Garret FitzGerald: Profile of Expectation
A French Member of Parliament visiting Ireland last year stated that Garret FitzGerald was the most formidable public figure in Europe. Certainly he is preeminent in Ireland where his enormous intellectual and administrative abilities are unmatched anywhere on the political scene. By Vincent Browne
But whether with even his considerable talents, Fine Gael can be rescued in the foreseeable future from protracted oblivion is very much open to doubt.
In electoral terms the party is back to where it was 17 years ago - the laborious gains of this period have been wiped but in one fell swoop by the June election. Its vote fell from 35.09% in 1973 to 30.49% last June - actually 1.5% lower than its share of the poll in the 1961 election.
However, in FitzGerald, Fine Gael has acquired its most exciting and appealing leader in its history, with the possible exception of its first, General Eoin O'Duffy. But there must be doubts about his ability to retain the traditional Fine Gael suppport. Not indeed that FitzGerald is, in his politics or background, foreign to Fine Gael. He comes from a staunch Fine Gael background and, though his style is off-putting to the more orthodox elements in the party, his basic political instincts are well within the conservative mould of that tradition.
His career and family background provide a fascinating perspective on the history of this country from 1913 onwards, for his parents were involved in the Easter Rebellion, the Independence movement, and his father was Minister in the Cumman na nGaedheal Government and was active in politics until the 1940's. Garret FitzGerald has since played a significant role in the public service during its most exciting period in the late 'fifties and 'sixties and his involvement in Fine Gael since 1965 covers thirteen years of exciting developments in Irish politics.
Because of the determining influence of his background politically, it is necessary, for an understanding of the politician, to examine his family roots in some detail.
MUCH TO his personal intellectual satisfaction, his family background links the two main streams in Irish cultural and political life: the Protestant unionist and Gaelic nationalist traditions. His paternal grandparents emigrated from Kerry and Cork to England in the 1860's and his father, Desmond, was born (in 1888) and brought up in London. As a young man, he joined a group of London poets, which was later to include the famous American poet, Ezra Pound, who became a close friend.
His interest also extended to Irish culture and nationalism and it was probably at a Gaelic League class in London that he met his wife-to-be, Mabel McConville, who was of Belfast unionist extraction. Her father was a scion of the unionist establishment, being managing director of Dunville distilleries of which Sir James Craig was a co-director. Mabel reacted against that environment and took fervently to the Irish nationalist cause while a student at Queens University. After graduation, she went to London to take a post-graduate course in education at London University. As well as being an Irish nationalist, she also supported the Fabians and the suffragette movement and to both causes she was deeply and energetically commmitted.
After university she became temporary secretary to George Bernard Shaw, with whom in later years she conducted a lively, if sporadic, correspondence. She also worked for George Moore.
They were married in 1911 and went to live in an artistic commune in Brittany, where Desmond's interest in French culture and literature deepenned. The family home in later years was cluttered with books in the French language which Desmond spoke fluently. Garret's Francophilia is just one of the many characteristics he inherited from his father.
Both Desmond and Mabel were fascinated by developments in Ireland, Desmond having become interested in Irish politics through Anglo-Irish literaature and especially through the poetry of W.B.Yeats, who was later to become a friend. He had been to the Blasket Islands off the Kerry coast some years previously and in 1913 both he and Mabel returned to west Kerry, this time to take up residence near Ventry. There they met Ernest Blythe, who had also come to live in west Kerry to learn Irish. Through him, Desmond became involved first in the Volunteers and then in the I.R.B., and both he and Mabel became acquainted with Theo Rahilly, who became a close friend.
In January, 1915, Desmond FitzGerald was expelled from Kerry under the Prohibited Areas Order, which also excluded him from residing in or even entering Dublin. They went to live in Bray where again he quickly became involved both in the Volunteers and the I.R.B. and became aware of preparations for the Rising.
He was arrested and sentenced to six months imprisonment in Mountjoy in September, 1915, for sedition and was released only two weeks before the Rising.
He was closely associated with the anti-Rising faction in the Volunteers. Eoin MacNeill [and The O'Rahilly about his own vivid account of the Rebellion] shows that although he thought its timing unwise both because of the prevailing stalemate in the Great War and the absence of foreign intervention, he was less doggedly opposed than were his associates. He fervently believed that armed insurrection was necessary to achieve independence from Britain and he was none too concerned by an absence of popular support for such an undertaking.
