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Fintan O’Toole: Fianna Fáil’s lost identity was built on hypocrisy and farce

The church had power, Fianna Fáil had power – and if you wanted power, you supported their alliance

To understand the crisis of identity in Fianna Fáil, it might help to think back to Micheál Martin’s first significant involvement in national politics. It came on February 25th, 1985.

At that time, Martin was 24 years old. He was doing an MA in history at University College Cork, from which he had graduated in 1981.

Now, 1981 was an interesting year in UCC. The students’ union’s welfare handbook included for the first time a section on homosexuality which, it dared to suggest, “doesn’t do you any harm and can be lots of fun”.

The Cork Evening Echo reported that parents believed “their student sons and daughters are being indoctrinated and brainwashed by influences beyond their control, on issues which they feel has nothing to do with student life”. It quoted one mother’s accusation that the students’ union was assuming “all first-year students are lacking in moral responsibilities and are going to be totally promiscuous from the time they enter college, getting their kicks from homosexual activities, sex and drugs”.


According to historian Patrick McDonagh, “The UCC governing body received letters of complaint from the mayor of Waterford, a UCC professor and the UCC student health officer, who expressed the view that the material on homosexuality was ‘potentially very harmful’.”

The governing body responded by ruling that in future, the students’ union handbook, when dealing with issues of sexuality, would have to be submitted for approval (or otherwise) by the college chaplains. In the following years, the positive comments about the harmlessness of homosexuality were removed from the handbook.

I have no desire to pry into Martin’s private life at that time. But like anyone who was a student in an Irish university, he surely had friends who were gay and having lots of fun.

He surely knew people who were not married but who were having sex and enjoying it. He surely knew how absurd it was that people of his age were, according to the law, not supposed to be able to buy condoms.

I think it’s fair to guess that Martin did not vote to expel O’Malley because he truly believed that allowing young people to buy condoms was the road to national degeneracy. He did it because pretending to believe this nonsense was part of Fianna Fáil’s identity

He would have known, as everyone of his age did at the time, that there was a great gap between the way young people were living their intimate lives and the insistence of the party he belonged to, Fianna Fáil, that none of this was happening – or, if it was, that it must be stamped out.

On February 25th, 1985, this farcicality reached a certain climax within the political sphere. Martin was a participant in this drama.

Barry Desmond, the Labour minister for health, introduced legislation to make it legal for anyone over 18 to purchase condoms. Fianna Fáil, under Charles Haughey, opposed this legislation.

One of its dissident members, Des O’Malley, abstained on the vote. Haughey moved to expel him from the party for (hilariously) “conduct unbecoming”.

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This could be done only by the party’s national executive. Martin was a member of this body, representing the youth wing, Ógra Fianna Fáil. He voted to expel O’Malley.

In 2015, after O’Malley mentioned this in his memoir, Martin refused to say that he regretted his decision: “Look, I’m not going there.”

I think it’s fair to guess, however, that he did not vote to expel O’Malley because he truly believed that allowing young people to buy condoms was the road to national degeneracy. He did it because pretending to believe this nonsense was part of Fianna Fáil’s identity.

What happened in the early 1980s, when Martin was making his way in Fianna Fáil, was that Fine Gael, under Garret FitzGerald began, however timidly, to suggest that the reflection of Catholic teaching in the laws of the State was not compatible with reconciliation on the island as a whole.

Haughey, who had always gone out of his way to identify himself with conservative Catholicism, even while he was stealing money and keeping a mistress, saw the opportunity to give Fianna Fáil a unique selling point. It would be the party of conservative Catholicism.

It clung to that USP right up to the end of Holy Catholic Ireland. And Martin bought that ticket and took the ride.

He was in the cabinet in 2002 when it put forward a referendum to make the abortion laws even more draconian by excluding the risk of maternal suicide. He signed off on the outrageous decision to indemnify the religious orders that had run abusive institutions from the costs of compensating their victims.

I guess he did these things, not because he thought they were right, but because that was the “identity” of the Fianna Fáil he joined as a student. The church had power, Fianna Fáil had power – and if you wanted power, you supported their alliance.

And then this source of power drained away. There was no political mileage in pretending that there are no homosexuals in Ireland or that unmarried people don’t have sex or that Irish women don’t have abortions.

There will be no return to the Ireland in which political ambition made it necessary to ignore the real lives of one’s contemporaries. The identity that so many in Fianna Fáil seem to be mourning was lost because even those who tried as hard as Martin did, could no longer sustain its fictions.