The Making of a Taoiseach
How a cabal of backbench rural TDs toppled the Fianna Fail party establishment and installed as Taoiseach a man whose political career seemed dead twice in the last decade.
A few hours after his election as leader of Fianna Fail and Taoiseach-designate, Charles Haughey sat alone in his small spartan office on the first floor of Leinster House. In an hour or so, he was about to give his first press conference which was to be televised "live" - he was about to make his crucial first impression with the electorate, as the country's head of government.
It seemed appropriate to the Taoiseach-designate, to confer with some of his senior ministers on the lines of policy, which he should outline at the press conference, but on reflection, there were only two senior ministers whom he could then call upon. Both were contacted by a private secretary and both duly arrived.
One was shell-shocked following an encounter with a ministerial colleague, who had attacked him for "betraying" the establishment candidate in the election that morning, he was virtually speechless. The other was similarly afflicted, but for other and more traditional reasons. This latter senior minister, could mutter only "healing Charlie, healing". Eventually the Taoiseach-designate realised he was being urged to heal the party wounds caused by the bitter contest. But from neither of them was there any coherent advice forthcoming, on what he should say to the nation, in less than an hour's time.
The scene was illustrative of how isolated the new leader was from the party establishment and how colossal a feat it had been to win without the active support, of a single cabinet minister, relying solely on the fanatical loyalty of a caucus of backbenchers. His opponent in the election had gone into the contest with the sure support of 20 of the 25 Government ministers, but the new leader was to win 39 votes from the 57 backbenchers, his opponent taking a mere 18.
The victory was of momentous significance, in that it meant a truly remarkable recovery from the dark days of 1970, when Charles Haughey was first fired from the most senior post in the Government, then arrested at his home and taken to the Bridewell in a Garda car, where he was held for a few hours like any common criminal, before being prosecuted in the courts, on a charge of conspiracy to illegally import arms.
But the victory was momentous for another reason as well and perhaps one of more enduring significance. For it was orchestrated by a handful of backbenchers who had schemed and connived for months previously, to get rid of an administration which they believed, would be routed at the polls in a few years time.
While it was true that the outgoing Taoiseach had departed of his own free will, the enfolding arithmetic within the Parliamentary Party, was such that he would have been unable to survive, had he decided to lead on into the next election. Few in the party appreciated the significance of what was happening on the backbenches, least of all the senior members of the Government, including the Taoiseach, but it now emerges that Mr. Lynch could not possibly have survived a further six months as leader, although this fact probably did not even enter the reckoning on the timing of his retirement. It also emerges that the issues on which the revolt was built were diverse and related more to the economy than to Northern Ireland; that the TDs involved were not those in most jeopardy of losing their seats; and that the eventual benefactor of that revolt, Charles Haughey, had little involvement in and indeed, little knowledge of what was going on.
For the first time in the history of our Parliamentary democracy, backbenchers exercised their muscle to affect, not alone a major change of policy direction, but a change of leader as well. True Mr. Lynch would have gone irrespective of what was happening among the TDs, but had it not been for the carefully planned campaign among the backbenchers, the establishment candidate, George Colley, would have romped home and continued with the policies and style which characterised the Lynch administration.
While the motives and activities of these backbenchers have been impugned by opposition politicians, notably, Garret FitzGerald, and their characters and often colourful personalities ridiculed by others, the fact remains that, for the first time, the Parliamentary system really functioned here. Elected representatives exercised their constitutional right to influence and change policy, instead of providing mere lobby fodder, for a party oligarchy. That the process was not more open, is an indictment, not of the individual TDs involved, but of a system, which places more store in party loyalty, than on the free exercise of Parliamentary democracy - all party establishments are responsible for that. Power in the Fianna Fail party has now reverted to the backbenchers, from the elite group which took over the party several years ago.
There was an inevitability about an elite group taking over the party in the light of the traumas of 1970 and previously. Of the group of senior members who were part of the party leadership in the late 1960s, the following were gone in 1970: Donough O'Malley, Michael O'Morain, Charles Haughey, Neal Blaney, Kevin Boland and, two years later, Patrick Hillery. This left only Jack Lynch, George Colley, Erskine Childers and Brian Lenihan - Colley had been Lynch's opponent in the 1966 leadership election and there remained a suspicion between the two and Brian Lenihan had been very much part of the Haughey cabal and never very close to Lynch. Erskine Childers was certainly loyal, but his judgement suspect, and he was never really of the stature of the others.
The elite started with Martin O'Donoghue and indeed he became the elite as time went by. He was brought into the Taoiseach's office as economic adviser in September 1970, having been recruited before the dismissal of the ministers in May, 1970. He gradually assumed the role of general policy adviser to a very isolated Taoiseach in the years from 1970 to 1973 and he was even involved in the 1973 election campaign, in rushing out the rates relief document a week before the election, to an incredulous public.
After the 1973 election, O'Donoghue was asked to remain on in the Taoiseach's Department, by the in-coming Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, but he felt too identified with the out-going man and instead returned to teaching economics at Trinity and continued association with Jack Lynch.
This association was cemented at a crucial meeting, which took place at Jack Lynch's modest home in Garville Avenue, Rathgar on Saturday, June 18, 1973. At the meeting were no elected politicians other than Jack Lynch. O'Donoghue was there along with barrister, Hugh O'Flaherty and IMI lecturer, Noel Mulcahy. There were others whose identity remains protected even now.
That meeting established the course for Fianna Fail for the four years in opposition. Tommy Mullins, the then party secretary, was about to retire and it was decided then that he should be replaced by a young dynamic executive, who would reinvigorate the party organisation, bring in new faces and extend the party's appeal to youth. A young Galway accountant who had been a member of the party executive since 1970, was on hand and he emerged soon afterwards as the new secretary.
It was also decided to set up a research group on a number of policy areas and to appoint a research director, to coordinate the activities of these groups. A young barrister who had made his name at debating societies in UCD, Esmond Smythe, was appointed.
Central to the strategy, was that Jack Lynch would remain on in the leadership, until the next election. This latter and central element in the strategy was nearly disrupted just two months later with the Littlejohn affair, when Lynch protested his ignorance of any communication from the British Government acknowledging that there had been some contact, between a Westminster Minister and the robber brothers. "Documents released by the Coalition Government, proved he was wrong and he was forced into a humiliating admission of error – incidentally, Des O'Malley's silence on the issue at the time, when he could easily have tipped Lynch off that his recollection was mistaken, was never been satisfactorily explained.
Just then too, Jack Lynch suffered the painful injury to his heel in a boat accident. Things were at a low ebb and as he acknowledged in his autobiographical story published in the November issue of Magill, he gave serious consideration to resigning then, but was persuaded otherwise by a torrent of pleas from the party, throughout the country.
Once that was out of the way however, the strategy fixed at the June 18 meeting, was firmly under way and O'Donoghue firmly tied into the general scheme of things.
O'Donoghue's involvement was, in fact, more than he had bargained for. The research groups were not quite the success that was hoped and regularly, he was forced to sit in on meetings, draft documents, etc. when he might have expected others to carry the load.
The front bench members and indeed the backbenchers, were silently resentful of the imposition of the research groups on them, but they had little alternative as there was precious little indigenous talent within the Parliamentary Party and, it was generally acknowledged, the performance of the party in opposition was lamentable, with the notable exceptions of George Colley, Des O'Malley and Charles Haughey.
