Review of “Saving the State: Fine Gael from Collins to Varadkar”
by Stephen Collins and Ciara Meehan
Gill Books 2020
As the authors concede, they have entitled their study of Fine Gael over a period spanning the lives of Michael Collins and Leo Varadkar “despite the fact that Michael Collins was dead before Cumann na nGaedheal was ever created. This timeline is irrelevant to the Fine Gael faithful”. For many modern Fine Gael members, but not all, Michael Collins is the father figure of their political tradition. But “the Fine Gael faithful”, in this respect, are somewhatunhistorical. Michael Collins was a staunch Republican. He was definitely not of the Redmondite tradition so much admired by John Bruton and others. He was an IRB Fenian Republican to his fingernails and his politics were very different from those of Redmondites and their later politicaldescendants, including Kevin O’Higgins, Dillon and Bruton.
The real starting point of Cumann na nGaedheal, in terms of leadership, was WT Cosgrave, the first President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State. It was not until the civil war was virtually over that pro-Treaty Sinn Féin deputies who supported the Cosgrave government established Cumann na nGaedheal on the 27th of April 1923.
One example can be given of the radically different approaches of the strongly republican Collins and the more conservative nationalist, WT Cosgrave. In the process of drawing up the Constitution for the Irish Free State, a constitutional committee was established, chaired by Michael Collins and on which my great uncle, James MacNeill (later to be Governor General) was another member.
The Constitution of the Irish Free State went as far as it possibly could to establish a genuinely republican non-confessional state while adhering to the minimum requirements of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.
The Irish Free State was described as “Saorstát Éireann”, the official name given by Dáil Éireann to the Irish Republic in its Declaration of Independence in 1919. The head of the government was described as the President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State. Unlike other dominions, the President was nominated by the Dáil and ceremonially appointed by the Governor General. The Constitution drafted by a majority of the constitutional committee uniquely stated at Article 2 that “All powers of government and all authority legislative executive and judicial in Ireland are derived from the people of Ireland and the same shall be exercised in the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) through the organisations established by or under, and in accord with, this Constitution.”
The Free State’s Constitution set out fundamental civil liberties, including separation of church and state, and made the Oireachtas or national parliament the body with “sole and exclusive power of making laws for the Irish Free State”. Full equality between men and women and citizens and as voters (then not in existence in the United Kingdom) was provided for and the Senate was to be elected by popular franchise on a rotational basis. Provision was made for the initiation by the people of proposals for laws or constitutional amendments nominated by the Dáil. The Constitution was intended to become amendable only by referendum after an initial bedding down period.
WT Cosgrave, by contrast, was actively canvassing the possibility of building into the Irish Free State’s legislature a chamber in which the churches would be represented with a view to incorporating into the legislative process a form of religious supervision.
Fortunately, his views on the subject were not accepted by the framers of the Free State Constitution. But his proposal indicates a quite different and conservative mindset dating back to the foundation of the independent Irish State. Although a member of the Irish Volunteers, Cosgrave was never a member of the IRB.
The authors, in a succinct chapter, deal with the evolution of Cumann na nGaedheal from 1923 to 1933 and outline the mutation in the character of the party from the remnants of the Collins/Sinn Féin faction to the conservative and middle class entity that was to lose power to Eamon de Valera in 1932. “The drift was compounded by the arrival in the party of more conservative former Redmondite and Farmers’ Party members along with well-off and educated independents like Brian Cooper, John Daly and Myles Keogh”, they observe.
Michael Collins’ observation that the status of the Irish Free State was not the “perfect freedom” for which the Sinn Féin movement had fought, but was “the freedom to achieve that freedom”, was in large measure vindicated at successive Imperial Conferences, culminating with that of the 1931 where it became clear that the member states of the British Commonwealth were fully autonomous political democracies over which the Westminster Parliament had lost is suzerainty.
The origins of the United Ireland Party – Fine Gael are set out in summary. In brief, Cumann na nGaedheal, the Blueshirt National Guard and the Centre Party came together to form this new party of which Eoin O’Duffy, an egotist with corporatist and fascist inclinations, was to become president. By now, Fine Gael the United Ireland Party, was a far cry from Michael Collins, although it paid public homage to him in all its utterances.
The authors point out that Enda Kenny, in 2008, held a rally in the Green Isle Hotel in Dublin to commemorate “the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Fine Gael party”. Enda Kenny’s message on the occasion stated that he felt “privileged to follow the noble tradition set down by Collins, Griffith and Cosgrave and our many distinguished leaders since”.
