I’m disappointed with the result of the referendum on Seanad abolition. There’s no point now in detailing once more why I thought this would have been a good idea and a worthy reform of our political system. The result was not what the polls predicted, and while polling firms might have found it difficult to estimate likely voters, there also was a definite swing against us. With this short time to consider the result, I think the blame for that most likely rests with the Taoiseach and his closest advisors. When he announced this in 2009, I thought (or hoped) it was a sign that he was truly embracing an element of radical and substantial political reform. Yet during this campaign, he did not show the confidence to explain and defend it to voters. I know of people who were leaning in favour of abolition but who voted against because they did not believe he should be rewarded and credited with such a change if he would not stand up for it. If it were a long-held party policy, or an initiative of another minister, it would have been fair enough to have delegated it to the director of elections, as usually occurs at referendums. But he was the one who reintroduced this to the political conversation in 2009. As the leader of our government, Enda Kenny should have explained clearly and plainly the merit he saw in this.
Party members were let down by this. A defeat in a poll is never a pleasant experience, and this is one that could have been avoided. The internal conversation and debates should have started long before the summer. And party members should have been involved in formulating our arguments. There is a time and a place for focus groups, but the political instincts of motivated and interested members should be respected and sought. We ran with poor campaign messages. The largest party in the country could never have credibility talking of the benefits of fewer politicians. The discussion of cost does have a place, but it should not have been the starting point. Not to mention some embarrassing stunts, which are probably all right as moments of levity during a campaign, but not when they become key pieces of it. We needed a wide-ranging and targeted campaign, one that showed from the start that it was a position of substance and principle, that stood up to scrutiny, based on solid research.
Fine Gael needs to learn from this. We didn’t learn from the referendum on Oireachtas Inquiries; here we are two years later with practically an identical margin against. Reform that requires constitutional amendment needs to be framed in a way that appreciates and addresses the legitimate suspicion the public have when the executive seeks to alter the arrangements in the constitution.
In the RDS count centre this morning, a non-aligned campaigner said to myself and a member of a different party that for people like us, it was a tribal matter. It wasn’t that for me. Had Fianna Fáil or any other party proposed this, and Fine Gael been against, I would still have publicly supported this. I am not right now disappointed for Fine Gael that we as a party have suffered a defeat in a poll. I am disappointed in Fine Gael, and I things change have to change.
And to those who opposed abolition, well done on a well fought campaign.
All we can determine from yesterday’s result is that the voters wanted to keep a second house. We should now think carefully and critically about how its 60 members should be selected and what their role should be.
I’m delighted to be involved in setting up Fine Gael LGBT, having its first meeting this evening, which will be addressed by Frances Fitzgerald, TD, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.
We have yet to settle on formal policies and priorities of the group. Issues that would jump out for me would be equal marriage and ensuring that young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have a welcoming and open environment in school and the wider community. But our particular focus of the group will be decided in a deliberative manner in the coming months (for most of us, our political focus will shift back tomorrow to securing a Yes vote for the Stability Treaty). We don’t yet have formal spokespersons, except in an interim capacity, with an AGM also to be scheduled soon. So even though our inaugural meeting is this evening, we will not yet be formally launching with all our structures till we have some time for people to develop an interest in being involved.
Though part of the idea of the group is to give a structured outlet for those of us who are gay to shape decisions relating to changes in law or culture, this can’t become a group just for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The developments in the past year, with motions passed on marriage and adoption at YFG Summer School, at YFG National Conference and at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis, came from a collective interest in the motions for debate in the organization, and was by no means something pushed by gay people alone. This work promoting these debates will continue outside of the confines of this group.
Our government colleagues in Labour also have an LGBT group, and while being distinctive in our approach, I’m sure there will be times when we will co-operate. But we should also look also to our ideological counterparts, if I can call them that, in LGBTory, who have been quite successful in their aims through the Conservative Party in government.
So these are just a few of my own ideas on this new venture. I’ve probably focused a lot on policy, as is my wont, but it will also be a visible sign of Fine Gael as a modern and inclusive party and will have a social aspect as well, to reassure the many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of the party that we are not insignificant in number.
I was delighted of course that today the Fine Gael Ard Fheis supported the motion, “That this Ard Fheis calls on the Government to ensure that the Constitutional Convention prioritises an analysis of the proposals for same-sex marriage in Ireland”, proposed by Mark O’Meara for Portmarnock/Baldoyle Branch and Gen. Richard Mulcahy YFG, supported by DCU YFG. Unfortunately, as I was helping the management of the Executive elections, I was not myself at the debate, but I know that there is real enthusiasm in parts of the party on this, particularly in Young Fine Gael.