He participated in the frantic efforts of MacNeill and The O'Rahilly to have the Rising called off, but once it began, both he and his wife joined the insurgents in the GPO, remarking cheerfully on entering the building: 'This is worth being wiped out for'.
During the six days of the Rebellion, he conversed regularly with Pearse whom he regarded with considerable awe. In protracted conversations with Joseph Plunkett and Pearse, he joined in defining the moral rectitude of the Rising - a thought which, according to FitzGerald's memoirs, considerably preoccupied Pearse duringthe six days. He conversed with James Connolly only after the latter had been wounded but he was apparently in little sympathy with the socialist objectives of the enterprise. He firmly objected to the dating of dispatches as the first or second day of the Republic because of its evocation of the French Revoluution.
He escaped from the GPO and circuituously made his way back to the family home in Bray, but he was arestted there a few days later and sentenced to life imprisonment in England. He was sent first to Dartmoor and later moved to Maidstone in the south of England, handcuffed to Eamonn De Valera and Dr Richard Hayes.
On release from prison in late 1917, he resumed his political activity to be imprisoned, briefly, in 1918. He was elected from the traditionally unionist constituency of Pembroke in the 1918 Election and in April 1919, he was appointed Substitute Director of Publicity in the new Republican Government.
He was arrested again in 1921, and on his release, accompanied the Irish plenipotentaries to London for the Treaty negotiations. He sided with the pro-Treaty side in the heated debates of early 1922, though his wife took the opposite view. In the new Free State Government, he became Minister for External Affairs in 1923, and represented lreland at the Imperial Conferences of 1923, 1926 and 1930 and at the League of Nations during much of that period.
In the cabinet re-shuffle following Kevin O'Higgins' assassination in July, 1927, he was appointed Minister for Defence and held that position until the Cumann na nGaedheal Government was defeated in 1932. He lost his seat in the Dáil in 1937, but remained on as a Senator until 1943. He contested several general elections after 1937, one of them being in 1944 when he fought' the Dublin county constituency along with Liam Cosgrave as his running mate.
Desmond and Mabel had four sons: Desmond in 1912, Pierce in 1914, Fergus in 1920 and Garret in February, 1926. Desmond is former Professor of Architecture in UCD, Pierce was an accountant with the, United Nations in Rome and is now retired, and Fergus, also retired, was in Rome with the FAO and latterly with the EEC Commission in the publishing section.
In his early years Desmond became absorbed in philosophy, specialising in neo-Thomism (the renewed appreciation in Catholicism of the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas). He became a close friend of the chief philosopher of neothomism, Jacques Maritain, and in 1935 and - 1938 he was invited by the University of Notre Dame (Indiana) to lecture on the philosophy of politics. In 1939, he published a book on this subject, Preface to Statecraft.
Desmond FitzGerald was deeply conservative philosophically, holding rigid, traditional Catholic attitudes on issues such as Church-State relations. However, he was in no sense a bigot and in the late 'thirties he joined in establishing the first philosophical society in Dublin to bring Catholics and Protestants together - the Mercier Society. This was later banned by the then Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, which greatly depressed him, but nonetheless he acquiesced.
Garret was very close to his father, the only serious break occurring when Garret opted to join Aer Lingus after college rather than pursue the Bar as his father would have wished. Indeed Garret is more influenced by his father than either he or an outsider would suspect. He is instinctively conservative in a philosophical sense, although his public image is one of radicalism, as he has taken a liberal stance on the Church-State question. His reflexive support for the institutions of state and for our form of Parliamentary democracy is also heavily influenced by his upbringing. And, of course, he inherited his father's Francophilia and interest in world affairs. He was never interested in literature, which was Desmond's first intellectual obsession.
Desmond FitzGerald died in 1947 at the age of 59, his wife Mabel survived him by 11 years.
GARRET FITZGERALD'S first school was St. Brigid's in Bray, run by a Miss Brayden. She remembers him as being very bright, even at the age of five; He also talked a lot - 'couldn't be shut up', she recalls. His class was almost entirely comprised of girls, where presumably he acquired his fondness of female company, a trait he still freely acknowledges .
