On the 20th anniversary of the fall of Albert Reynolds, Ryle Dwyer says history shows that a ‘comfortable majority’ can be a dangerous thing.
When the Dáil ratified the present coalition government in 2011, Enda Kenny’s nominations were approved by 117 to 27, which was by far the largest majority enjoyed by any government since independence.
Despite some defections and by-election losses since then, the Government still has a comfortable majority, but it should be mindful of the lessons of history.
Twenty years ago today, the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition of 1993-94 — which enjoyed the previous largest majority, having been ratified by 101 to 59 — came crashing down in less than two years. It was undermined by the arrogance of then taoiseach Albert Reynolds in forcing the appointment of attorney general Harry Whelehan as president of the High Court.
At a late-night meeting at Baldonnel aerodrome on October 9, 1994, Dick Spring, tánaiste and leader of the Labour Party, somewhat reluctantly agreed to the appointment, which would be implemented after two by-elections in Cork the following month.
Within a fortnight, however, controversy erupted over the failure of the attorney general’s office to act on a request for the extradition to Northern Ireland of the paedophile Fr Brendan Smyth. As a result, a public opinion poll found that 55% of the electorate were opposed to Whelehan’s appointment, and only 20% expressed approval.
In the circumstances, the Labour Party called for the appointment to be delayed until more was learned about the controversy, but Reynolds insisted on pressing ahead, even after Labour members walked out of the cabinet meeting in protest. As a result, only seven of the 15 ministers ratified the appointment.
The taoiseach apparently made the mistake of thinking the Labour Party would be afraid to bring down the government, because it had received a terrible drubbing in the two Cork by-elections the previous week.
In the Cork North Central contest to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Labour deputy Gerry O’Sullivan, for instance, Lisa O’Sullivan only finished in fourth place, even with the help of “the sympathy vote” which had traditionally been a factor in by-elections. Kathleen Lynch of the rival Democratic Left Party compounded Labour’s setback by winning the seat.
In the other by-election to fill the seat vacated by Pat Cox in Cork South Central following his election to the European Parliament, the Labour Party candidate fared even worse, finishing in fifth place, behind the candidates of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Green Party, and one of the independents.
It was a far cry from the 1992 general election when the Labour Party was seen as the big winner, because it gained 18 seats in achieving what was then its record tally of 33 seats. Fianna Fáil lost nine and Fine Gael lost 10 seats in that general election. Having ridden the crest of a wave in 1992, Labour appeared in the trough in November 1994.
Fianna Fáil had failed to win either of the by-elections in Cork, so there was no reason for Reynolds to be smug. But he made the mistake of thinking that Labour deputies would be so chastened by the party’s performance that he could force through the Whelehan appointment. It was a miscalculation that cost him and his Fianna Fáil colleagues their ministerial positions.
For the first and only time in the history of the State, the leading party in a coalition changed, and a new government was formed without a general election. John Bruton took over as taoiseach at the head of the Rainbow Government.
Ironically, the two Cork by-elections were 15 years to the week after two other Cork by-elections that had essentially undermined Jack Lynch as taoiseach. He had been elected taoiseach at the head of the single-party government that enjoyed the previous record majority.
In November 1979, it was important that Fianna Fáil should do well in by-elections in Cork North East and Cork City, especially as the latter was Lynch’s own constituency. Fianna Fáil had a safe majority in the Dáil, so the outcome was not going to influence the balance of power, but it could have had a profound impact on Lynch’s power base within his own party.
He took an active part in the two campaigns by delivering a series of public addresses on each of the four weekends prior to polling. In the process, he staked his own political influence.
Cork City should have been the safest seat in the country for Fianna Fáil. The party had won three of the five seats in the general election two years earlier, with 58.6% of the vote. the Taoiseach put his own vote-getting reputation on the line by taking an active part in the campaign.
Fianna Fáil candidates headed the poll in both constituencies, but both lost out in the transfer of votes. The government still enjoyed a handsome majority in the Dáil, but Lynch was aware that there should be no grounds for complacency.
The general election victory of 1977 was generally seen as his greatest victory, but he clearly had a sense of foreboding. “I would have preferred a smaller majority,” he told the late Brian Farrell in an RTÉ interview on the night of count.
Had Lynch wished to stay on as taoiseach following the Cork by-election setback, there was little doubt he could have continued, but he intended to step down in a few months anyway, and he no longer had much stomach for party infighting. A rump within the party was already circulating a petition calling on him to step down.
Supporters of George Colley persuaded Lynch that Colley would be elected to replace him, if he stepped down immediately, before the dissidents could organise properly behind Charles Haughey. But they were deceived by their own complacency.
Complacency and arrogance are the greatest threats to a “comfortable majority” in government. History warns that the current government should beware.
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