Contributed by Ciara Meehan
Last week was a bad week for Irish politics. George Lee – the man who was supposed to change politics – announced that he was quitting after only nine months, while days later Green Party Senator Deirdre de Búrca accused her party of losing its way in government and resigned in protest. The former was easily the more sensational of the declarations. Lee’s departure brought to the fore questions about Enda Kenny’s leadership. However, when the frontbench met Kenny’s position was never seriously in question, as his deputies united in their anger with Lee. The parliamentary party subsequently gave their endorsement the following day. And so it would seem that, for the time being at least, Fine Gael is a family at peace. But, members do not need a long memory to recall the devastating affect that in-fighting and leadership heaves can have on a party.
The state of Fine Gael in the 1990s was colourfully captured by Olivia O’Leary: ‘it is a real sign of a party in freefall when it becomes a serial leader killer’. But the tendency to blame the leadership meant that many of the fundamental, self-searching questions were never asked.
Garret FitzGerald had energised the party, but on his retirement it was suffering from an identity crisis and had ten seats less than when he took over. His successor, Alan Dukes, was considered by many members to be aloof and his Tallaght strategy – the offer of support to the Fianna Fáil minority government for responsible economic policies – was questioned by some. Although the party’s share of the vote rose marginally in 1989, Dukes’s leadership was not secure and it was fatally compromised by the 1990 presidential election. The failure to deliver a high profile candidate combined with a lacklustre campaign resulted in a motion of no confidence, which Dukes pre-empted by resigning on 13 November 1990.
John Bruton, who succeeded him, would spend ten uneasy years at the helm, surviving no less than three motions of no-confidence, before becoming the first Fine Gael leader to be voted out of office. Despite ordering a review of the party’s difficulties and taking Fine Gael into government, he was ousted in 2001 by the self-styled ‘dream team’ of Michael Noonan and Jim Mitchell. This latest leadership change unsettled the party on the eve of an election, and its campaign never really got off the ground.
The 2002 contest was summed up in Geraldine Kennedy’s observation that ‘the crass non-professionalism … was astounding’, and by the image of a Roscommon voter shoving a pie in the face of Noonan, who was haunted by the legacy of the hepatitis C scandal from his time as Minister for Health. In an election driven by the Fianna Fáil message that the outcome had already been decided, Fine Gael’s vote collapsed, leaving it with its lowest ever share of Dáil seats. The in-fighting had almost destroyed the party, practically wiping out the frontbench, and leaving many wondering about the future.
Although Enda Kenny was adamant last week that his party was never more united, the Irish Times reported the view of one TD that a leadership heave could take place ‘within months’ if opinion poll trends did not improve. The weekend’s Millward Brown IMS poll indicates that Fine Gael is on course to take over 60 seats, but Kenny’s personal rating was down. In the aftermath of 2002’s historic low, Frank Flannery authored a major report: ‘Forget about history, traditions, places in history, famous old faces, and political records’, he advised. But, perhaps this is one occasion on which party members should recall its history, and either unite behind its leader or act before the next general election is upon them.
Ciara Meehan is an IRCHSS Postdoctoral Fellow at the UCD School of History & Archives specialising in the history of the Fine Gael party. Her history of Cumann na nGaedheal, 1923-33, will be published by the Royal Irish Academy later this year.