At the age of 12, in 1969, I accompanied my parents to the retirement dinner for John A Costello, as my father Garret had, that summer, succeeded him as the local TD. I still remember Costello's powerful oratory that night as he departed the political stage, declaring: "Put upon your banners the Just Society, that Fine Gael is not a Tory party." His speech was a ringing endorsement of the policies that his son Declan had succeeded in getting Fine Gael to adopt some four years earlier.
Declan Costello's Just Society represented a rights-based, forward-looking commitment to justice and to the common good of all in Ireland. While nobody would ever want to see extraordinary charities such as St Vincent de Paul disappear, we as a nation should not be dependent on such charities to do the work of government.
In the 1966 presidential election, Tom O’Higgins articulated a path towards the just society, saying we must “open the doors of education and comfort” to “all those who have for so long been left without them”, and “do all that can be done to house people better, to educate people better, to bring solace to the old and the sick”, so that we could truly “take our place amongst the nations of the world”.
A just society meets the needs of its population as a matter of right, not of charity. Put simply, Declan Costello’s original philosophy was: “Share the resources of economic recovery fairly and, when an ill wind blows, prioritise the protection of the weak and the vulnerable.” While our world changes and develops, these imperatives are timeless.
Through my father I had the privilege of meeting not just many good people in Fine Gael but also good people in other parties: people such as Jack Lynch, Paddy Hillery, Brendan Corish, Justin Keating and Frank Cluskey, all of whom shared a commitment to a just society, with perhaps varying emphases. They all, in their own way, tried to give people a better life, but in doing so encouraged people to be better and more generous-minded citizens, and that is, ultimately, what a just society is about.
We are now, happily, a much more pluralistic, open society than we were then, but we must nevertheless continue to ask ourselves, every day: “What sort of Ireland do we want to see in the future?”
Surely our political parties in the future should continue not just to seek to improve peoples’ lives but also to encourage our citizens, particularly the more fortunate, to think beyond themselves. As TK Whitaker, that great Irishman, said: “The door to happiness opens outwards.”
Simon Coveney deserves immense credit for putting the just society centre stage in such a passionate way in the Fine Gael leadership race. Both he and Leo Varadkar have campaigned most impressively, which makes it a fascinating contest. Can Coveney persuade Fine Gael to back him as leader or indeed can Fine Gael persuade Varadkar to buy into the just society, as a policy framework, that will be as important in 50 years' time as it was 50 years ago?
England's huge and sad political disadvantage is having a Conservative Party of such narrow perspective and an opposition Labour Party which is a party of protest rather than responsibility. Having both our main parties competing in the centrist social democratic tradition provides for a consistency of policy in a competitive political framework. This type of certainty is what attracts foreign investment and also ensures that we don't, as a nation, think just about the economy but also give real consideration to what constitutes a fair society.
As proud and active members of the European Union, we might indeed be said to have taken our place in the world, but although we have now navigated our way through the recession, it has left us with so much work to be done in housing, in education, in healthcare and in childcare.
A just society requires also the continuous creation of wealth and employment. Without the creation of resources through business and enterprise we can never do “all that can be done”. Furthermore, without regard for the environment, we cannot safeguard the futures of our children and grandchildren.
Responsible business must be at the centre of our society, and we must use the prosperity that we create from this enterprise wisely, to incentivise work, to tackle educational disadvantage, to create a world-class health service and to provide the infrastructure and housing that our people deserve.
We also, in my view, need to work in new and innovative ways, with much more collaboration between public and private sectors. The creation of a 21st-century infrastructure is one such area crying out for such co-operation.
Politicians need to lead with an ambitious vision and yet be accountable. They must remain constantly curious and open both to new ideas and to contrarian views. Public servants need to be supported by politicians so that they are secure in being courageous and imaginative. Diversity, fairness and justice should be a given in Ireland if we truly want to have a pluralistic republic.
Ireland should also help to influence European and world opinion in a more altruistic direction. We are a small nation that should be proud to say that we are members of an interdependent, ethical world where neighbours matter and every citizen counts.
Mark FitzGerald is a former trustee of Fine Gael and was the party’s director of elections in the 1997 General Election