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James Downey: Fianna Fail must learn to put country before party

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DAVID McCullagh's biography of John A Costello was launched by Liam Cosgrave in the Mansion House on Wednesday evening before a large and enthusiastic audience. Cosgrave, still spry at the age of 90, gave them value for their money.

He spoke for more than half an hour, and apologised gracefully for the length of the speech. It occurred to me that in Costello's time, to say nothing of earlier times, no politician or retired politician would have thought anything of speaking for half an hour. It occurred to me, too, that Fine Gael Taoisigh, including himself and Costello, tend to look better, more competent and more patriotic, in retrospect than in office.

His command of the facts and the chronology was perfect, and he placed the book's subject neatly in the historical context.

Costello formed and ran the first Irish coalition government in 1948. It comprised a bewildering number of parties and independents. Somehow they managed to stick together for three years, and they lost office chiefly because the two Clann na Poblachta ministers, Sean MacBride and Noel Browne, were impossible people. They are remembered, not for their good deeds but for the controversy over the Mother and Child Scheme in 1951.

Nevertheless, they proved that coalitions can work. Their Fianna Fail opponents were slow to acknowledge that fact. They did not enter into their own first coalition, under the pressure of necessity, until 1989, and this very week they showed a certain lack of adroitness -- to put it gently -- in their relations with their partners.

But at least one question has been settled for future coalition governments. I was reminded of it when Professor Risteard Mulcahy turned up in the Mansion House on Wednesday.

In 1948 his father, General Richard Mulcahy, was the leader of Fine Gael and the obvious person to head the inter-party government. But Labour and Clann na Poblachta objected to him. He stepped aside with dignity, and Costello became Taoiseach. In the future, the leader of the biggest coalition party will become Taoiseach without any argument.

Meanwhile, it was impossible to rub shoulders with Risteard Mulcahy without contemplating the death of his equally eminent colleague Maurice Neligan and a current controversy in which he played a notable part.

Neligan opposed the construction of the new national children's hospital on the Mater site. He was right. Because of the restricted area and the difficulties of access, the Mater site is wholly unsuitable. Its proponents can argue until the cows come home, and cite as many committee decisions and expert advice as they can lay their hands on, but I will always believe -- as most people believe -- that the site was chosen for just one reason.

It is in Bertie Ahern's constituency, and nobody in Ireland tops Bertie on vanity projects. One of his brothers once cited the Port Tunnel among his "achievements" for Dublin's north inner city. How very appropriate, that Fianna Fail should dig a tunnel.

Bertie's ultimate vanity project, the Bertie Bowl, was far away from the inner city. It would have cost a cool billion at a time when greenfield sites were thought as valuable as diamonds. Happily, it never happened. For that if nothing else, we have to thank his then coalition partners, the Progressive Democrats.

The children's hospital is far more important than the Bertie Bowl and very different in several respects. In any list of priorities, access for our children to the best medical treatment is a world removed from the construction of a sports stadium.

And we all know that better sites are available -- on one count, as many as four. Interesting that Noel Smyth has re-entered the argument. At this late stage, can the affair be unravelled? Evidently Smyth thinks so. No doubt we will hear claims about plans having progressed too far, the danger of forfeiting funds already committed, and so forth. But what matters more than children's lives and welfare?

Does the present Coalition understand that? This week, among all the other sensations, came the news that it has dumped the consensus in a cross-party Oireachtas committee on a children's rights referendum. It seems that there are complicated legal objections. In that case, why did we not hear about them during the committee's proceedings or in the months that have elapsed since it reported?

A bigger question. Has the Government the ability to identify priorities and tackle them with determination and imagination? The question answers itself easily. This regime gave us the stag-hunting ban while postponing the by-elections on the laughable grounds that holding them would take away our attention from the biggest issue of all.

On this issue, nothing less than national survival, Brian Cowen this week performed what looked remarkably like a U-turn. He defended himself with considerable skill, but he could not dispel the impression that John Gormley had bounced him into agreeing to a search for consensus with Fine Gael and Labour on a fiscal programme.

God knows we need a national consensus. Our situation is critical, and all the more so because Cowen has never brought himself to admit that to the people at large -- or, as it often seems, to himself. In typical Fianna Fail style, he appears to think that a few tax rises and spending cuts can cure it. He also appears to think that Fine Gael and Labour should have no more than a peripheral role, accorded as a favour and not of right.

Early in the economic and financial crisis, let's say two years ago, he should have offered to form a national government. Now it's too late. The need for consensus remains as urgent as ever, but Fianna Fail can't be part of it until they turn themselves into a party that puts country first and party second.

jdowney@independent.ie

Irish Independent