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Monday 22 October 2018

Lest we forget, it all happened 'in the national interest'

Irish politics has a long tradition of near misses and of sacrifices made to keep the show on the road

Scandal: Brian Lenihan Snr
Scandal: Brian Lenihan Snr

Damian Corless

By Tuesday there was no more stalling the inevitable, and Leo Varadkar accepted the resignation of his "political mammy" Frances Fitzgerald from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. While it's no comfort to either, they're not the first to make bitter sacrifices in "the national interest", and won't be the last.

The PDs' mantra was to act only "in the national interest", and they put this to the test during the 1990 Presidential election. FF's Brian Lenihan Snr was a shoo-in until a scandal erupted over his role in murky events a decade earlier. As FF's coalition partners, the PDs demanded his sacking as Tánaiste. Taoiseach Charles Haughey publicly refused to sacrifice his "friend of 30 years", while urging Lenihan to sign the resignation he'd drawn up. Lenihan broke contact, canvassing by helicopter, but the PDs got their head on a plate and Mary Robinson got the Áras.

Nine years earlier, a helicopter featured in an episode that would likely have led to a ministerial sacking if the margins weren't so tight. Michael Keating was the Golden Boy of the FG/Labour coalition, until his unilateral decision that the State would purchase Adare Manor. Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald told him 'No way', ordering him to scrap a planned Limerick trip.

Keating carried on regardless. A furious FitzGerald sent a squad car to intercept, unaware Keating was flying by Air Corps helicopter to Adare, where he confirmed the impending purchase. If sacked, Keating might defect from FG, pulling the rug from government, so his misconduct was hushed up until it was fed to the papers when he joined the PDs.

Months later, FitzGerald's executive toppled anyway, after Finance Minister John Bruton unveiled a savage budget. In a fatal misjudgment, FitzGerald thought Jim Kemmy was bluffing when the Independent TD threatened to withdraw his support if food subsidies were axed and VAT imposed on children's shoes. FitzGerald countered that selfish small-footed women could exploit any exemption to diddle Revenue. Minutes before the vote, the Taoiseach was hunched over Kemmy imploring him to relent. He wouldn't. The government of seven months fell, to be replaced by one that would last nine.

Haughey took power with another minority, and outraged many in FF by offering a European Commissioner post to FG's Dick Burke "in the national interest". Burke nursed a grudge over his omission from FitzGerald's fallen cabinet. The plan was for FF to win the ensuing by-election. They lost, and Haughey's enemies sharpened the knives. Thrown out by the electorate, the end seemed nigh for Haughey as Ben Briscoe tabled a motion demanding "the resignation of Mr Charles Haughey as party leader now".

Cornered, Haughey pulled off perhaps the greatest escape in Leinster House history - literally - slipping away as his enemies gawped in confusion. The meeting to finish him began with a minute's silence for the late TD Clem Coughlan. At the minute's end, chairman Jim Tunney declared the meeting adjourned 'as Gaeilge', and as all about him scratched their heads, Haughey fled to fight and win another day.

In 1992, having described FF's coalition with the PDs as "a temporary little arrangement", Albert Reynolds effectively tore down his own rule over trifling words at the Beef Tribunal. He accused coalition partner Des O'Malley of "dishonesty". Urged to substitute "incorrect" or "inaccurate" he stood firm, and was soon stood down by his ousted party.

Two bizarre near misses take us back to 1927, when the first Free State government hung by a thread. FF, with the help of Labour and the small National League Party, seemed certain to unseat WT Cosgrave. But when the vote was called, John Jinks of the National Party was AWOL. Cosgrave survived on the Ceann Comhairle's vote, while newspapers as far as Britain and the US reported Jinks' "kidnapping". When Jinks eventually reappeared, he claimed he'd deliberately "saved the situation for the government" in the national interest, but it quickly emerged that he'd been waylaid by two government supporters, plied with strong drink, and poured on to a train bound for his Sligo constituency.

Seeking a working majority, Cosgrave called a snap election, only for a disgruntled minister, JJ Walsh, to move the government closer to the brink. With polling day looming, Walsh went missing. Having dismissed reports of his resignation, the government had to admit the fact, claiming "health" reasons. When Walsh was discovered holidaying in Paris, his ex-cabinet colleague Ernest Blythe tried to curry sympathy from the electorate insisting: "Mr Walsh went for a holiday on the Continent on the eve of the general election apparently for no better reason than that he had his tickets bought before the dissolution."

The government clung on, but in 1930 - following a lost Dáil vote - Cosgrave tendered his resignation. However, rather than rule by shaky minority or share office with a coalition partner, Dev opted to bide his time, sure that FF's day would come.

Sounds awfully familiar.

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