• Donal Horgan

Fine Gael's Decade in Power

February 25th, 2021 marks an important milestone in Irish politics. It is ten years to the day when Fine Gael stormed to power winning a record 76 seats in the 2011 general election amid the carnage of the financial crash. After a decade of Fine Gael rule, what’s the verdict?

The Fine Gael election manifesto issued before the 2011 general election promised a new start. It was summed up in a simple 5 point plan as follows:

1. Help protect and create jobs

2. Keep taxes low while fixing the deficit

3. Deliver smaller, better government

4. Create a completely new, fairer, more efficient health system

5. Overhaul the way our political system works to stamp out cronyism and low standards

It could be said that the Fine Gael manifesto harked back to an old Fine Gael vision of a small, fiscally responsible state which exists to serve its citizens rather than special interest groups. The same manifesto didn’t underestimate the task in hand adding ‘It could take a decade to fix many of Ireland’s problems.’ Well Fine Gael have had a decade to fix Ireland – so how have they done?

After ten years in charge of the country’s finances, Fine Gael now own all of the numbers relating to Ireland’s finances. These numbers don’t make for pleasant reading especially for anyone who believed that Fine Gael was the party of fiscal rectitude. ‘Fixing the debt’ has meant that the national debt it inherited on gaining power ballooned from €189bn in 2011 to €204bn in 2019. That was before the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. The expectation now is that Irish national debt will climb to €239bn by the end of 2021.

In spite of its fiscal rhetoric, Fine Gael has shown itself to be more than a match for Fianna Fáil when it comes to the political art of massaging the electorate with lots of strategically aimed cash. It has been yellow carded by the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, the public spending watch dog, on several occasions for overtly political decisions such as kicking the pensions timebomb down the electoral road and borrowing for items which more correctly fall under the category of current spending. Like other Irish political parties, it appears that Fine Gael has drifted leftwards into a political space where it now competes with other political parties in buying electoral popularity.

The other area where Fine Gael nailed its reputation on was fixing the Irish health system. After close on a decade of control of the health brief, it can be stated definitively that Fine Gael didn’t fix the health system – and that was before the carnage unleashed by the Covid pandemic.

Perhaps nothing typifies the Fine Gael style of doing things over the last decade more than Minister Simon Harris who was in charge of the health portfolio from 2016 to 2020. With spiralling waiting lists, Harris became better known as an advocate for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment and delivering the world’s most expensive hospital (€1.43bn and rising) than the person working on fixing Ireland’s health system.

For Harris, as for much of Fine Gael over the last decade, it’s become more about controlling the message than it is about fixing the things that do not work. In his new role as Minister for Higher Education, Simon Harris has studiously avoided the issue of third level funding widely viewed by everyone as the most pressing issue facing the sector. Instead, he has busied himself talking and tweeting about everything except the thorny issue of third level financing which appears to have joined the growing list of difficult decisions to be kicked down the road for purely political reasons.

Playing political musical chairs has now become the norm for Fine Gael’s heavy hitters. Increasingly, the real work of a minister involves controlling the messaging around a particular issue until such time as it’s someone else’s problem. One of the things that Fine Gael’s 5 point election manifesto in 2011 failed to mention was that it was going to hire scores of advisers, journalists and spin doctors to do just this.

These days, Fine Gael is absorbed in playing the electoral game. This hasn’t gone well for them over the last decade. Following their electoral breakthrough in 2011, the party had a disastrous general election in 2016 losing 16 seats. The 2020 general election was even worse when they lost a further 15 seats reducing their representation in the present Dáil to 35 seats. What’s more interesting is that almost 60% of Fine Gael’s TDs are now drawn from the province of Leinster.

For Fine Gael, it’s all about numbers at this stage. Their electoral losses over the last two elections mean that Fine Gael is now essentially a political vehicle for the professional and economic elites of the greater Dublin metropolitan area. Control of the national purse strings and the judicious use of cash is now an essential element in maintaining the party’s electoral support. However, the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to add a minimum of €40bn to the national debt further restricting this easy go-to political fix for the inheritors of the Cumann na nGaedhael mantle in their ongoing search for electoral popularity.

While Fine Gael’s 2011 manifesto promised much, the reality of the party’s decade in power has been based more on deferring difficult financial decisions or simply adding to Ireland’s ballooning national debt. Neither have the promises about ‘small government’ come to pass – in fact, never has the state been a more dominant player in the lives of citizens than it has been over the last decade. Far from stamping out cronyism, Fine Gael’s decade in power has ushered in an era whereby unelected lobbyists and NGOs now appear to dictate much of the country’s social policy.

Michael Collins has always been a key part of the modern day Fine Gael narrative connecting itself to the foundation of the Irish state. What would Collins and the founders of Fine Gael such as W. T. Cosgrave make of Fine Gael’s decade in power? As social and fiscal conservatives, they would certainly find today’s liberal and centre left leaning political party a cold house for their own political beliefs. Indeed, you’d have to wonder if they would even be voting for Fine Gael in 2021.

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