A foregone conclusion or a self-fulfilling prophecy? Maeve McTaggart explores why head-to-head debates between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are a necessary evil – and why reality isn’t as painful as you may think.
From the Starbucks-led coffeeshop coup which has wracked every city corner and bottom floor of every new office block, to the Krispy Kreme mass hysteria which gripped Blanchardstown last year, Ireland is certainly not immune to Americanisation. A sweet tooth for the American (lest we forget our insatiable hunger for so many Garth Brooks dates that we were left with nothing), our cravings seem to have seeped into the way we construct our election campaigns. While still without Russians, rallies or crazy celebrity candidacies, the Americans have given us one thing – leadership debates.
Effective across the pond for discerning who gets your vote, in a parliamentary democracy like Ireland, leaders’ debates are more nonsensical than we would like to admit. The reality is, unless you are one of the 84,000 people in Cork South-Central who have Michéal Martin on your ballot or one of Dublin West’s 64,000 who have Leo Varadkar on theirs, how many digs they throw or questions they stutter through is probably not going to influence your vote. Despite this, leaders’ debates have aired each election season from 1982, most of them head-to-heads between ‘The Big Two’ – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – and when Virgin Media and RTÉ announced a continuation of such debates for 2020, Twitter was indignant. Labelled a “farce” by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and rendered media bias by many, Virgin Media presenter Matt Cooper took to the social media site to unofficially explain. “Realistically, [whether] you want it or not, like it or not, one of the two of them will be the next Taoiseach. That justifies it,” he wrote. And hear me out, he’s right.
Since 1932, parliamentary power has alternated between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, sometimes supported by others and since 2016, by each other. They were the ‘Big Two’ because it was unfathomable that any other party could make headway on Fianna Fáil’s tradition of power, or Fine Gael’s ability to flourish within the gaps. The Guardian describes the parties as ‘the yin and yang’ of political parties, while others prefer to use the much less poetic ‘two cheeks of the same arse’ argument. Irish politics has long lived on a wheel of centrist politics – where one goes up, the other down. Parties rarely identify as right-wing, and those who identify as left seem to be dragged to the centre upon walking through the doors of Leinster House. When they enter government, coalescing with one of ‘The Big Two’, we punish the left – the junior party – much more than we do those who make the decisions, who hold the positions of power. In 2016, emerging from a five-year coalition with Fine Gael where economic policy was based on austerity and aimed at recovery, the Labour Party collapsed country-wide, returning just 7 TDs while Fine Gael sat a parliamentary majority of fifty. In the election prior, after a coalition with Fianna Fáil which weathered the financial crash, the Green Party were left without any representatives in the Oireachtas. To the electorate, the ‘Big Two’ are beyond retribution, forgiven faster than Labour or the Greens could ever clear their names of the blame voters have assigned to them.
Leo Varadkar or Michéal Martin will be Taoiseach in 2020, not because the Irish electorate lacks innovation or short-term memory, but because no other party are even running enough candidates to position themselves as senior coalition partners. A majority is assured at eighty seats and both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are running over 80 candidates each. The Green Party is the only other running a candidate in each of Ireland’s 39 constituencies, with 39 candidates in contest nationwide. Sinn Féin have pledged forty-two, Solidarity-People Before Profit thirty-seven and Labour just thirty-one. Country-wide, there are 516 candidates (one-fifth of whom are Independents) battling it out in the ballot boxes for 159 seats. Acknowledging the FF/FG stronghold on the political system is perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy for each minority party. Regardless of what the polls may say, Matt Cooper is right, “like it or not” the title of Taoiseach is reserved for Martin or Varadkar. Despite migrating from a staunchly two-party system in the past, the electorate have curated what is now a “two-and-a-half” party system – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and whoever else can get their foot in the door, more often than not sacrificing themselves in the process.
The head-to-head leaders’ debates are a public confession of a reality we all will inevitably have to face – “one of the two of them will be the next Taoiseach” – and it may be a hard pill to swallow. When we later see all seven party leaders side-by-side on a debate stage it is the match-making process of “the Tánaiste Debate” we are watching, not yet the rise of The Underdog the left longs for. With your vote, you push ‘The Big Two’ further to the margins, choosing a coalition partner they have no choice but to listen to in the process. Depending on your politics, reality is either reassuring or irrevocably grim – channel it in how you vote on February 8th.