He went from St. Brigid's to the Irish-speaking primary boarding school at Ring, Co. Waterford, which was then under the headmastership of An Fear Mor, Seamus O hEotha. 'His brothers had all gone there and the previous headmaster, Michael O Donaill, then a prefect in the college, recalls ‘the FitzGeralds were a good kind of family - they were all interested In the Gaelic movement.’ Garret returned to Ring at Easter for three years afterwards for refresher courses.
From Ring he went to Belvedere, the Dublin bourgeois Jesuit college, which his brothers had also attended. Belvedere re-enforced the Catholic conservatisrn inherited from his father and placed him 'securely into the elite of the Dublin establishment. Classmates remember him at the time as being boisterous and effervescent. Several remarked: ‘he is more or Iess unchanged'. He was very popular, very active, but had no interest in games. Belvedere was one of those 'cultured' schools which didn't press their students into taking part in rugby or cricket.
Garret recalls, once playing cricket and actually scoring a run when the ball accidentally hit his bat. The opposition was so surprised that they didn't bother to field it.
Classmates included Archbishop Dermot Ryan (but only in sixth year) Maurice Kennedy, registrar of U.C.D., Geoffrey Coyle, the barrister, and Judge David Sheehy.
He didn't push himself academically at the time, but he still managed to come within the first third of the 'A' class. He had an absorbing interest even then in transport with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the working of railway systems and could instantly reel off routes, and schedules of trains to and from various continental destinations, according to a contemporary. He was also fascinated by the genealogy of the European monarchies and by European history in general.
Because of his youth, his parents decided it would be better for him to stay on an extra year at Belvedere after doing his Leaving Certificate before going to UCD. During that relaxed year, he studied philosophy, an interest already fostered by his father.
He went to UCD in 1943 and commenced a BA in French, Spanish and History. He joined several societies, more as a means of getting acquainted with girls than for the intellectual stimulation involved, though he took a prominent part in the Literary and Historical Debating Society, where he vehemently supported the allied war effort in opposition to the prevailing pro-German sentiment both in the Society and in the University at the time.
He did several 'lines' at college - all of them fairly serious - as he was, from an early stage, keen on getting married. He had been interested in one girl since he was eight years old, but when she finally opted for another ten years afterwards, Garret shifted his attentions to Joan O'Farrell, whom he had met at a meeting of the French Society. That liaison wasn't entirely smooth from the outset, but in September 1945 he eventually persuaded her to marry him. They then set the date for October 10, 1947, not knowing when they did so that it fell on a Friday.
His marriage has been highly fulfilling for both partners. Matching him intellectually, his wife has had an enormous influence on everything he has done.
He graduated in 1946 with first class honours and first place in both History and French, an achievement accomplished by very careful study of previous examination papers and meticulous planning which involved Joan literally doing the study for half the History course. He has since supplemented his academic qualifications with a PhD in Economics from UCD in 1969 and honorary doctorates in Law from the universities of New York and St Louis.
In 1944 he began studying law at the Kings Inns and he was called to the Bar in 1947. That year however, was a lackadaisical one, mainly spent browsing in the National Library. As he had decided to get married the following year, there was no question of his practicing at the Bar, or pursuing an academic career as was probably his first inclination. Jobs as administrative assistants were advertised in the press for Aer Lingus and after some stern prompting from Joan, he applied and was one of the successful four applicants out of thirteen.
Initially he worked in the Secretary's office and was moved to the Sales Department after nine months as a research and analysis officer. From the outset he compulsively set about the economic planning of the company. The General Manager at that time, J.F .Dempsey, finally succumbed to the enthusiasm of the very junior, but very energetic research assistant. And in 1950 he was moved back to Head Office with direct responsibility for economic planning.
His new role included responsibility for determining rates and fares, scheduling, the sale of charters and providing the commercial viewpoint on air craft purchase. His performance was staggering and when he finally left, the apocryphal story goes, he was replaced by four executives and a computer.
It was through his work with Aer Lingus that he became involved in economics, having had no previous experience in the discipline. Indeed it was somewhat of a disappointment to him to discover later that many of the maxims he had worked out for himself were well established principles of economic theory. However, the economics of transport are highly specialised with little direct applicability elsewhere, and it was through journalism that he was introduced to the broader area of national economics.