It was the performance of the latter which began to attract the most attention, for his continued exclusion from the front bench seemed anomalous, given the paucity of real talent and weight in the party. Demands for his restoration began to build up from the party rank and file and from the backbenches. Haughey, meanwhile, was assiduously fertilising the grass roots by regular forays to the constituencies throughout the country to dinners, socials, meetings. It was an investment which was later to prove rewarding.
Lynch resisted the calls for a restoration throughout 1974, but as the 1975 Ard Fheis approached and the party's image had failed to revive from the defeat of 1973, he was forced to discuss with Haughey the question of his return to the front bench. There were two major problems. The first was that Haughey had represented since 1970 a silent challenge to the leadership of the party and the other was that, since his repudiation of Lynch's line on Northern Ireland at the United Nations in October 1970, he had never retracted that repudiation nor had he issued any statement of support, for official party policy on the North.
Lynch decided to ignore the leadership issue and at a private meeting with Haughey, asked the former arms trial defendant, if he would agree to issue a statement affirming his support for declared Northern policy, in advance of his return to the front bench. Haughey demurred, pointing out that this would look as though he was buying his way back. Lynch saw the point and restored Haughey to the front bench, after which, Haughey did make a statement agreeing with Northern policy, as then stated and at the Ard Fheis of 1975, he made a highly equivocal declaration of support for Mr. Lynch's leadership - "the only leader we have".
It was the first major step in the Haughey revival - without his return to the front bench he would not have been in a position to challenge for the leadership at a later stage. In fact however, his first challenge came in November 1974, when President Childers died. There was a lot of talk that, Jack Lynch might be the agreed candidate for the Presidency. Haughey did a cursory canvass of the Parliamentary Party and concluded he would win a leadership election, but Lynch didn't go and in any event, Haughey's canvass was grossly unreliable. In sober hindsight, it seems that although he would have made a respectable challenge then, he would have been far behind George Colley in a leadership vote.
Haughey was back on the front bench in time for the change of policy on Northern Ireland and he threw his weight behind the "British withdraw" lobby, which won the day over the Jack Lynch-Ruairi Brugha faction, which simply wanted a reiteration of the Garden of Rememberance speech, which called on the British Government, to declare their interest, in the long term unity of Ireland - no mention of a commitment to withdraw. Immediately afterwards, in November 1975, there was the East Mayo by-election, which represented a serious set-back for Fianna Fail, its vote dropped at a time when an opposition should expect freak swings towards it. Again Jack Lynch gave thought to retirement - he was depressed both by the by-election result and by his apparent loss of control of his party.
Another private meeting was held in another private house and again Martin O'Donoghue was present and Jack Lynch was the only elected politician there. It was impressed on Lynch how central he was to the entire strategy for re-election and he agreed to stay on.
That was the low point for Fianna Fail. In public and private opinion polls conducted throughout 1976, the party was seen to be scoring well ahead of the coalition, but nobody outside the party was disposed to believe they had a real chance in the election. Then came the murder of the British ambassador in July 1976 and there were fears within the party that the coalition would recover its lost electoral fortunes in the backlash. To counteract that, Martin O'Donoghue hastily drafted out a policy statement on the economy, entitled "the economic emergency". This sketched the outline of what was later to become, the 1977 manifesto - the tax cuts, the job creation boost etc. That document coupled with the very formidable legal case which Gerry Collins, assisted by Des O'Malley, George Colley, Charlie Haughey and Michael 0 'Kennedy, made against the coalition's emergency powers legislation, grasped the initiative again. The coalition got a very bad press on the emergency powers, which seemed to many to be a mere cover up for the economic state of the country.
The February 1977 coalition budget gave some of the tax reliefs which were advocated in the Fianna Fail
document, but the Government was then obsessed with the belief that the borrowing rate had to be drastically reduced and this was to become the central issue in the 1977 general election. O'Donoghue drafted the manifesto for the campaign - it was held in an unprinted form until the election had been actually declared and then printed in accordance with a finely planned schedule for publication the following day at the campaign's first press conference.
That logistical exercise ensured that the campaign was dominated from the outset by the Fianna Fail manifesto and the coalition at no stage retrieved the initiative. The entire Fianna Fail campaign was brilliantly managed. Seamus Brennan had been superb as party secretary over the previous three years - he undertook a comprehensive reorganisation of the party structures, started a youth movement and brought many new faces onto the candidates list. George Colley had been chairman of the campaign committee for a year prior to the election and it planned every step of the campaign with meticulous precision. Eoin Ryan had been drafted in by Jack Lynch personally as director of elections. This was a significant appointment for the failure to appoint George Colley to this post underlined first that Charlie Haughey was acquiring an effective veto over key appointments and secondly that the inner elite was playing a more important role within the party than the established front men - Ryan was part of the secret group around Lynch.
But apart from Jack Lynch, it was Martin O'Donoghue who was perhaps most responsible for that victory. It was he who conceived the economic basis of the manifesto and this was to prove a major electoral asset for the party in the election. O'Donoghue rejected the simplistic theory that it is Governments who lose elections, not oppositions who win them. He contended that an opposition could do something to shift the electorate's opinion and so it proved in 1977.
It was O'Donoghue who also was convinced since 1974 that it was possible for Fianna Fail to win the election, in spite of the "Tullymander". He worked out mathematically that it required a swing of only 2.2 per cent to Fianna Fail for it to win and such a swing was well within the bounds of possibility in I Irish electoral terms. It was he who also analysed the opinion polls and calculated that Fianna fail was going to win, barring accidents, and his adroitness on television and radio helped to establish the credibility of the economic package against the assaults from such as Garret FitzGerald-and Justin Keating. It was late in the day when O'Donoghue decided he would be a candidate himself in the election. There was talk of him going to Dublin North Central which had been vacated by George Colley, who had moved to the new constituency of Clontarf, and by Cecilia Lynch, who had retired. But O'Donoghue calculated that a local candidate was more likely to be, elected and so it proved to Noel Mulcahy's discomfort.
In consideration of the constituencies, it had been cal culated that the ideal candidate for Dun Laoghaire as a running mate for David Andrews would be a handsome, rugby playing Protestant doctor. In the event no candidate with these qualifications was on offer, so O'Donoghue offered to step into the breach and Jack Lynch agreed. One wag noted at the time that O'Donoghue matched none of the desired qualifications but the Professor protested that he was a doctor, albeit of economics.
Throughout all this Charles Haughey played absolutely no part. He was carefully steered away from any attention grabbing television appearances. He did perform on radio and with some plausibility, given that he was personally convinced that Fianna Fail would be defeated. His expectation was that in defeat the party would turn to him. His most notable contribution to the campaign possibly was a gala reception he arranged at Dublin's Northside Shopping Centre for Jack Lynch. It took place on the Saturday morning prior to the election and crowds streamed out of the shops there to hear him and shake his hand. An infuriated shop owner accosted Haughey afterwards and said that such a disruption of trade was outrageous and furthermore when he had protested to Owen Patton - Haughey's press agent - he had been told where to get off. Haughey replied that if Mr. Patton had said that the shopowner could take it as official. Incidentally, Mr. Patton denies any such incivility
On the night of the election count in Bolton St., Dublin, George Colley was asked if Charlie Haughey would get
a senior cabinet position to assuage his sense of prestige. Colley replied "Haughey can go screw his sense of prestige".