This question has progressed remarkably quickly in recent years here in and many other countries, and I am quite optimistic that this pace will continue. It is firmly now in the mainstream of politics. It could be the clearest and simplest reform of the Constitutional Convention. I think we have good reason then to hope for equality between all couples within this term of government, after a campaign with all-party support, which I do believe can be convincingly won. It will need a good, strong, confident campaign, and I’m looking forward to it.
One focus of the Fine Gael Ard Fheis, taking place in the National Convention Centre today and tomorrow, will have to be the upcoming referendum on the Fiscal Stability Treaty, a relatively short agreement between 25 of 27 EU countries. If we want this country to remain part of the mainstream of decisions on the euro, we will have to vote Yes. Because it only requires 12 member states to ratify it to come into effect, there is no possibility of voting No once to get better terms in a second vote. This was possible with Nice between 2001 and 2002 and with Lisbon between 2008 and 2009 as these needed the support of all then 15 and 27 member states to pass.
It is not a perfect treaty in that it is not comprehensive. As one designed to prevent the fiscal difficulties countries have found themselves in, I had hoped that it would address banking, which was where Ireland most particularly suffered, rather than a focus on public debt and deficit which was where Greece and Italy got into trouble. Specifically, I had hoped for a constitutional bar or limits on future guarantees by governments of investment debt.
But the Treaty does make sense. These are terms that should have been in place from 1992 with Maastricht, and in effect from 1999 with the introduction of the euro. Fiscal supervision is a naturally important part of a monetary union. The Irish people could certainly benefit from measures reqiring balanced budgets. It is not about imposing austerity, but about putting in places mechanisms to prevent a requirement for future austerity. It is a way of saying Never Again to fiscal imprudence. It is distinct from our fiscal program under the troika of the EC/ECB/IMF and those terms will not be affected by this Treaty. There is in fact very little that’s new in it.
We will also need to support this Treaty to gain access to the European Stability Mechanism, i.e. if we needed a further bailout. I don’t think we will need that. But if there were only a five percent chance that we would need to access this fund, we would surely not want to cut off that option for ourselves.
Though not a vote on our membership of the euro, it is a vote on the nature of that membership. If we vote No, we will be very clearly outside the mainstream of decision-making on our own currency.
This is not a partisan matter for me, one that I’m supporting because of my membership of Fine Gael. If anything, the reverse is in some part the case. I campaigned for the Lisbon Treaty in both 2008 and 2009, and it was after the second campaign that one of those I worked with in the offices of Ireland for Europe and Generation Yes, who is now President of Young Fine Gael, particularly encouraged me to get involved in Fine Gael. This will be the first European Treaty referendum fought with Fine Gael in government and we will have to launch a serious and focused campaign, fought on the merits of the compact itself. It will not be good enough to complain if other issues are brought into the debate. It will be up to the Yes side, in all parties and civic society groups, to steer the debate in the way that addresses the issue at stake.
So I look forward to a good campaign on this.
It was only in November 2008, the morning after the US presidential election, that it properly and more clearly than before struck me that I was gay. Though I had engaged in low-level lobbying within the Progressive Democrats approaching the 2007 election on the lack of progress on a promised civil unions bill, it was partly on secular grounds because of my objection to the consultation between Michael McDowell, as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, with Roman Catholic bishops in drafting legislation relating to gay people, and partly on the urging of my then girlfriend. And it was only after Proposition 8 in California was defeated that I paid much attention to it.
It was a few days later, on 8 November, I regretfully spoke and voted in favour of a motion to disband the Progressive Democrats, something that seemed a possibility from the results of the 2007 election on.
So in looking for a new party, I was more conscious than before of parties’ attitudes to gay rights. The release of Milk early 2009 was a reminder of the value of political activism and how being honest and open can change assumptions and perception, being the story of Harvey Milk, who was one of the first openly gay people elected to public office, and who helped defeat Proposition 6, which would have barred gay teachers.
Yet I joined Fine Gael because it is the party closest to me on the role of the state in spending and economic governance. This did not mean that my deeply held liberal principles were set aside. I remembered what the late Dr Garret FitzGerald said, “You don’t join a political party because you agree with them. That always struck me as a rather static view. You join a party because you can change it. It’s a more dynamic view of politics.” And he did change assumptions not just within Fine Gael, but in the country as a whole, and remains a political inspiration for me.
