In short, I’m with Fergus O’Dowd, Fine Gael Spokesman on Transport and Marine, who tweeted last night, “Garret Fitzgerald attracted thousands of voters to Fine Gael including myself. He was a reforming and caring politician”, “Garret Fitzgerald vision of social justice and a caring ireland will be seen as the major reforming force in our time” and “Leo Varadkar must apologise and withdraw his insulting Dail comments with regards to Garret Fitzgerald, disgraceful.”
Of course Dr Garret FitzGerald’s time in office should be as open to scrutiny as any former Taoiseach, and by members of all parties. My own opinion would be that he should not by any means be viewed uncritically given that the economy did continue to deteriorate during the 1982–87 Fine Gael–Labour coalition, but that the country needed someone to take leadership on issues such as the need for social progress, even if the 1986 divorce referendum did not pass, and on Northern Ireland, such as the 1984 New Ireland Forum and in negotiating the Anglo-Irish Agreement with Margaret Thatcher, which Fianna Fáil under Charlie Haughey opposed.
But this is not really about Dr FitzGerald’s time in office. It is about a member of the Dáil using the opportunity of a debate on a reshuffle to refer in derogatory terms to a former Taoiseach. Whatever the clear distance between Dr FitzGerald and the party he led for ten years, this was simply a matter of discourtesy. Of course the Fine Gael parliamentary party are put out that both Dr FitzGerald and Alan Dukes are supporting the government, but this is no excuse, particularly in referring to Dr FitzGerald’s current writing. This was clearly a scripted remark, as Deputy Varadkar’s speech bookended with references to Dr FitzGerald. What exactly was he trying to achieve by it?
Over the weekend, I attended the Fine Gael National Conference in Killarney, where I had a great time. It was my first Conference with the party, and great to get to know people. I was also genuinely impressed with the party. Having been to party conferences before, and followed politics in general long enough, I know that all too often these such occasions are simply about rallying the troops and fomenting the common identity between members, in the case of those in opposition, talking in vague terms about how things could change for the better, but without substance.
It was during the seminar on the New Politics that it became clear that the party really is serious about reforming the political system. This started with Enda Kenny’s announcement last year that he planned to put a referendum to the people on the abolition of Seanad Éireann. Last week, The Irish Times published draft details of proposals of the parliamentary party on Constitutional reforms, with details such as list seats, a reform of the term of the president, and greater powers for certain Dáil committees. What became clear as Phil Hogan made his presentation to the Conference was that the real proposal was not these proposals as such, but the idea that something needs to be done. It looks likely that this will be organized by way of a citizens’ assembly, with time to engage with whatever proposals, to react to them and propose any relevant changes before they are put to the people. This received a very positive response from Prof. David Farrell of the UCD Department of Politics, and it is something that many commentators have called for. This is the beginning of a discussion that people really do want.
There were other areas too. There’s FairCare, a radical overhaul of the medical sector. While Mary Harney’s reforms did help in reducing, by removing private beds from public hospitals and through the National Treatment Purchase Fund, they did not change the fundamental nature of the provision of health care. Fine Gael’s proposals would manage to eliminate on the broad scale the division between public and private patients while maintaining a competitive private health insurance system.
There are the New Era proposals for job creation, with a plan to provide for 105,000 new jobs in certain key areas such as broadband and energy. To be honest, this is one area that it is very difficult to anticipate what could be done this far out, as the macroeconomic demands of the country after the election will determine a lot. But of more immediate relevance were the policies developed by Leo Varadkar to tackle unemployment at the lowest margins, to make it more attractive to keep employees working part-time than to dismiss them. There are some perverse incentives at this level, and we need to make a clear commitment that welfare policies should be such that no one should ever find themselves in a position where they would have less money if they started work.
What I encouraged me overall was a feeling of hope, not just from a partisan level that we will lead the next government with a strong mandate. On the principle of throwing the rascals out, at the next election more than any previously, we could presume to run on that basis. It would be all to easy to have spent time asserting a simple valence point, that we could do a better job than Fianna Fáil.
But this hope was a feeling of optimism about the country, what we could do in government. It was not about the vague principle of a need for change or a new sort of politics, but something that was far more clearly outlined than we might expect from an opposition party before an election itself. While Fianna Fáil are now doing what they can to salvage the economy and move the books to a sounder state, it will take a party with a fresh approach and focus to bring forward real change.
I had to smile to see a few familiar faces, that I was not the only former Progressive Democrat in Killarney. My old party emerged during the 1980s, as an optimistic force with a radical approach to all aspects of politics, including major Constitutional reform. Of course, it never had the opportunity to play a role as the leading party in government. In Fine Gael, facing the next election in a time with a need for renewal, I now feel, much more than I did before the weekend, that we have a force for meaningful change.