We don’t have terribly high expectations for British politics these days. Ever since our nearest neighbour opted to jump from the EU life boat wearing nothing but Union Jack speedos and a quivering upper lip, nothing they do comes as a surprise. There is, however, one achievement for which the British political system deserves credit. Despite a fractured and bitter political environment, British politics remains relatively unaffected by that old Irish curse: the split.
The British Labour party is a shared home to all shades of red, from rosé to merlot, while the Conservative Party shelters a wide range of people, from those focused on globalising their economy to those determined to restrict it to north of Dover. While MPs spend most of their lives engaged in coup plotting against party comrades, when it comes to election time they all stand under one banner.
In Ireland, people with such differing ideologies as Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Blair would never stay on the same pitch together. We Irish love a good split. From residents’ associations to children’s sports clubs, we’re just waiting for the first disagreement to up sticks and set up a rival entity. If the Corbynites and Blairites existed in Ireland, they would long since have divided into 13 parties, seven alliances, 36 Independents and eight armies.
Throughout the years, Dáil Éireann has provided seats to a variety of people who could have sat in larger parties but decided that it was a lot more fun – not to mention fleeting – if you got to be your own boss.
Since 1919, Irish voters have sent 35 separate political parties and 242 Independent TDs into Dáil Éireann. We have had cameos from groups such as the Businessman’s Party, the Farmer’s Party and the National Centre Party, all of whom offered a voice for people concerned that a Dáil chamber already filled exclusively with pro-business, centrist farmers wasn’t representing them adequately.
Since then, we’ve had the National Labour Party and the National Progressive Democrats, neither of whom should be confused with the Labour Party or the Progressive Democrats.
Once influential parties who have long since faded from memory include Clann na Talmhan, which sounds like an Irish language tense Leaving Cert students have spent the last month trying to master, and Clann na Poblachta, which was originally a code name for late-night lock-ins in the members’ bar.
Even in its current fractured state, the United Kingdom – a complex multi-national entity made up of 65 million people spread over four countries – has returned eight political parties to Westminster. Ireland – a single country with almost 15 times fewer people – has nine groupings in Dáil Éireann, and that’s only if you count the 19 Independents as a unified political block.
Our determination to split is ingrained in our DNA. Going back to the day Cúchulainn knifed Ferdia, we have been pre-dispositioned to break alliances. Despite Ireland’s small size, our ancestors conspired to divide the island into four kingdoms, all of whom hated each other with such intensity that one of them thought it would be a good idea to invite the Normans over to help. The hired hands proceeded to play the factions off each other until all four kingdoms found themselves humming Rule Britannia and wondering what time Bake Off was on.
Not only did political infighting lead directly to Ireland’s colonisation, it has continued unabated ever since. The defining political events of 20th century Ireland were the dividing of the island into two, followed by people on both sides descending into separate civil wars.
Political parties in the south of Ireland stem from the one broad family which was more or less united on a single issue. Following the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, they split into four camps: those who thought the national question was mostly solved, those who thought the national question was unsatisfactorily solved, those who thought the national question wasn’t solved at all, and those who thought the national question was irrelevant unless it was governed by workers on rotating 35 hour weeks.
Sinn Féin split to eventually become Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The two groups initially fell out to the extent that they would sometimes tie each other to lampposts and detonate explosives. Today, they argue about things like which months hedgerows should be cut. This is remarkable progress but has led to it becoming increasingly difficult to justify not having the same postal address. They have morphed into Irish politics’ version of Ross and Rachel from Friends – soulmates unable to rise above a series of relatively minor misunderstandings.
In the absence of anything major to fight about, the Big Two of Irish politics came to a gentleman’s agreement to simply trade power every few years. This worked so seamlessly that eventually they went into government together and nobody noticed, not even themselves.
In recent years the dominant parties have been challenged by Sinn Féin, who are a split from Official Sinn Féin who went on to become the Workers’ Party, before some of them became Democratic Left before finally deciding to join Labour. Sinn Féin is leading the surge of the left on both sides of the border. They have outpaced the three social democratic parties who challenge them: the Social Democrats, the Labour Party, and the Social Democratic and Labour Party. There is also the British Labour party, which despite not contesting elections in Northern Ireland has still managed to recruit 3,000 members.
The various left wing parties in Ireland share much in common but still contrive to make Christmas dinner with Liam and Noel Gallagher seem cordial. The left continues to draw inspiration from Jim Larkin’s famous quote, “the great appear great only because we are on our knees, let us endlessly divide into small sub-sections and attack each other viciously”. While British politics is stuck in an endless episode of Yes, Minister, Irish politics is re-enacting the best bits of Game of Thrones.
British parties are constrained against splitting due to the First Past the Post system. Like Cliff Richard and Brexit, this system makes no sense to anybody outside of Britain, but it encourages forced unity by making it virtually impossible for small parties to reach Westminster. The Blairites and the Corbynites are the parliamentary equivalent of a Guns n’ Roses reunion tour – deeply hostile to each other, clinging to decades worth of personal grievances, but sticking together because it’s the only way either of them can achieve success.
Despite the contrived alliances and endless bickering, Britain’s unified party structure has reaped dividends. Had Jeremy Corbyn split to form an alternative to New Labour, he would in all likelihood be preparing to take minutes at Islington Town Council. Instead, he is knocking at the door of what is still – despite the best efforts of recent inhabitants – one of the most powerful political offices in the world.
There are currently five left leaning political parties in Dáil Éireann, along with a smattering of various left wing Independents. If they bit their lips and came together under one broad banner they would command somewhere in the region of 50 seats, making them potentially the single largest political entity in Dáil Éireann.
Perhaps, amid all the madness, British politics has a lesson for us?
Published in The Times, June 21, 2017.