But the irony of the cabinet making in 1977 was that it was Colley who got screwed, not Haughey. Haughey expected to be offered no more than the Department of Health and was agreeably surprised to be offered Social Welfare as well. In contrast, while George Colley was given the key position of Finance, many of its cherished functions were taken over by Martin O'Donoghue who was to head up the new Department of Economic Planning and Development. It was to have responsibility for economic planning negotiation with the social partners, liaison with international organisations and general co-ordination of policy.
In effect, Jack Lynch had decided on a Presidential style of Government and that he and Martin O'Donoghue should run the show. He wasn't perturbed by the thought of excluding George Colley again from the inner circle - it marked the institutionalising of the elite. The reason for adding Social Welfare to Haughey's portfolio was to balance him nicely with a pared-down-to-size George Colley. Lynch was conscious of the need to maintain a delicate balance between these two in the cabinet because of the opportunities for mischief-making there was with 57 backbenchers. The significance of the centrality of Martin O'Donoghue's position in the new Government went largely ignored at the time, as did the undermining of George Colley's position.
Presidential government got under way in fine style and for the new administration's first year in office it shaped up to 'be the best government the state had known. In 1978 the economy lept ahead with a 7 per cent growth rate and inflation was almost halved from the 13 per cent rate when the Government came into office. Most impressive was the Government's record on job creation. This crept up towards the 20,000 mark, which was the Manifesto target.
Jack Lynch was clearly very much on top of affairs during that first year and Martin O'Donoghue was clearly the person with greatest influence on him during that time.
He was asked if he would re-organise the Taoiseach's Department as he had begun to do before he left office in 1973 and replied that there was no need to because he had Martin in Economic Planning and Development running and co-ordinating policy.
O'Donoghue encountered civil service obstruction in the setting up of his new Department. He found it difficult to recruit staff from other Departments, especially Finance. The Department of public Service was less than helpful in providing attractive grades for officers for the new Department, but in spite of these difficulties the new Department got under way and began to play major role in Government.,
In the first month of the new administration O'Donoghue managed to have six decisions passed by cabinet, specifying his responsibilities, with particular reference to his role as co-ordinator of discussions I with the social partners. This was an especially important clarification because Michael O'Leary had got into trouble in 1976 in
negotiation on a wage agreement because of his lack of mandate to talk about taxation. Then later Richie Ryan had encountered similar difficulties when the unions wanted to extend discussions outside his specific brief. O'Donogue wanted and obtained almost plenipotentiary powers for his dealings with the unions and it was this that permitted him to engage so impressively in the negotiations on the National Understanding.
Trade union leaders conceded afterwards that they had never witnessed such authority being wielded by a Government minister as exhibited by O'Donoghue. He was in complete command of the civil service team taking part in the talks, when he demanded information it was forthcoming,when a change of policy was required he got it through the cabinet with ease, even when it meant reversing settled policy.
It was in this latter area that O'Donoghue came into a head-on clash with Charles Haughey. The unions were demanding a completely free health service: and eventually O'Donoghue agreed to raise the health eligibility ceiling
from £5500 to £7000. He put it to the cabinet where he met Haughey's vigorous opposition. Haughey had done a deal with the doctors, which actually amounted to virtually a comprehensive scheme - in itself a considerable achievement, given the mess Brendan Corish had made in his negotiations with the doctors. It was a delicate arrangement to be reviewed, in March of 1980. Now O'Donoghue threatened to disrupt the entire arrangement - all because of an ideological hang-up on the part of the unions, according to Haughey. The cabinet row was bitter but, predictably, O'Donoghue won through.
There was another clash on the National Understanding also. This was with Des O'Malley over the establishment of a National Enterprise Agency. The Department of Industry, Commerce and Energy was resolutely opposed to this idea, partly because it cut across the work of the IDA. There was also the consideration that this had been one of the bones of contention at the general election, with the coalition proposing a national development corporation, while Fianna Fail ridiculed the idea. O'Malley's position was complicated in this debate by his departure for China. He attempted to have the issue postponed until his return but O'Donoghue insisted and again prevailed.
O'Donoghue failed however to achieve any measure of progress on public service reform. This had been a covert part of his brief and potentially the most important. Because of this he had brought into his Department, a former senior officer of the Public Service Department, Noel Whelan, as Secretary of his Department. There was an obvious case for stalling on such a sensitive issue in the first year in office but once O'Donoghue was in a position to move on the issue he found stem opposition, not just from other civil service departments but from the titular head of the public service, George Colley. The tensions, albeit subterranean, which developed between the two have not yet been fathomed out, although they did get along fairly smoothly on the operation of the economy.
While O'Donoghue was obviously attempting to run the show with Jack Lynch's quiet approval and encourage ment, it was the cabinet sub-committee on the economy which debated all the major issues of economic policy. This consisted of Lynch, O'Donoghue, Colley, O'Malley, FitzGerald and Gibbons but in effect it was run by the first four of this sextet - the gang of four. In spite of Lynch's and O'Donoghue's attempts to run the Government in a Presidential manner, the sub-committee, or rather the gang of four, worked harmoniously for most of the time. But it did lead to tensions with the rest of the cabinet, notably with Charles Haughey. He was perturbed that vital economic decisions were not taken at cabinet, which had a shared responsibility for these decisions, but by a small section of it. There was often only token acknowledgement that the ultimate decision remained with the cabinet as a whole.
Perhaps the most significant issue to emerge in this regard was Ireland's entry to the. European Monetary System. There had been only a cursory debate on the issue at cabinet before the decision was taken to seek entry. O'Donoghue had calculated that at the Copenhagen summit in the spring of 1978 the EMS would be launched by Giscard and Schmidt. And so it transpired and because of O'Donoghue's perspicacity Jack Lynch was in a strong position to respond positively to the initiative.
It was obvious from the outset that Ireland would need substantial monetary compensation for joining and most of the following months were devoted to finding out whether there was a willingness on the part of the main EEC partners to fund this. These negotiations were carried out first by Foreign Affairs, then by Finance and finally by O'Donoghue's Department. In fact, by his personal economic adviser, Brendan McDonald. The information that was supplied to cabinet was scattered and incoherent so it found itself in an impossible position in evaluating the decision.
At the Brussels summit in December 1978, the main debate centred on Britain's 9bjections to the scheme and Ireland's position seemed to get hopelessly confused. It is lot yet clear who was ultimately responsible for the confusion that was caused in the Irish media on the issue, however. the newspapers and RTE reported the following day that what Ireland was offered was a paltry £45 million over five years, which was only a fraction of the amount which was being sought. In fact what Ireland was being offered was £45 million for each of five years, plus loans but this got lost in a tide of mutual incomprehension between the Irish political journalists and Jack Lynch, Michael O'Kennedy, and Frank Dunlop, head of the Government Information Services.
Ireland had almost blundered out of the EMS until Martin O'Donoghue took the issue by the scruff of the neck the following day by going on radio and flatly contradicting media reports of what had been offered and seeming also to contradict what Jack Lynch had said. It was a bold stroke for someone so young in politics but, not alone did he get
away with it, but negotiations were re-opened on Ireland's entry to the EMS and eventually bi-lateral deals were arranged whereby Ireland got something approaching the amount it was looking for. It was very much O'Donoghue's personal initiative and Lynch let him have his way, almost without reference to the cabinet. Lynch himself was deeply nervous about the idea and apparently tried retrospectively to tie other cabinet members into the decision.
