A Fine Gael TD’s attempt in the 1960s to reconstitute the role of the State in society may have failed, but it later influenced major policy changes, writes Ciara Meehan.
IT HAS been 50 years since Fine Gael unanimously adopted the concept that would become Towards a Just Society.
Subsequently unveiled as the party’s manifesto for the 1965 general election, the document was conceived by Declan Costello. Son of former taoiseach John A Costello, he was part of the post-revolutionary generation.
As a TD for the working-class constituency of Dublin North-West, he was mindful of the need for social reform.
Costello’s proposals were a response to the multiple problems in society at the time, and attempted to offer some solutions. Additionally, Costello hoped his proposals would help Fine Gael carve out a distinct identity for itself.
Commonly simplified to the Just Society, the document is often seen as something of a failure. As a whole, it was untested because Fine Gael remained on the opposition benches after 1965 and the party seemed to lack real commitment to the initiative.
But Costello had participated in an important discussion about the role of the State, and many of the areas in society identified as problematic were, in fact, legislated for at a later stage.
This article has chosen from Costello’s proposals examples of his ideas with the most obvious connection to later, important policy formulations.
The Just Society era is considered by Fine Gael to be a milestone in the party’s history. The term has become a convenient point of reference, particularly at times of economic difficulty.
Addressing the MacGill Summer School in 2012, Enda Kenny drew on the Just Society when he spoke of reclaiming Ireland’s economic sovereignty. He referenced Costello’s view that true freedom only existed where ‘economic and social conditions permit the full development of the human personality’.
However, Fine Gael’s willingness to praise Costello’s work masks the fact the party was initially divided on the proposals in April 1964.
Influenced by the success of post-war reconstruction in France and by policies espoused by Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the British Labour Party, Costello argued for economic planning rather than the government’s preferred policy of programming.
His eight-point plan included:
* Targets for the private, as well as public, sector;
* A Ministry for Economic Affairs;
* Credit policies of the commercial banks to be brought under government control;
* Direct investment in industry by the government;
* A reversal of the incumbent government’s policy of cutting down on social capital investment;
* Full and effective price control.
Conscious that the majority of his front bench colleagues did not share his views, Costello breached protocol by by-passing them and circulating his plan to the entire parliamentary party.
What followed were four meetings of the party between April and May 1964, at which the majority of deputies voiced their views.
Confusion has surrounded Liam Cosgrave’s position. Commentators have had a tendency to locate him in opposition to Costello, but, in fact, he spoke in support of the proposal.
Fine Gael’s annual árd fheis occurred in the middle of the discussion. A leak to the press meant the Just Society, though not officially on the agenda, was the subject of speculation by journalists. This forced Fine Gael to confront the issue.
A private meeting subsequently held between Costello and Gerard Sweetman, Fine Gael Minister for Finance in the mid-1950s, along with a small group of prominent TDs, resulted in some compromises, with a new ninth point designed to appeal to the farming vote added.
On May 26, 1964, it was agreed to send the nine points to the party’s policy committee for development. Intriguingly, no alternative document emerged in the months that followed.
Although the policy committee was chaired by Cosgrave, and Declan Costello invited Garret FitzGerald (not yet a member of Fine Gael) to assist with the drafting, Towards a Just Society was essentially the work of Costello’s hand.
When Fianna Fáil taoiseach Seán Lemass called a snap election in 1965, a final draft had not yet been complete. The document was hurriedly put together and unveiled at a shambolic press launch from which some journalists left without a copy.
More damaging, however, was the speech by party leader James Dillon in which he declared Fine Gael to be a private enterprise party. That directly contradicted the content and intention of the Just Society document, which advocated greater state involvement.
Consequently, it was little discussed. What would have been a very useful slogan did not feature on much of the party’s literature or in its adverts.
What Costello proposed was worthy of far more attention than it received. It is ironic that countless Fine Gael deputies have since praised the document, as its content has not been widely read, even within the party. At almost 40,000 words, Costello’s document contained a plethora of initiatives, many of which ran contrary to traditional Fine Gael policies.
It was not a manifesto in the modern sense. But it did attempt to offer a blueprint for a new Ireland.
COSTELLO was part of a new generation of thinkers who re-evaluated the role of the State and its commitment to society. The influence of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra (1961), which encouraged state intervention for the care of the common good of citizens, was clear.
Most fascinating about Costello’s document are the sections on social reform. In the introduction, he summed up society’s ills: Too many are unemployed and are forced to emigrate; too many are employed at miserably low wages and salaries; too many have only a small income or pension; many survive on a bare subsistence from a small farm; many are kept just above starvation level (but nothing more) by the inadequate social welfare payments they receive; many live in squalor and appallingly overcrowded conditions.
Fine Gael’s election handbook explained that the party was “dedicated to wag[ing] war on poverty in this country”. It was language reminiscent of US president Lyndon Johnson, who declared “unconditional war on poverty” in 1964.
Though not necessarily guided by developments in the US, Costello was — subconsciously or otherwise — taking part in a broader, international discussion about the role of the State. The examples that follow are most indicative of the issues that faced Ireland in the latter half of the 20th century.