In December 2009, I went to Leinster House on the first day of the debate on the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill. The first response was from Charlie Flanagan, who as Fine Gael Spokesperson on Justice, Equality and Law Reform gave an outstanding speech, the best of the evening, in which he stepped beyond party policy, “while many welcome it, others believe it does not go far enough. To those people I would say that change is incremental and I hope that full equality is not far away”, and went on to remind us what secularism has done for society
It was then with a measure of hope that in July 2010, I proposed a motion at Young Fine Gael Summer School (where motions are consultative) with Trinity YFG to support allowing gay couples to marry. But this was very narrowly defeated, with a mere two votes in it. Of course I was disheartened, but I realized that I hadn’t given the time to something that to me seemed so obvious. And a rephrasing of what Milk said in the clip above formulated in my mind: a young gay centre-right political activist who all of a sudden realizes that they are gay; there are two options, move to Labour, or stay in Fine Gael and fight.
So I stayed on, was elected to the National Executive in November, and appointed Director of Policy. Many friends of mine outside the party found my involvement difficult to understand. I did feel that too often people did accentuate the negative, and assume a focus on social matters far greater than existed. The election result of last year was a time of hope and political renewal.
At the Summer School in July 2011, I proposed the same motion for Dublin South-East again at summer school, with Meadhbh. That time it got near universal support. It almost made me glad two people who would have voted for it the year before had turned up late.
Then this Saturday, on my last full day on the National Executive, a motion at Young Fine Gael Conference (where motions are binding as policy), proposed by Úna and Noel for DCU YFG, calling on the government to bring forward legislation allowing gay couples to adopt, was similarly passed with near universal support.
I am proud to have been an active part of the organization during this rapid change on this issue of personal importance to me. I was taken aback and very appreciative of the response to my comment on Facebook on this.
Indeed, the shift in public opinion here and in other countries in the last few short years has been remarkable. This has been both reflected and advanced by popular culture, and cheesy though it may seem, it was the words of this song, as performed by Chris Colfer, as Kurt in Glee, that went through my head before Summer School last year, “Some things I cannot change, but till I try, I’ll never know.”:
Tomorrow morning, Young Fine Gael will debate a motion on gender quotas, which I will be speaking in favour of,
YFG calls on the Minster for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to impose the 30% gender quota as outlined in the Electoral (Amendment) Political Funding Bill 2011 on the 2014 Local and European Elections.
Quotas would not be proposed in the ideal world, as they do set a restriction on the process of election for TDs. It is a blunt instrument that does not address the wider reasons that there is such a low proportion of women in the Dáil. These include provision of childcare and sitting hours, as well as the wider political culture which Minister Lucinda Creighton recently described as “toxic”. But it will be very likely be the thing to kickstart the changes required that would not happen otherwise.
The question for us should not be why there are fewer women than men in elected politics in Ireland; the same is true in all but two countries worldwide, Rwanda and Andorra. The question is why there are proportionally fewer than in most other EU countries, where we rank 23rd of 27 countries, with Cyprus, Romania, Hungary and Malta behind us. Quotas recognize a need to address an historic imbalance, and are used in different forms in 100 countries worldwide.
Wherever one stands on the issue, quotas are now the law, and will be in place for the next general election, due by February 2016. Parties will lose half of their allocation of state funding if either male or female candidates comprise less than 30% of their total candidates. The quota is at the point of ballot access, not of election. This will improve the current situation where those who would like the option of voting for a woman of their own party is greatly diminished: in 2011, in four constituencies there were no women candidates; the three main political parties fielded at least one male candidate each in 36 constituencies (84% of all constituencies) while the same three fielded at least one female candidate each in just two constituencies (5%), Dún Laoghaire and Longford–Westmeath.
Parties are going to have to adjust to the new system and work out how to ensure a balance across the country. Most candidates for the Dáil come through the county council system. While I would hope that being compelled to think of ways to bring new people into the system might encourage parties to look at a broader range of entry routes, looking to local business, policy expertise and community involvement, most will continue to come from local government. In order to facilitate a smoother selection process ahead of the general election, and to emphasise the importance of offering a choice of women candidates across the electoral system, it only makes sense to amend the legislation to bring the change forward to the 2014 local and European elections.
“It was the best of time, it was the worst of times … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”
(A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens)
Congratulations first to Michael D. Higgins, who will be deemed elected as Ireland’s ninth president this afternoon. As someone who has spent a political career with a broad view of Irish culture and society, I’m confident he will serve us well. Congratulations also to Patrick Nulty, who won the bye-election, a man very far from my own politics, though one who will be a strong contributor in the Dáil and an interesting dynamic in this coalition. It was the first time since July 1982 that a candidate from a government party won a bye-election.
