The coming together of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in some form would be the kind of dramatic "clean sweep idea" that inspired Michael Collins and his generation of politicians, the broadcaster and political strategist Bill O'Herlihy has contended at the annual Béal na Bláth commemoration.
In his address, Mr O’Herlihy argued that the divisions of the Civil War had become a damaging anachronism and also spoke of the “disturbing and retrograde” scenario that might arise if a Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin coalition were to become a possibility. In that sense, he made the argument of the need for a “sea-change” but one that would have much to offer. He asserted that in contradistinction to Sinn Féin, only Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had the “proven trust of the people of this Republic over the past eighty years.”
He also suggested the difference between the parties was negligible. “Does it make any sense to have the major political parties tussling for power where, for so long, the width of a sheet of tissue paper scarcely separated their policies? How much more progress, how much more reform would be possible if senseless old historical divisions were eliminated from our politics?”.
Mr O'Herlihy, best known as a sports presenter, has also been a lifelong activist and strategist for Fine Gael and was the late taoiseach Garret FitzGerald's media adviser during the 1970s. His speech to about 500 people, including relatives of Mr Collins and Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney, focused in its early stages on Michael Collin's early involvement with the GAA in London.
He noted that he was described as an “effective midfielder” and said he suspected “his temper would have seen him capture a few red cards if they had been invented at the time”. However, Mr O’Herlihy said that the events from 1916 to the civil war were the “preoccupations of yesteryear”.
"There can only be so many rematches, there comes a time when old fights can no longer teach us any more lessons." He said in Ireland there was the paradox of having the two best-supported political parties at loggerheads for generations over passions played out eighty years ago. "The vast majority of the people of Ireland have lost any real contact with that quarrel."
Mr O’Herlihy said Mr Collins had a vision of an Ireland where with growing prosperity, each received what each contributed. He said that even in the best economic times, Ireland had never come close to achieving that. Setting out the need for a clean sweep idea, he also said that the distortion of political language must stop.
In words very supportive of Desmond O’Malley’s ‘I stand by the Republic’, he said the word republic should not mean something dark or threatening but that people would stand for a republic of equality, fair dealing, that had no time for “strokes, vested interests and political chicanery”.
“The idea of re-embracing the word republic is another reason why I find the notion that Fianna Fáil and Sinn Fein might merge or coalesce to be a disturbing and retrograde idea.”
While giving Sinn Féin credit for progress in the peace process, he said only Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had the proven trust of the people. “They should examine and if necessary pool what they share and allow the people of this country to reap the benefits.”
There had been change in Ireland from the 1960s on, said Mr O’Herlihy that had made Fianna Fáil the party of establishment and big business and a natural party of government. Fine Gael, through the Just Society, had also redefined itself.
However, the dramatic recent events had changed that including the Bertie Ahern leadership, tribunals, corruption, the mismanagement of the economy and the "dynamic leadership of Enda Kenny".
Fine Gael had now positioned itself as the natural party of government with Fianna Fáil competing for space in the centre-left. Questioning this and referring to Mary O’Rourke’s recent speech on the same theme to the Carleton school in Co Tyrone he said there were challenges. “I recognise the difficulties; I recognise the fear people have of an overwhelming political majority; I recognise the distrust the electorate has because of actions of Fianna Fáil and its need to be punished in the short term, I recognise the slowness of political reform.”
In spite of all those reservations, he said, he believed a coalition would have much to offer.
About the Michael Collins Commemoration
The Michael Collins Commemoration is an annual event which takes place in Béal na Bláth, the West Cork townland where one of the founding fathers of the State was assassinated in August 1922.
The well-organised Collins Commemoration committee, which includes relatives of the leader, has made the occasion into a national event over the past decade, attracting some very high profile and prestigious speakers to deliver the address. They have included former president Mary Robinson, the film producer Lord David Puttnam and the late Brian Lenihan, then the minister for finance, and the first Fianna Fáil figure to be chosen to give the address.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny was the speaker last year and the majority of speakers over the years have been Fine Gael figures, including Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney, political scientist Maurice Manning and former GAA president and European Parliament MEP Sean Kelly.
Mr O’Herlihy’s speech tangentially referred to Mr Lenihan’s speech. Earlier this month, former Fianna Fáil TD Mary O’Rourke, an aunt of Mr Lenihan’s, made the possibility of a link-up between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael the theme of her speech to the William Carleton School in Co Tyrone. She drew heavily in the speech on the address Mr Lenihan delivered three years ago, which focused on the opportunities for closer cooperation between both parties.