'We either survive together or we will perish separately'
If Fine Gael continues to oppose in order to court popular approval. . . the road ahead will lead to a wasteland
WE had our Tallaght moment, and Enda Kenny blew it, as we knew he probably would. For those unfortunates who are too young to remember Tallaght but old enough to feel the pain of living in today's collapsing economy, the Tallaght strategy was one of the key moments of Irish history. It came in 1987, when the then leader of Fine Gael, Alan Dukes, announced at a meeting there that the opposition would not oppose the Fianna Fail government merely for the sake of opposition.
Fine Gael would support the government in tackling the budget deficit, and cutting borrowing.
The terms "patriotism" and "statesmanship" seldom apply to politicians of any country. Politics, after all, is opera for the tone-deaf, a stage for people who can't act, and beauty competition for those with two noses. It is seldom about principle. But there are rare occasions when politicians put the needs of the nation above those of their own self-interest. Labour's decision not to run against Sinn Fein in 1918 is one clear example. Independent Ireland has few enough examples of patriotism and statesmanship that compare; but Tallaght was one.
It wasn't easy. To cooperate with a truly dreadful man like Charles Haughey was in violation of every decent instinct within the Fine Gael party.
This man not only helped supply the Provisional IRA with arms, but as leader of the opposition, he opposed everything: he was the dedicated and unscrupulous "oppositionist" who condemned government cuts, though he knew they were absolutely essential. He engineered the defeat of two government referendums. He even attacked the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which gave the Republic a permanent say in the affairs of the North. He was, moreover, personally horrible, a sneering, ridiculing bully, a hypocrite who escorted his mistress to fine restaurants as he preached Catholic values. And he was visibly corrupt (though just how spectacularly so, we didn't know for decades).
Alan Dukes nonetheless put aside the deep personal and professional loathing he very properly felt for the vilest creature to lead this country since independence, and offered co-operative and constructive opposition as the government tackled our debt problems, as it cut taxes. He truly was the unsung midwife of the Celtic Tiger that was to be born in the 1990s.
We are arguably in a far worse fix than we were at the time of Tallaght, for there is nowhere for our unemployed to go to find work.
Much of the private sector is collapsing, with job losses of almost a thousand a day so far this year. Meanwhile, the vast public sector lies unreformed, and unless radically transformed, would become a ravenous farrow blindly and unthinkingly devouring the sow that suckled it.
We need massive political will to save the Irish State from ruin and social breakdown, which are our certain portion if we do not get our finances right. This requires a reassertion of values of patriotism, of stoicism, of fortitude, of generosity.
This crisis has offered the opportunity for the leader of Fine Gael to put the nation Number One, with Tallaght Two.
He chose the other route. To be sure, it would be silly to think that Fine Gael would yesterday shirk the opportunity to point the finger of blame at Fianna Fail's massive input to this crisis.
But it is possible to do this in a calm and measured way, just to remind the Government that the Opposition's generous stance is not due to amnesia but to patriotism, not forgetfulness but duty. Nor would another Tallaght have committed Fine Gael to a detailed or even generalised approval of the Government's budgetary proposals. No, for Tallaght is more about spirit than a matter of policy; it is a sense that we are all in this together, and that we either survive together or perish separately.
That unity is only possible with a cross-party leadership which can give the nation a sense of common purpose. We are at war.
If Fine Gael continues to oppose in order to court popular approval, and even to win elections, then we may presume that the road ahead is not merely dark, but will lead to a wasteland.
There are no easy options ahead. With unemployment growing at its present rate, we are heading towards unrest, poverty and despair for many. We must have a sense that our politicians are united in seeking to achieve a better tomorrow.
No doubt, my suggestion last year that we should have a government of National Unity was naive, and perhaps culturally impossible for the Fianna Fail party. But merely because the Government has lacked an open mind and a willing heart does not mean the Opposition must replicate its vices.
No mind was more closed, nor any heart less willing, than Charlie Haughey's.
Yet, remember: Fine Gael founded this state. In 1987, it took the lead in saving it. In 2009, it had the opportunity to meet a comparable challenge in an even graver crisis and do the same. It chose to do otherwise.
History will not look kindly on the triumph of party political interests this time around. For the consequences might well be catastrophic.