Wednesday 20 February 2019

Fine tale and Garret the Good

Niamh Sammon's three-part documentary series, Fine Gael: A Family at War (RTE1), began this week and right at the end of the engrossing first episode Garret FitzGerald mused that the party he had led for a decade was now "somewhat different". That's one way of putting it. Dead as a dodo would be another. Or, as narrator Miriam Kelly phrased it at the outset: "It's hard

Niamh Sammon's three-part documentary series, Fine Gael: A Family at War (RTE1), began this week and right at the end of the engrossing first episode Garret FitzGerald mused that the party he had led for a decade was now "somewhat different". That's one way of putting it. Dead as a dodo would be another. Or, as narrator Miriam Kelly phrased it at the outset: "It's hard to believe today that there was a time, just 20 years ago, when Fine Gael seemed an unstoppable political force."

Well, hardly unstoppable, but certainly in the early 1980s it looked as if the old political order, whereby Fianna Fail assumed it had a God-given right to rule the hearts and minds of an unquestioning electorate, was being undermined and that a revitalised Fine Gael might finally become the force it had always promised to be.

Garret the Good was the man who engendered such hopes. "He really was a star," politics professor Tom Garvin recalled, and he brought charisma to a party that up to then had been mostly seen as "removed from the common man and woman". And in the 1981 General Election he had the good fortune to be up against Charlie Haughey rather than Jack Lynch, who would have scuppered Fine Gael's chances. As former Fine Gael general secretary Peter Prendergast succinctly put it: "Jack Lynch was a nice, decent man and so was Garret - Charlie Haughey wasn't."

And so Garret became Taoiseach. The victory celebrations were brief, though, the new government discovering to their horror that the economy they had just inherited was banjaxed. So a tough budget was required, and someone came up with the novel idea of imposing VAT on clothes and shoes, which promptly got them out of power - helped on their way by Garret's unwise quip that as women had small feet they might start buying children's shoes, which were exempt from the restriction. "In politics," Garret wryly observed on the programme, "a sense of humour can be absolutely fatal."

Former Fine Gael minister Austin Deasy was one of those who weren't amused. "Garret was inclined to get carried away," he recalled, "and this time he screwed it up."

However, less than a year later, assisted by Fianna Fail scandals and infighting, Fine Gael were back in business, with Labour as coalition colleagues. But fundamental differences between the two parties led to tensions, not to mention extremely long cabinet meetings, sometimes lasting up to 12 hours, as Garret sought consensus on crucial issues.

Labour's Ruairi Quinn well remembered these marathon sessions: "Garret was the best leader Fine Gael ever had, but he wouldn't win a prize for chairing a meeting." Health minister Barry Desmond found the meetings so exhausting that he took to furtively puffing on ciggies, "borrowed from Alan Dukes, a chain smoker".

Then came the ill-fated referenda on abortion and divorce. Peter Barry confessed that campaigning on the abortion referendum brought him such abuse and hatred that "it scarred me for life". The divorce referendum was no better, the bishops reneging on their agreement not to influence the public and demanding a No vote from the faithful. "I never recovered my regard for them," Peter Prendergast said.

Margaret Thatcher did the government some damage, too, famously declaring "Out! Out! Out!" to all of Garret's New Ireland Forum proposals without telling Garret in advance of her intentions. And while the following year's Anglo-Irish Agreement may be reasonably regarded as Garret's finest hour, it didn't cut much ice at home, given that a quarter of a million people were out of work and that the national debt had almost doubled.

"If all you can do," Garret said on the programme, "is raise taxes and cut spending, it's a pretty miserable time to be in politics." Austin Deasy, though, saw it a bit differently: "We were put in to do a specific job and we didn't do it. We just didn't do it."

And his summation of Garret: "He was a wonderful man, he still is, he had the best of motives, but he didn't have the steel to deal with the reality of politics." Yes, Austin, but look at who succeeded him and at what has happened to the party since he stepped down. These will be the subjects of the next two episodes and if they're assembled with the expertise, insight and wit of the first instalment they'll be wholly absorbing.

I wish I could say the same about the first episode of Nation Builders (RTE1), which looked at the career of diplomat Sean Lester, who was Ireland's man in the ill-fated League of Nations during the 1930s, ending up as its secretary general in 1940.

Written and presented by John Bowman (or 'Dr John Bowman', as the credits chose to call him, as if an emphasis on academic credentials would lend the programme more gravitas), it never quite convinced the viewer of the significance of Lester's public career, while there was little sense of the man behind the public servant. Worthy and probably worthwhile, but a bit dull - though whether that was because of the subject or the approach taken I wasn't quite sure.

And I'm not sure what to make of Cracking Crime (RTE1), either. This series is along the lines of other series RTE has shown us in recent years - taking a serious crime, re-enacting it with the aid of actors and showing how the culprits were caught.

This week's subject concerned the 1990 brutal murder of an elderly Dundalk publican and the reconstruction, in the manner of Crimeline efforts, was vividly done, but its main intention seemed to be to scare the bejaysus out of the viewer, while emphasising how brilliant the Gardai are at catching thugs. But what exactly is the point?

By contrast, Townlands (RTE1) offered a jolly little film about the efforts of three Irish inventors to get their brain waves onto a world market. One guy had come up with a device for catching and disposing of spiders without harming them, another had invented a gizmo for putting a golf ball on a tee without the golfer having to bend down, while a third had dreamt up a coat hanger on a spring.

What made the programme rewarding was the quirkiness and likeability of the participants and the affectionately alert tone of the film, which was produced and directed by Gillian Marsh. Nice.

At Wimbledon (BBC2), Greg Rusedski effed and blinded at the umpire. What next? Nice but Tim doing a streak? Even John McEnroe was appalled - not at the language used but at the pointlessness of the outburst.

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