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.
In addition to what he saw around him, Costello also looked outward and was inspired in particular by post-war reconstruction in France. He later wrote in Towards a Just Society that French planning methods could not simply be transferred to Ireland without modification, but that there was much to be learned from their experiences.
Unsure of its ideological purpose or place in the party system, Fine Gael was dominated by an older, conservative generation of politicians. Costello had attempted to shift the party to the left in the 1950s, but by 1964 he was becoming increasingly frustrated about the lack of development and considered leaving to join Labour. He was persuaded to put his ideas before Fine Gael and give its members an opportunity to examine them in detail before making any decisions about the future. The document was discussed over four meetings of the parliamentary party, which revealed the divisions between those who favoured a new direction and those who wished to preserve Fine Gael’s traditional role as a private enterprise party. Ultimately it was agreed that the document be sent to the policy committee for development, and when Lemass called an early election, it was adopted as the party’s manifesto.
That Fine Gael was not united on its new direction was evident from the outset. On the day of the press launch for the manifesto, party leader James Dillon contradicted its content by declaring that Fine Gael would always be a private enterprise party. The internal division and the party’s amateur campaign – criticised by headquarters as ‘slothful, negligent’ – shifted attention away from the manifesto, with the result that it did not receive due attention, and Fine Gael remained on the opposition benches.
Nevertheless, the party attracted new, young members, inspired by Costello’s vision for a new Ireland. But the election was not followed-up with any debate or analysis about the Just Society among the grass roots or parliamentary party, and the policy was allowed lapse. Costello announced his retirement from politics in 1967. Despite his absence, Fine Gael resurrected the Just Society for the 1969 election. Costello returned to politics for the 1973 election, which returned a Fine Gael-Labour coalition led by Liam Cosgrave. He was not, however, made a minister, but rather was appointed Attorney General – the position held by his father under W.T. Cosgrave in the 1920s. The rest of his career was dedicated to law, and he is considered to have played a reforming role.
The Just Society was a watershed in Fine Gael history. It influenced the direction the party took for the next twenty years, and energised a new generation. It also marked a turning point in Irish political discourse, which saw a greater emphasis on social justice. Although he was not a minister in the National Coalition, that government satisfied many of his aims. Declan Costello might have been disillusioned about his policy’s impact, but he certainly left an important legacy.
Ciara Meehan is an IRCHSS Postdoctoral Fellow at the UCD School of History & Archives where she is currently working on a project that examines the development of Just Society thinking under Declan Costello and Garret FitzGerald.