A curious manifestation of the unsettled cabinet position on the EMS emerged during a Dail debate on the subject. Late in the debate Charles Haughey appeared in the chamber and began to scribble notes furiously. He then got up to deliver a curiously ambiguous speech about the EMS, from which it was impossible to deduce whether he was in favour of joining or not, or indeed whether he knew or not. He refuses even still to explain why he intervened in this debate or what his opinion is or was on EMS entry but the most likely explanation is that he was taking part in the debate because he was pressed to do so and that he was reserving his position because the decision really didn't involve either him or the most of the rest of the cabinet.
But up to the end of 1978 and the beginning of 1979, things were going smoothly for the Government, even if there were troubles ahead with the balance of payments and even if the National Understanding, finally concluded in May of 1979, had inbuilt inflationary tendencies which were to contribute to a sharp rise in the inflation rate in 1979. The most tangible evidence of the Government's success was that, in the three years 1977 to '79, 40,000 net new jobs were created in the Irish economy - in historical terms, a truly remarkable achievement.
So great was the success of the Government or rather so great was the Government seen to be a success by the end of 1978 that had Jack Lynch chosen to retire then, George Colley would have indisputably been elected leader by a substantial majority.
Haughey and his supporters would hotly dispute this but the fact is that the Government stock was high at the end
1978, the economic team was seen to be in command of things and the economy was performing as never before. -The one factor - the imperativeness of disassociation from the economic management of the country, would not have been relevant.
But a series of events began to unfold in the following few months, which was to transform this situation with devastating effect.
In the mind of almost every backbencher, the disintegration started with the muddle over the farmers tax
issue in February 1979. Without warning, George Colley introduced in his budget, a 2 per cent levy on all agricultural produce in an attempt to ensure that farmers paid their fair share of tax. There was immediate outrage among the farming community with open threats of electoral retribution, akin to that suffered by the coalition parties in rural constituencies in the 1977 election. Not surprisingly, several backbench Fianna Fail TDs were alarmed by the insensitivity of the proposal and one of them, Tom Meaney, of mid Cork tabled a motion for a Parliamentary meeting to have the levy dropped.
It seems that there was little initial discussion about this among TDs, but Meaney did talk on the telephone to an. other Fianna Fail TO, Sean Keegan of Longford-Westmeath. Keegan who shared room 420 with Meaney, was quite prepared to table the motion himself but Meaney had the backing of his Dail ceanntair for the motion and it went in under his name, although it was Keegan who drew up the motion and actually signed Meaney's name to it. Meaney went on to leak to the press his opposition to the scheme which was itself to become an issue.
At the Parliamentary Party meeting there was wide. spread criticism of the levy, but most deputies were pre. pared to go along with it in some form, provided significant modifications were made. These modifications were discussed at a very full meeting of Fianna Fail finance and economy group, chaired by Senator Mary Harney and attended by a great many TDs who were concerned about the issue, including some Dublin deputies. Tommy McEllis. Itrim of North Kerry, was anxious that milk produce of under 10,000 gallons be exempt, Mark Killilea wanted beet produce exempted, others wanted pigs, sheep and cattle slaughtered under the disease eradication scheme omitted. There were persuasive arguments in favour of all these modifications, for as it stood the levy applied to all farmers, irrespective of their ability to pay. Eventually, late on the eve of the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis, George Colley agreed to significant modifications, including all of the above except that milk under 500 gallons was exempt as was beet produced only west of the Shannon.
While the backbenchers were in general still quite worried about the electoral consequences of the levy, they were nonetheless prepared to wear it, in acknowledgement of the fact that the farming sector was going to have to pay its fair share of the tax burden. There was a general welcome for the changes announced by Colley at the Ard Fheis, although the farming organisations reiterated their continued vehement denunciation of the entire scheme.
A meeting with the farming organisations was arranged for the following Tuesday and to the amazement of every
body, including even the organisation involved, the Government agreed to suspend the operation of the levy pending agreement with the farming bodies on a fair system of farming taxation. It was-'this change which infuriated the backbenchers. They were prepared to shoulder the political consequences of the modified levy and many of them had defended the scheme at party meetings on the Monday and Tuesday nights. At least two TDs were involved in tortuous defences of the plan at cumann meetings when they were interrupted from the floor that there had just been a television announcement to the effect that the levy had been suspended. Even a cabinet minister, Brian Lenihan, was in the throes of such a defence at a party meeting in Lucan when he was informed by an outsider what his colleagues had agreed on.
There was black fury among the backbenchers that they should be treated so contemptuously and of course the decision was also to have huge political repercussions in the massive PA YE demonstrations which took place throughout the country, precipitated by the seeming back-down over the farmers levy.
It was a blunder of truly massive proportions. Already there was building up a resentment among the PA YE sector about the unfair share of the tax burden which it was carrying. It was merely adding insult to injury to appear to
give in so cravenly to the farmers. At one stroke, the Government had alienated both the farming and urban voter - over a million people took to the streets in protest and those who could not forsee the political significance of these unprecedented demonstrations were blind to the most obvious of political realities.
As the farmers tax issue was of such central significance in the build up of the backbench revolt, it is important to decipher where the blame lay for its introduction in the first place and then its abandonment. Martin O'Donoghue has been widely blamed for the debacle, but the fact is that he was the cabinet minister most opposed to the measure. He had wanted a resource tax and argued the case to the bitter end, first at the economic affairs subcommittee of the cabinet and then at the cabinet itself. However George Colley was adamant about its introduction and eventually he got his way. O'Donoghue was so perturbed about the issue that he went privately to the Taoi seach afterwards and reiterated his misgivings about the entire affair and asked to be excused from defending the measure publicly and from attending any meetings with the farming organisations on the issue. Lynch agreed. Thus O'Donoghue was not at the meeting with the farm bodies when the levy was suspended. Lynch himself, Colley and Gibbons were the sole Government representatives. Thus these three share the b lame for the debacle, with Colley taking the primary responsibility for introducing the measure in the first place.
There was to be no other single issue of such major importance in the process of disintegration. The affair signified to backbenchers the contempt in which they were held by the party establishment and the insensitivity of the leadership to feeling on the ground. From there on in it was a losing battle.
The postal strike which went on for five months in the first half of the year was another bone of contention but not as serious as might be first expected. True there were many in both the cabinet and the backbenches who believed that Padraig Faulkner's rigid adherence to procedures, which were acknowledged to be archaic, was unhelpful. However it was recognised that he was inheriting a problem from the coalition's embargo on special increases in public service pay in 1975 and he did make a good tactical recovery with his television broadcast shortly before the European and local elections in June.
The Gibbons affair however proved to be another major irritant. A three line whip had been placed on the Parliamentary Party for Charles Haughey's Family Planning Bill, but Gibbons brazenly defied the whip on the Second Reading of the Bill on April 25, going off to a private dinner in Jury's Hotel instead of voting. At the Parliamentary Party meeting subsequently he blandly announced that his views on contraception were well known - they were not – and that he had no intention of voting for the Bill on any of its subsequent stages.
