Changing Teams, Part 1
Recently, I read Pat Leahy’s Showtime, on Fianna Fáil under Bertie Ahern, and Kevin Rafter’s Fine Gael: Party at the Crossroads, on the party under Enda Kenny.
Reading the accounts of political events over the last decade and a half, I was reminded of my own reaction to these at the time. As I became interested in politics around the time of the revelations about Charles Haughey and Ray Burke, I was suspicious of them as a party. Supporting the re-election of the Rainbow government, being sure the minority Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrats government couldn’t last much beyond 1997; sure it was near collapse around the Sheedy incident.
Reading Rafter’s book specifically, I remembered that as a John Bruton supporter, I was wary of the internal opposition to him in 2001 and wasn’t enthusiastic about Michael Noonan; I supported Enda Kenny as the leadership candidate that year, as he was close to Bruton, and felt vindicated, but incredibly disappointed, when Fine Gael fell from 54 seats to 31 in 2002. I was known in school as a Fine Gael supporter, and received a lot of abuse the day back the weekend after that election. I supported Richard Bruton for the leadership, but was enthusiastic about Enda Kenny. I was pleasantly surprised at the party’s first great success under his leadership, with 5 seats of 13 at the 2004 European elections.
But from around the same time, I was becoming more attracted to the Progressive Democrats. I was impressed with Michael McDowell at the 2002 election. While the team I was then supporting was faring relatively poorly, I found another to be somewhat enthusiastic about. In the RDS at the count in 2002, I told those I talked to that I was a Fine Gael supporter and sympathised with those who were tallying for the party, but for want for something to be happy with, I wondered over to look at the tallies from Dublin South-East where the Attorney-General had topped the poll. In the canteen, I shook his hand to congratulate him on the result. I appreciated his stances as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform over the coming years, liking his proposal on café bars and his strong stance against the Provos (though I felt the citizenship referendum was unnecessary). I also respected the work Mary Harney had done as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
I would have casually identified myself as a liberal during my teenage years, and felt that in European terms, I would support the liberal party in any other country, but that the dynamic in this country was different, partly because of my antipathy for supporting Fianna Fáil. But I was growing to like the government, and after a conversation I had with someone in work a few weeks before coming to college, I was near enough a supporter. Around the same period, I read a This Week Guide to the 25th Dáil, on the 1987 election, which saw the excitement surrounding the Progressive Democrats, winning 14 seats. Though I joined Trinity Young Fine Gael instinctively during Freshers’ Week, and served on the committee later that year, I was becoming closer in my sympathies to the Progressive Democrats.
It was a year later that I did join, and I felt more at home there than I would have in any other party that has been in the Irish electoral system. I felt I identified with the party’s history, its place in Irish society, and its underlying vision. I believed in the view of Ireland Des O’Malley had laid out in 1985, when he stood by the republic, and which was the fundamental basis of the party, of a modern, liberal, confident society. I liked the idea of a party that could combine Harney and McDowell’s defence of market capitalism with Liz O’Donnell’s critique of the power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church. I was active in the Young Progressive Democrats and canvassed for Fiona O’Malley, then TD for Dún Laoghaire. I made a few good friends through the party, and enjoyed two good party conferences, one in Limerick, and particularly the one in Wexford.
But even at that conference, as our leader promised a cut in the higher rate of tax from 41% to 38% in his prime time address, seemingly the only way he could respond to Pat Rabbitte’s promise a week before to cut the standard rate to 18%, I look at the person sitting next to me and we sighed in disappointment. It wasn’t long before we saw our prospects crumbling in front of us. Michael McDowell went on the attack, going on and on about the taxes the slump coalition would introduce. He focused particularly on the Greens, worried perhaps about the perennial fight in South-East against John Gormley. I was there the day of the rumble in Ranelagh. It was embarrassing that McDowell thought he could play the same trick again, and playing on a fear no one really had. Given that Bertie Ahern had three years previously sent Charlie McCreevy to Brussels for being perceived as right-wing, and given the very centrist platform the Labour Party was presenting, where did Michael McDowell come up with the notion that the Irish people feared left-wing government?