People are crying out for a politics of conviction

Petty loyalties and betrayed promises have left people cynical about politics, writes Lucinda Creighton

The over dependence on loyalty in Irish politics, or perhaps the misunderstanding of loyalty, in comparison to other European countries, can be explained by the fact that many of the post-independence political establishment had fought together and against one another, a legacy which has not yet expired.

All but one member of the first Fianna Fáil cabinet in 1932 had fought in the Civil War or the War of Independence together. Similarly, in WT Cosgrave’s government of 1922, every member of the cabinet had fought together as volunteers or members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. I believe it was not until 1973 when the late Frank Aiken, a founder of Fianna Fáil, retired from politics that Dáil Éireann no longer had a member who had fought in the War of Independence. The impact of this historical legacy on how a government operates, or how political parties function, cannot be overstated. The militarism of unity has long been used as a cloak for cowardice, where individual members misdirect their loyalty to government, irrespective of the platform they promised to their electorate.


There was much commentary when former Fianna Fáil Minister, Mary O’Rourke, along with former Fine Gael advisor Bill O’Herlihy, said that the time had come for a Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil coalition. While this would represent a radical change in post-independence Irish politics, top down government would remain, and any soldier who spoke out of turn or who publicly questioned government policy would be silenced. In a true democracy, Taoisigh and Cabinet Members would not shy away from internal criticism when the party veers off its values driven course.

The Irish electorate is changing, yet the political establishment remains stubbornly unmoved. The 2011 election, which was remarkable for the shift in electoral allegiances from Fianna Fáil was even more remarkable when you look at the transfer votes for people’s second and third preference’s in the ballot box.

Fewer than 60% of voters who gave their number 1 to Fianna Fáil gave their number 2 to Fianna Fáil. This is despite years of loyal voters where Fianna Fáil were hugely successful at ensuring a transfer friendly vote from one Fianna Fáil candidate to the other. People voted for individuals to whom they had placed their trust, rather than a party system which had betrayed that trust.

Fine Gael would lose at least 20 seats if the election was held tomorrow, and the Labour party face the proposition of losing 75% of their seats at the next election, a seismic outcome for the oldest parliamentary party in the state. The Irish people are not stupid, the reason they no longer support either Government parties to the same extent they did in 2011 is not because they are feeling the pinch of austerity, it’s because the preponderance of the Irish electorate voted in 2011 based on the policies that both these political parties promised, yet diluted once in office.


From the signed letters of commitment to members of the electorate on abortion by Fine Gael, or the uncompromising redline commitment to protecting child benefit changes from Labour, both parties have rowed back on firm commitments that were made at a time when they were greedy for extra votes.

“Isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?” asked Pat Rabbitte rhetorically when Sean O’Rourke was probing him on the latest Labour row back on an electoral promise.

I cannot speak for other political parties, but the vast majority of members who stood for Fine Gael believed the unequivocal commitments which we gave as a party would not be compromised. Everyone recognised that with coalition government comes cooperation and concessions, but we also felt there were principles and red lines that would not be crossed.


Unlike the cynicism exuded by Minister Rabbitte, which has not gone unnoticed by the electorate, principles matter to many elected members of Fine Gael. We in Fine Gael found to our detriment that loyalty to the party, its members and the electorate which we serve, are not held in equal or as high regard as loyalty to government. Loyalty to government, rather than the values of the party which we support is the higher calling that we are expected to serve.

This loyalty manifests itself in a slavish adherence to the government line, an unquestioning acceptance of the superiority of others by virtue of their rank or influence, and a willingness to stay silent in the face of poor policy making and vested interests. These triumph above all else. Inconvenient questions and independence of thought must be quashed.

Misguided loyalty in Irish politics does not just affect the ability to hold our Government to account, it causes inertia at the heart of government decision making. Instead of a collective cabinet where 15 elected men and women debate the choices their cabinet colleagues are making, individual ministers are loyal only to the interests of their own department. A change to PRSI for employers or sick pay leave will be made behind the back of the Minister responsible for Jobs and Innovation. The Finance Minister will remove tax relief on 900,000 health insurance policies without discussing it with the Minister for Health. These are two real examples from this month’s Budget, yet not a whimper from either of the ministers concerned.

Too often it is focus groups – their needs, desires and wants – which determine public policy rather than politicians persuading the public the merits of their convictions. Collective responsibility rather than rights, what duties people have and why they have them, rather than what people deserve and should receive can be re-energised and understood only if people understand the true value of life rather than livelihood.

Irish citizens crave a politics of conviction that is befitting of a democracy which has lost its soul. It is up to those of us who care enough about our country and our people to make this much anticipated ‘democratic revolution’ really happen.