At the Parliamentary Party meeting which followed, the three others who had failed to vote explained their absences and the Taoiseach said he would deal personally with Gibbons. Two meetings took place between them and it was widely expected that Gibbons would at least be fired from the cabinet and possibly also from the Parliamentary Party as well. However to the amazement of most observers, including most backbenchers, Gibbons was reprieved. Lynch accepted that there was a genuine issue of conscience involved, that there would be no requirement on Gibbons to vote on the subsequent stages of the Bill and that new procedures should be set up to accommodate deputies with conscientious objections to legislation. He undertook to establish a committee to work out these procedures but in fact no such committee was ever formed and no such procedures ever emerged.
The affair called seriously into question Jack Lynch's ability to control the cabinet, let alone his Parliamentary Party. It also raised unsavoury memories of the arms crisis of 1970 and the role of Gibbons in that affair. It was recalled how Gibbons had shown open contempt for Jack Lynch repeatedly over the previous few years - there were stories how he had openly scorned a suggestion by Lunch that he campaign in the East Mayo by-election, how he had confidently asserted that he would be restored to the Fianna Fail front bench when he chose to leave the European Parliament while the party was in opposition. The Gibbons affair gave a stimulus that was to prove significant to the dissenting tendencies that were building up within the Parliamentary Party.
But it was when the TDs took to the hustings for the European and local election that alarm first swept the party. They found deep electoral disenchantment with the performance of the Government. Both the farmers and PA YE sectors were in revolt on the taxation issue, the electorate was infuriated by the postal and telephone strike, the rising inflation caused further ripples of discontentment, there seemed to be a widespread view that the oil price crisis of May had been mishandled by Des O'Malley.
The results of the elections underlined with dramatic effect the extend of the disenchantment. The Fianna Fail vote plummeted from 50.6 per cent in the general election of 1977 to 34.6 per cent in June 1979 in the European elections. Even allowing for the presence of strong independent candidates in the European elections - Blaney and T. J. Maher - the Fianna Fail vote had dropped to below the 40 per cent mark, the lowest in its history in 50 years.
At the Parliamentary party meeting following the elections, several attempts were made by backbenchers to raise the issues which had dominated the election and to force a reappraisal of party policy and strategy but the leadership was uninterested. The defeat was interpreted as a temporary set-back, exacerbated by the postal and telephone strikes. A government re-shuffle was impossible just then because of the assumption of the EEC Presidency in July not to worry, things would right themselves. It was the last straw.
Throughout the previous six months there had been scattered discussions among the backbenchers about how
things were going and there had been murmurings of dissent, particularly on the farmers taxation issue. TDs who shared rooms on the fourth and fifth floors of the new extension of Leinster House discussed among themselves their constituencies' reactions to what was going on and their frustrations in attempting to make any changes on Government policy. But there had been no concerted action up to this point - the Euro-elections and the subsequent Parliamentary Party meeting ended that.
A number of hotels in Dublin offer TDs special rates and among them is the modem Jury's hotel in Ballsbridge. Six Fianna Fail TDs stay there regularly arid inevitably discussions began to take place in the Coffee Dock and in bedrooms late into the night on what was happening to their party.
Two TDs of central significance, Jackie Fahey of Waterford and Tom McEllistrim of North Kerry. Fahey had been
in the Dail since 1965 and had been through the traumas of the arms crisis in 1970, from which, incidentally, he was a beneficiary being appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture in 1970, when Jim Gibbons moved to Agriculture to take over from the dismissed Blaney. Fahey had taken a huge personal political risk in switching constituencies in 1977, from South Tipperary to Waterford, when the constituencies were withdrawn. He had kept his seat however with an impressive 7214 first preference vote.
McEllistrim had headed the poll in North Kerry and had been a Dail deputy since 1969 when he replaced his father who had been a founder member of Fianna Fail and a Dail deputy since 1927.
These two had become firm friends over the years in the Dail and now were resident together at Jury's when the tide of revolt was gathering on the backbenches. Both were deeply disenchanted with the performance of the Government, especially on the farmers taxation issue and with the rout in the European and Local elections - both were candidates in the latter - they were determined to do something.
They had been talking of taking concerted action for some months prior to the election but following the Parliamentary Party meeting at which discussion on the debacle of the June elections was curtailed, they decided they couldn't wait any longer. Of the other TDs staying in Jury's on a regular basis, they had good reason to believe that two' of them, Albert. Reynolds of Longford-Westmeath and Sean Doherty of Roscommon-Leitrim, shared their disenchantment with what was going on.
There were regular callers to the Coffee Dock late at night at the time from a house in Harold's Cross. This house was occupied by four Fianna Fail Parliamentarians, Ray McSharry of Sligo-Leitrim, then Minister for State at the Department of Finance, Mark Killilea of Galway East and two Senators, Flor Crowley and Bernard McGlinchey. Some of these in fact had been former residents of Jury's before leasing the Harold's Cross house between them.
Fahey and McEllistrim called a meeting of five from this number for the evening of the Wednesday of the abortive
Parliamentary Party meeting. At that gathering, which convened first in a booth at the Coffee Dock and then adjourned to a room, probably McEllistrim's, were McEllistrim, Fahey, Doherty, Reynolds and Killilea - the gang of five
The meeting went on until the early hours of Thursday: morning and the discussion centred on how they could register their grievances with the party leadership on a wide variety of issues. Although they are reluctant to admit it at this stage, the meeting also discussed the specific issue of the party leadership in some detail and all were agreed on a strategy to replace Jack Lynch with Charlie Haughey.
Some, like McEllistrim, wanted Haughey for republican reasons, but most of the others simply believed that
Haughey was the only person who gave the party a realistic, hope of winning the next election. These were agitated more by economic issues than republican dogmas, more with the management of the southern economy than with Northern Ireland policy.
The central issue to be agreed at this meeting was that a caucus meeting of the backbenchers should take place the following Tuesday, where there should be a general discussion on the state of the party but more. importantly where feeling within the party could be crystallised and prospective co-conspirators identified. There was absolute agreement among them that the caucus should not be allowed to discuss the leadership - this would pre-empt the issue and expose their hand far too early.
The caucus was organised with a magnificent calculation. First, no time was set, so that if there was a leak from the gang of five, the caucus could be called off without any loss of face. Then it was agreed that: nobody should be seen to be calling the meeting - the word should be surreptitiously spread around the corridors of Leinster House among deputies thought to be generally sympathetic to the aims of the conveyors.
On the following Tuesday, when the Dail resumed, it was decided to hold the caucus meeting at 4.00 pm in the Parliamentary Party room and then to lend a touch of am biguity to the affair, the meeting was postponed to 5.00 pm. The four - Killilea was late - simply went around the corridors asking their colleagues if they heard there was a meeting taking place and if they knew what it was about. Eventually news filtered through every room on the fourth and fifth floor and by 5.00 pm over 30 TDs had gathered for an ambiguous discussion on the state of Fianna Fail. Jackie Fahey was insinuated as chairman and the discussion was free ranging and vigorous, deputies being happy to state openly their views in contrast to the closed atmosphere 01 the Parliamentary party meetings.
