Fionnan Sheahan: Fine Gael going back to its grassroots as new crop of TDs aren't afraid to speak their minds
Published 30/07/2012 | 17:00
Fine Gael's next generation gathered in Killarney at the weekend to honour the memory of the late Garret FitzGerald at the Inaugural Summer School held in his name.
The location was appropriate, as party TD Brendan Griffin pointed to Dr FitzGerald's father, Desmond FitzGerald, being of Kerry stock.
About 150 delegates debated a range of topics and were addressed by the former Taoiseach's son, Mark FitzGerald.
"What would Garret say if he were here today? He would say the most important thing in politics is to have common high standards, while embracing different views. He would say challenge people, be curious. He always said don't complain -- do something," he said.
He is still a hero of the party ranks, who recall his personality and intellect with fondness.
But to find the role model for the current crop of Fine Gael TDs and senators, you're looking at the conservative nature and family values of Liam Cosgrave or John Bruton.
And that includes Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who is cut from the same cloth.
Fine Gael of 2012 is not comparable to Fine Gael of 1982, where a wave of liberalism collided with the traditional conservative wall of the party.
Dr FitzGerald's "constitutional crusade" would not be tolerated by the current crop of TDs -- not least the younger crop.
Although some of them were barely out of nappies when FitzGerald's reign as leader came to an end, they would have grown up hearing of his legend.
However, the class of 2011, the large batch of new, young TDs elected in last year's general election, have contributed to returning Fine Gael to its conservative roots.
Mr Kenny is acutely aware of the lie of the land within his own party. His speech castigating the Catholic Church in the wake of the publication of the Cloyne Report last year has turned out to be a once-off and he is certainly not going to try to drag the party down the liberal route.
His reticence on expressing any opinion at all on gay marriage is a reflection of his appreciation of the mindset within his party.
Mr Kenny knows the limits of Fine Gael's modern-day outlook and he has to keep the conservative wing of the party on side.
In the wake of James Reilly raising eyebrows with his comments on abortion, the alarm bells would truly have started to ring if Mr Kenny had come out in favour of gay marriage.
While many TDs wouldn't have a problem with gay marriage, they would be bothered at the potential for the party to embark on a liberal agenda.
Mr Kenny's view of what makes a constitutional crusade is distinctly different to that of Dr FitzGerald.
Mr Kenny regards holding a referendum to abolish the Seanad as radical. The polling day has been kicked down the road amid ruffled feathers within the party and there is no desire to hold a vote anytime soon.
The referendum will have to held during the lifetime of this Government as Mr Kenny staked his personal reputation on the plan, and going beyond 2013 for a polling day would become farcical.
When it is eventually held, the proposal is set to be supported half-heartedly by Fine Gael, reducing the prospects of it actually succeeding.
The only proposition on offer is the abolition, and, if that doesn't pass, Mr Kenny can legitimately say the people had their say on retaining the institution, so there won't be any other major reforms put up.
Fine Gael is in no mood to go tearing up the Constitution, even if the Seanad abolition will cause vast rewriting to be required.
The lessons of the FitzGerald era are also coming into the thinking. Where the Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition of 30 years got bogged down in debates on abortion and divorce, the present incumbents -- on the Fine Gael side anyway -- are determined to keep the eye firmly on the economy.
What may be surprising to some is the depth of feeling among younger TDs about not going near the abortion issue.
Mr Kenny's crop of new TDs are not afraid to express their views, even if opening their mouths results in getting a phone call from Mr Kenny's handlers attempting to whip them back into line.
The real test will come when the abortion issue ultimately has to be tackled. Whatever about the voting public who elected them, the new TDs are certainly a more true reflection of the party grassroots.
Fine Gael is in the blue blood of many who began their rise through the party when it wasn't fashionable.
The net effect of the influence of this generation, allied to the demise of Fianna Fail, is the cementing of Fine Gael's status as the centre-right party on the political landscape.
Back to basics, a socially conservative party, committed to Europe, supportive of small business and farming, a free market and small government with little interference is the route several in the party would identify with into the future.
"It's about time Ireland moved on from the Civil War politics and became ideologically driven," a young buck said.