Changing Teams, Part 2
The days following the election on 24 May 2007 were emotionally very disappointing for me, for both personal and political reasons. The party fell from eight seats to two, including the loss of the Michael McDowell’s seat. We held a General Council meeting not too long after, where we retrospectively endorsed the programme for government negotiated by Fianna Fáil and the Greens. Groups of the party met of the following months, wondering again and again what could be done. The next General Council meeting was in November, and there was very little difference in what was said then, and a general feeling of lethargy set in. I think the party could have been salvaged at that point, had a real effort been made to re-engage with the moment of 1985 and what that should mean in 2007, but it would certainly have been a difficult battle.
We elected a new leader in May 2008, Ciarán Cannon, and for many that was the first they had heard of him. In September, he announced that he could no longer see a future for the party. Given that no one of the leadership supported continuing then, I reluctantly supported the decision to disband. In ways I felt it would hinder the possibility of a re-emergence of a viable liberal party, whenever that could be possible, had we continued, so on 8 November 2008, I spoke at the last conference of the Progressive Democrats, on the side of the motion that passed.
By that stage, it was evident to all in the country that the government had been grossly negligent over the last few years, particularly in the years from around 2002, the second Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat government, when they encouraged the housing and construction bubble. This was particularly the fault of Bertie Ahern and Charlie McCreevy, who showed a wilful ignorance towards sometimes simple economics, but the Progressive Democrats bear responsibility, as does the population in general for being content as long as things were going well. For a long time, I felt that there was no party that I could identify with. Indeed, from the time of the fateful 2007 election, I wondered if there was a party I could jump ship towards while I still nominally had a party. I had canvassed to a small degree at the time of the first Lisbon referendum, and felt I could perhaps attach myself to issues rather than a party.
But more and more I felt the itch. Only one party was really likely. Fianna Fáil deserved to lose office having guarded the economy when so much had happened beneath it, and the length of power had led to a level of institutional corruption and cronyism. As to the Greens, I differed strongly with them on scientific issues like GM food and nuclear energy, and did not in any case feel inclined to join a government party. While I respect Brian Lenihan, certainly far more than others at the cabinet table, and feel he has taken some sensible decisions, I feel the solution made was far too favourable to bankers. Labour is far too close to unions, which generally represent particular sectoral interests rather than the national interest.
Which left Fine Gael. It was, as I’ve written, on the day George Lee was announced that I applied to rejoin. It was not just because of him, but because it put the economy in focus for me. This is the issue that needs to be decided, and I felt that of all parties, Fine Gael was the one to do that. Many chided me for my decision, with my clearly liberal views on many issues, given that Fine Gael could be considered the most conservative of Irish parties. To that I’d say a few things. The party has long had a liberal wing. I am also not going to toe any party line on any issue I have objections with, no one who is not in a paid position or subject to a whip is expected to do that. And if anyone becomes involved in politics in the hope of effecting change, that can even be in the choice of party. As much as any party member, I hope to influence those of high rank. I have differed privately with members of the parliamentary party on issues of personal importance to me. Within a context where I can offer constructive advice and contribute on a range of policies, I believe this can make a difference.
I do think that Fine Gael is the best vehicle for promoting my ideas. On many issues, they are the party most closely aligned to my own beliefs. On others, I will have to work harder at convincing my fellow members. The events of last week concentrated this question in my mind. Was the party something to be disillusioned with? Did it have the structures to allow someone who was genuinely interested to shape policy? Listening to reports and interviews, and talking to other members, I feel the answer to those is No and Yes.
I’m not going to deny the feelings I had about the party at times in the past, which I was reminded of reading Kevin Rafter’s book on the party under Enda Kenny, such as some the campaigns coming up to the last election, which I thought played on people’s fears. But we have to act from where we are now, with the shift we have seen in politics. In that context, I am confident I made the right decision, and look forward to the years coming up to the election. And having seen a party collapse, found common cause on particular issues with people in many parties, and having worked with people of many parties and none on the Lisbon campaigns, I feel I am a reasonably non-partisan Blueshirt.