It has been a historic week for Ireland. After nearly 100 years, the Civil War divide appears to be coming to an end. Four months after a stunning election result, the newly formed government sees the two traditional parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, enter formal coalition with each other for the very first time.
The two are remarkably similar ideologically, sitting somewhere between the centre and the centre right. Yet, they have regularly rotated as government and opposition despite their little difference, something that is a political peculiarity.
For generations, Irish politics has been defined by a historical, rather than ideological, divide. On one side were those in favour of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, led by Michael Collins. On the other were those opposed to the Treaty, led by Éamon de Valera. This fracture in Irish politics was later translated into party politics. Fine Gael represented the pro-Treaty side, while Fianna Fáil represented those who were anti-Treaty.
This divide has prevailed long after the Civil War, with voting often following family lines rather than more common factors, such as class. There was some sense in this in the early years of the new Irish Republic. For many, the War of Independence and the Civil War were still raw. These were lived experiences for a number of generations and thus this divide ran deep. My Mum tells me the story of how my Grandad would demand the TV to be switched off if De Valera ever came on the screen.
My grandparents’ generation, however, are no longer as large a group in the Irish electorate as they once were. To an increasing number, the old historic divide means increasingly little. Moreover, the ideological similarity of the two parties has led to frustration, particularly amongst the young, at a lack of progress on various issues. It is perhaps becoming clear the old system of Irish politics is no longer relevant or fit for purpose.
The 2020 election and the rise of Sinn Féin revealed a large portion of the electorate eager for proper change and many for the first time willing to vote for Sinn Féin. Much has been made of the party’s history, such as its links with the IRA. However, under the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald the party has worked to modernise its image. Judging by the result in 2020, they’ve had some success. Though, there is still much to be done on that front to convince others – it was cited as a reason why neither of the other two major parties would contemplate coalition with Sinn Féin.
This raises the broader question of the role of history in politics. For generations, history has played the dominant role in Irish politics. The main two parties are built on a near 100-year divide, while challengers Sinn Féin are inextricably linked to Republican violence more recent in memory. Yet the 2020 election appeared to suggest that the Irish electorate is beginning to move on.
History undoubtedly plays an important role in politics. It shapes and informs where we are now and provides a rich archive from which to learn for future decision-makers and voters. But, it is not automatically relevant. In Ireland, the Civil War and the Troubles are becoming increasingly less salient. Voters appear to be far more worried by contemporary issues, such as Ireland’s housing crisis, and are voting to reflect that, rather than what side of the Civil War their ancestors were on.