A BLANK cheque to Charlie Haughey or the birth of the Celtic Tiger years – the ultimate outcome of the “Tallaght Strategy” in which the opposition Fine Gael agreed to support Fianna Fáil’s budgetary strategy, is still a topic of intense debate.
Fine Gael front and backbenchers who were around at the time tell the story of how the speech by their leader, Alan Dukes, at a Tallaght Chamber of Commerce event in September 1987, was the first they heard of their new approach of non-opposing opposition.
Mr Dukes declared his philosophy that “you don’t play politics with the economy”, saying his party would not oppose cuts if they achieved the objective of reducing the budget deficit while opening a way forward for lower taxes and employment growth without adding to the country’s debt problem.
“An opposition which acts in a way that makes every step forward more painful than it needs to be perverts its function. An opposition which tries, in our times, to say that corrective action is unnecessary, is betraying the Irish people,” he said.
“I will not play the political game which produces the sort of phoney economic analysis which has passed for opposition in the past,” Mr Dukes proclaimed in what was seen as a key moment in Irish economic history.
It was seen as an extremely brave and patriotic act, committing political suicide to put the national interest first at a time when national debt had reached an all-time high of 118% of GDP.
But the analysis of Mr Duke’s judgment and motives by some in both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has not been so simple. Some in Fine Gael subscribe to the view, believed to have been first instigated by Fianna Fáil, that it was a political tactic by Dukes to buy some time.
Just six months into the job as leader of Fine Gael, he might have wanted to copper-fasten his authority over the party left bruised by 20 seat losses in the general election earlier that year, and prevent the Fianna Fáil minority Government from exploiting their vulnerability by calling a snap election.
Economic co-operation had already been taking place between the two civil war rival parties when the unprecedented step was taken to change the adversarial nature of Irish politics.
As finance minister in the previous government, Dukes had drawn up a draft budget before losing in the general election. On taking over as Taoiseach, Haughey had adopted this budget with some amendments for the Fianna Fáil minority government.
“If the government is going in the right direction, I do not believe that it should be deviated from its course,” Mr Dukes proclaimed in his Tallaght speech five months after the election.
“That speech in Tallaght was the first I heard of it, there was no discussions before he made that speech,” remembers one of his front-bench spokesmen at the time. “There was a huge degree of discomfort about handing the Government a blank cheque,” he recalls.
Just days after the speech, the parliamentary party met to discuss the strategy with TDs expressing concern that they were allowing Fianna Fáil to do what they wanted with the public purse. But they were assured that the party would not give the Government free rein and would not support measures that involved closing local hospitals or cutting general levels of social welfare.
There were no “ructions” in the party over the plan or how it was communicated to them, according to one TD at the time – it was more of a slow burner.
“It became a very difficult time. You were taking responsibility for something you had no control over. The Government didn’t tell us too much, but we still had to accept responsibility for the decisions. In the end, we were saying one thing on the doorstep to our constituents, and back in Dublin could do nothing about it.”
Party members became increasingly worried the following year when polls showed the strategy had damaged their popularity. The party dropped from 33% to 24% while Mr Haughey’s ratings went up by 8% to a massive 48%.
Garret FitzGerald, then a backbencher, summed up the mood when he said: “There seems to be two Fianna Fáil parties. Fianna Fáil in opposition and Fianna Fáil in government.”
Fianna Fáil took the hard decisions, with Fine Gael backing, in the budget of harsh cuts, seen as beginning the economic transformation of the country.
But in the end, Haughey took all the credit and, while enjoying security in government and popularity over Fine Gael thanks to the Tallaght Strategy, he called a snap election in 1989 in an effort to win an overall majority. His plan did not work entirely as planned. Fianna Fáil lost four seats. But Fine Gael only won four of the 19 they lost in 1987.
Looking back at it recently. Mr Dukes said the Tallaght Strategy played a crucial role in economic change, comparing himself to a poet that never gets praise for their work until he is dead.
Others looking back believe the 1987-1989 period was a time of deep corruption in Irish politics, when a strong opposition was needed more than ever.
In his book, the finance minister at the time, Ray McSharry, acknowledged that “Fine Gael put the national interest in restoring financial stability ahead of any short-term political advantage”.
But, he couldn’t resist adding, that there was “no doubt a degree of political calculation” on Dukes’ part.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved