FG can buck dismal electoral trend
It's good that the party is experiencing considerable intellectual changes
The recent Red C poll must have soothed some of the jangled nerves around the Cabinet table. It must give Fine Gael in particular cause for some optimism. Perhaps that dark and baleful electoral star that has vexed Fine Gael governments for decades is finally moving off, and Enda Kenny will be formally rewarded for his labours.
The fate of the last three Fine Gael Taoisigh must weigh on his mind. Liam Cosgrave, Garret FitzGerald and John Bruton had good reason to expect electoral reward after their commendable premierships, only to have their hearts broken by chance's strange arithmetic as expressed by an ungrateful electorate.
Each had cause to feel aggrieved at losing office. Cosgrave took the country through a kind of accelerated adolescence between 1973 and 1977, as he tried to make the electorate understand precisely what was involved in the IRA's 'armed struggle'. Speaking in the aftermath of the IRA's murder of the unarmed British ambassador in broad daylight in 1976, he insisted that "as a nation and as a parliament we must reject such conspiracies and resist them. We should ensure that there is no ambivalence in that regard".
Cosgrave's icy self-control served the country well during a decade that was pockmarked by a spate of bank robberies, sectarian murders, diplomatic kidnappings and threats against Cabinet ministers and their families. Conor Cruise O'Brien relayed something of the mayhem of that era in a series of lectures he gave in honour of the slain ambassador Christopher Ewart-Biggs which he published as Neighbours in 1980.
Here he wrote, "in all ages and in all cultures, I believe the murder of an envoy has been regarded as a peculiarly heinous crime, graver in its implications even than other categories of murder. It violates immemorial laws of hospitality, vital to our tenuous and threatened sense of human solidarity... It registers the existence of a pathological element in the relations between two peoples".
There was much to commend in the Cabinet that faced this pathology squarely and that warned the country that it was commemorating itself into a kind of cultural stupor. These virtues did not help though in the 1977 general election, which saw Cosgrave swept away by Jack Lynch. Garret FitzGerald also rendered substantial service as Taoiseach between 1982-87. His was a classy presence on the European stage, and his name is still held in high regard in Madrid and Lisbon as a result of his Herculean efforts to help Spain and Portugal into the European club. He brought some degree of sanity to economic policy after the splurge of the GUBU years, only to see the electorate install Haughey in power in 1987.
Like Mr Cosgrave before him, FitzGerald must have felt like the character in one of the Bertolt Brecht's political plays who asks forlornly, "wouldn't it be simpler under the circumstances for the government to dissolve the people and elect another one?"
John Bruton fared no better in 1997, when he too lost power after presenting himself to the people for another term bearing considerable gifts, among which were numbered a successful divorce referendum, a principled rejection of what he called "sectarian coalitions", and the Framework Documents which sketched the elaborate institutional architecture both he and John Major contemplated for the refurbished North.
There are several reasons for thinking that Enda Kenny can buck this dismal electoral trend in 2016. The economy will hopefully continue to restore itself, and maybe Angela Merkel can be prevailed upon to loosen that fiscal choke-chain just in time for the next election.
But besides these important factors, Fine Gael has one other advantage. The party is undergoing a period of considerable intellectual change, and this is a highly attractive trait in any party that is looking for another mandate. There is a case for saying that Fine Gael has gradually disenthralled itself from two of its least attractive addictions, namely the prim Catholicism preached by Declan Costello, and the hard-nosed nationalism espoused by Garret FitzGerald in his dealings with the British and the Ulster unionists.
It was hard to listen to Leo Varadkar's moving interview with Miriam O'Callaghan without remembering that he is a member of the same party as Costello, the Fine Gael attorney general in the Cosgrave Cabinet who wanted to criminalise the mere possession of contraceptives by an unmarried person as late as 1974.
Enda Kenny himself also hammered another nail in the Costello coffin with his stunning critique of the Vatican's delinquent response to decades of child sexual abuse. In his landmark speech in 2011, the Taoiseach detailed how "the rape and the torture of children were downplayed or 'managed' to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, its standing and its 'reputation'."
A yawning chasm separates the overt Catholic piety of the Just Society era from the Taoiseach's repudiation of modern Catholicism's gimlet-eyed treatment of pre-pubescent rape victims. One could make the same argument then about the difference between Charlie Flanagan's approach to Ulster unionism and that of his most important Fine Gael predecessor as foreign minister, Garret FitzGerald.
FitzGerald was always looking for ways to short-circuit the complicated political processes within Ulster itself, having bet his all on leveraging Downing Street from Capitol Hill. As we saw before Christmas though, Flanagan has insisted that the only way for the Irish Government to contribute constructively north of the border is by allowing the parties themselves to set the pace. These kinds of changes will resonate with the electorate because they are evidence of courage and intellectual clarity.