Yesterday’s election results were undeniably a bad day for Fine Gael. Gay Mitchell’s fourth place finish at 6.4% was by a good stretch the lowest the party has polled to date in any national election, with the 17% Austin Currie received in the 1990 presidential bid the next worst. In Dublin West, Eithne Loftus also finished fourth, though with a more respectable 15%. I would commiserate both candidates, and indeed all candidates in these elections. Particularly in the case of the presidential campaign, it was a very public and difficult campaign for them.
While the result for the party could have been devastating in 1990, when Currie’s performance led to the resignation of Alan Dukes as party leader, or had this occurred any time before the February election, where Fine Gael won 36% of the vote, becoming the largest party in terms of both votes and seats for the first time. That the party could win the most number of Dáil seats in its history and then poll its lowest result, requires a more complex relationship and response.
I think some within the party misinterpreted the results of the February general election. It was a vote of support for a manifesto promising reform and competent government, and for the strong team of prospective ministers. But having come so recently to the party, the general election results did not mean that 36% of the electorate were now dependable Fine Gael voters. There was no good reason to assume on the basis of this result that it was now Fine Gael’s turn to be the dominant party for 79 years. In the selection of the presidential candidate, some within the party seemed to work on the assumption that having got into a habit of voting Fine Gael earlier this year, people would naturally come out and vote for the Fine Gael candidate for president, putting the party on a starting platform at that level and with that lead on a first count, transfers would inevitably put them over the line. As it was Fine Gael’s best chance to date to win the presidency (and next to 1966, it almost certainly was), many within the party felt it natural that it should be someone who had served the party well and loyally through many years. Gay Mitchell was electorally successful at the time when Fine Gael’s popularity was low, one of three TDs to retain their seats in Dublin in 2002. He had a strong electoral track record till then, not losing a single public poll, though he had come fourth in the leadership contest after the 2002 election.
It was the party convention that selected him, with a broad base of the parliamentary party, councillor and the national executive. And Mitchell was encouraged to seek the party’s nomination by a number of TDs, as well as by former party leader and Taoiseach, John Bruton.
But many of the things which Gay Mitchell used publicly to present himself as a the best candidate to the Fine Gael Presidential Convention were things that made him a less appealing candidate to the electorate at large. He appealed to the fact that he had been a party member from the age of 16, whereas another of the candidates had only joined that week. While a reference to a mere 100 days as a party member might have dissuaded other party members, it means little to the public at large, the overwhelming number of them are not members of Fine Gael, and would not consider joining, even if they would vote for us. We have to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that either personalities or policies are good or bad because of their relationship to different parties. This is perhaps most true of the office of president, given that office-holders are expected to sever formal links with their party, but it is true more generally
The problem with focusing so much on an appeal to party members brings to mind the problem with a focus on Buy Irish as a means of economic development; just as a country’s industry will not become rich relying on its compatriots, but by being good enough that others will buy them too, someone cannot win a 50%+1 election relying on their own party’s base. Statements during the campaign that Mitchell would be a good choice because he would be able to work closely with Enda Kenny as Taoiseach probably fell entirely on deaf ears because of people’s perception of the nature of the role of president.
Mitchell’s appeal to Christian democracy held sway within certain sections of Fine Gael, but it immediately turned off large sections of the wider public. This is something we should certainly take heed from. While the airing of particular points of view in the Christian democratic tradition did not affect the party that much in February, without being part of a broader package of economic competence and reform to balance it, it did have an effect.
The most important thing I think we should get from this, to avoid the hubris of thinking that at 36% in the election, and still at around that figure in opinion polls, that the public at large support us because we are Fine Gael, rather than because of what we proposed and are doing in government. In contrasting the results between February and October, and indeed from the party’s electoral history since 1933, I don’t think it is even fair to consider yesterday’s vote the core Fine Gael support. This should not in any respect affect Enda Kenny’s strength as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael. And because we are still doing well in polls, and because I believe the country will be in better place in 2016, I would not really hold to the “despair” in the epithet above.
There is a similar lesson from the 30th Amendment Bill, the proposal to allow for Oireachtas Inquiries, and in this case, Labour also fell foul of the trap of hubris. We don’t yet know if it will be defeated, but it seems more likely than not. During the general election campaign, both parties promised citizens’ engagement with the reform of the Constitution and the political process. We are delivering on this, with the Constitutional Convention in the new year. But these Amendments could easily have been part of that, and I think it should now be considered bad practice in most instances, outside of very technical amendments like that on Local Government in 1999, to schedule referendums on the same day as other elections.
Much later than initially intended, these are details on the proposals on political reform which were carried by vote last Saturday week at Young Fine Gael Summer School, on 9 July. Some themes run through these, of distinguishing clearly between the roles of elected representatives at a local and at a national level.