He was ill during the 1948 general election campaign and had just acquired a copy of The Writers' and Artists' Year Book, which fists all the major publications in the English-speaking world. He wrote a commentary on the election results an d sent it to several papers throughout the world, two of which published it. Encouraged, he wrote to every paper listed in the Year Book and was eventually writing for numerous newspapers from South Africa to Hong Kong to Canada. Eventually he was earning a tidy £350 a year from this source.
Just about the same time, Conor Cruise O'Brien, then a civil servant with the Department of External Affairs, started the Irish News Agency. With several journalists on the staff, the agency could only manage to publish a fifth of the material which Garret was having published in the Commonwealth press. The agency, however, outdid him in America.
He also started to write a weekly column on world affairs for The Irish Independent.
Having had an article accepted on the study of Irish in universities, Jack Whyte, then with The Irish Times and now with RTE, encouraged him to write on university finances. This he did with typical thoroughness and he was then encouraged to write about government finances about which he knew very little. Thus his introduction to economics. Whyte further encouraged him to examine national income figures, the balance of payments, the budget etc. and bit by bit he acquired an expertise in economics. Initially he wrote for The Irish Times under the pseudonym 'Analyst', but on resigning from Aer Lingus he wrote weekly under his own name from 1959 to 1973.
By 1958, he was well established as an economic expert and his sights had extended far beyond Aer Lingus. Even then he was thinking of a political career and he was also interested in extending his involvement in journalism and in entering academic life. He left the airline in September 1958, and received a Rockefeller Research Assistantship from Trinity to examine the inputs of materials into Irish industry for the period 1953 - 57. This gave him access to the Central Statistics Office, and thereby a further acquaintance with statistical information.
Just then The Financial Times took him on as a correspondent and The Economist Intelligence Unit engaged him as its representative in Ireland. He started writing for The Irish Times 'on a weekly basis under his own name, and the following year, UCD took him on as a junior lecturer in Economics.
He also started consultancy work with Irish firms and in 1961 he merged his work for the EIU with consultancy and formed EIU (Ireland) Ltd. He was Managing Director until 1972.
As an economic consultant he worked for almost every state agency, thereby acquiring an intimate knowledge of how Government machinery worked from the inside. His principle contributions in this area were through the CIO and the NIEC.
Entry Into Politics
FitzGerald was impressed by the Lemass-Whitaker strategy to bring Ireland out of the mid-fifties economic depression by the early sixties, but at no stage did he consider joining Fianna Fáil. All his inherited political instincts were inimical to that, the ingrained anti-intellectualism of the party was also a deterrent.
There have been reports that he was approached to join Fianna Fáil, but the extent of the approach was meagre.
After the 1961 general elections, Charlie Haughey asked him to do a statistical analysis of the election results. Garret said he would do so for a fee, and Haughey replied that the party was interested only in getting volunteer help from people who might continue to contribute. Garret declined and there the approach ended.
The decision to join Fine Gael was not a difficult one, mainly because of the inherited allegiance, but he was encouraged by the flickering ferment of ideas within the party as represented by The National Observer, a Fine Gael journal published by Declan Costello and Alexis Fitzgerald in the late 'fifties and early 'sixties.
His decision to enter politics was taken in early 1964, and the first person he informed of his intention was Ken Whitaker, then Secretary of the Department of Finance. Whitaker was very much opposed, arguing that talents should be deployed in the public service and not in politics. Garret's view was that the public service had contributed as much as it could without further political input, and that the times demanded political impetus rather than further technocratic innovation which he felt was by then a spent force.
He told Declan Costello of his decision over lunch at the Unicorn Restaurant, but Costello too, was discouraging. He argued that Garret should await the outcome of the internal Fine Gael debate on his 'Just Society' proposals. He agreed to delay his decision, and in effect held off for over a year. Meanwhile, Fine Gael was arm twisted, largely by the media into accepting the 'Just Society' outlines and work went ahead on drafting detailed policies. Garret took part in the work-groups under Costello. However, none of the work which he then undertook on industrial policy got through the party machinery before the 1965 election was called by Lemass.
