An Irishman's Diary


John Bruton departed the stage as leader of Fine Gael in the year just ending. He did so with considerable dignity, as even his harshest critics would have to admit, and he had more than his fair share of those. In fact, he was too often the recipient of a type of criticism that bordered on the personal and that must have been very hurtful to him and his family. But such is what passes for political commentary and analysis in some circles today.

Mr Bruton led Fine Gael for 10 years, which, by any reckoning, wasn't a bad innings for a party political leader. Two of his predecessors in the role, Liam Cosgrave and Garret FitzGerald, held the office for more or less the same length of time. In fact, in his autobiography, All in a Life, Dr FitzGerald said that, when he became leader in 1977, that was the period he envisaged allowing himself, provided all went well, and that it was long enough for any political leader.

Leadership problems

People who are familiar with the goings-on in Fine Gael for only the past 10 years or so might think that leadership problems are as common in the party as the men who were in the GPO in 1916 used to be. But that is not the case. It is true that Alan Dukes had to relinquish his position as leader in 1990 after only three years at the helm. It is also true that John Bruton had a bumpy ride at times and that it could hardly be said that he went willingly earlier this year.

But before 1990 only one leader of Fine Gael was forced to resign his position, and that happened a long time before that date - nearly 60 years before, in fact.

When Fine Gael was launched in September 1933, Eoin O'Duffy was chosen as leader. He had been one of the most effective volunteer commandants in the War of Independence and was appointed Garda Commissioner in 1922. When Eamon de Valera dismissed him from that position in 1933, he became leader of the Army Comrades Association.

O'Duffy renamed it the National Guard, but the organisation was and is generally known as the Blueshirts.

In truth, O'Duffy was a strange choice as leader of the new party. He wasn't a TD and had little experience of politics. But he was renowned as an organiser for the way he had established the new police force around the country. Fine Gael's parent party, Cumann na nGaedheal, had lost two general elections in quick succession, and it was thought the new leader would have the personal magnetism to effectively combat de Valera's appeal. As O'Duffy didn't have a Dβil seat, W.T. Cosgrave, who had been leader of Cumann na nGaedheal, was Fine Gael leader in the House.

Violent meetings

The years 1933 and 1934 were particularly turbulent years in Irish politics. There was much violence at Fine Gael public meetings. Many farmers, suffering badly as a result of the "economic war", were refusing to pay their rates and the Blueshirts supported them. Clashes between Blueshirts and the IRA were common.

The local elections of June 1934 were the first electoral test for the new party. O'Duffy was confident. On the day before the poll, he predicted that Fine Gael would have a majority in 20 of the 23 county councils, though it seems the other leaders of the party advised him not to make such a prediction.

He was completely wrong. Fine Gael was successful in only six of the councils, while Fianna Fβil won 14. After the local elections, the anti-rates campaign intensified and O'Duffy's public speeches became more confrontational. The more experienced leaders of Fine Gael were worried about the violence around the country and the Blueshirts' part in it, but they kept silent to maintain unity against Fianna Fβil and the IRA.

The Blueshirts had their own separate ardfheis in Dublin in August 1934 and passed a motion urging the farmers not to pay their land annuities until the Government agreed to an independent tribunal (yes, they had them in those days, too) to examine farmer grievances. Then, in a speech in Cavan at the end of August, O'Duffy said the British were constructing new fortifications in the North and, if war came as a result, he and the Blueshirts would be to the fore in it. (He came from Co Monaghan and had strong opinions on partition.)

Forced to resign

As a result of the Blushirt motion and his Cavan speech, neither of which was in line with official party policy, O'Duffy was forced to resign as leader. In reality, he had had little contact with the other Fine Gael leaders (it had six vice-presidents). He was never a man to consult much with others, and his speeches - which could be careless, irascible and belligerent at times - often came as a surprise to senior Fine Gael figures. The vice-presidents were also concerned about the volume of party funds which O'Duffy was spending on Blueshirt activities.

It was a mistake to have chosen him as leader. He didn't have the understanding or experience of parliamentary ways. Nor did he have the subtlety, level-headedness or intellectual ability that a political leader needs. He was brimming over with energy, enthusiasm and sincerity. But, in the end, those characteristics weren't enough.