The most notable call was for the party whip to be relaxed for non-budgetary votes. This was to be on our agenda before Denis Naughton lost the whip for his vote against the government on Roscommon hospital, but the incident served as a concrete example in people’s minds. My own reasoning is that for debates in the Dáil to mean something, there should be times when those speaking should be trying to convince others, and genuinely hope to change their fellow TDs’ minds. There are times watching TDs traipse in to vote by party line on an amendment to a private members’ bill, and then by the same numbers on the new motion, that we may as well have trained monkeys to press the right button. With a government majority so large, this is the perfect opportunity to allow TDs have a say for themselves.
In an effort to strengthen the role of county councils, we passed motions calling for the abolition of town councils, and to remove the right of Oireachtas members to be treated as county councillors at a local level. The latter provision would clearly delineate the distinct roles of local and national politicians, and could be achieved simply by amending the Local Government Act 2003, deleting Section 3. It wouldn’t eliminate TDs acting locally, but it would reduce their capacity to do so.
A motion opposing the government’s proposal on gender quotas was carried. While the participation of women in politics in Ireland is incredibly low by European standards, t is a very blunt instrument, that does not address the deeper structural problems limiting participation. There are ways around it too, such as parties adding women to the ticket where there are already established TDs.
The only proposal that would require a referendum was to lower the age of office for all positions to 18. I can’t imagine a rush of young adults rushing to be elected, but throughout history, and in different countries, there have been those who have led at young ages, whether William Pitt, Michael Collins or Alexander the Great. As any candidate has to be nominated and seek a popular mandate, the constitutional bar seems unnecessary.
This is a full summary of the votes in this political reform session of summer school:
- Young Fine Gael believes that Town and Borough Councils should be abolished. – Carried
- Young Fine Gael believes legislation should be brought forward to outlaw members of the Oireachtas making official representations at council level on behalf of individual constituents. – Carried
- Young Fine Gael calls for the voting age for local elections to be lowered to 16. – Defeated
- Young Fine Gael calls for the electorate to the presidency to be extended to all Irish citizens, with voting in embassies and by postal vote across the world. – Defeated
- Young Fine Gael calls for a universal age of 18 for eligibility to serve in political office. – Carried
- Young Fine Gael opposes the Governments position on the introduction of gender quotas whereupon a political party will have its funding reduced if it does not have a minimum number of female candidates. – Carried
- Young Fine Gael calls for the whip system to be relaxed in the case of non-budgetary votes. – Carried
This time last year, at the Young Fine Gael Summer School, I proposed the motion, “This Summer School supports allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry”. It was defeated, two votes short of a majority. Yesterday, now as YFG Director of Policy, I proposed the same motion, and it passed overwhelmingly with, I think, two votes against. This is what I said in the two minutes I had to speak,
Those of you at summer school last year, or I’ve talked to since or last night on this, know this is important to me.
For me, this is fundamentally about the hope I might settle down one day into happily married life, hopefully in a lifelong relationship. The same reasons anyone wants to marry.
Studies on this, and just plain common sense, will tell you those who are married in committed relationships live longer, healthier and happier lives. Of course having a constant, loving companion can be such a comfort in life, there for each other, for better for worse, in sickness and in health.
In voting in favour, you simply acknowledge the care and love a couple show each other should be recognised in a way they believe best reflects their commitment.
We’re now ten years since gay couples in a growing number of places around the world first had the opportunity to marry. How could allowing more people commit to each other send anything but a positive message about the value of marriage?
As to children, don’t forget there are currently children in Ireland being raised by gay couples; it would give them too added security and protection if their parents could marry, such as in a situation if anything was to happen to their birth parent, where under current law their other parent would currently be treated as a stranger.
There is civil partnership. But these beneficial effects have so much a firmer backing with the authority and tradition of marriage. Further, justice requires conditions of people’s lives determined by government be provided equally for all.
This has proved successful in other countries; it will enhance the comfort and security of gay couples, it will make gay children and teenagers growing up in Ireland feel more included in society; it will provide Constitutional support as well to children being raised by gay couples, and it will give peace of mind to the parents and wider family of gay people. With all this, I really think there is no social benefit in preventing me and others from marrying.
It was followed by an excellent speech from Maeve Howe, chair of Dublin South-East YFG, who stressed that this is a human rights issue, not an LGBT issue, and then by an informed discussion from the floor. It was also supported earlier in the day in an address from local TD Seán Kyne, who picked the motion out as one we should support.
There were other motions this weekend which I was proud of, which I will summarize tomorrow. There have been some great moments since I became active in the party in autumn 2009. But the support the motion received yesterday, such a reversal in twelve months, was one of the most satisfying for me at a very personal level, and something I was proud to play a part in.
