Tuesday 16 January 2018

Flashback: 1982 - collapse of FG-Labour government after 252 days

Short-lived: Garret FitzGerald’s Fine Gael-Labour was defeated on its budget.
Short-lived: Garret FitzGerald’s Fine Gael-Labour was defeated on its budget.

At 252 days old, it was the second shortest government in the history of the state. Garret FitzGerald's Fine Gael had won 20 extra seats at the general election of June 1981, allowing it to lead a fragile minority government with Labour and the support of several independents.

It introduced an austere budget in July, described as "the toughest in peacetime", but the January budget was to prove its undoing.

The Irish Independent signalled what was happening a week before in a front page story headlined 'MAKE BUDGET HARSH, WARNS BANK'. It reported how the Central Bank was telling finance minister John Bruton that the problems in the economy would take more than short-term cutbacks to solve.

At the same time, Fianna Fáil was convulsed by rows over the leadership of Charles Haughey, with George Colley, Bobby Molloy and Charlie McCreevy outspoken in their opposition.

The newspaper was again downbeat as Budget Day dawned on January 27, trumpeting 'ONLY THE POOR WILL ESCAPE' as political correspondent Chris Glennon outlined the likely speech.

The Budget was duly tough, but any chance of patching together enough support from independents perished with Bruton's decision to introduce 18pc VAT on clothing and footwear, with no exemption for children's wear.

Limerick socialist independent Jim Kemmy refused to support the Budget, while Sinn Féin the Worker's Party's Joe Sherlock and Dublin independent Seán Dublin Bay Loftus also voted against. The only independent to support it was Noel Browne, whose vote was the last act of his long career in Leinster House which began in 1948.

The Budget was defeated 82-81 and the Irish Independent next day proclaimed across the width of page one: 'Election on Feb.18'.

Labelling Neil Blaney, Sherlock, Kemmy and Loftus as 'the Gang of Four', Glennon went on to describe Dr FitzGerald as "pale and visibly shocked", and Fianna Fáil's Ray Burke shouting gleefully, "We've won!"

There was more drama to come that evening, although it wasn't to emerge for a decade. The Taoiseach had gone out to Áras an Uachraráin to ask Dr Patrick Hillery to dissolve the Dáil, but while he was there several leading members of Fianna Fáil, including Mr Haughey and Brian Lenihan, tried to contact the president. They wanted him to refuse to grant the dissolution and instead ask Fianna Fáil to form a government without the need for a general election.

The story of this attempted intervention emerged during the 1990 presidential election campaign, and helped to scupper Lenihan's bid.

In 2000, FitzGerald wrote that he had met Kemmy and Loftus before the vote and while they were unhappy about other issues, the introduction of VAT on clothes and shoes wasn't raised.

"Where did the legend about the Budget falling on the issue of children's shoes originate?" he went on. "I am afraid that my own post-Budget actions were to blame for the emergence of this myth.

"I was moved to reveal the Department of Finance had argued that because some women had smaller feet than some children such a distinction should not be made. This argument had tickled my fancy during the pre-Budget cabinet discussions, and had stuck in my mind.

"It also stuck in the minds of the media. My attempt to lighten the occasion had instantly transformed our Budget defeat from an issue of food subsidies into one about children's shoes. And, unsurprisingly, Jim Kemmy saw no reason, subsequently, to correct this misinterpretation."

The following election saw Haughey form a minority government which proved even more error-prone, and lasted less than four weeks longer than FitzGerald's had before it collapsed in November.

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