Fergus Finlay: Celebrating the hunger for change that altered Ireland 30 years ago

This weekend is the 30th anniversary of one of the most turbulent periods in the history of Irish politics
Fergus Finlay: Celebrating the hunger for change that altered Ireland 30 years ago

Labour Party leader Dick Spring and local candidate Ann Gallagher during a phone interview with a local radio station in Killeshandra, Co Cavan, in 1992.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Sorry for starting with a quote from Dickens, but it’s the way I feel.

I had forgotten until a good friend sent me a WhatsApp message on Sunday with just a single date. November 25, 1992. It suddenly dawned on me, and I had a quiet little celebration, all on my own.

This weekend is the 30th anniversary of one of the most turbulent periods in the history of Irish politics. There was a general election on November 25, 1992, and when the votes were counted it produced one of the most sensational results in our history.

Fianna Fáil, down 9 seats. Fine Gael, down 10. Labour, up 18 — from 15 to 33. If you’ll forgive another quotation, all changed, changed utterly after that election.

I should recap a bit. The 1980s is remembered as a weird and wonderful decade in many ways. 

Reaganism and Thatcherism were in full flow; but at the same time uprisings against dictatorship in Eastern Europe were starting and gathering steam; Glasnost and Perestroika (two policies designed to promote openness in the Soviet Union) were introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev; and they changed the world. 

By the end of the decade, the Berlin Wall was gone, and little by little the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Cold War ended.

In Ireland, on the other hand, not a lot happened, at least until the decade was over. We had been through two decades of economic stagnation, high unemployment and massive emigration.

The dark memories of the 1980s: Ann Lovett's grave, Granard, Co.Longford. Picture: Declan Shanahan
The dark memories of the 1980s: Ann Lovett's grave, Granard, Co.Longford. Picture: Declan Shanahan

And the 80s were a dark decade in other ways. In 1983, in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation I’ll never forget, we inserted a provision into our constitution effectively banning abortion in every circumstance imaginable at the time. 

A little girl called Ann Lovett died giving birth beside a grotto in Granard, Co Longford, in 1984. Another young woman who had committed the crime of being pregnant – her name was Joanne Hayes – was brutally treated in front of a tribunal of enquiry in the same year.

There were things not talked about then. Divorce and remarriage were still impossible in all circumstances. Contraception was only available effectively to married couples who could produce a prescription to a pharmacist. 

Every homosexual act, no matter how adult or consensual, was a crime, punishable by imprisonment. 

We didn’t know it then, but physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children was commonplace in all sorts of institutions, and generally carried out with impunity.

None of this was before our time. It happened in our time.

And then, a little over 30 years ago — in fact a year to the day after the Berlin Wall came down, Mary Robinson was declared President of Ireland after two days of counting.

Her election may not have felt like a revolution, but if you were involved every single day of that campaign, as I was, you knew there was a revolution going on. You could feel the excitement in people everywhere, day after day of that campaign.

One of the things people really wanted to see changed was the air and sense of corruption that seemed to have crept into the top of Irish politics around the end of that decade.

I can still remember pitched battles fought in the Dáil chamber about long-forgotten controversies.

Mary Robinson's election changed politics.
Mary Robinson's election changed politics.

Words like Greencore, Carysfort, Johnson Mooney and O’Brien all became household names, and not in a good way. Larry Goodman featured strongly, of course, and at the heart of it all was Charles James Haughey.

Mary Robinson’s election broke the dam of all that. And shortly afterwards — 30 years ago this weekend — came the general election of 1992.

More women were elected that day than ever before — nothing like enough, but a historic record. The first Muslim TD was elected — in Clare, of all places. More left-wing deputies entered the Dáil after that election than at any time in Ireland’s history.

The traditional parties in Ireland — Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael — both took a pasting. A new political phrase was coined — the Spring tide — reflecting the doubling of Labour seats in that election.

I still remember that election campaign back in 1992 as the most exciting I’ve worked in. But heavens it was hard going. You read about modern election campaigns and their huge budgets and enormous teams, all driven by massive technology and market research.

Thirty years ago, we had none of that. I used to get a terrible knot in my stomach whenever I heard that the newspapers were going to publish an opinion poll and would go anywhere, any hour of the day or night, to get my hands on it.

At the centre of that campaign, we were a tiny band of people who are friends to this day, struggling to make an impact with little or no resources.

We had one huge asset, the leader of the party Dick Spring, who had established himself over the previous two years as “the real leader of the opposition”. But the supports we could give the troops on the ground were minimal.

Hunger for change

It didn’t matter. I had a hunch, mainly from the Robinson campaign, that there was a hunger for change in Ireland. It was that hunger for change that drove the headlines in all the newspapers as the counts got under way — Labour doubles its vote.

It was the headline a day or two later that told us about the pressure to come. 

On Monday, November 30, the Irish Times led with “Government is determined to resist unilateral devaluation”.

That was the beginning of the last great currency crisis that Ireland had to face alone. And from the moment it began, editorial after editorial piled pressure on the Labour Party to do its national duty and get into government immediately.

And so, eventually, we did. It wasn’t the government we wanted to form, because there was a unique opportunity then to form a centre-left government where the left component would have been both strong and cohesive.

That was to happen a bit later, in difficult circumstances, when the FF/Labour government was replaced by the rainbow coalition.

Over those years and changes, we allowed a false narrative to grow that Labour was happy in government with anyone. 

That was the main thing in the end that led to us being kicked out again. That false narrative is one of the great regrets of my life in politics.

But hey. The government we formed back then, after a tumultuous election 30 years ago this weekend, decriminalised homosexuality, enabled divorce, liberalised contraception. It forged a ceasefire in Northern Ireland and laid immense groundwork for everything that followed. 

It grew the economy year after year and left a strong budget surplus behind. It abolished fees for education at every level. It started the focus on child benefit improvements as a weapon against poverty. 

It produced more equality legislation — and ethics and freedom of information legislation — than any government before or since. It built far more local authority houses than any government that came after it. And it left Ireland in a much better place. Not too shabby after all, was it?

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