Here below is a list of all motions in the general policy section of Summer School: Read more…
Though it might seem the sort of subject I would love to write on and analyse from different directions, I have avoided from the start commentary here on the presidential election. Given my position in Young Fine Gael, any comments on candidates outside the party might be viewed somewhat cynically, and as I did not believe that the contest within the party for the nomination was one which would be won in the blogosphere, it was something I delayed posting here till now.
Having said that much, I do hope Pat Cox secures our party’s nomination, which I’ve made no secret of in comments on Twitter and Facebook. It will surprise few given our common background in the Progressive Democrats, though he left the party in 1994. That is more an indication of a common core set of beliefs. As someone who secured the position of President of the European Parliament in 2002, and without the support of a domestic party, I think he has shown an ability to compete in Europe. It also is important to me that he secured the position because of his leadership of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party, the group of modern European liberals. As a general rule, I would be inclined towards ELDR member parties, with clear exceptions such as responsibility for a country’s economic collapse in Fianna Fáil’s case, or tolerance for extremism in the Dutch VVD’s case.
While I understand the frustration that the party would consider an outsider, the presidency is not quite like other political offices determined through the party system, parties have recently at times selected candidates not then an active members or office-holders, but one who represents a particular vision or message a party wishes to promote, as was the case in different ways with Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese.
Of course the other two candidates are current MEPs, so I would not at all understate their experience on the world stage. But even in that context, I believe Pat Cox’s own knowledge and experience are particularly to his credit, and that his candidacy and presidency would promote the idea of modern Ireland competing confidently in the wider world.
I remain quite realistic about his chances, and his chances and those of the other two candidates are not something I believe worth getting into too much this close to the actual result. As a final note of disclosure, my support for him is all the stronger as he is someone I know personally, having worked with him in Ireland for Europe. Therefore, it is really at this personal level, as much as politically, that I wish the very best of luck in tomorrow’s convention.
Within these recent weeks, we have seen the death of Declan Costello, the author of Fine Gael’s Just Society, and of Garret FitzGerald, its most prominent political proponent. In a letter in today’s Irish Times, Paddy Harte, Fine Gael TD in Donegal from 1961 to 1997, remembers his time with both, and how he convinced Garret to be ambitious for the leadership of the party after the retirement of Costello, in a sort of Leo–Bartlet moment,
We must get back to Declan, he told me. I did not agree, and told Garret that we must start looking elsewhere for a new leader. “Who?” asked Garret, to which I replied, “You”. Garret said, “How many votes would I get in the party tonight?” I replied, “One, however the vote will not be taken tonight, and tomorrow is a new day. Declan is a clear-thinking lawyer and he has made up his mind. When the party needs a new leader you will have to be ready”.
Garret was the unanimous choice when Liam Cosgrave retired in 1977.
The Just Society was, of course, a document written nearly fifty years ago, and those mindful of the positive influence they had on the party would pay tribute best by seeking to start again with reference to their broad principles than any direct emulation. But we should be sure that despite their deaths, their influence remains, however much or little of specific policy we carry forward.
There is very little I could say in tribute to Dr Garret FitzGerald that has not been said by those who knew him through his long life and worked with him closely. But as I write here from time to time, it would be remiss of me not to express my thoughts.
He was an inspiring figure, who truly had a vision of modern Ireland, taking its place in the world. He showed that politics can be used to bring change to a country.
While customary to mention such a figure in isolation at a time as this, I do see him with Sean Lemass and Des O’Malley in particular as political figures who shared this commitment, who understood ahead of their time the need to engage with Unionists if we truly believe in a united Ireland, and who fought against the orthodoxies of their parties in many respects.
Garret understood that a truly republican society would be a pluralist one, confidently patriotic but not aggressively assertive in its nationalism, and not tied in its morality to any one faith. He was courageous in leading the movement of the constitutional crusade when he clearly did not have a guarantee of success, as seen in the defeat of the divorce referendum in 1986.
From the perspective of Fine Gael, he led the party to its highest-ever share of votes, with 39% in November 1982. Despite his clear differences with some of his parliamentary party, he did not hold grievances, as seen in the 1989 election. Contesting two years after stepping down as party leader, in excellent and enviable vote management he encouraged Fine Gael voters to support his constituency colleague Joe Doyle, a conservative who had opposed his liberal agenda, and had the humility to be pleased with the fact that he polled behind him.
