Fine Gael sets out its stall in Wexford
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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.
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