Provision of healthcare has traditionally been a consistent area of contention in Irish politics. Costello was critical of what he deemed “totally inadequate health [services]”.
He proposed replacing the dispensary service with an extension of services and a choice of doctors, but, as numerous ministers for health have experienced, any attempt to overhaul the medical system has been actively resisted by the medical association. Fine Gael headquarters received much correspondence from relevant doctors.
Mental disability was given a dedicated section. Towards a Just Society made the damning observation that “nobody knows the number of mentally handicapped persons in this country. No organised effort has been made to assess the number of mentally handicapped persons in this country.”
Perhaps even more damning was the manner in which many children with mentally disabilities had been placed in adult mental hospitals, or sent to industrial schools.
Costello advocated the establishment of a board which would have statutory authority and function to provide institutional service and, where necessary, day centres and special schools.
Personal circumstances had drawn Costello’s attention to disability issues. His eldest brother, Wilfrid, had been left with a mild mental disability during birth, while one of his own children was disabled.
At an Association of Parents and Friends of Mentally Handicapped Children event in 1957, he had spoken about the “constant anxiety” of caring for a child who was physically disabled. Probably the least publicised of Costello’s undertakings is the one of which he was proudest.
“Of all the things that I did with my life,” he said, “being associated with St Michael’s [House] was the one I regard as the most important of all.”
St Michael’s House today offers support and provides services to people with intellectual disabilities and their families in the greater Dublin area.
Patricia Farrell, whose son Brian had Down’s Syndrome, placed an advertisement in the Irish Times in June 1955 after discovering institutionalised residential care was the only service available to children who had intellectual disabilities. Costello chaired the first public meeting that resulted from her appeal, and St Michael’s House subsequently grew out of that meeting and he later became president.
The section on youth proved to be particularly prescient. Costello identified areas that, in time, would come to be one of the most damning indictments of modern Ireland.
He observed that in 1964, there were 3,405 children in institutional care. He did not argue for their closure or for providing State funding for troubled families. Rather, he advocated the availability of ‘adequate substitutes’ in cases ‘where the family fails’.
He outlined five proposals:
* The institutions be re-accommodated in new buildings with sufficient facilities.
* The existing grant per child be increased.
* Psychiatric care be made available.
* Small family group homes be established.
* An adequate after-care and follow-up service be put in place.
The provision of psychiatric and after-care services was part of Costello’s wider concerns about mental health. The report of the Commission of Inquiry on Mental Illness made similar recommendations in 1966.
Costello also outlined serious deficiencies in the response to juvenile delinquency and industrial schools. Problems at Marlborough House in Glasnevin and St Patrick’s Institution were highlighted.
Costello argued in favour of shifting the focus at St Patrick’s away from being a detention centre to being a training and rehabilitation unit. He also proposed an after-care system. The below-mentioned Kennedy Report would later identify the almost non-existence of such after-care.
At the time, Towards a Just Society was part of a broader series of narratives, which included Michael Viney’s series on the young offender in The Irish Times in 1964, and a 1965 report, Some of our Children, from the London branch of Tuairim (a forum for young Irish people).
Collectively, these provided the backdrop to the decision by then minister for education, Donogh O’Malley, to appoint the Kennedy committee that produced the Reformatory and Industrial Schools Systems Report in 1970. It advocated supporting families in communities, rather than removing children to institutions.
Towards a Just Society could further be seen as part of an emerging discourse in the area of youth policy.
During the 1960s, the National Federation of Youth Clubs, a co-ordinating body, and the National Youth Council were established. Significantly, from 1963, the State became more involved in youth provision.
Costello advocated State financing of suitable premises and the training of professional leaders to assist voluntary workers. He anticipated that public authorities would work with existing youth organisations. When Fine Gael entered government in 1973 as part of the National Coalition, John Bruton published Youth and Sport in his capacity as the parliamentary secretary to the minister for education. Its terms of reference had much in common with the Just Society proposals.
A FULL analysis of the content of Towards a Just Society is beyond the scope of this article, but these examples offer a sense of the type of Ireland Costello wanted to create. In time, many areas he identified as being problematic were addressed. While it would be wrong to over-state the role he placed in bringing such issues to the attention of policymakers, Costello was part of that generation of political thinkers and activists that sought to bring about transformative change in Irish politics and to reshape society.
The Just Society made little difference to Fine Gael’s electoral health in 1965. By the time of the next election in 1969, Declan Costello had departed the political stage. His decision was guided by a mix of health and family reasons, and disillusionment. Commentators of the day suggested the Just Society might have stood a better chance if Costello had successfully challenged the leadership of Liam Cosgrave (who had succeeded James Dillon after the 1965 election).
Once at the helm, Costello would have been able to direct opinion, it was argued. It remains to be seen, however, whether the conservative elements of the party would have accepted his leadership. Costello was not a leader in waiting. But, if the Just Society was to be developed, it had to be driven from the top.
Towards a Just Society was the work of Costello. Without its author, the concept was like a ship without its captain. By the 1970s, the Just Society had faded away, replaced in the 1980s by Garret FitzGerald’s Constitutional Crusade and pluralist policies.
* Ciara Meehan is lecturer in history at the University of Hertfordshire, and author of A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-87, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)
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