He led a rich and varied life, coming to politics relatively late by some standards. He taught economics in UCD to his future Finance Ministers, John Bruton and Alan Dukes, saying later that he only appointed First Class students to the position. Elected a senator in 1965 at 39, four years later in 1969, he was first elected as a TD in Dublin South-East; four years later in 1973 appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs; four years later in 1977 he became party leader; four years later in 1981, he became Taoiseach. A short term, lasting till February 1982, he was re-elected November 1982, forming a coalition with Labour that lasted till January 1987. He stepped down that year as party leader, and in 1992 retired from the Dáil. Throughout his life he provided expert analysis from the opinion pages of The Irish Times, and on air particularly at each election, and he continued to show an active interest on our engagement with the European Union.
It was a privilege and pleasure to meet him on a number of occasions; the first at a book launch in Bray when I was 11, and then years later, particularly recalling inviting him to speak in a debate in the Hist on the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, and meeting him the following year as I was canvassing on the Lisbon Treaty a second time, and he was continuing work from his time as Minister for Foreign Affairs in the very early years of our EEC membership.
It is a sad day that we have lost him, but he will remain an inspiration in politics to me and many others.
I am occasionally questioned by those outside the party why I support Fine Gael given its relative conservative position on some issues, particularly on the question of allowing gay couples to get married. It is a reasonable question but it assumes parties are monolithic and static in policy terms.
People can fail to appreciate that Fine Gael has long managed to maintain within it different points of view. While the strengths of different wings ebb and flow, the party does contain a strong diversity of opinion. In the 1960s we had the strong conservatism of Gerard Sweetman, the moderate fiscal conservatism of James Dillon and the social democracy of Declan Costello. Throughout Garret FitzGerald’s leadership, liberals and conservatives worked together, with clearly defined differences in many Dublin constituencies.
So while I strongly disagree with the views expressed by Lucinda Creighton over the weekend when she stated that she did not support gay marriage because she believed the purpose of marriage was for children, I do not feel disheartened. The party was right to state that this was her personal point of view, not something she was saying in her capacity as junior spokesperson on equality. While the party has not supported marriage equality, it hasn’t opposed it either. There has been no attempt, for example, to make any commitment as official Fine Gael policy to oppose equality in this matter. There is no agenda, as some have tried to imagine, to reverse civil partnership rights; the Fine Gael manifesto commits the party to completing the elements of the civil partnership process stalled by the dissolution of the Dáil.
I feel there are some, particularly online, who like to target Fine Gael for comments such as those by Lucinda while ignoring the opposite point of view from members of the party. I saw no reference in the criticisms in the last few days to the speech by Charlie Flanagan on the first day of the debate on the Civil Partnership Bill in December 2009. Speaking as Justice Spokesperson, giving the first response from the party, he talked of the advances in a liberal society, brought a human element to the debate, and expressed a wish that civil partnership would be a step towards equality. I have extracted portions of this speech here before, but crucially Flanagan expressed his view, “While many welcome [the civil partnership bill], others believe it does not go far enough. To those people I would say that change is incremental and I hope that full equality is not far away.”
This was his own personal opinion here again, just as it was Lucinda’s on the weekend, yet few jumped to equate his words with Fine Gael policy. Even within Lucinda’s own constituency, there is diversity within the party on this question. Eoghan Murphy, also standing for Fine Gael in Dublin South-East, affirmed in answer to an online query that he believes gay couples should be allowed to marry.
In 2004, Sen. Sheila Terry and Alan Shatter published a comprehensive policy on civil partnerships. Realistically, a change in the law to end the current discrimination will require the support of a broad-based party like Fine Gael. The day Charlie Flanagan made the above speech, I was in the public gallery, and heard a member of the Labour Party there sneer that whatever Flanagan might think, that wasn’t party policy. But to get real movement on an issue like this, it has got to the stage where it needs to be pressed from within.
I do not think it is good enough that gay people like myself can not aspire to get married, while I could in a fair few other European countries. I believe this change would make gay children growing up feel they would be accepted, normalize their relationships and reduce bullying. Gay couples would truly become part of each others’ families, as in-laws, integrating them into the familiar structures we all relate to. Children raised by gay couples would have greater security. And the couple would have the comfort and dignity of a happily married life. Fine Gael matches most closely my political outlook in broad terms, and it makes most sense for me then to make this case from within the party.
Thankfully, we seem finally to have heard the end of the line of questioning that implied that Fine Gael and Labour should have put forward a joint policy platform so that people would know what they were voting for. Fourteen months ago, I outlined how I believed this election would be about a fight between Fine Gael and Labour on the balance of the next government. I had presumed rough figures of Fine Gael around 65 seats, Fianna Fáil around 50 and Labour around 40, and that the fight would be about whether Fine Gael or Labour get Minister for Finance.
