In a way that seems strange coming from him when he was so trenchantly critical of Garret FitzGerald after he suggested that Fine Gael supporters give a high preference vote for Eoin Ryan of Fianna Fáil in the last European elections in order to block the election of the Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald.
Imagine a loyal member of Fine Gael suggesting that any Fianna Fáil candidate was preferable to Sinn Féin! The irony now is that Fine Gael are doing particularly well in the polls because so many disillusioned Fianna Fáil supporters are prepared to transfer to Fine Gael. Indeed many people in Kerry suspect that the unthinkable could happen today with Fine Gael winning three, or even four seats in the Kerry constituencies.
Winning four seats might seem particularly unlikely, but if it does happen, it could well be an indication that Fine Gael is on track to achieve an overall majority. Even Ivan Yates — who was a cabinet minister in the administrations of Garret FitzGerald — was suggesting in his column during the week that “there will be an irresistible temptation to form a Fine Gael government, if possible, with new Dáil arithmetic.” But Ivan clearly realises that a stable government is vital in the national interest.
The last time any party won an overall majority was in 1977 when Jack Lynch seemed to crown his political career by leading Fianna Fáil to its greatest majority ever. That night on television, however, Lynch candidly recognised that such a majority had its own in-built dangers. How right he was! Lynch had planned to step down in January 1980 following the end of Ireland’s presidency of the European Community. But this was not fast enough for some backbenchers. Following Fianna Fáil’s poor showing in 1979 European elections, the so-called Gang of Four began conspiring to oust Lynch to make way for Charles Haughey.
Tom McEllistrim, jr, began circulating a petition calling on Lynch to step down. Before seeing the names of those who had signed already, deputies had to sign first. This was to ensure that only the dissidents would know who was involved. Over 20 signed it. In 1981 McEllistrim claimed that a vote for Garret FitzGerald was a vote for Margaret Thatcher. He was one of the old breed in the party who engaged in Brit-bashing. Fine Gael has always had its own equivalent in those suffering from the Blueshirt syndrome. This was the party’s tendency to be highly impressed by invective against Fianna Fáil, regardless of whether the arguments were rational or not.
There have been indications that disillusioned Fianna Fáil voters are particularly partial to Fine Gael this time out. Will the old vote for Gerard Collins in Limerick West go to Fianna Fáil’s Tom McEllistrim, III, or will it go to the Limerick man John Sheahan of Fine Gael? It would seem that Fianna Fáil people have finally come to realise that they have much more in common with Fine Gael than any other party. That was always the case. They were just divided by the civil war, which they could never admit had been fought over essentially nothing. The problem was that the war was so brutal it took generations to overcome the bitterness. There were wrongs on both sides, and those were exploited to perpetuate the differences, especially in Kerry, where the greatest outrages occurred.
As late as 1981 Tom McEllistrim, jr, was still trying to make political capital out of the Ballyseedy massacre of 1923. Mercifully, the only time that Ballyseedy was mentioned during the recent campaign was when Tom McEllistrim III, crashed his car within a stone’s throw of the monument commemorating the massacre. When Tom the Third’s father lost his seat in 1987, it was really the end of civil war politics in Kerry. Fianna Fáil actually gained power with a minority government after that election with the help of Fine Gael. FitzGerald announced that, if the incoming Fianna Fáil government implemented the economic policies that they all knew were needed, Fine Gael would back the government.
Although Garret stood down as leader of Fine Gael, Alan Dukes duly implemented the policy in what became known as the Tallaght Strategy. For two years the minority Fianna Fáil government implemented the necessary economic reforms with the support of Fine Gael, but then Charlie Haughey got greedy and called a snap general election, because the polls indicated the government was so popular Fianna Fáil would gain an overall majority.
But the voters gave due credit to Dukes, and Fine Gael made the largest gains of all in the 1989 election, winning five extra seats, while Fianna Fáil lost four. Dukes offered to form a coalition government with Fianna Fáil on condition that Fine Gael got half of the cabinet seats and the office of Taoiseach would rotate between himself and Haughey.
The biggest losers of all in the 1989 general election were the Progressive Democrats, who lost eight of their 14 seats, but their six seats were just what Haughey needed to form a majority coalition. Faced with the prospect of power, the PDs had no problems in rescuing the man the party was founded to keep out of power.
THE whole thing helped to promote a good deal of political cynicism. Fine Gael duly shafted Alan Dukes, largely because he had committed the sin of actually supporting Fianna Fáil for two years. The dissidents within Fianna Fáil eventually managed to oust Haughey with the help of the PDs, who then brought down Albert Reynolds, when he had the temerity to question the honesty of Des O’Malley.
There were a number of similarities between the general election of 1992 and the current election. That was the year of the Spring Tide, when Labour won 33 seats under the leadership of Dick Spring. This year we were promised the Gilmore Gale, but forecasters have downgraded the gale to a gust. Yet they are still predicting Labour numbers similar to the Spring Tide.
Fine Gael had demanded a rotating Taoiseach as a condition for supporting Fianna Fáil in 1989, so Spring made it a condition for supporting Fine Gael in 1992. Fine Gael contemptuously dismissed the suggestion, and the PDs arrogantly ridiculed Spring for talking with the Democratic Left. Spring duly went into coalition with Fianna Fáil. That would be like Fine Gael going into coalition with Fianna Fáil next week.
The two parties really have more in common with each other than with any other party. Micheál Martin has even suggested the possibility of backing a minority Fine Gael government. The parties would be logical partners, but Fianna Fáil has made such a mess of the country that it appears politically untouchable now. If the party does win over 30 seats today, however, people could begin to reassess the situation.