Going Cool on Garret

GARRET FITZGERALD has been one of the most outstanding individuals to enter public life in Ireland. He is a man of enormous intellectual capacity, boundless energy, high integrity and great generosity. Since he became leader of Fine Gael immediately after the 1977 general election he has revived remarkably, the fortunes of his party which in that election, were at their lowest ebb for over 30 years.

There were spectacular gains in the opinion polls, the European and local elections confirmed the evidence of a massive swing from Fianna Fáil and the Cork by-elections provided further manifestation of this. It was because of the perceived electoral appeal of Dr. FitzGerald, that Fianna Fáil backbenchers became alarmed with the passive leadership of Mr. Lynch throughout last year and it was also because of their high estimation of the Opposition leader, that they opted for Charlie Haughey rather than George Colley in the leadership contest, believing that Haughey would be better able to cope with the FitzGerald challenge, than would Colley.

All of this amounts to a very glowing tribute to Garret FitzGerald, but there is another aspect which is less glowing, but which is also relevant to a political estimation of him.

Instinctively, Garret FitzGerald avoids hard political choices. Shortly after he joined Fine Gael, he chaired a policy committee on education. The document it produced was a competent, comprehensive piece of work and, inevitably, was almost entirely the product of his own energies. However in the document itself, he omitted the central question in education of finance and when he later was forced to grapple with the question of how Fine Gael would pay for its proposals, he replied that the taxation targets of the Second Programme for Economic Expansion would cover the cost.

It was a blunder of major proportions and was deftly exploited by Donough O'Malley, who ridiculed the document as pie in the sky. And indeed it was largely just that, for FitzGerald had refused to face up to the hard issue of the transfer of wealth which the proposals inevitably would have entailed. The question of the distribution of wealth has been one which has occupied a large part of his rhetoric since he went into politics, but he has never committed himself unequivocally on the issue, as evidenced by his current prevarication of the wealth tax.

Another issue which has dominated his rhetoric has been civil liberties and personal freedoms. Indeed he has distinguished Fine Gael's alleged liberal tradition, as the single most important identifying characteristic of the party. Yet in Government, he went along with flagrant infringements of civil liberties and remained passive in the face of mounting allegations of Garda brutality, to persons in police custody. He did oppose Paddy Cooney's September 1976 security package in cabinet and there are reports that he went in to one of those cabinet meetings prepared to resign unless certain guarantees were given about independent investigations, etc. But in the event he did nothing and went along with the new repressive measures and the refusal to hold an independent enquiry.

Throughout his period in Government and indeed since, he has retained a close friendship with Justin Keating, who was responsible for the Bula scandal. FitzGerald would justify this on the grounds that he has never enquired too closely into the details of that affair, but the fact that he has ignored such a major issue as the grant by the state of £10 million to four private individuals for their personal use, tax free; raise questions about his seriousness and judgements. Remember, the £10 million was for a stake of 24 per cent in a company which the Government's own assessors valued the total at less than that figure and even then, there was reason to believe that the State could have acquired complete control over the core body in question, for some hundreds of thousands of pounds.

FitzGerald has been responsible largely for the success of the Coalition's election campaign of 1973 but he must share the blame for the debacle of the 1977 election campaign. It was he who made the central issue of the campaign the question whether Ireland's credit worthiness abroad, would be damaged by Fianna Fáil's borrowing proposals.

The charge was shown to be nonsense during the campaign and subsequent events have borne this out - our credit worthiness hasn't been damaged, even though our borrowing rates have exceeded those outlined in the Fianna Fáil manifesto.

During last year's budget debate, Garret FitzGerald also committed a major blunder. He charged that the Government "grossly distorted and falsified" official economic statistics and that the budget was "fraudulent in regard to the revenue figures, on which it is based". True, events have shown that the revenue figures in the 1979 budget were grossly mistaken but FitzGerald's charge went much beyond that and there is and was no evidence to support it. An investigation by this magazine of the specific charges made by him then showed that he was wrong on each of the specific charges he made - he did have a point but he grossly overstated it in an attempt to fix a charge of fraud on the Government. George Colley hammered home with devastating effect the outrageousness of FitzGerald's charge in the winding up speech on the budget.

He again seriously overstated his case in relation to the RTE Frontline programme, on the ESR 1 survey on attitudes to the Northern problem. However, his most serious blunder has of course been his personalised attack on Charles Haughey, on the nomination of the new Taoiseach in the Dáil on December 11. He has since attempted to downplay the vehemence of that attack by alleging that the press distorted what was essentially a "restrained" speech. An analysis of the speech shows the contrary - the press in fact failed to convey the sense of righteous vehemence which permeated the speech.

He purported to speak for a large part of the Irish people, including many in the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party, who had been led to "oppose this man far beyond the normal" (there was no evidence either that anything he said in that speech represented the views of even one member of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party, he adduced no evidence to show how Fianna Fáil members had opposed Haughey's candidature with a commitment far beyond the normal). He expressed the hope that he would be equal to the task in hand "recognising how much I cannot say, for reasons that all in this House understand" (this was perhaps the most extraordinary remark he made in the speech. He has since claimed that he was referring to solely political matters, but this could not possibly be the case as no political matter, could not be mentioned in the Dáil. It was that remark that caused most outrage among neutrals, especially on the press gallery; in spite of FitzGerald's later claim that many journalists thought his speech was moderate.)