In such a circumstance, even with figures closer to current expectations, where we were nearly certain that there was going to be a coalition, it wouldn’t make sense to negotiate details of a programme for government before an election. The fine balance of the weight of such a programme between preferences of the two parties would have to depend on seats. For the two parties to arrange details before the election would deny voters the chance to decide that balance. I believe there were only such formal pre-election arrangements in 1973, 1997 and 2007. The idea that it is a problem that two different parties have different ideals seems to me nothing more than a Fianna Fáil ploy to confuse matters, and which someone like Vincent Browne likes to tag on to just as a consistent line of questioning. It shouldn’t even make sense a Fianna Fáil scare tactic when they point to differences between Fine Gael and Labour; if voters want coherent government, they should surely then vote for Fine Gael to make coalition less likely.
But consider even the stated aims of the two parties. Labour’s aim is to lead government, as we know from their poster slogan, Gilmore for Taoiseach. In all honesty, when I saw the first one of those, I presumed it was an overenthusiastic attempt by a private Labour member. On current seat projections, Gilmore could only be Taoiseach if he led a coalition of Labour, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the United Left Alliance and Independents of different hues. Put another way, Labour are standing 58 candidates and Fine Gael currently have 51 TDs. To lead a coalition with Fine Gael, nearly every Labour candidate would have to win, while Fine Gael made only modest gains. Labour should be questioned on the maths as they see it working out for this slogan which I’d imagine has only damaged them. They claim to be offering the people of a Labour-led government for the first time, but the electorate always had that choice; what makes this election any different? To 1992, for example?
Fine Gael’s ambition on the other hand, is single-party government. A lot of work yet needs to be done to achieve this, but as a goal, it is realistic. The Sunday Business Post/Red C poll certainly shows things trending in that direction. The party’s Five Point Plan is well known by now, and in government the party would wish to have the freedom to implement it all. Of course, if the numbers stack such that a coalition is the only option, it will be negotiated based on the parties’ strength, as has been done before. But it would be an unwieldy government, with strongly differing tendencies. So single-party government is the aim, with no wish to compromise on it at all.
I was clear in my support for Richard Bruton when he challenged Enda Kenny for the leadership of the party. But whatever my opinion of his capabilities, for him and the others on his side on the front bench to challenge the party leader without much planning or seemingly any communication with backbench TDs was foolhardy. They easily left themselves open to be bested by the workings of Enda, Phil Hogan, Paul Kehoe and others, and from this perspective, Enda Kenny deservedly came out ahead on the day.
Enda Kenny has come out stronger after the heave, as he showed himself to have Machiavellian capabilities that had not before been attributed to him. Whatever else, no longer will there be a perception of mutterings and the possibility of a heave overshadowing his leadership in the run-up to the election. Of course many of those leading the challenge said criticized Kenny in ways that might seem awkward now, but that is no more than could be expected in the heat of an election contest.
The new front bench is promising. Given the circumstances of the challenge, it was to be expected that Richard Bruton would not return to Finance, but he will be a very capable and experienced voice in Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, a position he held as a Minister during the Rainbow Government. Equally, Michael Noonan in Finance will be a strong performer, hard on the facts, and he won’t hold back any punches. Seán Barrett, Minister for Defence and the Marine, will be an asset in Foreign Affairs, and is one of our older heavyweights.
At the outset, I wrote that it was important that whatever the result of the challenge, it was important that the new front bench wouldn’t foment any divisions by being composed primarily of one camp or another. Previous party leaders have made that mistake, including Noonan, who left Enda Kenny off the front bench after beating him in the contest to succeed John Bruton. Enda has wisely avoided such a clear statement, while using it as an opportunity to evaluate the performance of all of the front bench to date. While we will wait till the autumn to see how the front bench performs in each of their portfolios, this has gone well. With Billy Timmins having made clear his intentions to step aside, I was glad to see my other constituency TD Andrew Doyle get a position. The one surprise, though it had been speculated on, is James Reilly’s promotion to Deputy Leader. I would have felt Phil Hogan a more natural choice for that position.
|Deputy Leader and Health||James Reilly|
|Enterprise, Jobs and Economic Planning||Richard Bruton|
|Foreign Affairs||Sean Barrett|
|Communications and Natural Resources||Leo Varadkar|
|Environment, Heritage and Local Government||Phil Hogan|
|Justice and Law Reform||Alan Shatter|
|Education and Skills||Fergus O’Dowd|
|Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs||Frank Feighan|
|Agriculture, Fisheries and Food||Andrew Doyle|
|Social Protection||Michael Ring|
|Tourism, Culture and Sport||Jimmy Deenihan|
|Innovation and Research||Deirdre Clune|
|Small Business||John Perry|
|Older Citizens||Catherine Byrne|
|Chief Whip||Paul Kehoe|