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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 23, 2008 @ 1:17 pm

    Fine Gael sets out its stall in Wexford

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    I’m writing this in my hotel-room in Wexford at the end of the Fine Gael national conference which I have been attending in my capacity as Political Correspondent with The Irish Times. It’s not a normal annual conference or ardfheis because there are no motions or elections of party officers and in fact the whole thing is quite minutely stage-managed.

    It came to me as a shock to realise that the first FG ardfheis I attended was in 1968. A young student at UCD then, I wandered in off the street with a friend of mine, motivated by sheer curiosity.

     We weren’t delegates or even party members but such was the relaxed climate in those days that nobody sought to prevent us from entering. The two of us sat down and listened to the speeches for a while and I recall that then-party leader Liam Cosgrave was looking at us with some curiosity.

    In those days, Vincent Browne (now a prominent broadcaster and journalist) and his friends were a kind of ginger group in the party which became known as the Young Tigers. They were strongly supportive of the Just Society proposals of Declan Costello, who later became a judge. Maybe Mr Cosgrave thought we were part of Vincent’s “cabal”.

    The Just Society was an attempt to turn FG into a social democratic party but Cosgrave and the old guard were  very uncomfortable with this trend. The hero of the Young Tigers was Garret FitzGerald who eventually became party leader and served as head of government in the mid-80s.

    I rather doubt I shall be attending FG conferences in 40 more years’ time! The gig in Wexford this weekend was very well-organised and amounted to a showcase for the party’s candidates in next June’s local and European elections.

     It’s just 75 years since FG was founded. That was time of great turmoil in Irish politics and the farmers in particular were extremely discontented about Eamon de Valera’s policy towards the British which led to the so-called Economic War and brought hardship to the agricultural sector which was in many ways the backbone of the country and the economy at the time. It’s a time that fascinates me, not least because my parents were young single people at the time, making their way through life, but I have never really gotten a “handle” on it.

    Eoin O’Duffy was the first FG leader and he adopted the trappings  of the fascist politics so popular in mainland Europe at the time by wearing a blue shirt and giving a straight-arm salute. Some would say he also adopted the substance of fascism and FG’s critics would label them as the only formerly-fascist party that still exists and was never disssolved, as happened on the Continent after the War.  It’s a highly-provocative thesis and would not appeal to FG activists of today, many of whom regard themselves as liberals and would express utter abhorrence for fascism in all its forms.

    When I popped-in to look at the Fine Gael proceedings in 1968, I was a political innocent. I had never even heard of the Blueshirts, for example, and knew little or nothing about the Civil War which was the source of the main political division in Irish politics. History-teaching in the schools stopped at the foundation of the Free State in 1922 and that was a wise and necessary education policy at the time.

     Had FG taken up the Just Society proposals in a more serious way, I just conceivably might have been tempted to join, but they were far too staid so I moved on. I may write another blog sometime about 1968, which was a year of extraordinary tumult in politics both nationally and on the world stage. As Wordsworth wrote of the French Revolution, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven”. 

    I have written for tomorrow’s Irish Times  about the politics of the Wexford conference.  As I sat through some of the sessions this weekend, I wondered what someone utterly unfamiliar with Ireland and Irish politics would make of the occasion. Let’s say someone from a Third World country: he or she would probably think that, whatever about this particular party’s policies, Ireland was a very fortunate country to have so many well-educated and fairly young people who were interested in public affairs. The same could be said of other parties as well.

    Maybe we take too much for granted. We argue about the minutiae of the social welfare system and although those arguments are important we never think how darned fortunate we are to have social welfare at all. The US is a mighty country which has given a lot to the world, but you don’t particularly want to get sick or lose your job there unless you are one of the well-heeled and well-off. The safety net is a lot thinner than in Ireland, where it exists at all.

    Having said that, the US is looked on with envy just now because of the election of Barack Obama. I was in the company of a senior US diplomat and a young journalistic colleague of mine the other evening. My colleague told the diplomat how much she admired the US political system right now and how great the contrast was with our own political leadership. Although I could not help thinking that was a bit harsh on the folks in Government Buildings and Leinster House, I knew what she meant.

     Deaglán de Bréadún

    • Matt Hanson says:

      Good writing. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed my Google News Reader..

      Matt Hanson

    • Eoin says:

      Deaglán, good to meet you at the weekend. My thoughts on the conference are up on the blog: http://yellowromancandles.wordpress.com/

      Whatever about leadership, I’ve always found Irish political speeches to be dry and staid compared to the soaring rhetoric delivered by Obama and other American politicians. That said, I thought Kenny’s speech at the weekend was much in the vein of Obama’s more recent speeches. It was sobering and reassuring and attempted to paint Kenny as a responsible figure in uncertain times while the Government appear to be dithering.

    • Deaglán says:

      Thanks Matt. Good to meet you, Eoin, and best of luck with your own endeavours.

    • Betterworld Now says:

      Sycophantic journalists sipping Jack Daniels in darkly lit rooms with senior US diplomats whilst blueshirts are promising jam tomorrow on the TV – why am I reminded of bananas and Republics?

    • robespierre says:

      What is encouraging in any democracy is when there is cohesive aggressive opposition. It is a vital component of parliamentary democracy.

      FG was so decimated in the last parliament that almost by necessity Richard Bruton was forced into batting single-handed for the entire election run-in. It was an effort that Geoffrey Boycott might have admired but pointed to the paucity of talent available 18 months ago and also to the fact that it would have been (on balance) a risk to vote FG into power.

