Fine Gael has launched a poster campaign featuring a picture of the ghost estate of Keshcarrigan in County Leitrim. Under it runs the caption: Don’t Let Fianna Fail Come Back to Haunt Us. But such negative advertising reflects an ideological confusion stemming from the failure of a generation of Fine Gael intellectuals in the 1960s and 70s to assert a clear identity. The party could have become a mainstream party on the centre-left and given Irish politics a conventional left-right divide.
The poster may be effective as it preys on the outrage felt at the sight of ruined landscapes. Its chilling effect is enhanced by the structures being half-completed suburban houses – familiar in dimensions to most of us who grew up in one – laid bare to reveal apocalyptic grey brick.
The image’s emotive value might explain the whirlwind success of the NAMA to Nature campaign involving the planting of trees on that very ‘Waterways’ site on which I participated. Our symbolic act of restoring native forest to a famished landscape led, in short time, to interviews on national radio and television, and for the story to appear on the front page of almost all national newspapers. For a short time guerrilla gardening was all the rage.
Sadly, the present government led by Fine Gael has done nothing to remove this toxic eyesore and others like it. If anything its environmental record is worse than its predecessor, especially the cavalier approach to climate change with the expansion of the dairy sector, and another property bubble looms.
Little has been done to prevent schemes of that type from occurring again. Thus, under the Planning and Development Bill (no.2) 2014 the office of the National Regulator is limited to investigating, reporting and recommending as opposed to imposing sanctions.
The ghost estates emerged under Fianna Fail when tax breaks and loose regulations fuelled nonsensical developments. But Fine Gael was the largest party on ten county councils between 2004-2009, a period when numerous dodgy applications were approved.
Leitrim County Council passed from Fianna Fáil control in the first half of that period to Fine Gael. Available records show that the Waterways was planned over five years ago, but not when exactly. Embarrassingly Fine Gael may be using a disturbing image its own councillors bear responsibility for.
Moreover, in opposition at national level the party failed to warn against a property bubble despite assessments to that effect from leading economists and The Economist magazine. They advocated expansionary economic policies before the 2002 and 2007 elections. Tellingly, Enda Kenny sought a contract with the Irish people in 2007 that promised removal of Stamp Duty for first time buyers and reductions in income tax.
The leader of the opposition sought to outbid Fianna Fail by preying on an acquisitive desire to invest in property. During an era of unprecedented prosperity he might have proposed that if elected his government would provide high density social housing built in sensible locations as part of his ‘contract’. Of course we’ll never know how the electorate would have responded but at least they would have been presented with an alternative especially in numerous rural constituencies where the two party hegemony was firmly entrenched.
Fine Gael has assumed the position of the natural party of government by default since the economy unravelled. Dangerously for our democracy, their policies seem to be framed in public relations offices and advancement is achieved within a closely managed system. Meaningful debate is avoided as scripts are stuck to. At the next election fear may lead the electorate to choose their least-unpalatable option.
Fine Gael has seen an intellectual decline since the days of Garret FitzGerald, and under Kenny it was shaped into an alternative Fianna Fail. This is particularly problematic, as noted, in rural Ireland where other parties, apart from Sinn Fein, have been unable to build up a presence.
Fine Gael could have become the mainstream party of the left and real opposition to Fianna Fail if they had accepted principles laid down by the former Attorney General and President of the High Court Declan Costello in his Just Society document. Interestingly this included nationalising the banks which people used to scoff at. Amalgamation with the Labour Party should have occurred.
Instead the party chose to remain a more refined version of Fianna Fail that wrote cheques with gilded fountain pens rather than fumbled in greasy tills. It was unwilling to jeopardise its strong farmer vote that could have been lost if more inclusive and environmentally-friendly policies were pursued.
A generation of left-leaning intellectuals including Garret FitzGerald, Alexis FitzGerald, Michael Sweetman and Jim Dooge, described by UNESCO-HIE as a ‘towering figure and pioneer’ in the field of hydrology, failed to insist on core social democratic values in opposition to the liberal economic policies of Fianna Fail. This made it ripe for successive public relations makeovers, swayed by populist tides and seemingly oblivious to the structural flaws of the country.
The cost of having two dominant centre-right parties is that the country is subject to distressing boom-bust economic cycles and deep inequality. Since Fine Gael has become the dominant centre-right party, Fianna Fail is scurrying to the centre ground where it is joined by a resurgent Sinn Fein. All three parties derive their origins from approaches to the national question (in order: constitutional; slightly constitutional; and unconstitutional) rather than distinctive ideas on social or environmental issues. If only Irish politics could mature to a point where ideological substance rather than snide hypocrisy is offered to the public.