Sunday 22 September 2019

Eugene O'Brien: 'Oh, for the halcyon election days of Charlie versus Garret'

The political giants of FF and FG were always diametrically opposed on how to tackle any crisis, but at least you had a choice

Charlie Haughey
Charlie Haughey

Eugene O'Brien

I think I was around nine and was looking out at the town square through the window of the family home in Edenderry, Co Offaly. There was a sizeable crowd gathered in front of some kind of makeshift stage. A man with a mic was speaking to them. He was preaching to them. He was giving it to them in no uncertain terms.

I didn't know then what he was ranting about but was curious as to who the hell he was, and I was informed that this was Oliver J Flanagan, Fine Gael TD for the area. He was campaigning in the 1977 general election. My own grandfather, who was briefly a Fine Gael TD in the 1930s, knew Oliver J and anecdotally at least it was said that in his own way Oliver J only ever did what he thought was best.

Now people can be full of contradictions and it is always dangerous to paint someone the one colour but certainly by today's attitudes Oliver J would be an unacceptable old-school right-wing Catholic.

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He had strong views on things. He once famously said that there was no sex in Ireland before television. In his maiden speech in the Dail in 1943, he urged the government to emulate the Nazis and rout the Jews out of the country: "Where the bees are there is honey and where the Jews are there is money."

Anyway, in 1977 Oliver J lost his seat when Fine Gael was voted out of power with Jack Lynch's Fianna Fail winning a huge majority.

It was the first election I can really remember. It became clear to me that posher middle-class people supported Fine Gael. The ordinary people or the 'locals' as they were referred to, would support Fianna Fail. Most of the lads in my fourth class in national school supported FF and we actually stopped talking about our twin obsession with The New Avengers and Hawaii Five-O, to actually chat about the forthcoming election in the playground which essentially boiled down to only snobs voted for FG.

So there was a clear perceived difference in style and substance between FF and FG.

FF was more Rough and Ready and Republican while FG were more Erudite, Educated and feckin' English (or West Brit)! The three Rs vs the three Es! And no better was this embodied then by the two men who led the parties during the 1980s. A clash of the titans! They were like Borg vs McEnroe, Alex Higgins vs Steve Davis, JR Ewing vs Bobby Ewing!

But all of these were in the ha'penny place compared to Charlie vs Garret! Charles J 'the boss' Haughey vs Garret 'the great' FitzGerald!

From birth they seemed to come from different worlds. Charlie was educated by the Brothers in Fairview. Garret by the Jesuits of Belvedere. Charlie played football for Dublin, Garret spoke fluent French. They both ended up in UCD and apparently the personal animosity grew from there. The perceived notion was that Charlie would be skipping lectures and trying to get your sister drunk in the college bar whereas Garret would take her to sip wine at a college society to discuss women's rights and political theory. However true this perception, it followed them into politics. The media image of the men was that of the self-made businessman vs the slightly distracted professor. Garret was the thoughtful one. Charlie the man of action. Charlie was the purveyor of the dark arts whereas Garret was the paragon of virtue. Classic stuff. The stuff of drama. A pity all this brilliant material was squandered in the political drama Charlie a few years back.

Their election debates on Today Tonight were legendary. There was a real edge to them. Me and a pal from school did impressions of them for a local talent show in the early 1980s. All you had to do was babble for Garret and start every sentence with "I think the correct thing to do about..." and go gravelly for Charlie and say "grotesque, bizarre, unprecedented".

They were an impressionist's dream. I did respond to certain elements in each man. The consideration and intellectual decency of Garret. The formidable presence and star quality of Charlie, saying "F*ck" in the famous Hot Press interview. They were like the ying and yang, the id and super ego of the Irish psyche.

And in those dark days of the early 1980s when the country almost went bankrupt and we had three elections in less than two years and the North was about to blow, the two men were always diametrically opposed in how to tackle any crisis!

But at least you had choice. Two clear horses to back. Now the parties are exactly the same. No difference. Both would have behaved in exactly the same way if the roles had been reversed in recent history. FG would have done boom bust and then FF would have had done austerity. It doesn't matter who is in power anyway. The corporations and Rupert Murdoch run the world and have turned all citizens into consumers and the current FF-FG two headed monster supports that free market 'knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing' ethos.

Of course, there is a more dangerous alternative to the FF-FG party. The party that doesn't quite exist here yet but its ultra right-wing ilk is thriving across Europe.

Indeed I had a vision last night that Oliver J was back from the dead and I imagined how horrified he would be at gay marriage and abortion and the #MeToo movement and all things PC.

He would be appalled and I'm sure saddened at the weakness of the Catholic church. He could go about forming a new party. His firebrand style and saying the unsayable would be a huge draw for a lot of people.

He would rail against the liberal media. He wouldn't use Twitter like the Orange man in the States. He'd stand up on a soap box in the town squares of Ireland and give it straight to the people - "We have lost the run of ourselves. Let us return to a society ruled by the Knights of Columbanus where women must be married to have babies. Sex only for procreation!" He would get a huge protest vote. The vote of the silent majority. Or Oliver J could take on the V man for leadership of the Fine Gael party. By Jesus he'd need no spin doctors to write his speeches! He'd have no media handlers. Oliver J could take on hash tag Leo without a script!

So the local elections loom this week. Half a rainforest has come through the letterbox. The local elections might actually be more important than a general election. At least there is more of a connect with normal life. If you want a pothole filled vote for the person who might do that for you. Someone who might just have their community's best interests at heart.

There are good candidates out there but you hope that they won't get sucked into the system and be swallowed up.

Meanwhile, Garret is looking down on us all from heaven and smiling wryly and explaining to God the statistical details of proportional representation.

While Charlie will look up to us from the fiery depths where he'll be having a drink with Lucifer and telling him about the time when a glorious chieftain ruled Ireland and the people made a song of tribute to him.

Then Charlie will start to sing raucously and Lucifer will join in: "We'll rise and follow Charlie!"

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