Cosgrave’s death is a reminder: cut any of us and we bleed Fine Gael or Fianna Fail
MY favourite Liam Cosgrave story relates to the collapse of the second interparty government in 1957, a parable which could go to the heart of Fine Gael to this day.
Then the Minister for External Affairs, Cosgrave personally held the deflationary policies of the then Finance Minister, the rather grand Gerard Sweetman, responsible for the fall of the government after three years, and is said to have told him so in typically blunt fashion, stating that Fine Gael “was no longer led by people living in big houses at the end of long avenues”.
The Sweetman family did not live at the end of a long avenue, as it happened, but had a fine townhouse on Dublin’s Baggot Street. A 1911 census return shows that the family of three, including young Gerard then aged two, employed no fewer than three servants. After the government’s collapse, Cosgrave is said to have not spoken to Sweetman for some years.
***** Recent opinion polls show that Fine Gael still holds a commanding lead among the middle classes, particularly among the upper middle class, that is, the old money professionals who reside in the finer €5m homes in Dublin 4 and 6, let’s say around Dartry and Rathgar, where nannies and gardeners abound, and where its lead is more than twice that of Fianna Fail; and also, though lesser, among the somewhat more modest middle class residents of, say, Ranelagh and Sandymount, whose main property would be still valued in excess of €1m.
Fine Gael’s lead falls dramatically among the lower middle classes, however, shall we say among those aspiring people who are but one generation from working class and two from abject poverty, who have yet to return to Fianna Fail in the fuller numbers as did the working class in the last election, many of them opting instead for the half-way house that were the Independents.
The lower middle class comprise the largest of the three middle-class cohorts, and it is among these that the next election will be won and lost.
As we can already see, the lower middle class is prepared to desert the Independents in droves — but to whom will they go, Leo Varadkar or Micheal Martin?
In my view, that will come down to the election campaign itself, to the ground war in the less leafy suburbs of, say, Sallynoggin and Swords — but also the television studio debates between the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.
Leo Varadkar is said to be a fearsome campaigner who will leave nothing to chance — fail to prepare, prepare to fail — but there is little evidence to back up that assertion, other than the manner in which he won the Fine Gael leadership contest, that is, how he tidily tied up his Oireachtas colleagues.
But the more telling account may be the manner in which he was routed in the ground war, at the end of those long avenues, where Simon Coveney won the day.
So, in the boxing club parlance of Micheal Martin’s father, does Leo Varadkar possess a glass jaw? We will soon find out.
***** Fianna Fail is not devoid of representation in the leafier suburbs, none more high-profile than Justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan — who is said to be close to Micheal Martin, but who caused no little irritation last weekend with his apparent leaving of a door open to a future coalition with Sinn Fein.
By the by, in October 1959, when the dual leadership of Fine Gael under Richard Mulcahy and John A Costello was stood down, Costello wanted to continue his practice as a lawyer as well as remain party leader. He asked Liam Cosgrave to be his “managing director” in the Dail while he toiled away down in the Four Courts. Cosgrave declined the offer, understandably enough, only to subsequently decisively lose a leadership contest to James Dillon.
Jim O’Callaghan continues to toil down in the Four Courts these days, with particular emphasis on the lucrative business of defamation law. Within Fianna Fail, his apparent holding ajar a door to Sinn Fein is seen more as a constituency matter, where he is in contest for votes with Chris Andrews, a scion of Fianna Fail, but something of a useful idiot to Sinn Fein these days.
That said, surely it is that the Andrews family vote returned decisively enough to Fianna Fail last time out and that O’Callaghan should have his seat made more safe by the next election, or is it that he is spending more time than is strictly necessary in the law library?
***** So, when will that election be held? As somebody who correctly told you at the last election that the centre would hold, and that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail would continue to thrive if they played their cards right — combined, they have increased support by around 10pc since — this is what I now believe will happen: in short, Leo is set to become Bob the Builder.
To confirm the point, I am told that Micheal Martin informed a meeting of Fianna Fail’s front bench last week that he believes the Government’s capital investment plan 2016-2021 is nothing short of the Fine Gael election manifesto.
The Budget this week will not amount to much. The real deal will be the billions Fine Gael is planning to pump into the road and rail networks, schools, hospitals and other public projects, starting early next year.
As soon as the ground thaws at winter’s end, then you can expect to see Leo out and about in hard hat and hi-vis jacket, turning the sod on various projects. Let’s call it his Lemassian moment, Varadkar’s plan to Rebuild the Republic: boots on the ground, cranes in the air and white van man on the road. Martin, meanwhile, will continue to hammer the issues of health and housing. Eventually, sooner than you may think — before Varadkar gains traction — Martin will have to call out Fine Gael and declare, rightly or wrongly, that the party is incapable of sorting out the housing mess and that no party but Fianna Fail can do so, a nod to its innate feel for the middle class aspiration behind property ownership.
Martin’s timing will have to be finely tuned, however, complicated somewhat at it is by the scheduled abortion referendum in May or June. But then, neither party has much to fear from that referendum, as both are on the side of middle Ireland. Put it this way: the Budget this week will be the last under this particular administration.
***** Reference to Sean Lemass obliges me to return to Gerard Sweetman.
For all his patrician airs, to his credit, it was Sweetman who broke with tradition to elevate a 39-year-old civil servant named Ken Whitaker to the position of SecretaryGeneral of the Department of Finance, and so usher in development of the modern Ireland which we see around us today; well, certainly after said Mr Lemass came to power in 1957.
In his last election, in June 1969, Sweetman was again returned to the Dail for the then Kildare constituency, with none other then one Nancy Moore, mother of Christy Moore, also on the Fine Gael ticket. Cut any of us and we will bleed Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.
***** In all the tributes paid to the late Mr Cosgrave last week, the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams’s was the most ungracious, and Richard Boyd Barrett’s of People Before Profit the most, well, charming. Like Cosgrave, Boyd Barrett hails from Dun Laoghaire. Here is an edited extract from the Dail record: Richard Boyd Barrett: It is fair to say that my aunt, Janet Kinsella, or Janet Boyd Barrett, who is now deceased, would have been a prominent activist in the Dun Laoghaire Fine Gael branch... A Deputy: Scandal, scandal. (Interruptions). Richard Boyd Barrett: Political debate around the dinner table with another uncle who was involved in Fianna Fail... Brendan Howlin: No wonder the Deputy ended up as he is. Richard Boyd Barrett: ...and another uncle was involved in the Labour Party in Dalkey... (Interruptions). Richard Boyd Barrett: These names were all familiar — the Cosgrave name, Jack Lynch and so on. There was intense political discussion — perhaps some of that rubbed off on me... Bobby Aylward: Not the way we would expect. Richard Boyd Barrett: ...although I am sure it was in a way that none of them would have particularly approved of.
***** In that debate, Micheal Martin made reference to Liam Cosgrave’s “distinct accent”, which was certainly the case. Apropos of nothing in particular, the Financial Times last week carried a review of King Lear at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester in the UK.
The reviewer made reference to a sex change given to the Earl of Kent. Sinead Cusack “offers an intelligent reading”, the reviewer said, in which the sole weak link was, oddly, “this native Dubliner’s adoption of a north side Dublin accent when Kent disguises herself ”.
A lower middle class accent, perhaps, one generation from working class, two from abject poverty?
IRISH WAYS: Christy Moore’s mother stood for Fine Gael in 1969. And Sinead Cusack has links to every hue of political opinion