends itself to corruption.
As the success of the Celtic Tiger continues, the struggle between the two parties seems to have come down to the resolution of which is more politically correct.
That is certainly not much of a difference, is it?
Just like the Democrats and the Republicans.