There was a lot of pressure on Garret to stand in Dublin's South East with John A. Costello in that election, but he declined. Joan was opposed to his entering politics at that time, and he had doubts about the depth of Fine Gael's commitment to the new policies. In the event, he didn't stand for the Dáil but ran in the Senate election for the industrial panel and was elected.
That 'success owed a lot to an outstanding television performance by him lasting ten consecutive hours on the night of the Dáil election count. His mastery of statistics and his overall grasp of all the political issues that were discussed that night were stunning.
The decision to stand for the Senate conflicted with his refusal to stand for the Dáil. He agreed to stand for a seat in the Upper House only after considerable persuasion by Declan Costello who shortly afterwards announced his withdrawal from active politics.
FitzGerald's initial involvement in Fine Gael was constructive. In Costello's absence, the task of policy formulation fell almost exclusively on him, and over the next three years sheaves of policy documents were produced-largely written by FitzGerald himself. His relations with Cosgrave initially were cordial. They worked well together, along with Tom O'Higgins and James Dooge. The 1966 presidential election was a major boost to the party, with O'Higgins almost pipping Eamonn De Valera and suggesting that Fine Gael's prospects of electoral success were realistic.
Things began to go sour with Cossgrave shortly after that election, largely because Gerard Sweetman, who had been doggedly opposed to the 'Just Society' initiative and was highly suspicious of FitzGerald, established himself as Cosgrave's confidant - FitzGerald was away on holiday in Rosslare at the time, and O'Higgins was resting after his exertions in the presidential elections.
A press campaign, conducted by John Healy in his back-bencher column in The Irish Times suggesting that Cosgrave was the virtual puppet of FitzGerald didn't help either. He coined the phrase 'Fitz.Cosgrave.' which rankled greatly with Cosgrave.
While there were few clashes between the two during the pre-1969 election period, there were disagreements largely centred on whether Fine Gael should go it alone or seek an alliance
In the event, the disagreement was academic as Labour caught itself on the 'no coalition' hook, though coming up to the election, some of those most fervent Labour advocates of that line, notably Michael O'Leary, surreptitiously tried to get off it.
FitzGerald had been nursing the South-East constituency since his election to the Senate in 1965, and in the '69 election he won the fifth largest percentage of votes in the country, actually the third largest (behind Jack Lynch and Gerry Collins) if two regional anomalies are excluded.
He was already established as a major political force, after only four years in politics, and was even then actively considered for the Fine Gael leadership when consideration inevitably arose about the future of Liam Cosgrave, following the election defeat.
However, FitzGerald had no realistic hope of the leadership then, for, had Cosgrave departed, Tom O'Higgins would have' been almost 'the unanimous choice. Declan Costello had retired from the Dáil in that election, though he regretted the decision almost from the day it became irrevocable.
Fine Gael became polarised after the '69 election with Cosgrave surrounding himself with Gerard Sweetman, who was always suspicious of J: FitzGerald; Richie Ryan, who had developed a paranoid enmity towards him over the Maurice O'Connell affair, 15 and Oliver J. Flanagan who regarded him almost as an anti-Christ figure.
FitzGerald was in a cabal of his own which included Alexis Fitzgerald (no relation), Tom O'Higgins, James Dooge and Michael Sweetman who was killed in the Staines airport crash in June 1972. The latter group believed that a change of leadership would come about almost as an historical inevitability, but they reckoned without the ingrained inertia of Irish politics,
The most serious internal crisis occurred in December 1972 on the issue of the Offences Against the State (Amendment Bill). Cosgrave wanted to support the measure, the party voted to oppose.
Cosgrave at first said he would vote against his party, then said he would vote with it, and finally said he would vote against it. There were howls of outrage when he called yet another party meeting to deliberate on the matter only hours before the vote was to be taken on the second reading in the Dáil. There was general agreement that he would have to S;Q as leader and FitzGerald was foremost among those pushing for his dismissal.
However, bombs exploded off O'Connell Street, two bus conductors were killed, the party mood changed and Cosgrave was saved. Four days later, at a party meeting, FitzGerald openly pressed for his dismissal; saying he had 'neither led nor followed' on the security issue of the week before. He was in a minority of six, however, and Cosgrave was secure from further attack for the remainder of that session.