They comment that claiming continuity with Collins or Cumann na nGaedheal was a convenient way for Fine Gael to sidestep any need to confront the reality that Eoin O’Duffy – the man indelibly linked with the Blueshirts – was the party’s first president. They say “Without the Blueshirts, however, there might not have been a Fine Gael”.
So, while the Cumann na nGaedheal years were ones in which the Free State was established, defended and consolidated, and in which democracy and the rule of law were upheld and which culminated in the peaceful transfer of power to the political successors of the “irregulars” of 1922-23, it is accurate to afford Cumann na nGaedheal the accolade of “saving the State”.
The next fifteen years of drift, from 1933 to 1948, really do not bear description as a period in which Fine Gael was “saving the State”. They had successfully painted themselves into the political corner of being a well-meaning but largely ineffectual opposition which did not represent the soul of the nation.
From 1948 to 1978, Fine Gael had three periods of holding office in coalition. It was only with the advent of Garret Fitzgerald that the party really reorganised itself with a view to matching the strength of Fianna Fáil. While Garret had the charisma and the vision to rebuild Fine Gael into a powerful political machine, he himself privately stated that he would have preferred to lead a Fine Gael/Labour coalition than to lead a Fine Gael government with an overall majority. The social democratic tendency in Fine Gael represented by Declan Costello and Garret Fitzgerald was always uneasy with the more conservative wing of the party represented by John A. Costello, Dillion and Liam Cosgrave.
In the post-Fitzgerald era, successive leaders such as Alan Dukes, John Bruton and Michael Noonan, struggled to deal with a changing Ireland and with the consequences of international financial crises and the Northern troubles. It can also be argued that Fine Gael “saved” the State from the Fianna Fáil of Charles Haughey in particular by challenging political corruption and the descent into rabid nationalism that threatened the security of the State.
The authors provide a very useful analysis of the Enda Kenny era in Fine Gael. Kenny reconstructed the party during the period 2002 to 2007 and ensured the political eclipse of the Progressive Democrats by his Mullingar Accord, a pact with Pat Rabbitte’s Labour Party to provide an alternative to Fianna Fáil based on tax-cutting proposals which outflanked the PDs. However, the fates saved Enda Kenny from entering into power in 2007, just as the international financial crisis and Ireland’s banking and construction crisis was commencing. Had Kenny and Rabbitte taken over the reins of power in 2007, they would, doubtless, have been politically annihilated in the meltdown of 2008/2009. Instead, Kenny was in the happier position of entering into government after the Fianna Fáil party and the Greens had melted down. The Kenny/Gilmore coalition deserves credit for saving the State, in taking the courageous and extremely politically unpalatable steps that were necessary to restore the country’s financial standing. But as the 2016 election demonstrated, Fine Gael’s tendency to engage in smug self-regard and their talent at devising possibly the worst political slogans for general elections of any party in Western Europe, resulted in a party which had come within a whisker of being in overall majority in 2011 now being reduced to depending on the Fianna Fáil party by way of a confidence and supply regime lasting for another four years.
The emergence of Leo Varadkar as a young and remarkably different kind of Irish political leader seemed for a while to offer Fine Gael the opportunity to recover the dominant position that it obtained in 2011 following the eclipse of Fianna Fáil. But political failures, particularly in the area of housing, let the air out of Fine Gael’s tyres. Fianna Fáil expected to reassert its position as the dominant political force in Ireland until the Sinn Féin mini-tsunami of 2020 forced Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil together in a coalition.
The authors rightly ask, in conclusion, whether we have now arrived at the end of “Civil War politics”.
They quote Varadkar as believing “that Fine Gael needs to guard against a serious party emerging on its right, either a PD style liberal market party or a socially conservative one”.
That is the great unknown now. The old conundrum as to whether there was both “a gap in the market and a market in the gap” for such a new political force is a serious issue that must be addressed.
If it is not addressed, the likelihood of the next election is that Sinn Féin will lead the next government, probably in coalition with Fianna Fáil and parties of the left, and Fine Gael will be the party of opposition.
Unless someone puts in place other building blocks for the electorate to use in building the next government, the outlook for liberal, centre right politics in Ireland is bleak indeed.
Stephen Collins and Ciara Meehan have done us a service in examining the origins of the Fine Gael party. It is easier to state what Fine Gael is not rather than to define what is has become. It is not the party of Michael Collins. The Cumann na nGaedheal era marked a departure from Collins’ republicanism. It is not the party of the John Redmond tradition espoused by John Bruton. It is not Garret Fitzgerald’s social democratic party. It is, in many respects, the great political chameleon. It changes its colours in response to threats and to pursue its own survival and success.
This work is a good read – especially for a younger generation some of whom have what often appears to be a simplistic, shallow and one-dimensional appreciation of the real history of Ireland’s independent democracy.