The last general election of the twentieth century was fought in the Republic in 1997, largely on the grounds that excessive taxation of the income of the middle classes was an unacceptable subjection, and this issue was to dominate political thinking and strategy for the next ten years.  In terms of party politics, there appeared to be no ideological reasons why all the main political parties could not have served in a grand coalition. There was also little debate concerning equality or redistribution of wealth, but rather a preoccupation with who could manage the wealth most effectively to benefit the middle classes. Fianna Fáil (FF) won the 1997 election, but in order to govern, it needed the support of a smaller party, the Progressive Democrats (PDs), which championed a deregulated economy, low personal taxation and social liberalism.

In 2000, Mary Harney, as leader of the PDs, made a speech to the Law Association of Ireland in which she addressed the issue of fiscal restraints being imposed by the European Central Bank and concluded defiantly: “Our economic success owes more to American liberalism than to European leftism…geographically we are closer to Berlin than Boston. Spiritually we are probably a lot closer to Boston than Berlin” These words entered the Irish political lexicon as a shorthand for a battle of ideas, but in truth their significance was  more because the notion of addressing political philosophy was something that was not a mainstream part of Irish political discourse. Bertie Ahern, for example, leader of Fianna Fáil from 1994 to 2008, and electorally the most successful politician since Eamon de Valera in the 1930s and 1940s, made it clear on many occasions that he was hostile to the notion of  ideas or intellectuals in realm and politic. The electoral cycle and maintaining power  were more important to political parties at the time than articulating  any vision of Irish society, and it was this to which Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fáil was dedicated.


Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael

While it was clear in the 1990s that the era of single-party government had come to an end, Fianna Fáil, it seemed, went from a position where it had all of the power most of the time to having most of the power all the time after 1997. Indeed the continued domination of Fianna Fáil meant that there was much reference to the notion of crisis within Fine Gael. Notwithstanding this, Fianna Fáil’s position was clearly not impregnable; in 2004 its share of the vote fell to 32% in the European and local elections, the lowest since 1927. There was a justifiable scepticism in 2009 that the result of the local elections, when Fianna Fáil again polled poorly, could be labelled revolutionary, as the continuing battle between two large conservative parties that date from the civil war era of the 1920s took a new, albeit dramatic turn. But the result did raise questions: just what did Fianna Fáil now stand for and was it in danger of losing its self-proclaimed status as a national movement rather than just a political party? In 1985 it polled 47% of the vote in the local elections; in June 2009 it polled 25%.

In contrast to Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen, who took over the leadership of FF in 2008, did not develop the cult of leadership his predecessors had. The main problem for Fine Gael during this time remained its lack of experience in government and policies that were indistinguishable from Fianna Fáil, and while in November 2007, the leader of the Labour Party, Eamon Gilmore, made a declaration of his socialism, it was deliberately cautiously defined.


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