The factionalism and leadership rivalries within Fine Gael are vividly depicted in this comprehensive study, writes David Davin-Power
Fine Gael has been, in the words of Olivia O’Leary, “a serial leader-killer party” for much of its recent history. Alan Dukes, Michael Noonan, John Bruton and Enda Kenny were all to varying degrees victims of their colleagues.
This factionalism and rivalry is vividly depicted in this racy and readable history of Fine Gael by Stephen Collins, the former political editor of The Irish Times, and the historian Ciara Meehan.
Saving the State provides a solid history of the party’s origins and does not shirk from examining the significance of its first president, Eoin O’Duffy, and his Blueshirt movement. There is no disguising some senior Fine Gael figures’ affection for Benito Mussolini, the figure on whom O’Duffy modelled himself.
An amalgam of Cumann na nGaedheal, the Blueshirts and the National Centre Party, Fine Gael didn’t taste office for 14 years after its foundation. By the time of the 1948 interparty government, its TDs and senators acted largely as individuals, without any coherent parliamentary structure. It was a considerable achievement for Taoiseach John A Costello to fashion a working administration.
Fine Gael was a lightly organised party, in contrast to its bitter rival Fianna Fáil. After the two Costello governments of 1948 and 1954, it reverted under James Dillon to its previous state of disorganisation.
Liam Cosgrave was to succeed Dillon, who had stifled debate on the party’s future and in effect smothered Declan Costello’s Just Society document at birth. A pivotal character during these years is Gerard Sweetman, a former finance minister and political bruiser who sided with Cosgrave against the liberal wing of the party that included Costello, Garret FitzGerald and Tom O’Higgins. The late European Commissioner Dick Burke recalled FitzGerald’s constant attempts to oust Cosgrave: “In those times it was just heave, heave, heave.”
Sweetman was both an enforcer for Cosgrave and an economic thinker responsible for the promotion of a young TK Whitaker. One wonders how different Fine Gael’s history might look were it not for Sweetman’s untimely death in a car accident in 1970.
The book’s pacey narrative picks up appreciably in the FitzGerald era. The new Taoiseach brought with him Peter Prendergast, who took the party by the scruff of its neck, imposing candidates and bringing modern techniques to bear. The arrival of Charles Haughey prompted him to commission a pair of psychologists to profile the Fianna Fáil leader. They concluded he would be indecisive and unwilling to confront factions and interest groups. That advice proved invaluable and allowed Fine Gael — for the first time in its history — to be properly prepared for when an election was called.
Saving the State is strongest in its depiction of Fine Gael’s treatment of Dukes, Bruton and Noonan. Dukes made poor decisions and he was never accepted by a large faction within his own party. Bruton served successfully as taoiseach but once out of office had to fend off a series of challenges. Michael Noonan wielded the dagger and wore the crown briefly before a disastrous election campaign in 2002.
It was little different for Enda Kenny. In opposition, the conspirators came for him but, with the assistance of Phil Hogan, he saw them off in style, going on to serve as his party’s most successful taoiseach.
Collins and Meehan examine the Kenny years in detail, from his early gaffes to his eventual decision to step down, dignified in the face of growing pressure from Leo Varadkar and his supporters. He was the first leader to exit with a modicum of grace since FitzGerald.
There is so much to be said about Kenny, the star of the 2011 election campaign, unaccountably sidelined in 2016. He stood up to Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy in his first days in office in what was an “inexcusable attempt to bully him and take advantage of the Taoiseach’s inexperience”, according to one official. In doing so, he saved our corporation tax rate when the country was at its most vulnerable.
This book is replete with first-hand testimony, but it is hard to best the late Labour politician Brendan Halligan, who told the authors: “Enda Kenny’s optimism was a vital ingredient in Ireland’s recovery… he lifted our spirits and convinced us that if we pulled together, recovery was possible.”
The section dealing with Varadkar is understandably the least detailed of this comprehensive study. The Tánaiste remains an enigma; his commitment to politics, let alone his own party, remains hard to gauge. He was initially cool on this year’s pact with Fianna Fáil, insisting if there was to be a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin administration, so be it. The authors hear echoes of 1932 here. When WT Cosgrave handed over to Fianna Fáil, there was a strong feeling that De Valera’s party would be incapable of governing and it would quickly fall to Fine Gael to pick up the pieces. In any event, the historic deal between the two Civil War parties was made this spring, but not until Varadkar saw his popularity soar due to his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. He can afford to relax as he contemplates returning to power in two years.
The last word here goes to Paschal Donohoe, the evangelist for the centre and a most perceptive observer of the political scene. He envisages not a merger but more structured co-operation between the two big parties. The Finance Minister tells the authors that what Fine Gael needs to do is to define what the party’s identity is, because “if our identity is about not being Fianna Fáil, that has gone a long time ago”.
“We are all Enda’s political children,” Donohoe says, giving Kenny credit for rebuilding and modernising Fine Gael.
This is a fine book. My only quibble is with the title, which continues to jar, despite the authors’ explanations. Michael Collins was dead over a decade by the time Fine Gael was formed, and the words Saving the State are crying out for quotation marks. But these are small matters. Collins and Meehan have made a valuable contribution to the canon of Irish political histories.
Saving the State: Fine Gael from Collins to Varadkar by Stephen Collins and Ciara Meehan
Gill, 400 pages, hardback €24.99; e-book £10.79