The 1973 election took both opposition parties by surprise, but their collective 'realism' pushed them towards a speedy agreement on coalition, an agreement which had been in the making for some months, but which curiously did not directly involve FitzGerald until a later stage.
He played a crucial part in the election campaign by his performances, especially in a debate with George Colley where he 'wiped the floor' with the Minister for Finance in one of the most decisive debating routs that Irish television has shown to date.
Once the election was won, he naturally expected to be offered Finance and said as much in a private meeting with Cosgrave. The Taoiseach-elect was non-committal, however, saying 'well, you'll get a senior post anyway'. FitzGerald was somewhat disconcerted, being unable then to perceive what other senior posts there were.
The first indication that he was to go to Foreign Affairs came from Brendan Corish on the day of the appointment of the Government, during lunch. Only half an hour before it became public knowledge did Garret FitzGerald know that he was appointed to Foreign Affairs.
Cosgrave's refusal to place FitzGerald in Finance was prompted by a fear that in the Government's driving seat, he would prove too radical. Actually the fear was groundless, as Garret's close ally, Alexis Fitzgerald, told Cosgrave before the latter had finally decided on the composition of the Government. Alexis argued that Garret would prove too conservative for Finance, and he was borne out by the experience in Government.
FitzGerald pushed hard in the initial two years for significant increases in EEC Foreign Ministers in Dublin, 1975. Social Welfare, winning only partial support from the Labour members of the Government, but in the last two years he was among the more conservative of cabinet members on financial policy, arguing strongly against increases in expenditure and against further increasing the borrowing rate. In so far as he was instrumental in persuading the Government to his course of action, he shares a large part of the responsibility for the loss of the election.
Certainly there would have been more cohesion in the management of the country's finances and there would have been an economic plan sometime during the government's four year term of office, had he been Minister of Finance, but financial policy would, if anything, been more conservative.
FitzGerald also played a significant part in shaping educational policy and was part of the cabinet subcommittee on higher education. But he was away so much of the time, his influence on other areas of Government was slight. Not that he differed from his colleagues on any issue of substance. He fully- supported the security measures introduced by Patrick Cooney and the general law and order line pursued by the Government (see Interview). But whatever the merits or otherwise of his general contributions to Government policy, he was clearly the outstanding Minister for his performance in Foreign Affairs. His grasp of virtually all the diverse issues involved was masterly, and nowhere more so than on the EEC. As he had been a regular visitor to the Commission Headquarters in Brussels since 1961, it was hardly surprising that he had an intimate knowledge of the working of the community and a full understanding of related complex issues.
He made an enormous impression in the Community, especially among the French and the Commission technocrats. It was inevitable that his name should be floated when the presidency of the Commission became vacant at the beginning of last year. Feelers were extended to him by the British but he indicated on the outset that he wasn't interested because of his absorption with the Northern Ireland Issue.
The high point of his tenure in Foreign Affairs came during the six months of the Irish presidency of the Council of Ministers. He himself summarised the achievement of this period in a speech in November 1975, when he said:' Ireland had the responsibility for developing the process by which in certain international fora (notably the Euro-Arab dialogue, the first preparatory meeting for the Conference on International Co-operation) the Community speaks with one voice through the presidency and the commission jointly'.
'It established a new link between the presidency and the economic and social committee. It established a new and much closer relationship between the presidency and the European parliaments, and initiated the process of answering questions on political co-operation matters in parliament ... It made proposals for improvements in the working methods of the Council, one of which is already being put into effect. And, finally, it successfully introduced majority voting into the Council of Foreign Ministers, thus fulfilling a mandate of the Paris Summit and opening the way to much speedier and more effective decision-making in the Community.'
Because of his family background, he had a special interest in Northern Ireland, and from the beginning of the troubles there in 1968, he had spoken frequently on the subject. In addition he had made frequent visits to Belfast and elsewhere in the North, and was fairly well acquainted with most of the main political figures there.
Without much fuss, therefore, he successfully won back for the Department of Foreign Affairs, responsibility for Northern policy which Patrick Hillery had lost to the Taoiseach's Department in 1972. There was never any tension between FitzGerald and Cosgrave on the issue. In any event, Cosgrave's disposition was to delegate as much as possible, and at least on this issue) this suited FitzGerald fine.