An attempt was made by one deputy, who was at no stage involved in the conspiracy, Paddy Power, to raise the leadership issue but Fahey ruled him out of order. The names of those who attended the caucus have never previously been published. Here with a list compiled on the fragmented recollections of some of those involved: Bertie Ahern(Dublin Finglas), Lorcan Allen (Wexford), Liam Alyward (Carlow Kilkenny), Vincent Brady (Dublin North Central), John Callanan (Galway East), Sean Callear (Mayo East), Hugh Conaghan (Donegal), Ger Connoll (Laois Offaly), Bernard Cowan (Laois Offaly), Brenda Daly (Clare), Noel Davern (Tipperary South), Sile de Valera (Dublin Mid-County), Sean Doherty (Roscommon Leitrim), Jackie Fahey (Waterford), James Fitzsimons (Meath), Padraig Flynn (Mayo West), Christopher J. Fox (Dublin North County), Sean Keegan (Longford Westmeath), Tim Killeen (Dublin Artane), Liam Lawlor (Dublin West County), Eileen Lemass (Dublin Ballyfermot), Jim Leonard (Monaghan), Terry Leyden (Roscommon Leitrim), Charlie McCreevy (Kildare), Thomas McEllistrim (Kerry North), Tom Meaney (Cork Mid), Tom Nolan (Carlow Kilkenny), Timothy C. O'Connor (Kerry South), Rory O'Hanlon (Cavan Monaghan), Paddy Power (Kildare), Albert Reynolds (Longford Westmeath), Michael Smith (Tipperary North), Joe Walsh (Cork South West). Of the 33 backbenchers who attended this meeting, at least 28 voted for Charlie Haughey in the leadership election.
At the Parliamentary Party meeting subsequently Jack Lynch, who was infuriated when informed by a Dublin deputy of the caucus, demanded to know who was at the meeting. He was met by what has been repeatedly described as "a wall of silence". That factor, almost as much as the fact that the meeting took place was an indication of the extent to which the Taoiseach had lost the support of the backbenchers even then.
At that Parliamentary Party meeting Jack Lynch agreed to hold a day long meeting to discuss the state of the party and general policy issues. When that meeting did take place it was a heated one with more than 30 TDs speaking, almost all critically of the Government's performance, generally on the economy but also on Northern Ireland. Lynch promised greater liaison between the cabinet and the backbenchers, regular day long meetings where discussions would be free-ranging and the appointment of a press officer who would improve communication generally.
None of this impressed the gang of five but they were jubilant about the success of the caucus and of their own independent estimates of support for Charlie Haughey with. in the Parliamentary Party. However that support was measured in terms of there being a leadership election, between Haughey and Colley or one of the other hopefuls, it was not measured against a continuance in office by Jack Lynch. So a plan was put into effect to force the resignation of Jack Lynch as leader in January of 1980, having consistently undermined his position by then and built up overwhelming support for their candidate Charlie Haughey. Again these decisions were taken at meetings in Jury's but it seems that not an of the five were in absolute agreement about the means of getting rid of Lynch, although it appears that all were agreed on the desirability of a change of leader from Lynch to Haughey.
It is not clear exactly how much Charlie Haughey knew of these happenings. Certainly he had no knowledge of the caucus before it happened but he knew of it soon afterwards and he wasn't told about it by jack Lynch. It seems
that he discussed the leadership issue with some members of the five at this stage and compared estimates with them on how individual TDs would vote. But it does not appear to be the case that at this time - i.e. July - he was part of the conspiracy to get rid of Jack Lynch.
The five decided that there were dangers in holding another caucus meeting, firstly because of what it might precipitate within the party before they were ready - they were at all times afraid tfiat the establishment would spring a vote of confidence in Jack Lynch and set back their efforts by at least several months - and secondly because it might not be as successful as the first one. Instead they set about contacting each one of the backbenchers, through a myriad of contacts. This was done with' considerable skill and subtlety. Lists were drawn up of who was friendly with whom, who should contact whom, who should be drawn in on the conspiracy at that stage etc.
Sean Calleary of Mayo East was one of those inducted early on. He stayed in a guest house adjacent to Jury's and he too was a regular diner at the Coffee Dock. He was walked back to his guest house on several evenings by col. leagues curiously interested in his opinion on a variety of matters. Once they were satisfied that Calleary was of the same mind he was included.
Ray McSharry's involvement is unclear. It seems certain that he knew of what was transpiring long before any of his colleagues in Government. This partly because he shared a house with Mark Killilea and was a regular attender at Jury's and partly because he was known to be one of the same mind as the five anyway.
However his involvement was deliberately peripheral be. cause of his position as junior minister to George Colley.
It was Jackie Fahey himself who involved Sile de Valera in the plans. She had been a speaker at a function in h~ constituency and he had an opportunity of sounding her out there. She revealed deep disenchantment with Jack Lynch, notably on Northern policy, and she became deeply involved at an early stage. She 'was particularly useful in contacting some of the new deputies, notably Eileen Lemass, Charlie McCreevy and Vincent Brady. She sounded them out and reported that they too were deeply disenchanted and would welcome a change of leader, provided it was Charlie Haughey.
Brendan Daly of Clare was another vital cog in the machine. He made contact with Michael Noonan of Limerick West, an unknown quantity, Johnny Callanan, a fellow Clareman, and Hugh Conaghan of Donegal, who eventually voted for George Colley.
There were meetings arranged for other hotels. For in. stance, a delegation from Jury's travelled one evening to Powers Hotel where Jerry Cronin and Tom Meaney stayed and another evening there was a deputation sent to the
Wicklow Hotel where Bill Loughnane and Senator Michael J. O'Toole of Mayo stayed. Bit by bit the circle was widened but the identity of the prime movers remained for the most part secret.
SILE DE VALERA
Sile de Valera's Fermoy speech was part of the general conspiracy to escalate the tension within the party. A
general discussion took place on the desirability of raising the republican issue and it was decided that she would be the best person to do so, both because of her name and the fact that she would get publicity when others might be ignored.
She wrote the speech herself on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, prior to its delivery on Sunday, September 9. She sent copies of her speech to the newspapers and RTE on the Thursday and that evening got a telephone call from the Taoiseach. Whereas the foregoing is not in contention, there are curious divergences between what Jack Lynch told the Dail about what happened next and what Ms. de Valera told the Parliamentary Party meeting on September 28.
Mr. Lynch says he asked Ms. de Valera to come to see him and when she did that he asked her to withdraw her speech. Ms. de Valera says that when the Taoiseach telephoned her on the Thursday evening he said he had heard he was about to make a controversial speech on the fol lowing Sunday on Northern policy and that he would like to see a copy of it. She agreed and said she would welcome an opportunity to see him and talk to him about it. Mr. Lynch replied that he was very busy but agreed to see her at 9.30 the following morning. When she arrived he read her speech, pointed out parts which he objected to saying that the time was not opportune to say these things. However, according to Ms. de Valera's statement to the Parliamentary Party meeting, at no stage did he ask her to withdraw it and he said on her departure that he would have had no wish to censor the speech, in fact he might have liked to have added something, had he seen it before it had been circulated to the press.
Ms. de Valera was therefore surprised to hear from a reporter in Fermoy on September 9 that the Taoiseach was preparing a reply to what she had said for, she told the Parliamentary Party meeting, she had no indication that he ob jected so vehemently to the speech. It was because of her understanding of what he had said to her on Friday morning that she stated repeatedly in America, where she had gone the following day, that there was no basic disagreement between her and the Taoiseach on Northern policy.
At the Parliamentary Party meeting, specially convened to consider her speech, on September 28 - the day before the Pope arrived, Ms. de Valera spoke immediately after the Taoiseach and rigidly stuck to her position, offering to answer any question that arose. She seemed to modify her stance somewhat, away from an outright rejection of any interim measures, towards an acceptance of such measures provided they were in the context of a commitment on a united Ireland. However, she stuck rigidly to this latter view in spite of being pressed repeatedly by ministers and others to concede.
