Contributed by Ciara Meehan
Michael Sweetman would have turned seventy-five on 27 June, but his life was tragically cut short in 1972 when – along with eleven other captains of Irish industry – he was killed in the Staines air disaster. In his short life, he had an illustrious career in business, was a director of the Irish Council for the European Movement, and was part of a growing liberal wing of Fine Gael in the 1960s that challenged the party’s traditional conservatism through the promotion of a ‘Just Society’.
The ‘Just Society’ document was the creation of Declan Costello, son of the former Taoiseach, who viewed Irish politics as out of sync with the new, more confident Irish society of the 1960s. He devised a social development strategy that would complement the economic modernisation brought about by Fianna Fáil’s Seán Lemass. However, when he took his policy – which aimed to make a reality the concepts of freedom and equality – to the Fine Gael frontbench in 1964, he was met with resistance. The party was dominated by an older, more conservative leadership that was either unwilling or unable to change. The consequence of the three-week internal debate which followed was the formation of a policy committee charged with examining Costello’s proposals. And when the 1965 general election was announced, the party adopted the concept in its manifesto, entitled Towards a Just Society.
As a member of the policy committee and research staff during the 1965 election, Sweetman – who shared Costello’s frustrations – did much to develop the Just Society ideals. Working at the party’s press bureau – based at Power’s Hotel, Kildare Street for the duration of the three-week campaign – he contributed to the creation of advertisements and the formulation of slogans.
The internal divisions that the policy caused in the party were obvious during the campaign – party leader James Dillon even appeared to contradict its content on the occasion of the manifesto’s launch – with the result that the media focussed on the disunion (as well as the particularly amateur campaign the party had run). The document was consequently never analysed in any serious way and, after the election, Fine Gael remained on the opposition benches.
The party got a boost after the 1966 presidential election, when its candidate, Tom O’Higgins, came within 10,000 votes of defeating the incumbent, Eamon de Valera. Sweetman served as speech writer to O’Higgins and the pair’s commitment to social justice was clear from the tone of the campaign.
When the 1969 election was announced, Sweetman attempted to make the transition from backroom to Dáil deputy. Rather fittingly he was selected to stand on the party ticket in Dublin North-West, the traditional seat of Declan Costello who had announced his retirement from politics two years earlier. Liam Cosgrave had replaced James Dillon as party leader in 1965 and, although less conservative than his predecessor, Cosgrave was trusted enough by the traditionalists to be able to move the Just Society ideals forward. The result was a much more cohesive campaign, run under the banner of Winning through to a Just Society.
The language of social justice pervaded Sweetman’s speeches. As he explained to one audience, ‘Freedom today means giving to every citizen the fullest opportunity to participate in government in the shaping of his own life. Equality means a just sharing of the community’s increasing prosperity between all citizens’. Although he performed well, Dublin North-West had not typically yielded more than one Fine Gael seat and he lost out to his running mate, Hugh Byrne.
Although Fine Gael won three new seats overall, the party still lagged twenty-five behind Fianna Fáil and remained on the opposition benches. It would take yet another general election – that of 1973, which returned a Fine Gael-Labour coalition – before the Just Society came back onto the agenda in any meaningful way. Even then, the government’s commitment to realising the ideals laid out by Declan Costello and his supporters almost one decade previously was compromised by difficulties in the global economy.
Michael Sweetman’s commitment to changing society and improving the lives of the less well-off is clearly identifiable across the pages of articles, newspaper letters, speeches and statements that he penned. Although backroom staff are rarely seen or heard, he made an important contribution to the formulation of a policy, which although largely unrealised, offered a blueprint for a new Ireland.
Ciara Meehan is an IRCHSS Postdoctoral Fellow at the UCD School of History and Archives. She specialises in the history of Fine Gael and is currently working on a project that examines the party’s Just Society era.