He said that Charlie Haughey came to the office of Taoiseach "with flawed pedigree" (what this means is unclear). "His motives can be judged only by God" (the insinuation clearly being that they are of such spectacular degeneracy, that only the Almighty could comprehend them - but the only base motive that FitzGerald could fix on Haughey, was that of ambition, a trait not entirely absent from FitzGerald's make-up).

FitzGerald then went on to make the point that Haughey did not have the support of a genuine majority in the House as many Fianna Fáil members would dearly like to oppose his nomination - this was in contrast to any previous Taoiseach. (Dr. FitzGerald's memory is short. He had not been noted as an enthusiastic supporter of Liam Cosgrave and indeed, tried hard to have him ousted as leader of Fine Gael three months before he went into Government with him, in March 1973. Mr. Cosgrave barely commanded the support of a majority of Fine Gael deputies and of course, no Labour member had any part in his being leader. Nevertheless, Liam Cosgrave continued as Taoiseach for over four years with the genuine support of approximately 27 TDs, who did not include Dr. FitzGerald himself. Nobody remarked then on the empty democratic formula that was involved then because the point was irrelevant, as it is now).

In the course of his speech, FitzGerald managed to impugn the character of every Fianna Fáil TD who voted for Charlie Haughey. He asked rhetorically if Haughey had received the support of those members who "are recognised outside their party as within it, as people of integrity" (the rhetorical response he implied was "no". He went so far as to invoke memories of the civil war as a reason for opposing Haughey's nomination and referred to "the dangers for this State that lie almost inexorably and fatally embedded in the nomination now before us" (this was one of a series of very damaging innuendoes which FitzGerald failed to explain.)

He made further reference to Haughey's "flawed character", without explaining in what way he thought Haughey's character was more flawed than that of any normal human being.

FitzGerald then outlined four specific reasons why Haughey should not be elected Taoiseach: having been accused of conspiracy to import arms to the IRA and found not guilty; he referred to a man who represented the IRA then as "one of the finest persons I have known in all my time in public life and politics"; he refused to utter one word of condemnation of the IRA for nine long years until he was pressed to do so at the press conference on the day of his election as leader of Fianna Fáil; his record in the Departments of Health and Social Welfare suggested that he had merely, "put in time until his moment should come to replace the man he had for so long worked to undermine"; his failure to articulate any idealism that might inspire the younger generation and his own life style.

Each of these charges is either factually wrong or overstated grossly. The man Haughey referred to as one of the finest persons he had known in all his time in public life and politics, John Kelly, a co-defendant in the trial, did not represent the IRA at the time, and nobody believed he did. Therefore Haughey could not have been understood to have implicitly commended the IRA by the remark. Haughey repeatedly condemned the IRA during "the nine long years" and had Garret FitzGerald listened to RTE Radio's This Week programme on December 9, he would have heard a succession of tapes recording Haughey's condemnations during that period.

His record in the Departments of Health and Social Welfare is certainly deserving of scrutiny and criticism but it is simply a vast overstatement to suggest that all he did was to await his moment to replace Jack Lynch. And, incidentally, there is little, if any evidence, that Haughey did anything at all to dislodge Lynch during that period.

As for idealism and Charles Haughey, a criticism of him might be the exact opposite to what FitzGerald suggested - that Haughey peddled too much in idealism as evidenced by his Padraic Pearse speech, of November last. The young don't need this kind of idealism, indeed if they need idealism at all. There is heartening evidence that they are interested in materialism, having had quite enough of bogus idealism via religion and politics.

As for Haughey's life-style. Certainly there are reasons for misgivings that the disparities on wealth should be such in our society to permit such lavishness. However, similar lifestyles are not unknown among senior Fine Gael people and the underlying political issue that is at stake is one that FitzGerald has ducked repeatedly.

The speech was intemperate and demeaning to FitzGerald. However it was not uncharacteristic as many have since observed. The lack of judgement which it displayed has always been a feature of FitzGerald's make up, as has been the streak of self-righteousness which ran through it. He strives to make principled moral issues of matters where such considerations don't arise or, if they do, do so in a different context.

It would be a pity if the state were to be deprived of FitzGerald's considerable abilities in Government; however, doubts have arisen about his suitability for the position of Taoiseach because of the judgement and self-righteousness factors. While Fine Gael has been big on self-righteousness in the last two and a half years and has done an excellent marketing job in selling the new style of leadership, little of substance has happened within the party. Apart from the Northern policy, no political programme of substance has emerged and FitzGerald has stated quite clearly, that he will not answer specific questions on taxation and public expenditure before an election. While he castigated Charlie Haughey's contraception Bill, his own party refused to state a position on the issue at all and of course there has been no attempt to address the industrial relations and PAYE issues.

It would be a pity if Garret FitzGerald's considerable abilities were not to be used again in Government, but recent events and non-events have suggested that perhaps he is not suited to be Taoiseach, primarily because of his bad judgement and self-righteousness. There must also be questions about his trivialisations of political issues by refusing to state a position on them, either at all or prior to a general election campaign - he was scathing of such attitudes in politics when he first joined Fine Gael in the mid sixties. Anyway in spite of the encouraging trend in recent elections, the future of Fine Gael may not be quite as rosy as many in the party seem to believe. Charlie Haughey is going to present a very formidable obstacle to the party's ambitions to get into government after the next election, either on its own, or in tandem again with a dilapidated Labour Party.

It may be fortunate however that the first indications of a crisis in the FitzGerald leadership - and they are only indications yet - have come so soon, well in time to rectify before the general election.