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The idea this Government has another year is constitutionally correct but politically preposterous

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TDs know they are franchisees of brands in decline

There was a national tizzy nine days ago when Leo Varadkar resigned as leader of Fine Gael. Four days later Simon Harris succeeded him. On April 9th he will become Taoiseach. The froth subsided quickly; in hindsight these were not great events and may not matter much at all. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are dead traditions, their rituals are no longer national rites. Ireland has moved on and left its former arbiters marooned, albeit in Government.

The change of Taoiseach feels more like administrative reorganisation in the upper echelons of government than a matter of consequence. That is partly because the Government lacks a clearly articulated political purpose. It is entering its final stages, with only one remaining budget. Barring an unforeseen event most of its important decisions have been taken. The only ones of consequence left are the terms and timing of its end.

Here Harris could come into his own. He has a last chance to articulate an identity for his party that can save it from its fate. He unquestionably has abundant energy and there will briefly be interest in what he has to say. But he is constrained by circumstances in what he can do, and time is his enemy. To convey change, to re-establish an identity for Fine Gael and connect culturally with a changed country will be challenging.

The two larger parties in Government are in a twilight zone where they survive as groups of TDs who are effectively franchisees of declining brands. There is a dwindling party membership and little left of once famed constituency organisations except the husk.


Selection conventions were once hotly-contested, intrigue-filled rooms of delegates fighting over something that mattered – which was a party nomination. The political machine and the people in it counted because periodically they had power. That power was as gatekeepers for nominations for parties that routinely took 70 per cent of the national vote in Dáil elections. To be in the room as a voting delegate meant you mattered, but now you are an applauding accessory. European Parliament conventions are occasionally livelier because they are the exit out of national politics.

The local elections only 10 weeks away are characterised not by competition for places but difficulty in finding recruits. Most conventions nod through those found willing to step up. It is not just that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are diminished, it is that the surrounding culture that nurtured them has disappeared.

In a more prosperous country there is more opportunity so politics is less attractive as a career. The standing of politics has declined as we expect the leaders we elect to be whipping boys and girls for public outrage. It is an irony that in an era where there are ever more personal rights, the boundaries around politicians have collapsed.

What further affects Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is the loss of identity. The Greens, Sinn Féin, Social Democrats, Aontú and perhaps even Labour all stand for something. The two larger parties in Government originate in events of over a century ago and their cultural context was the Gaelic revival and the Catholic church. Their durability is astonishing, and achievements once considerable, but separately each lost its way, which is the only reason they ended up together. Their cohabitation has been a disaster for their respective party identities.

Fine Gael has never found a better answer to the question of why it did so badly in the general elections of 2016 and 2020 than that the voters were wrong. With every misstep electorally, they became mired –- first through confidence and supply and then in coalition – in a muddle from which they can’t stand apart and don’t stand for much.

Harris’s job is akin to kindling wet wood in a party where nearly one third of its TDs are retiring and not one other would contest the leadership to secure the office of Taoiseach. Whatever Fine Gael does stand for it was not sorting out how third level will be sustainably funded under Harris as Minister for Higher Education, even though education is a key driver of the economy and social aspiration. Harris offers fighting words but no record of radical action.

The slate will almost be wiped clean on April 9th when he goes to Áras an Uachtaráin to receive his seal of office, but the clock will not stop ticking. The notion that the Government could go on until March 22nd, 2025, is constitutionally correct but politically preposterous. It would require the Government to abandon its duty to represent Ireland abroad on St Patrick’s Day and listen to its own insistence on the value of the opportunity replayed as an election issue. If the new Dáil were to meet for the first time in the week ending Friday, March 7th, polling day would be a week or more before to allow all counts to complete. In those circumstances the Government would face a February election if it doesn’t go in the autumn. That is hardly a choice worth considering.

Harris has only a political instant to reimagine Fine Gael. He circumvented old school political organisations by riding the rainbow of social media. What a party leader needs are boots on the ground and ideas that translate into practical plans.