The direction can alter considerably when politics are put on hold

IN A sense, Irish politics has gone into suspended animation. Bertie Ahern has been replaced as leader of Fianna Fáil but he remains as Taoiseach for over three weeks. This kind of hiatus effectively happens just about every decade after an election in which the people decide to change government.

Our politics have settled down and we can be confident the change will take place. Of course, the last time the hiatus lasted a month proved a time of profound change.

Essentially, politics are being put on hold to facilitate the Taoiseach’s address to the joint session of the United States Congress at the end of the month. This is a great honour for Bertie Ahern and the country. Our Taoiseach will become one of only a handful of people accorded the honour of addressing both the British and US legislatures. I wonder, though, if we have matured enough that this could have taken place in the reverse order without the usual Brit bashing.

What would people be saying if we were now just waiting for Bertie to address the Westminster Parliament instead of the US Congress? In the midst of regular politics, it is worth remembering how far we have come in a relatively short time since our first change of government in 1932. What is happening in Zimbabwe with Robert Mugabe should be a grim reminder of what could have happened here.

There are still some people around who remember the events of 1932. Fianna Fáil won 72 seats in the general election that year. This was not an overall majority, but it could comfortably form a minority government with the support of the Labour Party, which had nine seats.

Five years earlier, Fianna Fáil had agreed to support Labour leader Thomas Johnson as president of the executive council, as the Taoiseach of the day was called. Johnson also had the support of the National League, founded in September 1926 by Captain William Redmond, the son of John Redmond, who had been leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster before independence.

In June 1927, the National League made a credible showing in its first general election, winning eight seats. Labour had its best showing up to then, with 22 seats, and Fianna Fáil won 44 seats, just three short of the 47 of the ruling Cumann na nGaedheal. The combined vote of Fianna Fáil, Labour and the National League would have been enough to ensure a Johnson victory.

As it was less than five years since the end of the civil war, Eamon de Valera recognised he was no in a position to form a government, so he agreed to back a minority government composed of Labour Party and the National League for the lifetime of the Dáil, on condition they abolished the obnoxious Treaty-oath prescribed for members of the Dáil.

Much as they might have disliked WT Cosgrave and Cumann na nGaedheal, the idea of being associated with Fianna Fáil was too much for some of the National League. One member crossed the floor to join Cumann na nGaedheal, but Johnson still seemed assured of victory until Alderman John Jinks of Sligo was nobbled by Cumann na nGaedheal over a liquid lunch. He was persuaded to absent himself from the Dáil vote.

Without him, the vote ended in a tie, and the Ceann Comhairle voted to save WT Cosgrave, who called another general election before the Dáil could meet again. The National League was promptly reduced to two seats and soon disappeared from the political scene.

Five years later, in 1932, our democracy really hung by a thread around the time of the first real government changeover. Garda Commissioner General Eoghan O’Duffy sought to organise a coup d’état to prevent Fianna Fáil coming to power. He had posters printed which called on the people to support military government under his leadership.

General Michael Brennan, the chief of staff of the army, refused to allow the army to be involved here. The Commissioner showed one of the posters to David Neligan, head of the Special Branch.

“You don’t expect me to have anything to do with this?” Neligan said, and walked out. Cosgrave got wind of the plans, but Neligan assured him everything was under control.

De Valera was undoubtedly justified in dismissing O’Duffy in 1933, but Cumann na nGaedheal sought to make a political martyr out of him. The newly Fine Gael party elected O’Duffy as its first leader, but he became such an embarrassment that they ousted him within months.

The last midterm change of government came after the fall of Albert Reynolds on November 16, 1994, over the appointment of Harry Whelehan as president of the High Court. Rather than ask for an election, Reynolds stepped down, but it was four extraordinary weeks before John Bruton was elected as his successor on December 15, 1994.

In the interim Bertie Ahern had been chosen as Fianna Fáil leader on November 19. He began negotiations with Labour’s Dick Spring to form a new coalition government.

The previous government had collapsed because Reynolds had not disclosed that the new attorney-general, Eoghan Fitzsimons, had told him there had been no grounds for delaying the extradition of the paedophile priest Brendan Smith, because there had been a precedent in which a supposed paedophile monk, James Duggan, had previously been extradited to Britain.

INITIALLY, it looked like Bertie Ahern would succeed as Taoiseach, but on December 5, 1994, Geraldine Kennedy broke the story that the Fianna Fáil members of government had been told about this precedent, so Bertie Ahern was in the same boat as Albert Reynolds.

Spring asked to see a report which had been drawn up of what had happened, but Reynolds was still Taoiseach and he ordered the report should be withheld. Bertie wished to give it to Spring.

Eventually, Bertie used his own judgment to hand over the report, which indicated Fianna Fáil ministers had been informed of the Duggan precedent. In time, however, it would become apparent that they had been misinformed.

Duggan had been a clerical student for a time but was never ordained. He was extradited within a couple of years of the alleged paedophile offences, whereas the charges in the Smyth’s case involved offences that went back over 20 years. He could not have been charged with those in this jurisdiction as a result of an earlier Supreme Court ruling in regard to such a time delay, so there was a valid issue to be considered in relation to his extradition.

“The question of lapse of time was arguably going to be a live issue in the Smyth case, whereas arguably it presented little difficulty in the Duggan case,” Reynolds told the Dáil. The official in charge of the attorney-general’s office held that view “very strongly”.

The controversy was not the result of “la grande conspiracy”, according to Charlie McCreevy, it was “la grande stupidity”. Much changed in the confusion of those weeks.

If Bertie Ahern and Dick Spring had formed a partnership government in December 1984, how different would things have been?

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