This week’s column appeared on Broadsheet.ie early on Monday May 11th. It looks at the ongoing government formation process and ponders the lessons that Fianna Fáil should take from the recent RedC/BusinessPost opinion poll showing the parties support sliding further… from 22% on polling day to 18% in the last RedC poll to just 14% today. A return to the perilous numbers the party got in 2011… is that where the parallels end?
One of the few enjoyable aspects of the lockdown has been the return to popularity of the old-fashioned quiz. Every day brings another invitation to participate in a quiz, invariably a political one, on Facebook, Zoom, Twitter or WhatsApp.
This stepped up a gear last week when I was asked to write a round of Irish politics questions, for a workplace quiz being organised by a friend via the Kahoot app (no, I hadn’t heard it before now either). So, this week’s column opens with a question the quizmaster deemed too “pointed” for her quiz.
Which senior Fianna Fáil figure said this after a RedC opinion poll put the party on 14% and Fine Gael on 35%:
“I believe that Fianna Fáil must recognize the reality of the current climate of public opinion… I have reluctantly concluded that, in these circumstances, Fianna Fáil should change its leader.”
No one does heaves like Fine Gael does heaves. None of your subtle behind the scenes manoeuvrings for them. When it comes to getting political blood on the plush axminster the good folks at Fine Gael are major exhibitionists.
They have had plenty of heaves over the past forty years or so: most of them ill-judged, poorly timed and glaringly unsuccessful. The December 1972 heave against Liam Cosgrave is a good example of all three.
Fine Gael’s liberal wing wanted rid of the conservative, law and order Cosgrave. They complained that the party had failed under his leadership to capitalise on Fianna Fáil’s post Arms Crisis trials and tribulations, but the final straw was Cosgrave’s efforts to get FG TDs to back the government’s controversial Offences Against the State Bill – something they implacably opposed.
Cosgrave was effectively saved from the plotters by a loyalist bomb on Sackville Place that tragically killed two CIE busmen. The explosion took place just hours before the Dáil vote on the Bill. The Dáil adjourned to allow discussion between the parties. When it resumed, Fine Gael withdrew its opposition and abstained as Bill was voted through in an all-night sitting. Three months later Cosgrave became Taoiseach leading Fine Gael into government with the Labour Party.
Fast forward to 1980s and 1990s and we enter the golden age of the Fine Gael heave. The drama and intrigue within the Fine Gael parliamentary party was so intense that RTÉ ran a TV documentary series in 2003 about the period entitled: Fine Gael: A Family at War.
For about two decades the folks in blue were regularly sharpening their knives as they awaited the opportunity to dispatch their leaders. While Dr Garret Fitzgerald managed to escape their clutches his successor, Alan Dukes, had a less happy fate.
Dukes took over from Fitzgerald after the 1987 defeat. While he started out well, Duke’s Tallaght Strategy – a less formalised precursor of the current Confidence and Supply Agreement, which facilitated Haughey’s minority government – was not too popular with FG TDs.
One TD, Austin Deasy, was so incensed that he at first resigned in protest from the party only to return in 1989 and try, unsuccessfully, to oust Dukes. Deasy was a serial heaver, launching his first one first against Garret in 1982 and finishing up with his failed November 2000 one against John Bruton.
Dukes survived, but not for long. In a snap election in June 1989, Fine Gael regained only 5 of the 19 seats they lost two years earlier. The whispering campaign against Dukes was back with a vengeance with one back bencher remarking that if it was raining soup Dukes would be out there with a fork. Things came to a head in late 1990 when the party’s candidate in the presidential election came a very poor third behind Mary Robinson and Brian Lenihan Snr.
The result had hardly been declared when Fergus O’Brien, who had been demoted by Dukes, tabled a motion of no confidence. This was followed by a flurry of Fine Gael TDs rushing to the nearest journalist to unburden themselves. Dukes could not withstand the onslaught. Within days he resigned and was succeeded by John Bruton.
Now the Fine Gael heavers shifted into top gear. It seemed as if there was a heave brewing every few months. Bruton survived five leadership contests during his eleven years at the top. The sixth one, in January 2001, led by two political heavy weights Jim Mitchell and Michael Noonan succeeded in toppling him. Noonan took the top job, beating Enda Kenny, but his reign was short lived. FG’s defeat in the May 2002 election was so calamitous that Noonan resigned on the night of the count. He was succeeded by Enda Kenny.
As you can see from these examples and the June 2010 heave against Enda outlined in my Enda’s 3am question is still unanswered Broadsheet column: most of them fail. The ones that do succeed have the oblique backing of the person who hopes to succeed and are usually attempted when the party is in opposition – not in government.
This later point is perhaps not so relevant today. Fine Gael spent most of the 80s and 90s in opposition and were not in office long enough to have the time to consider it. It was these long periods of opposition – and powerlessness – that led to the heaves. The breaking point, in most cases, being a bad election result or a series of poor opinion poll results.
This heave is different or at least it appears different. Unlike heaves of the past it has been occasioned by an actual political event, namely the chronic mishandling of the Sgt McCabe debacle and the confusion about who told who said what and when and if they told the Taoiseach or just one of his Advisers.
But it would be foolish to think that electoral considerations are not also a major factor.
While Enda Kenny has made it clear that he does not intend to lead his party into the next election, the abiding fear among Fine Gael TDs was that events would overtake them and that Fianna Fáil would pull down the house of cards before Enda quits and they find themselves facing an election with Enda still in place.
Up to a few weeks ago, they assumed that Fianna Fáil was neither ready nor willing to trigger an election until 2018 – but a series of good polls for Micheál Martin’s soldiers of destiny has convinced already rattled Fine Gael TDs that Fianna Fáil was preparing itself to call time on the government.
The problem with this scenario is that it shows Fine Gaelers thinking like Fine Gaelers, not like Fianna Fáilers. Fianna Fáil knows well that voters tend not to reward parties who trigger unnecessary elections for partisan gain. Martin’s FF eschews the “cute hoor” tag that once bedevilled the party. When it eventually moves against the government it will be seen clearly do so on an issue of policy, not personality or partisan gain.
On a more practical front, 20 of Fianna Fáil’s 45 TDs are first timers. They are just starting to settle in after two or three years of intense campaigning to win those seats. They are not ready or prepared for an election yet. Most are now watching the turmoil in the FG ranks and trying to work out whether the election of Simon or Leo – or neither – means the election will be in May, June, September or later.
Meanwhile the rest should reach for the popcorn, scan our WhatApp to see if Charlie Flanagan is messaging us and just enjoy it all.