Contrary to reports at the time, including some that appeared in Magill, Ms. de Valera did get substantial support from other backbenchers and stuck to her position with great tenacity. Her performance in the face of ministerial attack was very formidable and she made a deep impression on backbenchers, sympathetic to both sides.
The rise of Sile de Valera over the last six months to a year is one of the most notable developments within Fianna Fail. She has inherited many of the strong qualities of her grandfather and a great deal of his charisma. The reception she gets at party functions- throughout the country is quite staggering and the esteem with which she is now held within the Parliamentary Party combines to make her a very powerful force within Fianna Fail.
The effect of her Fermoy speech was to further widen the rift within Fianna Fail and sharpen the issue of Northern policy which was very much her personal intention.
Matters were rapidly coming to a head within the party now and Jack Lynch's security deal with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher, was almost the coup de grace. The circumstances of his meeting with her seemed humiliating from an Irish point of view and to be seen to be subjected to further brow-beating from the British was also irksome.
Reports that an agreement had been reached on an air corridor sent a shudder of indignation throughout the party.
By now backbenchers were sensitive about almost every issue and in a sense looking for reason to complain about.
Tommy McEllistrim tabled a motion opposing suggestions of an air corridor for the Parliamentary Party meeting in late October. He discussed the motion with two of his colleagues, Mark Killilea and one other - not Jackie Fahey as he had returned to Clonmel. The motion was left on the desk of Michael Woods on a Friday afternoon. Woods sent it to the Taoiseach later on that day and Jack Lynch sent copies of it to Michael O'Kennedy, Gerry Collins and Bobby Molloy. One of these latter leaked the motion to the newspapers on the following Monday - the suspect is Molloy - in an attempt to undermine McEllistrim with the Parliamentary Party.
However on the following Wednesday, McEllistrim denied he was the one who had leaked the story and he demanded an investigation, which was promised by Jack Lynch. McEllistrim agreed to withdraw his motion on the assurance from the Taoiseach that the air corridor did not involve any infringement of Irish sovereignty - McEllistrim and the other conspirators weren't yet ready for the showdown. A preliminary showdown came about, not of their making, but of George Colley's doing a few days afterwards. The Taoiseach had gone to America where he told the Washington Press club that the security deal with the British involved only slight changes to the air control regulations on overflights. Dr. Bill Loughnane was telephoned by an Irish Indpendent reporter, Ray Managh, and called the Taoiseach a liar - George Colley who was in charge in the Taoiseach's absence decided to have the whip removed from him. There was agreement in cabinet on this course of action with only Charlie Haughey and Martin O'Donoghue dissenting. Colley marched into the Parliamentary Party meeting, summarily proposed the motion for the removal of the whip - it was seconded by Joe Farrell of Louth - and then almost ran into catastrophe. The Parliamentary Party was in no mood to acquiesce, they had had enough and weren't going to be brow-beaten into stampeding Bill Loughnane out of the party, irrespective of what he had said.
Jackie Fahey quickly rose and proposed quietly that the matter be deferred until the Taoiseach's return. This was seconded by Chubb O'Connor. Virtually every speaker that rose stated he was supporting the amendment but Colley was adamant that his original motion be put. Attempts were made before lunch to get Bill Loughnane to explain himself but he repeatedly dismissed such entreaties. Eventually he was forced to confront the issue and he told a homily of how Fr. Sydney McEwan had once gone to John McCormack for an audition and was sitting there nervously when the maestro burst out of his room and brought McEwan off to lunch saying that one couldn't sing on an empty stomach. At that the Parliamentary Party meeting broke up for lunch and a quick canvass of support for Dr. Bill Loughnane was done. Albert Reynolds went to Colley and told him his motion had no chance of succeeding but the Tanaiste was adamant. Martin O 'Donoghue tried to prevail on him in the ministers' restaurant that it would be extremely foolish to proceed as he was almost certain to be defeated and this would have untold consequences on his future. It was only on his way back to the reconvened meeting that Colley finally succumbed to the advice of Bobby Molloy and Padraig Faulkner, both of whom had enthusiastically supported the decision to remove Loughnane when it was discussed at the cabinet.
It was Ray McSharry who suggested the way out of the dilemma. Loughnane, George Colley, Brian Lenihan and Willie Kenneally, the chairman of the Parliamentary Party. went outside 'to another room and hammered out a compromise statement whereby Loughnane agreed to retract his criticisms of the Taoiseach. The writing was on the wall then but few among the party establishment could see it.
At lunchtime that day, Charlie Haughey walked across Molesworth St. for a luncheon appointment in the Hibernian Hotel. There he observed casually that Lynch and Colley had lost the party and it was only a matter of time before they were routed. He did a swift survey of his support within the Parliamentary Party and calculated that he had 35 certain votes and about 15 others leaning in his direction.
He was in a position to be confident for things had escalated within the dissident caucus. By now the conspirators had been cajolling, coaxing and dealing for several months and by the beginning of November they were certain that a crunch would come soon and they needed to consolidate their position.
All involved are extremely reluctant to talk about the next development but a decision was taken in early November to tie down support for a move to change the leader and a highly secret petition was surreptitiously circulated among those who were known to be hard-line Haugheyites. The petition declared that they committed themselves to supporting a motion for a change of leader, without specifying who the next leader should be. Each TD was required to sign the petition without being shown the list of those who had already signed.
About twenty TDs had signed the petition within a week of its being first drafted. While those involved refuse to state what the precise figure was or who exactly signed it, from a variety of sources it is possible to make an informed guess that the following names appeared on it: Lorcan Allen, Liam Alyward, John Callanan, Sean Calleary, Ger Connolly, Brendan Crinion, Brendan Daly, Sile de Valera, Sean Doherty, Jackie Fahey, ,Padraigh Flynn, Joe Fox, J ames Gallagher, Sean Keegan, Mark Killilea, Eileen Lemass, Bill Loughnane, Charlie McCreevy, Tom McEilistrim, Ray McShauy, Chubb O'Connor and Paddy Power.
It was estimated that a total of 30 could eventually be got to support such a resolution – i.e. a further 8 - but it seemed unlikely that an absolute majority could have been obtained to get rid of Jack Lynch come January. However, with a minority of 30 supporting such a resolution, it is more than likely that Jack Lynch would have believed his position to be untenable and would have resigned.
As Jack Lynch told his resignation press conference, he had decided a long time previously to retire in January. He had informed only Martin O'Donoghue of his decision and George Colley was as unaware of the Taoiseach's intentions as Charlie Haughey.
However on the return of the Taoiseach from America, Martin O'Donoghue told him of the seething tensions within the party as displayed at the meeting on the Bill Loughnane affair. Martin said that in the absence of any clear indication from him about his future intentions, the party was in danger of tearing itself apart. O'Donoghue also told him that going sooner rather than later would make no difference to George Colley's chances of election - these were already assured anyway.
The Cork by-elections had weakened Lynch's position enormously. He had gone out of his way to personalise the
campaign, particularly in Cork city and it had misfired,if his detractors in the party had needed ammunition against him this was it - he was proving a liability even in his own constituency, they argued.
Lynch agreed to go and sometime afterwards, possibly on Monday November 19, he informed George Colley of his decision to retire shortly after the EEC summit meeting, which was to take place on November 29 and 30. It seems that Colley also informed him that he was certain of election.
