Diarmaid Ferriter: Can Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil put national interest first?

The challenge is to provide a contemporary response to the points addressed by Blythe in 1927 and Kelly in the 1970s

On August 12th, 1927, Fianna Fáil TDs took their seats in the Dáil. After the assassination of minister for justice Kevin O'Higgins the previous month, WT Cosgrave's Cumann na nGaedheal government changed the law to invalidate the election of any TD who did not then take their seat, bringing to an end the abstention of Fianna Fáil from the Dáil. The Dáil was dissolved a few days later, followed by a general election in September and when the new Dáil met on October 11th, Fianna Fáil TD Seán T O'Kelly rose to speak:

“I do not want to start on a bitter note, though God knows I could, and God knows I would have justification, in thinking of those who lie in cold graves – 77 of my comrades who lie in cold graves today – and the fathers and mothers, and the sons and daughters of these people expect us and look to us to vindicate them in some way”. It is hardly surprising, given the depth of feeling, that O’Kelly’s first speech was rooted in the Civil War and the State-sanctioned executions of anti-Treaty republicans that had been a central feature of that conflict.

Cumann na nGaedheal's Ernest Blythe responded to O'Kelly: "I would just say, in reply to some of the criticisms of Deputy O'Kelly . . . There was a sort of suggestion in Deputy O'Kelly's speech that on their side was virtue and Erin, and on ours Saxon and guilt. That is all very well for an election platform, but it does not bear any relation to reality . . . I do not want to see recrimination. I suppose I could take my part in the battle of recrimination just as well as anyone else. But what good will that do the country?"

Less aggressive nationalism

The endurance of the Civil War trenches in Irish politics ensured that there was much reiteration of the “virtue and Erin” and “Saxon and guilt” rhetoric and accusations for the next 30 years, though by the 1960s some grew tired of that.

Garret FitzGerald, for example, future taoiseach and son of Desmond, a Cumann na nGaedheal minister in the 1920s, voted for Fianna Fáil in the 1961 general election, believing that Seán Lemass was "the best Taoiseach available for the purpose of initiating a long overdue process of economic growth". But FitzGerald did not want to join Fianna Fáil when he decided to enter politics in 1964 as he felt the party was falling in to the hands of "conservative materialists and traditional nationalists". Instead, he opted for Fine Gael because it had a tradition of "less aggressive nationalism" and a "strong tradition of integrity".

This emphasis on integrity, or what political scientist Tom Garvin described as the "moralist" approach, endured and indeed was stiffened by the Arms Crisis of 1970 and other upheavals that decade.

Fine Gael's John Kelly carved a niche for himself in castigating Fianna Fáil at a host of Fine Gael party gatherings in the 1970s. He resented that Fianna Fáil had "managed to claim a virtual monopoly of national spirit" and denounced Fianna Fáil's "gigantic edifice of jobbery", "back-slapping" and "animal solidarity", describing the party as a "political dodo of boastful intransigence". He also expressed the view that political partisanship was a "good thing" for democracy and that "there should be, on each side, a hard core of people committed with their hearts rather than their heads".

But Kelly changed his tune. In 1982 he suggested Fine Gael could contemplate an “arrangement” with Fianna Fáil, “the other half of the old Siamese twin”. By 1989, he privately suggested it was not “possible to fault Fianna Fáil convincingly on any of the old grounds”.

The political identity of Fine Gael members was also something explored by the political scientists Michael Gallagher and Michael Marsh in their 2002 book Days of Blue Loyalty; compiled by getting 1,700 Fine Gael members to fill out a detailed questionnaire in 1999. The authors were surprised that " a remarkable" 19 per cent of the Fine Gael members surveyed were prepared to contemplate a merger with Fianna Fáil. When asked to identify the main difference between the two parties, "integrity" was, yet again, the most common answer, "Fine Gael are honest, Fianna Fáil are dishonest" being a typical reply. The "great majority" of members, "do not cite a policy area at all" when it came to the parties' differences, but they were still resolutely hostile to the idea of coalition with Fianna Fáil.

As historian John A Murphy pointed out after the general election, the difficulties of bringing the two parties together are underrated. It is not just about burying Civil War divisions or highlighting policy overlap. Social and cultural chasms have always been relevant and the range of historic enmities are still deeply felt at all levels of the parties. The challenge now is to provide a contemporary response to the points addressed by Blythe in 1927 and Kelly in the 1970s. Can recrimination be diluted and heads rather than hearts prevail to emphasise national rather than party interest?