He visited Belfast several times while Foreign Minister, and was particularly successful in establishing a degree of rapport with some Northern Unionists. In addition, the section of 'his department dealing with Northern Ireland was strengthened, thereby considerably improving the quality of briefing the Government was getting on the issue. He spoke' out on a number' of occasions on Church-State issues which" to the annoyance of many of his Cabinet colleagues, he believed were inextricably bound up with the Northern problem.
FitzGerald was one of those in the Cabinet who argued for an autumn; election, when the inflation rate would be down and the unemployment figures improving. However, a majority in the cabinet opted for an earlier poll because of their sense of the mood in the electorate. Incredibly, the Coalition conducted no opinion poll before calling the election.
It was a few days into the campaign before they realised that the, tide had turned decisively against them, as the first poll became available. Several ministers abandoned the national campaign at that stage to save their own hides and some of those who remained, including Liam Cosgrave, refused to believe what the opinion surveys were telling them.' Garret believed them however and from the first week of the campaign he was reconciled to defeat. He did his bit on television again, though this time round George Colley proved a more formidable opponent than in 1973.
He stayed at the helm of the campaign, such as it was, and attempted to raise the tempo somewhat by attacks on Fianna Fáil's credibility on the Northern and the law and order issues but to no avail.
Fine Gael Leadership
On Thursday, June 30th, at a routine meeting of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party to nominate candidates for the Senate election, Liam Cosgrave announced his decision to resign the leadership. It came as a complete surprise to the party. There was general regret when the announcement was made, and Paddy Donegan attempted to persuade him to change his mind. He proposed a unanimous vote of confidence and this was put to the meeting of the forty-four elected TDs and the thirty Fine Gael senators. Estimates vary on the number who refused to support that motion, but it was somewhere between ten and twenty, among whom was Garret FitzGerald who, very conspicuously failed to raise his hand.
Cosgrave was adamant, however, and a number of speeches were made extolling his contribution to the party. Garret FitzGerald rose to say 'that while additional tensions exist between the Prime Minister and his Minister for Foreign Affairs, nonesuch had existed in their' relationship during their period in government, despite what might have been anticipated.
Cosgrave gratuitously took up this point when, replying to the expressions of gratitude and affection. He singled Garret out and commended the contribution he had made to the' Government.
Several party members believed then and now that the timing of Cosgrave is resignation was calculated to' assure that Garret FitzGerald would be his successor. But this remains in the realm of the unknown, as Cosgrave never expressed a preference.
The' possible candidates for the leadership were Garret FitzGerald, Richie Ryan, Tom Fitzpatrick, Peter Barry and Mark Clinton. Clinton and Fitzpatrick ruled themselves out almost immediately, but Richie Ryan, who was at a World Bank meeting in Washington, pointedly did not remove his name from the list of possible contenders. Peter Barry and Garret agreed to a wait the return of Richie Ryan before attempting to canvas support within the party, Ryan returned only briefly on the Sunday and then proceeded to Luxembourg from where he returned on the Tuesday. That night a meeting was held between Garret, Peter Barry, Richie Ryan, Tom Fitzpatrick and Mark Clinton where the entire leadership was discussed. Peter Barry was anxious to remain in the race; if only to provide the party with the therapeutic experience of a leadership election. Richie Ryan remained non-committal and at no stage indicated if he was a contender or not.
While' FitzGerald deliberately refrained from canvassing until after Richie Ryan's return from abroad, sup porters, on his behalf', had undertaken a canvass which revealed that all but twenty members of' the Oireachtas Party were assured supporters. The canvass was undertaken by Jim White, the Donegal TD, and Eddie Collins of Waterford, and, to a lesser degree by Gerry L'Estrange and John Donnellan. Peter Barry conducted a canvass after the Tuesday meeting and calculated that he might win up to 25 votes against 50 for'Garret, but, as he himself conceded, these votes were not so much indicative of support for him but of enmity for FitzGerald , As 'his support was so minimal, he decided not to contest the leadership and in the event Garret was chosen unanimously:
With' 'characteristic alacrity, FitzGerald immediately set about overhauling the creaking Fine Gael machine. First by the appointment of a national organiser and then of a press officer.
