Saving the State: Fine Gael from Collins to Varadkar, by Stephen Collins & Ciara Meehan, Gill Books, 400 pp, €24.99, ISBN: 978-0717189731
Years ago at a wedding my cousin Padraig Gearty met James Dillon. He mentioned my cousin and godmother Brigid Lyons Thornton, referring to her as “bitter Fine Gael”. “No, no, no,” Dillon intoned: “Staunch Fine Gael. Bitter Fianna Fáil.” “Bitter Fine Gael” was certainly an apt characterisation of my godmother. For a child it was highly entertaining: the first time I heard the word “bastard” used it was in “that bastard”, to refer to Éamon de Valera.
Not the least merit of Saving the State is that it prompts reflection on the endurance of the strange phenomenon that is Fine Gael. Collins and Meehan write of the party playing down the embarrassing (to put it no more strongly) episode of O’Duffy’s leadership of Fine Gael when the party was established in 1933 by the merger of Cumann na nGaedheal, the National Centre Party and the Army Comrades Association – the “Blueshirts” ‑ in favour of the heroic figure of Michael Collins. Collins had, as they point out, died eight months before the foundation of Cumann na nGaedheal. But it is about more than branding: the cult of Collins runs deep in Fine Gael. The party has also a strain that identifies more with the Irish parliamentary party than Sinn Féin. In ways WT Cosgrave can be seen as more in the line of Arthur Griffith than of the martial figure of Collins, who overshadows Griffith both in the public and in the Fine Gael imagination. O’Duffy’s volatility and extremism alarmed the rest of the party leadership. Confronted with an ultimatum, he resigned in September 1934. It was a discreditable interlude. O’Duffy headed off on his “Crusade in Spain” in 1936-37. Irish identification with Franco in the Spanish civil war was sadly not confined to Fine Gael; de Valera expressed sympathy with the Nationalists but maintained a policy of neutrality. Some of the party’s “intellectuals” (a term that has a distinctly right-wing hue in the early history of Fine Gael) entertained the deluded belief that they could return to office by challenging Irish neutrality in the Spanish civil war.
Collins and Meehan’s book is a reminder of the extraordinary cast of ruddy characters who make up the history of the Fine Gael parliamentary party, with which they are principally concerned. While having a broadly similar political outlook they remained individualistic to the point of eccentricity. While they could mobilise for an election and function as a team in government over long periods on the rare occasions in which they took office after an election, the party could not, until relatively recently, be characterised as cohesive. That may be one of the achievements of Enda Kenny, or perhaps it was that the failed heave against him in 2010 had somehow a cathartic effect. Fine Gael seems somehow to have moved beyond the era of heaves and leadership challenges that began with the forced resignation of Alan Dukes on the eve of a no-confidence motion after the 1990 election and extended into the heaves against the leadership of his successor, John Bruton, but actually stretched back to the liberal plotting against Liam Cosgrave until his election as taoiseach in 1973.
Biographies of French leaders ritually celebrate “la traversée du désert”, the long periods of futility and irrelevance which the politician goes through sustained by family members and a handful of supporters before at last attaining the pinnacles of state power. For great stretches of political time Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael as a party seemed to be perpetually engaged in crossing the desert. It is a party traumatised by defeat. Certain years stand out. There is of course the primal year of defeat, 1932. There is also the defeat of the second interparty government in 1957 and the defeat of the Cosgrave-Corish coalition in 1977. The defeat in 1997 of the rainbow government led by John Bruton at least was close; that of Michael Noonan in 2002 was not. Elections came and went within those intervals: the first two stretches of exclusion, 1932-1948 and 1957-1973, each lasted some sixteen years. I can recall the desolation felt after the 1969 election, the last defeat in that second period, perhaps because it is the first election I had much consciousness of.
Yet somehow Fine Gael survived, outlasting challenges from the Progressive Democrats and the Labour Party of the “Spring Tide”. One reason is intelligent pragmatism. Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael, if it could be dourly unimaginative, was at least unencumbered by major economic lunacies. Some of that pragmatism is captured in the fact that at the party meetings at which Declan Costello proposed his “Just Society” policy in 1964 he was supported by Paddy McGilligan, who had been minister for industry and commerce from 1924 to 1932. The “Just Society” may have been something of a chimera, and overly indebted to John XXIII’s 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra, but the turn towards thinking seriously about policy was crucial, and drew a younger generation of politicians and leaders to the party.
It was also the first sustained attempt at self-analysis that reflected the need of Fine Gael to connect with public opinion. Collins and Meehan are good on how FitzGerald believed his thinking closer to Labour, and how Declan Costello, Garret FitzGerald and many other Fine Gael liberals positively sought coalition with Labour to ensure that socially progressive policies which were unlikely to have commended themselves to Fine Gael on its own were pursued. That had a symbolic echo in the sporadic attempts in the 1970s and ’80s to change the secondary title of the party to “The Social Democratic Party’ from “The United Ireland Party” (it seems from Collins and Meehan that Frank McDermott of the Centre Party in 1933 had wanted the party to be actually known as “United Ireland”; Michael Tierney proposed “Fine Gael”). The proposed change was well-intentioned – I strongly supported it – but in retrospect it appears somewhat askew. That is not simply because confronted with right wing anti-rule-of-law populist parties across Europe social democrats and Christian democrats now have a common cause, rendering the now almost forgotten quarrel over Fine Gael’s self-designation of lesser moment. It is hard in retrospect not to concede that Fine Gael fell into the Christian Democrat basket, and the attempt to classify it as a social democratic party was faintly pretentious. It was also confusing: it is important that political parties in democracies should not characterise themselves as something other than they are. Ironically, the enlistment of Fine Gael in 1976 as a founding constituent of the European People’s Party, masterminded by FitzGerald, was to prove highly consequential, not only in shutting out Fianna Fáil, which was its primary purpose. That European nexus, which Enda Kenny strenuously worked when he became party leader, was to prove important in extricating the country from the crash when he took office in 2011. What is critical is that whether it conceived itself as centre-right or centre-left, Fine Gael was immune to the pernicious siren-song of neoliberalism, the ideology that was reactively to gift the presidency of the United States from 1916 to 2020 to Donald Trump. So the Irish model endured, with neither of the main parties suborned by Thatcherism or neoliberalism.
Though both were sons of members of the first government of the state, FitzGerald’s and Cosgrave’s conceptions of Fine Gael had little in common. Cosgrave was driven by the urge to consummate the legacy of his father; FitzGerald in his autobiography admitted having voted for Fianna Fáil in 1961, prompted by admiration for Seán Lemass. He saw Fine Gael unsentimentally – and unaffectionately – as a vehicle for what he wanted to achieve. FitzGerald was a restless moderniser who brought a more professional approach to election management and communications. Famously, Fine Gael only commissioned an opinion poll, which showed Fianna Fáil at over twice its level of support, after Cosgrave had called a general election for June 16th, 1977. After the last cabinet meeting Cosgrave went up to FitzGerald and gave him a file, saying “Garret, you can look after this.” It was the Arks advertising file for the campaign.
Saving the State is a salutary reminder, as with relief and hope we enter the Biden era, of the importance of the profession of politics, the object of so much voguish scorn.
Frank Callanan is completing James Joyce: A Political Life. He was chairman of the trustees of Fine Gael 2013-18.