In the last two years, a series of events has occurred which, taken together, seemed to signify developments of such importance that even those observers of Irish politics most prone to relish or lament its apparent barren continuities have begun to contemplate the possibility of a radical opening of perspectives. Most attention has inevitably focused on initiatives concerning Northern Ireland, from the joint Declaration agreed by the British and Irish prime ministers on 15 December 1993, responding to unprecedented revisionist thinking amongst the leadership of the republican movement, through to the IRA’s cessation of hostilities announced on 31 August 1994, after a relentless ‘armed struggle’ against the British state for over twenty years.

Discussion of Irish politics in both Ireland and Britain has suffered from its narrow foci—on developments in Northern Ireland, on inter-governmental manoeuvring, and most breathlessly on the cryptic and often contradictory statements by leading members of Sinn Fein. A political organization linked to a paramilitary force that can wreak devastation in the City of London is clearly going to command more attention than its unspectacular electoral performance would otherwise warrant. Nevertheless, no serious discussion of the current signs of a ‘thaw’ in militant nationalism’s rigidified postures can ignore an earlier event which indicated a new constellation of political forces in the southern state without which the Sinn Fein rethinking is incomprehensible.

This was the unprecedented performance of the Irish Labour Party in the general election of November 1992, in which it more than doubled its representation in the national parliament. That a national vote of 19.3 per cent should have generated such euphoria on the Irish Left was ironic comment on a historical experience which Peter Mair has summarized as ‘the striking electoral debility of class-based, left wing parties’.footnote1 Five years before the party had won a miserable 6.4 per cent and there appeared to be a real danger that it would be supplanted by the relatively new Workers’ Party.footnote2 The latter had emerged out of an earlier division in the republican movement and created a small but growing constituency as a leftist challenge to a Labour Party marked by an ideological minimalism symbolized by its regular participation in coalition government with Fine Gael, a party whose core support lay in the rural bourgeoisie. Labour’s recent success does little to detract from Mair’s assessment; its niche among young urbanites was astutely cultivated on the commodities of ‘morality’ and ‘principle’ cutting across class cleavage. This is unlikely to signal the realignment urged by the Left since the 1960s but it is clear that the juxtaposition of fiscal crisis, a secularizing agenda, and decomposition of traditional political culture has opened up the possibility that Labour could occupy a role in almost any future government.

Like the hitherto predominant party in Irish politics, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael had its roots in the broad nationalist front, Sinn Fein, which had led the politico-military campaign that destroyed British rule in the bulk of the island between 1919 and 1921. The Treaty settlement with England split Sinn Fein and caused the Civil War out of which the ancestors of Fine Gael emerged as the victors in 1923. The vanquished were to split further into a radical populist party, Fianna Fail, and an irreconcilable nationalist and militarist rump, Sinn Fein and the ira, who were convinced of the illegitimacy of both Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State.

Fianna Fail rose to pre-eminence through its capacity to rearticulate the powerful legacies of the nineteenth-century development of mass politics in Ireland which centred on two major cleavages—a nationalist and a Catholic mobilization against the Act of Union and its ‘internal’ manifestation, the Anglo-Irish, Protestant landlord class. The key to understanding the pervasively conservative disposition of the new state is the fact that the central class conflict expressed in nineteenth-century Irish nationalism—that between Protestant landlord and Catholic tenant—was resolved peacefully and with the assistance of the British exchequer prior to the ‘national revolution’. The ascendant social class in postFamine Ireland was a Catholic rural bourgeoisie and in the narrative of the ‘rise of the Irish nation’ written around its interests there was no room for the registering of any conflicts or contradictions save those with English power and Protestant landlords.

When Sinn Fein replaced the Irish Parliamentary Party as the dominant political force in Catholic Ireland in the 1910s, it did so on the basis of a more militant and moralizing idiom which exploited the rebuffs the leader of the ipp, John Redmond, had received from British Liberalism.footnote3 First was the acceptance by the prewar Liberal administration that Ulster Unionist resistance to the creation of a parliament in Dublin made some form of partition inevitable. Then came the formation of a Coalition government in May 1915 which included the leader of Irish Unionist resistance, Sir Edward Carson. The British execution of the leaders of the 1916 insurrection in Dublin and the subsequent threat of the extension of conscription to Ireland hastened the process of displacement.

There was, beneath this series of events, a substantive social content. By 1914 roughly two-thirds of Irish peasants had got what they wanted—their land.footnote4 They no longer needed a party at Westminster to wring further reforms. Indeed, they were sometimes irritated by the Irish Party’s concessions to the rural poor. This was particularly the case for the rich cattle farmers, pejoratively known as ‘ranchers’, who capped the class structure of rural Ireland once the landlords were removed. That there was much basis for conflict between this stratum and the larger class of medium and small peasant farmers, particularly the bottom third of marginal peasants and rural labourers, was evidenced by a long history of class conflict which the nationalist narrative obliterated.footnote5 There was little differentiation between the old Parliamentary Party, Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail on the sources of this conflict. All would, at various times, adopt a rhetoric of sympathy for the poorest strata of the peasantry and criticize the ‘ranchers’, but all were rigorously opposed to any agrarian struggle that threatened to disrupt national unity.