They publish the state papers of 30 years ago around this time every year.
And every year, when I’m reading them, I realise that if I was much younger, the events of 1987 wouldn’t mean an awful lot to me. My kids, for example, have only a vague recollection of Stephen Roche, or Black Monday, or Johnny Logan’s second victory in the Eurovision. They have no recollection at all of the Herald of Free Enterprise tragedy or the Loughgall ambush.
I remember them all — although I suppose if I was older, events like that would begin to fade too.
But one memory from 1987 that’s engraved on my memory forever was what I suppose I could call my first public appearance. I had spent the previous four years as deputy government press secretary — a grand title, with very little authority. My main job was to try to assert what Labour was trying to do in the government — or rather (and this was a much more difficult job) what Labour was trying to prevent.
I’ve written about this before, so I won’t labour the point now (pardon the pun). Suffice it to say that no political party ever gets credit for the things it has prevented, because by definition the cuts it has stopped never get experienced by the people it is trying to protect.
On January 20, 1987, we called it a day. The four Labour ministers in government were presented with a set of budget proposals that would have ushered in a period of
unprecedented austerity (unprecedented at the time). The cuts in that budget were all exclusively aimed at people on low and modest incomes, and the Labour ministers decided there was no option but to reject them and resign.
And they did that, after scribbling hurried letters of resignation, by reading out a statement on the steps of Government Buildings. I marshalled them out on to the steps, called the media to attention, and refused to allow any questions.
That was it. My first time in the spotlight. I figured it was almost certainly going to be my last appearance in front of the media, because I thought we were headed into political oblivion. It didn’t quite pan out that way.
But anyway, that moment of drama brought to an end four years period of turbulent government. Garret FitzGerald and Dick Spring had inherited an economy already out of control, and their best efforts to restore order had failed. Every measure they took was bitterly opposed by Charles Haughey and Fianna Fáil. Haughey never let a day go by without referring to the “inherent instability” of a government that was doing its utmost.
He even repudiated what was probably that government’s — and especially FitzGerald’s — crowning achievement, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which changed the dynamic of relations between the two countries for ever.
After my moment in the sun — actually, the bitter cold of a January day — the scene was set for an election. After a long campaign, Haughey won — well, he won 81 seats, five short of an overall majority. His government was to rely for the next couple of years on the so-called Tallaght strategy of Alan Dukes, when he declared that he wouldn’t oppose the government “as long as it was moving in the right direction”.
But what was the right direction? In his previous term in office, Haughey had funked all the tough decisions, even on one occasion cooking the books to make it look as if spending was being cut when no decision to cut anything was made. This time, he had no choice.
Now we know some of the things that they thought about doing when they took office in 1987. Thanks to the state papers, we now know that Haughey was hell-bent on wholesale cuts. He wrote a letter to his Ministers saying that a “radical approach” should be adopted and that no expenditure should be regarded as “sacrosanct and immune to elimination or reduction”. “We do not want a series of justifications of the status quo or special pleadings,” his letter said.
If they had adopted some of the measures they considered then, Ireland would be a radically different place today. One of the most important things that Fianna Fáil had ever done was the introduction of free second-level education in 1966. Twenty years later, when Haughey came to office, they considered reversing that, and much more. Had they gone ahead with the cuts they were considering, our education system would be unrecognisable.
The first thing was going to be a raising of the school entry age. That would be accompanied by the virtual elimination of school transport and a complete freeze on school buildings. In an astonishing reversal of Fianna Fáil’s historic move on free second-level education, it was proposed to introduce a fee of £200 per pupil per annum (the equivalent of about €600 today), and a fee of £300 for any student who had to repeat the Leaving cert. On top of all that it was proposed to worsen the pupil/teacher ratio at primary and second level.
There was an astonishing level of hypocrisy in all of this consideration, given Haughey’s and the party’s much vaunted commitment to Irish education. It would have set the education system back by two decades, and would have left Ireland spectacularly ill-equipped for the future.
They didn’t do it in the end. Perhaps Haughey realised that he would never be forgotten for the destruction of Irish education, just as Donogh O’Malley has never been forgotten for its transformation.
After all their consideration, they opted instead for an even more odious piece of hypocrisy. None of us who lived through those times, no matter how faulty our memories, will forget the predominant campaign slogan Fianna Fáil used in that election. Massive posters appeared all over the country, with the slogan in huge letters ‘Health Cuts Hurt The Old The Sick and The Handicapped’ and underneath the message — ‘There is a better way — Fianna Fáil’.
But having considered, and eventually rejected, an assault on the education system, they decided instead to do the one thing they had most vigorously campaigned against. They started almost immediately to dismantle services and provision for people with disabilities, and they began an all-out attack on the health system from which it has never really recovered.
Over the couple of years that followed they effectively removed 3,000 hospital beds, starting a cycle of waiting lists that has never ended, and effectively institutionalising a two-tier health service. In the weekend just gone, the minister for health now — 30 years later — is on record as saying we still need thousands of beds restored to the service.
However, here’s the great thing about publishing the state papers 30 years later. It means that sooner or later, the hypocrisy that some politicians resort to in secret will come out. With Haughey in power, of course, it also means that state papers for the next four years are going to make for even more fascinating reading.
Time, I think, to fasten the safety belts.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved