On the 40th anniversary, Ryle Dwyer looks at the momentous events of the 1977 general election.
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the 1977 general election, one of the most significant in our history. It was widely seen as the crowning triumph for Jack Lynch as leader of Fianna Fáil.
One of the two driving forces behind the campaign was the young party secretary Séamus Brennan, who had been sent to the US for the 1976 presidential election.
He viewed it from inside the successful campaign of Jimmy Carter, who ousted Gerald Ford. The razzmatazz worked in the US, and Mr Brennan could see no reason why it would not work in Ireland, especially with younger people having a greater say than ever before.
Around 25% of the eligible voters were voting for the first time in 1977, because the voting age had been dropped to 18. Since the previous general election was over four years earlier, all those up to the age of 25 years were therefore be voting for the first time.
The razzmatazz introduced included a simple, catchy slogan, “Bring Back Jack”, a bumper sticker for cars, “Put Jack Back”, and a catchy campaign song by Colm Wilkinson, ‘Your Kind of Country’.
There were also hats with messages and T-shirts. These novelties had particular appeal for young people.
The innovations obviously worked. One public opinion poll found that 71% of first-time voters were dissatisfied with the leadership of the coalition government.
The other driving force behind the election was Martin O’Donoghue, who focussed the Fianna Fáil campaign in a way that addressed the needs of the electorate, as determined by a commissioned poll.
Fianna Fáil’s election manifesto promised to abolish rates on private dwellings and to exclude most private cars from the road tax. Voters were encouraged to work out for themselves just how much money they would save each week, as a result of those reforms.
During his whirlwind campaign tour throughout the country, often travelling by helicopter, Mr Lynch highlighted his party’s manifesto pledges, attacked the economic failings of the coalition parties, and he promised a greater say for women.
The Fianna Fáil national executive added six women as Fianna Fáil candidates. They included Mary Harney, Síle de Valera, and Mairín Quill. Mr Lynch promised to appoint more women as part of the taoiseach’s 11 nominees for the Seanad.
He also made selective pronouncements on other issues likely to have appeal for local voters. By the final weekend of the campaign he confidently predicted that Fianna Fáil would win an overall majority of 77 seats, which was two more than the necessary minimum for a majority.
The Irish Times commissioned a poll, which supported Mr Lynch’s claims, but the newspaper refused to publish it, because it suspected it was wrong.
“Coalition set to take election,” was the newspaper’s front-page headline on election day.
Many political pundits refused to believe the polls, because of recent constituency boundary changes and the restructuring undertaken by James Tully, who dramatically reorganised the Dublin constituencies.
Instead of eight four-seat constituencies and two three-seaters, he divided the whole county of Dublin in 13 three-seaters and one 4-seater. In each of the four-seaters, Fianna Fail had won two seats in the previous general election, and only one in the three-seater.
If the combined vote for Fine Gael and Labour exceeded 50%, the government would likely win 26 seats in the three-seaters and a further two in the four-seater.
Although political correspondents thought that the so-called “Tullymander” would undermine Fianna Fáil, the whole thing backfired badly when the combined votes of the coalition parties dropped to 42.1% of the vote in Dublin, against 46.8% for Fianna Fáil.
As a result, Fianna Fáil won two seats in eight of the three-seaters and went on to win 84 seats throughout the country, a 20-seat majority.
The 42 first-time deputies included Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern, Seán Doherty, Charlie McCreevy, Pádraig Flynn, Michael Woods, Síle de Valera, Martin O’Donoghue, and Mark Killilea.
Journalist Geraldine Kennedy thought Mr Lynch’s success would spell the end of Charles Haughey’s leadership ambitions, but he seemed thrilled.
“What are you so pleased about?” she asked him. “Sure, this is the biggest electoral victory ever!”
“Yes,” replied Mr Haughey, “but they’re all my people. Now I know I’ll be leader.” He was taoiseach three years later.
Even in the hour of victory, Mr Lynch already seemed apprehensive.
“I would have preferred a smaller majority certainly,” he told RTÉ on the night of the count. “I will act as if we did have a small majority, because we just can’t get our feet off the ground here, and we know exactly what people think, and you just can’t alienate yourself from people.”
The Fianna Fáil manifesto “could not be described as an economic programme but rather as a national disaster”, said economist T.K Whitaker.
It “nearly smothered the economy in foreign debt”. Mr Whitaker considered the unaffordable economic promises to be reckless and irresponsible.
The manifesto was full of “irrational optimism,” he complained. The national debt which had taken 50 years to reach about £1bn, rose to £10bn in the next four years.
The country should have learned from those mistakes, but it made much the same mistakes again with the Celtic Tiger economy little over 20 years later.
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