A man with lit­tle vi­sion as to where his coun­try was go­ing

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - NEWS - By GARY MUR­PHY PRO­FES­SOR OF POL­I­TICS, DCU

LIAM Cos­grave’s rel­a­tively short pe­riod as Taoiseach from 1973 to 1977 came to a shud­der­ing end at the in­fa­mous gen­eral elec­tion of 1977. Although he had led the long­est-last­ing gov­ern­ment since World War II, Cos­grave al­ways gave the im­pres­sion of be­ing a re­luc­tant Taoiseach.

Cer­tainly, he cam­paigned in 1977 as if he wasn’t too both­ered about con­tin­u­ing as Taoiseach. He had a cu­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal style. Cos­grave went home for his lunch ev­ery day, did not let his min­is­ters know his home tele­phone num­ber on the grounds that they did not need to know it and was known for some­times pe­rus­ing the rac­ing pages dur­ing Cab­i­net dis­cus­sions.

As suc­ces­sive govern­ments over the last 40 years have strug­gled to main­tain any sem­blance of com­pe­tence in eco­nomic pol­icy-mak­ing, much of the blame for this lam­en­ta­ble state of af­fairs is of­ten placed at the feet of Jack Lynch, Fianna Fáil and their give­away elec­tion man­i­festo of 1977.

That man­i­festo was un­like any other in the his­tory of the State. Laden with an ar­ray of spend­ing prom­ises, most spec­tac­u­larly pledg­ing to abol­ish car tax and lo­cal gov­ern­ment rates, to men­tion just the most fa­mous two give­aways, the idea was that pump-prim­ing the econ­omy would achieve sig­nif­i­cant growth rates and bring about full em­ploy­ment by 1983.

Alas, the man­i­festo with its ex­trav­a­gant spend­ing pro­pos­als, opened up the State to a lux­u­ri­ous crop of spe­cial claims from var­i­ous groups and pro­fes­sions.

Nurses, gar­daí, postal work­ers, tele­phone op­er­a­tors, Aer Lin­gus work­ers and rub­bish col­lec­tors all found rea­sons for ex­tra claims over and above the al­ready gen­er­ous na­tional agree­ments that were then in ex­is­tence.

Cos­grave later claimed that his gov­ern­ment, and the Fine Gael part of it in par­tic­u­lar, had no chance once the Fianna Fáil man­i­festo was out and he re­mained proud of the fact that he didn’t en­gage in the auc­tion pol­i­tics that was the hall­mark of the huck­sters in Fianna Fáil.

How­ever, the truth is some­what more com­plex. Although Cos­grave an­nounced the dis­so­lu­tion of the Dáil in May 1977, nine months ear­lier than strictly nec­es­sary, for a polling date of June 16, his Fine Gael party was woe­fully un­pre­pared for the cam­paign and, un­like Fianna Fáil, didn’t seem to want to do any­thing in power to make peo­ple’s lives bet­ter.

Cos­grave’s view, ap­par­ently on noth­ing more than gut in­stinct, was that an im­prov­ing econ­omy, with fall­ing in­fla­tion and a rea­son­ably well-re­ceived bud­get, por­tended a favourable out­come.

The Fine Gael mem­bers of the Cab­i­net were split on whether to go for a sum­mer elec­tion or wait un­til the au­tumn and Richie Ryan, the fi­nance min­is­ter, would later claim that Cos­grave plumped for the sum­mer un­der the in­flu­ence of the Labour Tá­naiste, Bren­dan Cor­ish.

Some­thing sim­i­lar, with equally calami­tous re­sults, hap­pened to Enda Kenny in 2015, when, at the be­hest of Joan Bur­ton, he vac­il­lated on call­ing the elec­tion. When he even­tu­ally did go to the coun­try in Fe­bru­ary 2016, both par­ties did badly.

In 1977 Fine Gael, ac­cord­ing to its lead­ing light, Gar­ret FitzGer­ald, was also wor­ried that, ‘if an elec­tion was held over to the au­tumn, some­thing might go wrong, such as the har­vest.’

De­cid­ing on the date by dint of the im­pact of the weather on the farm­ing com­mu­nity was hardly the most ring­ing en­dorse­ment of the plat­form Fine Gael would present to the peo­ple at the polls.

In essence, Fine Gael as a party had no clear idea of where it should be go­ing and no real idea of what it wanted to do in gov­ern­ment if re-elected.

Mat­ters were made worse by the anaemic per­for­mance of Richie Ryan, who was Fine Gael’s na­tional di­rec­tor of elec­tions, a job he did not want and at which was not much good.

Cos­grave, although cer­tainly a com­pe­tent chair­man of his Cab­i­net and a rea­son­ably ef­fec­tive taoiseach, was cer­tainly no nat­u­ral po­lit­i­cal cam­paigner. The woe­ful Fine Gael per­for­mance in 1977 reached its nadir half­way through the cam­paign, when a strangely dis­in­ter­ested Cos­grave de­cided not to con­tinue, plead­ing a bad bout of laryn­gi­tis. The rea­son was that he had noth­ing very much of in­ter­est to say.

In that con­text, Cos­grave was a quin­tes­sen­tial Fine Gael politi­cian. He be­lieved in con­ser­va­tive morals (as in his in­fa­mous vote against his own party on con­tra­cep­tion) fi­nan­cial pro­bity, the se­cu­rity of the State and not much else.

FIANNA Fáil politi­cians were much the same. They were equally or even more so­cially con­ser­va­tive, had a rather more ca­sual at­ti­tude to state re­sources and were more ide­al­is­tic in their at­tach­ment to the unattain­able dream of re­cap­tur­ing the fourth green field. Over 55 years af­ter the found­ing of the State, the na­tion­al­ist cleav­age still dom­i­nated pol­i­tics and was the pri­mary rea­son peo­ple voted as they did. Cos­grave was as much wed­ded to this cleav­age as any­one in the Ir­ish State.

Cos­grave ob­served a scrupu­lous ap­proach to the dis­tinc­tion be­tween State and party. In the 1977 elec­tion, one of the Fine Gael team, the then UCD econ­o­mist, Bren­dan Dowl­ing, dis­cov­ered that Fine Gael had no pho­to­copier in its elec­tion head­quar­ters. Dowl­ing wished to use a gov­ern­ment one but Cos­grave, FitzGer­ald and Ryan were all re­luc­tant to use state ma­chin­ery for party pur­poses.

It was only when an of­fi­cial in Fi­nance wised them up that Fianna Fáil would not only use ma­chin­ery but also staff that Dowl­ing got the go-ahead.

While ad­mirable in many ways, this episode summed up the sham­bolic na­ture of the Fine Gael cam­paign and is an apt metaphor for the per­for­mance of Cos­grave as Taoiseach. A man with lit­tle vi­sion for where his coun­try was go­ing but who nev­er­the­less did his best. As epi­taphs go it’s a bit like the Ir­ish State it­self, which he served with pride.

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