Dirty tricks, ‘mature recollection’ and a starry-eyed Micheál Martin

Television: There’s plenty of gossipy goodness in the second instalment of Two Tribes, Seán O’Rourke’s documentary on Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael

In his previous life as presenter of Radio 1’s midmorning magazine show, Seán O’Rourke was a master at hopscotching between often wildly contrasting subjects. Two Tribes, his documentary about Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, has that same jumpy energy, for better or worse.

One minute the subject at hand is the relationship between church and state. The next it’s dirty tricks in the 1932 general election. And then we’re back in the present, discussing the possibility of one or both of Ireland’s historic ruling parties going into coalition with Sinn Féin.

The only person in Fianna Fáil who knew realpolitik when he saw it was Charles Haughey. Falling short of a majority in 1989, he called a first-time Cork TD named Micheál Martin and had him put out the feelers to the PDs

These are all juicy areas of discussion, and there is lots of gossipy goodness in the second instalment of this two-parter (RTÉ One, Thursday, 10.05pm). But the framework of siloing Irish politics into various topics – Catholicism and politics, coalitions, the North – means the documentary never coheres into anything bigger. It’s a very agreeable watch but has little substantial to say about Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and what they tell us about Ireland’s past, present or future.

O’Rourke revisits Brian Lenihan snr’s “mature recollection” stumble during the 1990 presidential campaign, when he publicly contradicted private statements about telephoning Áras an Uachtaráin in 1982 to talk President Hillery out of calling a general election.


“It’s very simple ... Brian had forgotten,” says Bertie Ahern, who was Lenihan’s director of elections. Lenihan was ambushed on live television by Fine Gael, says Ahern. “It was a Fine Gael set-up on the night. But anyway, that’s politics.” “It was based on fact,” says Alan Dukes, who was Fine Gael’s leader at the time. “It was fair game.”

O’Rourke also delves into Fianna Fáil’s historical antipathy towards coalition. “There was an extraordinary arrogance about Fianna Fáil’s sense of entitlement to power,” says Maurice Manning of Fine Gael. “Non-coalition had been elevated to a core principle,” agrees Charlie McCreevy, the former Fianna Fáil minister for finance.

The only person in Fianna Fáil who knew realpolitik when he saw it was Charles Haughey, the party leader. Falling short of an overall majority in 1989, he immediately called a starry-eyed first-time Cork TD named Micheál Martin and had him put out the feelers to Des O’Malley’s Progressive Democrats. Everybody else in Fianna Fáil was wrestling with the moral dilemma of going into coalition – a bridge Haughey had already crossed.

Looking to the future, O’Rourke contemplates the likelihood of one or more parties entering coalition with Sinn Féin. Leo Varadkar rules it out. But “Michael Collins was a revolutionary – he sent men out to shoot others,” says O’Rourke. “He didn’t send people out to blow up chip shops,” counters the Taoiseach. “He didn’t blow up buses. He didn’t blow up shopping centres.”

O’Rourke is to be credited for assembling a who’s who of political bigwigs. Still, though it goes down easily, as an analysis of the differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, Two Tribes falls short. In colourful fashion, it tells us what we already know. But it never goes any further.