The actual date of Lynch's resignation was fixed casually at the Parliamentary Party meeting on Wednesday, November 21. There was expected to be a major discussion on the results and significance of the Cork by-elections but the meeting discussed a turf bill for several hours and there was no time left before lunch to get into the nitty gritty of what had gone wrong. In any event the dissidents had decided to skip the opportunity. There was no point any longer in dwelling on the failures of the Government; what was needed was to prepare for the new one, because they were increasingly certain that they would have their man instal. led as Taoiseach within two months. Several of the dissidents simply missed the meeting.
At the conclusion of the meeting Jack Lynch said that he presumed that the party would welcome an opportunity for another day long discussion. He leafed through his diary, noting that the following week was impossible because of the EEC summit but he suggested Wednesday, December 5.
George Colley's main canvassers were Bobby Molloy, Willie Kenneally and Joe Farrell. Martin O'Donoghue also helped out as did Des O'Malley. The extent to which the Colley camp was out of touch with what was going on among the backbenchers is illustrated by the following story.
During the Cork by-elections, constituency colleagues Kenneally and Fahey were staying in Youghal. One evening Kenneally invited Fahey out for a drink - an unusual occurrence - and it became quickly obvious that Fahey was being sounded out on Colley's behalf. Fahey told Kenneally that he reckoned that Haughey had only about 20 sure votes in the party and left in doubt what his own intentions would be.
At the Bill Loughnane Parliamentary Party meeting, Kenneally signalled to Fahey after Colley had proposed the motion for the removal of the whip that there was no need for him, Fahey, to second the motion as Farrell had already been lined up. Then when Fahey proposed his amendment Kenneally asked him on three occasions to withdraw it. Fahey, told him he couldn't as his seconder, Chubb O'Connor would let him. Meanwhile Fahey was at the centre of the conspiracy to eject Lynch and install Haughey.
The fact is that the Colley camp just didn't have an idea of what was going on within the- party. At one stage during
the campaign Colley actually believed that Albert Reynolds, one of the gang of five, was actually out there canvassing for him. He had never spoken to Reynolds about the leader ship and neither had any of his canvassers. It wasn't just bravado when the Colley camp stated on Wednesday night, prior to the election that they had 55 votes in the bag. They believed it.
Others whom they believed they had nailed down included Sean Calleary, Jerry Cronin, who was later to second Haughey, Brendan Daly, Michael O'Kennedy, and even Ray McSharry. They made assumptions about TDs without ever contacting them directly or indirectly.
And yet George Colley started that campaign with a clear advantage. He was certain from the outset of a substancial1tial majority of the Government's 25 members and he needed only about 22 votes from the backbenches to be over the top. As one of his most prominent backers conceded afterwards, George Colley deserved to lose the elec tion if only because of the incompetence of his campaign. Later on Colley was to accuse journalists who had confidently predicted a Haughey victory of bias because of that prediction, but the fact was that even to an outsider it was clear that there was almost no way that the Tanaiste could win.
The crucial issue was that the party felt they needed a drastic change of image and direction. George Colley offered only more of the same on both counts, while Charlie Haughey represented something different, even if there was a touch of danger about him. There was a chance of keeping their seats with Haughey, none with Colley. And yet it should be remembered that those who had joined the conspiracy from the outset on Haughey's behalf were those with safe seats for the most part - such an adventure was too hazardous for the marginal TDs.
It would appear that each of Colley's canvassers was a liability to him. Apart from not appreciating the mood of the backbenchers, in their own different ways they were the cause of resentment within the party. Molloy's manner was abrasive both before and during the campaign. Indeed he is credited with having driven Michael O'Kennedy into the Haughey camp by a very aggressive approach, demanding to know which way O'Kennedy was going to vote. As it happens O'Kennedy would have voted for Haughey anyway. He had a bitter clash about a year ago with Colley about funding for the Department of Foreign Affairs and O'Kennedy hadn't forgiven the humiliation it caused him.
The meeting in Des O'Malley's house which was enterprisingly uncovered by an RTE reporter also did them harm. Actually the meeting was a rather innocent affair. It started apparently when Des O'Malley met Gene FitzGerald in the bar at Leinster House. George's wife was waiting upstairs for him in his room and when he explained to O'Malley why he couldn't have another drink, O'Malley invited Gene and his wife back to his home in Rathmines for a late night drink. As O'Malley was leaving Leinster House he bumped into Seamus Brennan and his wife Brennan's and O'Malley's wives are close friends - O'Malley extended the invitation to them.
There had been rumours around Leinster House that evening that O'Malley might enter the fray and apparently in an effort to see how the land lay, Sylvester Barrett came around to O'Malley's house to find a small party in session. David Andrews also arrived with his wife, and a barrister friend. When it was discovered that there was a reporter outside the door O'Malley got worried that George Colley would think that he was plotting behind his back. So O'Malley phoned Colley and invited him and his wife around - they arrived on foot and were missed going in by the reporter. Apparently there was some political discussion but nothing of any consequence.
O'Malley had let it be known earlier that evening that he would not allow his name to go forward. He had stated this categorically in the December issue of Magill, and anyway George Colley wouldn't hear of standing down so O'Malley wasn't going to damage his chances. Those who pressed O'Malley to run included the two Andrews brothers. There was some bitterness in the Haughey camp when it emerged that David Andrews was at the party in
the O'Malley home - some of the Haughey supporters said that the Andrews had pledged their support to Haughey only hours before he had left the Dail on the Wednesday evening.
It was only on the Thursday that Colley started to pose a real challenge to Haughey. He had managed to keep all but three members of the cabinet behind him and they went out in some force to arm twist support for the Tanaiste. Surprisingly Sylvester Barrett was particularly active. For instance he visited the Wicklow Hotel late on Thursday night to visit the bedridden John O'Leary of South Kerry. O'Leary had previously indicated to McEllistrim that he would support Haughey but under extreme pressure from Barrett and a Cork businessman, who incidentally seems to have played a significant part in the campaign, he agreed to change sides.
That Cork businessman also paid a lot of attention on Thursday and Friday morning to Sean French of the Taoiseach's constituency of Cork city. French said later "they jumped on my guts for hours on end but I remained steadfast". Bobby Molloy took off in his state car for Co. Meath to visit Brendan Crinion, his comrade in arms during the debacle over the allegations against Jimmy Tully in 1976. Crinion however also remained firm in spite of a great deal of pressure.
While Colley's campaign was a shambles, Haughey's campaign wasn't a great deal better. True the backbench effort, orchestrated now primarily by Mark Killilea and Tommy McEllistrim, was superb, but he was positively lackadaisical himself. He sat in his office in the first floor in Leinster House at the right at the end of the corridor. People came and went but he seemed almost above it all. Certainly he seemed absolutely confident of victory but it was his backbench supporters who really knew the score, not him, and it was they who were really doing the work.
It remains a mystery for instance why Haughey made no determined attempt to persuade the likes of John Wilson, Gene Fitzgerald, Sylvester Barrett, Denis Gallagher and Gerry Collins to vote for him. His backbenchers couldn't make these contacts for him, he needed to do it himself but he didn't. It is absolutely true that Haughey promised nothing to get elected, he did almost nothing to get elected. Had the Colley side been a little more sophisticated, then they could have swung the three votes that made the difference. However Haughey had the election in the bag - He nearly threw it away.