The connection between the fall of Singapore in 1942 and the latest election set-back for Fianna Fail may not seem obvious at first. However, not only did both events signal the ending of empire but in a strange way each occurred because those in charge were facing in the wrong direction. Micheál Martin has probably never heard of Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival but they share much in common.
The changing face of southern Irish politics.
Ten years after the economic crash and with a smug Fine Gael government supported by Fianna Fail insisting that the economy is booming, people were outraged by a housing and homeless crisis, chaos in the health and childcare services and an attack on old-age pensions. All these issues were identified by Sinn Fein as demanding urgent action and unsurprisingly, the party benefited and did so at the expense of those determined to maintain the injustice of a punishing neoliberalism.
Consequently, the general election has delivered an intriguing result with the three largest parties each having practically equal numbers of deputies. Fine Gael is disappointed but they, unlike Fianna Fail, believe this does not pose an existential threat to their future. With their ingrained disdain for working class people, the Blueshirts are content to hold on to the 20/25% of the electorate who benefit under the capitalist dog-eat-dog system.
With that nasty cohort thus catered for, Fianna Fail has always had to look for a broader base. Now, after supporting the Dublin 4 Posh Boys for the past few years, their credibility is damaged and their appeal lessened. They are therefore left with an agonising dilemma. Do they go into coalition with a Sinn Fein party supported by a number of left-wing deputies, thereby risking a reverse takeover? Or do they remain out of government and precipitate another general election at which they face terminal damage from a hungry and reinvigorated Sinn Fein?
On the other hand and notwithstanding their undoubted success, Sinn Fein has need to reflect on how best to proceed. The increase to their vote now includes a significant left-wing current anxious for economic change, as evidenced by the large transfer of second preferences to other left-of-centre candidates. A challenge for Ms McDonald and her colleagues will be to retain the support of this broad constituency if the party signs up to a programme for government that fails to meet expectations.
In the wider context, politics in the Republic is changing. The state has one of the youngest and best educated populations in Western Europe many, of whom are unwilling to tolerate indefinitely a dysfunctional and lopsided economic system. They have voted for something better and will insist that this comes about.
Socialist republicans should therefore work to ensure this happens and not tolerate other considerations diluting our demands.
By the way, a final word about Lieutenant-General Percival. Just like Micheál Martin, he too had difficulty understanding Ireland’s working people, once finding himself severely discomforted in County Cork by a group of local men inspired by the advice and guidance of a Mr Thomas B. Barry.