A fractured nation

A fractured nation Photo Credit: RTE/Mícheál Lehane Political Correspondent.

Pól Ó Muirí

There was a united Ireland of sorts in May when the electorate on the island’s two jurisdictions, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, cast their votes in local and European Union elections.

Ironically, it was the party most associated with a united Ireland, Sinn Féin, which did worst at the ballot box. The party lost two of its three MEPs, over half of its local councillors and a shedload of votes in the South. It also lost 33,000 first preference votes in the EU election in the North but retained its one MEP, Martina Anderson, with ease and polled solidly in the council elections. The Northern election might have provided some solace were it not for the fact that the Alliance Party’s candidate, Naomi Long, stole the headlines with her unexpected victory and Sinn Féin found itself having to share the lime light.


Sinn Féin are fortunate in that there is still much electoral meat on the Northern bone.

However, given that they have invested so much time and energy in pushing abortion in the Republic and attempting to liberalise Northern Ireland’s abortion regime and bring in same sex marriage in the same jurisdiction, the party leadership might be asking itself where the electoral bounce was from tying itself to the social issues of the day.

Indeed, having sacrificed their former president Gerry Adams, like Iphigenia, to ensure a fair wind for Mary Lou McDonald, they may well wonder if they have not made a disastrous miscalculation.

Adams is roundly loathed by many in the Southern media where being suspicious of Northern nationalists of any hue is the default position. However, the voters who Adams attracts are not the sort who ‘take’ respectable Dublin dailies. McDonald is just as middle class as Fine Gael leader, Leo Varadkar, and has none of Adams’s street cred. Where is the revolutionary act in voting for someone who belongs to the ruling class?

Varadkar too has his problems. He leads a minority government, propped up by irascible and egotistical independents, and has never led his party in a general election. Fine Gael performed solidly in the local and European elections but Fianna Fáil crept in front of them in the local elections to become the biggest party on Southern councils. That will please Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, but both parties are still locked in the death grip (or dull grip) of mediocrity.

There has been little backlash from the electorate over abortion with Peadar Tóibín’s new party, Aontú, securing enough hurlers to form a full-back line but nowhere near enough to field a full squad. Aontú can legitimately point to many issues as to why they did not do well but, in the dog eat dog world of contemporary politics, time may not be on their side.

If you belong to the school of thought that believes that you need to make a show first time out, then they are in trouble. If you believe in building the squad up slowly for next year’s championship, then, well, maybe, just maybe, Aontú may find some traction. However, given that Aontú’s unique selling point was their pro-life platform, are we to understand, in the light of Fine Gael’s and Fianna Fáil’s returns, that that subject is now a dead issue for most of the electorate?

The Greens’ wave turned out to be just a splash in the Republic and little more than a drip in the North where the main unionist party, the DUP, battered but still belligerent, held on to their policy of being pro-Brexit and opposing both same sex marriage and abortion. Consequently, they held their European seat comfortably and maintained a strong presence in Northern council chambers. They offered no surrender and they were rewarded by their voters.


The big question remains what happens when Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil finally go head-to-head in a general election. Neither party inspires the voters nor seems to have captured ‘the vision thing’. Fine Gael has become the party of amoral money while Fianna Fáil has lost the common touch. It is instructive to remember that both parties have names in Irish and that those names actually encapsulate very profound visions of their founder members.

In Fine Gael’s case, Gael is self-explanatory; it is an old name for Irishman or woman. ‘Fine’ however is much more nuanced. The dictionary defines that as “family group”, “racial group”, “race” and “racial territory”. They were the party who, rightly or wrongly, fancied themselves as the founders of the State.

Yet, in these days of ever closer integration in the European Union, of globalisation and mass immigration and emigration, can they make the claim to be a family, let alone a loving family, to the State’s citizens? And as for race and racial territory, good luck redefining and defending that in these days.

Fianna Fáil, of course, take their name from the warriors of old and Fál is a very, very old word for Ireland which is now confined to usage in literary matters. The Fianna of course are inextricably linked to the mythical fighter Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Yet where is the fight in Fianna Fáil now? What exactly do they defend? They support many of Fine Gael’s social and economic policies; their appeal to undecided voters seems just to be: “We will be better managers than the other crowd.”

Further, the party’s link-up with the moderate nationalists of the SDLP in the North was an attempt to add, belatedly and reluctantly, an all-Ireland dimension to their portfolio. It turned out to be the dampest of squibs with the policy launch having all the romance and razzmatazz of a first date in a chip shop.

In this age of Game of Thrones, allow me to stretch a point. One of the most basic units of governance in ancient Ireland was the ‘tuath’ which could be a tribe, territory or petty kingdom. The tuath no longer exists in any meaningful way but we do see it at work in the election results, locally and on a 32-county basis.

A bewildering number of tribes are fighting for power: unionists, nationalists, republicans, socialists, Blue Shirts and independents. Some politicians manage to clamber to the top and become a virtual ‘rí tuaithe’, a territorial king, but none can gather enough support to proclaim themselves Ardrí, high king.

In truth, no one speaks for Ireland, north or south. The island is fractured physically, politically and morally and all this takes place against the backdrop of Brexit, a process that will have very profound implications for everyone from Coleraine to Cork.