      Now what we are starting to see is vibrant, enthusiatic and constructive opposition. Of course there will be errors made along the way but much of that has been with the long-term good of the economy in mind.

      With this in mind I am waiting to see less ‘enlightened self-interest’ from Labour. The recent Irish Times opinion poll showed that most of their support is afluent rather than lower paid / unemployed and quite probably public sector.

      Their reaction to the needs of the state is every bit as important as radical proposals promulgated elsewhere. People will not vote for FG if they think they are going to be hamstrung by the trade unions.

      If however FG put themselves forward as a strong alternative against vested interests – including their own set which is the farmers – then if they are truly bold, they can dare to push for an overall majority on the basis that FF and Labour are the parties of inefficent and unreformable public services.

    • Erik Eblana says:

      It’s a shame we are lacking politicans and leaders with the confidence and determination to lift us out of these dark times.
      But I have to admit that Enda Kenny has turned his ‘face to the sun’ and is walking tall after his speech. He needs to completely believe in himself, no matter what, and Fine Gael too.

    • Deaglán says:

      My, my, Betterworld, it sure sounds like you got out of the wrong side of the bed this morning. For the record, I don’t drink – whether it’s Jack Daniels or anything else. I accidentally bumped into the US diplomat in question in town the other evening – the “darkly-lit room” is a bit of embroidery from your good self. Neither you nor anyone else is going to stop me exchanging civilities with diplomats from the US, Russia, Cuba, France, Palestine, Israel, South Africa or anywhere else. But there will be no sycophancy – I will leave that to you and the other fellow-travellers who shower uncritical admiration on certain one-party states around the world. Incidentally I am still awaiting your answer to my previous question, in the comments attached to my blogpost entitled Ironies of China, about your attitude to Joseph Stalin and his totalitarian politics. You support the Chinese one-party state, the Cuban regime, so I assume you think Stalin was, as the aforementioned US diplomat might say, “a regular guy”.

    • BetterWorld Now says:

      Maybe I was wrong about the darkly lit room, it was just a hunch, but the rest seems to have stood up. I didn’t say it was you sipping the JD.

      When I see tweedle dumber being flogged as a saviour to very, very desperate people, every side of the bed is the wrong side. Anger? You ain’t seen nothin yet.

      Tell the unemployed asthmatic who can’t afford his medication, or the father who doesn’t know if his children can have Christmas this year or the daughter who abandons her mother on the steps of the hospital how trying getting out of the wrong side of a middle class feather bed can be. Waking from fitful sleep into the grinding nightmare of their lives, they don’t know which is the right side.

      How will the 60 Irish Times staff facing redundancy cope when the bank repossesses their houses? Could we even hear from them, or is that censored by management too? Too off-message, perhaps? Too real. Must hold to the belief that its all perception, it’ll all come right, just have to sacrifice a few more young families each day till we get it back on track. We live in a liberal capitalist democracy with an open economy after all.

      Well let’s see.

      My hunch is that dumb or dumber, or even dumb and dumber, will run out of road soon enough.

      Everywhere the stripes and stars
      Men in dark suits and unmarked cars
      Sipping Jack Daniels in Third World bars
      We’re close to the edge,
      As close as we can get

    • Deaglán says:

      Xenophobia towards the US is no substitute for a proper political analysis. I saw worse poverty in Cuba than I have seen here in a long time (I suppose you will blame the blockade.)
      Regarding the redundancies at the I.T. Nobody wants them to happen, but they are voluntary and there are generous terms. Not quite your Dickens-and-the-workhouse fantasy.

    • Betterworld Now says:


      You mistake me for someone who considers Cuba to be a first world country or a utopian paradise – I hold neither view. And if the terms of their redundancies are really so benign, as you believe, then I look forward to reading expressions of thanks from the former staff in the paper, once they have got over the shock.

      Ireland has 17 times Cuba’s per capita income yet only just matches Cuba in health indicators and is some way behind it in educational attainment levels. Does your claimed expertise in poverty assessment extend to the working-class ghettoes of Limerick or Dublin as I have not seen you express such incisive opinions about them – perhaps I missed it?

      Your pre-emptive strike on the US blockade (your US diplomat friend will have been impressed) is merely an attempt to defuse a charge you know to be indefensible.

      Suffice to say that a GAIN of 6.8billion ECUs ($8 Billion US dollars) in EU structural funds helped bring Ireland from third poorest nation in the EU to second richest per head in the space about 20 years. In that same timescale, Cuba suffered a LOSS of almost $50 Billion US dollars as a direct result of the US blockade.

      But, of course, that is not evidence of a US policy of genocide against the people of Cuba, a policy rightly condemned by 16 consecutive near unanimous UN General Assembly votes. No, it’s evidence of my anti-US “xenophobia”.

      I’ll will trust your readers draw their own conclusions on the inherent balance of your political analysis.

    • Deaglán says:

      I’ll desist from responding to the content of your latest message other than to thank you for taking the time to respond. Now, when are you going to clarify your position on Uncle Joe Stalin?

    • Betterworld Now says:

      I don’t have one.

    • Deaglán says:

      Go on out of that! You have a position on every other issue under the sun. You should be a TD! I bet you have a shrine to Josef Vissarionovich in your home.

    • BetterWorld Now says:


    • Nice blog. I really enjoyed it. All the best, Jalen

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