Peter Prendergast was chosen from a huge list of applicants for the former post. He had been FitzGerald's running mate in Dublin South East and although he had performed pathetically at the polls he impressed the front- runner sufficiently by his intimate knowledge of politics and his administrative capacities.
Ted Nealon was appointed press officer once he indicated his availability for the position.
A youth officer may be appointed shortly as may a second financial director to assist Colonel Clancy who has been responsible for day to day finance for over 15 years. A youth researcher is being appointed on a temporary basis, Mairead Wolohan, on secondment from NIHE in Limerick.
The reshuffle of the front bench was brooded over during holidays in France. It was inevitable that Paddy Donegan and Oliver J. Flanagan had to go if Garret was to be at all serious about changing the face of Fine Gael - and go they did.
He was adventurous in bringing several newly elected TDs onto the front bench immediately, notably Jim O'Keefe to Justice, John Boland to Health and Social Welfare and Michael to Urban Affairs. He might have kept Richie Ryan on in Finance for a year or so and then switched him but obviously his desire for a break with the less popular aspects of the Coalition's record necessitated a change.
His tour of the constituencies was prompted not just by the urgency of overhauling the Fine Gael machine but as an exercise in acquainting himself with the nuts and bolts of the organisation and re-establishing personal ties which had lapsed during his 'exile' in Foreign Affairs.
One of the most immediate organisational problems the party faces is finance. At present the party collects £30,000 a year on affiliation fees, constituency levies, Parliamentarians' subscriptions and usual subscription income. It gets an additional £32,000 from the State. However the total requirements of the party are about £150,000 annually and that is without setting anything aside for elections.
Fine Gael's Taca, the Capital Branch, under the chairmanship of Dublin accountant Vesty Muldowney, is responsible for raising money to contest general elections. The cost of the July election at national level alone was £150,000. However the total cost of the election to the party at national and local levels is unknown as no central records are kept and constituency executives operate with a great deal of autonomy.
Changes are being contemplated in the party's constitution which was redrafted last in 1970, following the unsuccessful expulsion of six 'young tigers'. As a consequence the constitution is devoted mainly to obstructing various organs within the party from expelling members rather than laying down rational structures for the party. Changes are also being contemplated in the workings of the Ard Fheis, which will provide for working sessions instead of the single plenary session.
But obviously the main objective of the party is to regain office, and an analysis of the June election results shows how difficult that is going to be. While the party dropped 4.6% of the votes nationally, there were curious regional variations. The swing against Fine Gael was greatest in the Leinster area outside Dublin (a drop of 6.95%) and least in Connaught, Ulster and Clare (a drop of 1.89%), suggesting that there was a strong anti-Fine Gael farmer vote in the lush grasslands of Leinster, while in border areas electors were impressed by the coalition's security record.
Fine Gael also lost out badly among the young, potentially the most ominous signal for the party. Only 19% of the 18 to 24 age group voted for the party, according to The Irish Times / NOP Election Survey, while 33% of the 55+ age group voted for it.
Analyses of the results suggest that Fine Gael has little definite image among the voters and this may yet be to its advantage. But will Garret FitzGerald radically alter the orientation of the party? While his reputation is liberal and progressive, an analysis of his political attitudes suggests that he is actually quite conservative.
He has been quite reactionary on the security issue, supporting with only the slightest demur the harshest of the Coalition's security policies. While rhetorically giving a high priority to the redistribution of wealth, he so hedges the commitment as to modify it almost out of existence. Redistribution must come from future increments in wealth rather than from existing wealth, incentives must be preserved and no redistribution may be expected in periods of low growth rates.
'He is a staunch defender of our present system of Parliamentary democracy, suggesting repeatedly that any change from that system must necessarily be tyrannous and undemocratic. The poor are often described as 'people who cannot look after themselves' rather than as exploited people who could well look after themselves if they weren't exploited. He is a consistent advocate of participatory democracy, which is essentially a dated liberal idea and pre-supposes that people have the where-with-all to participate.
In spite of his political caution, he is remarkably open-minded for a politician and his articulateness and generous spirit are almost irresistible political qualities. These, added to his energy and determination, suggest· that despite the formidable obstacles he can return Fine Gael to power, certainly within his own political lifetime.
By Vincent Browne
Richard Sinnott assisted in the statistical analysis of the election.