I had the privilege of having lunch with Declan Costello in Leinster House in early 2009. He was engaging, honest, and struck me as being an absolute gentleman. We talked about why he drafted the Just Society when he did, the influences behind his thinking, and the challenges he faced in having it accepted by Fine Gael. When I asked him what he thought of the document’s long-term legacy, he seemed disillusioned, admitting that it had not impacted on Fine Gael or on society as he had hoped.
The Just Society aimed to make a reality the concepts of freedom and equality. Published as Fine Gael’s election manifesto for the 1965 election, Towards a Just Society proposed reforms in the field of economics (including a Ministry for Economic Affairs), changes in the Dáil and Seanad, an increase in the number of schools and teachers, an extension of the health services, a choice of doctor for all, and changes to social welfare. Progressive, forward looking and with minimal references to Fianna Fáil, it signalled a break with the past and a shift away from Fine Gael’s traditional policies.
Declan Costello was first elected to the Dáil in 1951 at the age of 25 for the working-class constituency of Dublin North-West. As the son of a former Taoiseach from a privileged background, his interest in social justice was perhaps peculiar. But in his constituency he encountered emigration, unemployment and poverty; problems that were replicated throughout the country in the 1950s. Ireland had not experienced the post-war boom enjoyed by other western countries, but the Seán Lemass / T.K. Whitaker programme for economic recovery resulted in a rise in confidence. However, economic modernisation was not complemented with a social development strategy, and despite Lemass’s oft-cited ‘rising tide lifts all boats’, he himself admitted in 1963 that inequalities and distortions had emerged or widened. Read more