In FG leader race, Simon Coveney is the 'Peter Barry option'
Peter Barry, who passed away last week, never really hungered to be Taoiseach, despite being so close to the top, writes Eoin O'Malley
Published 28/08/2016 | 02:30
James Dillon was elected leader of Fine Gael in 1959. The merchant prince from Ballaghaderreen was a man of impeccable manners and capable of outstanding oratory. He was the son of John Dillon, the last leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and grandson of John Blake Dillon, a founder of the Young Ireland movement.
Dillon looked and sounded like a leader. He would not have been out of place as a One-Nation Tory on the benches at Westminster, and seemed a natural choice for leader of his own party. One TD was worried however. Tony Barry, the deputy from Cork, and another merchant wondered aloud: 'But does he want to be Taoiseach?'
It's a question we might ask of the merchant princes of Cork. Tony Barry might have asked it of his son, Peter Barry, who passed away on Friday. In 1969, Peter Barry comfortably won back the seat his father had lost four years earlier. Despite being in the same constituency as Jack Lynch, whose avalanche of support had damaged his father, Peter Barry never had trouble holding on to his seat.
But despite achieving the office of Tanaiste, a post he held in the interregnum between Labour pulling out of government and the Haughey government being formed in 1987, Barry never made it to the top job.
That might be because, like Dillon, he lacked the hunger. He tried and failed to take the leadership of Fine Gael twice, 10 years apart. In 1977 he announced his candidacy, but stood aside in favour of Garret FitzGerald, whom he served loyally. In 1987 he was beaten in a three-way contest between Alan Dukes - at that stage barely six years in the Dail - and John Bruton. That defeat hurt, but it shouldn't have surprised him.
In 1977 Peter Barry had the support of the outgoing leader, Liam Cosgrave, and most of the Fine Gael front bench. Barry had performed solidly, if unexceptionally, in his ministerial briefs.
Richie Ryan and Garret FitzGerald were regarded as the front-runners. But Ryan had been damaged by his stint as Minister for Finance and the epithet 'Richie Ruin' stuck with him. He decided not to run, but urged Barry to run against FitzGerald.
FitzGerald was not popular in the upper echelons of Fine Gael. He was seen as disloyal to Cosgrave, too liberal and a loose cannon. Senior people in the party were anxious to block him. Barry was from the more conservative, old-fashioned wing of Fine Gael. He had no liberal instincts, but was pragmatic about changes happening in Irish society. He automatically had the support of those who disliked Garret.
But Barry might have been too gentlemanly for a fight. He canvassed support, and was confident of 25 of the 62 votes in the Fine Gael parliamentary party - just seven votes short. Barry and FitzGerald arranged a meeting and, incredibly, compared notes. Garret thought he had 43 votes and Barry just 19.
Rather than use this information to redouble his efforts, Barry - even more incredibly - took FitzGerald's word for it. He stood aside. Barry decided it would be best for the party not to have a divisive leadership struggle between the liberal and conservative wings of the party. He also, probably fairly, noted that his support was a 'keep Garret out' vote, rather than any clamouring for a Barry leadership.
Unlike FitzGerald, Barry didn't really stand for anything identifiable. He would have been a safe choice, but not an inspiring one. He certainly didn't have the vision and drive that FitzGerald had. It would have been hard to see Barry deliver the kind of support FitzGerald delivered in the three elections of 1981 and '82.
But Barry was probably right when he said to FitzGerald that he would be much better in opposition - and that he himself would be better than FitzGerald at the business of government.
Barry loyally served FitzGerald throughout his leadership, but FitzGerald's premiership was a disaster, partly of his own making. It's true that he was severely constrained by a broken economy and coalescing with a deeply split Labour party led by an inexperienced Dick Spring. It was a time when Michael D Higgins was a militant - who, with Joe Higgins, opposed coalition. But FitzGerald had no excuse for the interminable debates and evasion of decision that marked his governments.
Barry had accepted the job of Minister for Foreign Affairs, which meant he was away for much of the time. FitzGerald's management of Cabinet frustrated the more pragmatic Barry. He stayed out of most discussions. To Gemma Hussey, Barry gave the impression of a 'concerned uncle' - when Garret got over-excited or tensions rose, he was a calming voice that was trusted and respected on all sides of the cabinet table.
Barry's role in Foreign Affairs was not decisive. FitzGerald had been the minister there in the 1970s, had contacts throughout Europe, and was determined to achieve an agreement with the British on Northern Ireland. FitzGerald drove the negotiations with the British, leaving Barry somewhat surplus to requirements.
But he did serve a purpose. Barry's patrician manner was reassuring to the British. He looked like one of them, a One Nation Tory. Barry was also useful in that he presented a slightly more typical southern nationalist view than FitzGerald, something that reassured the party and the country.
This earned him the opprobrium of the unionist politicians in Northern Ireland. He didn't deserve that, just like he didn't deserve much of the credit for the Anglo-Irish Agreement. This was a product of FitzGerald's drive and tenacity.
When Barry went for the leadership again in 1987, once again he showed he was too gentlemanly for politics. In a party teeming with youthful talent he chose Paddy Cooney, an old-fashioned conservative, to run his campaign, and Barry was easily beaten. Had he won, it's likely he would have been an interim leader.
Given the likelihood of a Fine Gael leadership change in the next six months, the party's TDs will make the judgement as to who is most likely to outperform Micheal Martin.
They can't afford an interim leader, which should rule Frances Fitzgerald out. In the choice between Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar, Coveney looks like the 'Peter Barry option'. And not just in the superficial similarities of being a patrician merchant prince from Cork. Like Barry, Coveney is safe, dependable, efficient - if a bit bland. He doesn't appear to be burdened by ideology, something that could make him a good leader. Government is his natural habitat, but does he look a little too comfortable? Coveney doesn't give the impression of a man burning with desire.
Varadkar, like Garret FitzGerald, is a media darling, whose rapid elevation matches that of FitzGerald. Unlike FitzGerald, he's at the more pro-market end of the party.
There have been some question marks about his ability as a minister to deliver practical solutions to problems, but there are none about his ambition. It could be that Varadkar would be a better campaigner, but Coveney a better leader in government.
But that's not an option for Fine Gael. Tony Barry's question is one Fine Gael will ask itself now: does he want to be Taoiseach? Who gets the job might be down to hunger.
Simon Coveney should learn the lessons of Peter Barry's career.