Varadkar is not convincing when he says his conservatism is compassionate
Fine Gael's period in power has put the lie to bed that integrity distinguishes them
Leo Varadkar: his early-rising slogan may come back to haunt him, and vindicate Coveney’s warning in 2017. Photograph: Getty Images
This election campaign began badly for Fine Gael not last week but in 2017. The party made a decisive choice that year, and is now dealing with the consequences. As the two leadership contenders faced each other in May 2017, Simon Coveney warned Leo Varadkar about his divisive slogan championing those who “get up early in the morning”.
Varadkar, he argued, represented a shift to the right, while a Coveney-led party would create a “just society” where “you all matter to us”.
How much substance lay behind Coveney’s reliance on a slogan from the mid-1960s is debatable, but it does seem relevant now as Fine Gael finds itself struggling with a new version of a problem apparent during the last general election.
As the Fine Gael strategist Mark Mortell was to rue in 2016, “we went into this election deciding it was going to be all about the economy”. That misguided compartmentalisation meant a neglect of the social dimension, and a wallop from the electorate.
References to the Just Society have been made by certain Fine Gaelers at different junctions, but only in so vague a way as to render them meaningless
When he was supporting Varadkar during the leadership contest, Minister Paschal Donohoe told us he kept a copy of a Declan Costello-authored Just Society document from 1964 in his office. He boasted that it was the “guiding compass of my membership of Fine Gael”, and that Varadkar “values the Just Society as much as I do”.
One of the reasons they could both sing the Just Society hymn, he argued, was because Varadkar anchored his ideas “in a recognition of a global Ireland in a globalised world…his focus on the benefits of globalisation…speaks to our DNA”. In all this, Donohoe argued, Fine Gael was “reshaping the centre ground of Irish politics”.
This was claptrap, all the more pitiful coming from the party’s intellectual heavyweight. It was essentially saying: we care, but the market must dictate, and we cannot and will not interfere with market forces.
References to the Just Society have been made by certain Fine Gaelers at different junctions, but only in so vague a way as to render them meaningless.
In 2012, for example, taoiseach Enda Kenny referred approvingly to Costello’s view that true freedom only existed when “economic and social conditions permit the full development of the human personality”.
The Just Society document, containing eight key points, including economic planning and targets for the public and private sectors, credit policies for banks to be brought under government control, sustained public capital investment and full and effective price controls, was discussed at four internal national Fine Gael party meetings, and derided by some of the party’s older wing.
It was only because the document was leaked to the media that sceptics in Fine Gael were forced to back it, but its contents were not communicated effectively.
The party’s leader, James Dillon, did not believe in it, and at the same time it was being unveiled he declared Fine Gael to be a private investment party.
Fine Gael gained no new seats in the 1965 general election on the back of it.
To the accusation that he is Thatcherite, Varadkar insists his conservatism is compassionate, but he struggles to convince on that point
The main reason Fine Gael backbenchers supported the change of direction was because they were desperate to distinguish themselves from Fianna Fáil. As the historian Ciara Meehan’s 2013 book A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-87 suggests, this crisis of identity from the 1960s was never resolved for Fine Gael, and that remains relevant to the present day.
Having foregone the chance to dust down the slogan for contemporary times, and adjust its tone accordingly, the party is likely to lose seats while Fianna Fáil instead will claim the Just Society mantle.
Varadkar’s stances, soundbites and tone to date have combined to undermine Fine Gael ownership of the label despite Donohoe’s attempt to put some kind of intellectual, centrist framework around him and his attempts at more humility during the week.
Varadkar’s biographers Philip Ryan and Niall O’Connor do not dwell much on Varadkar’s ideological formation. They tell us he “flirted with the idea of joining the Progressive Democrats” but opted for Fine Gael “having been attracted to the leadership qualities of John Bruton”, reference his “arguments against a welfare state,” and his insistence that the big differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are “ethics and integrity in public office”.
The Just Society document was essentially about promoting equality through State intervention, an equality today’s voters do not see Fine Gael delivering in relation to health, housing, childcare and pensions.
To the accusation that he is Thatcherite, Varadkar insists his conservatism is compassionate, but he struggles to convince on that point.
As to ethics and integrity in public office distinguishing Fine Gael from Fianna Fáil, an extended period in power for Fine Gael has put that lie to bed.
Fianna Fáil has its own questions to answer about lazy auction politics and its supposed ideological distinctiveness from Fine Gael, but the battle for Fine Gael is a harder one – it is likely Varadkar’s early-rising slogan will haunt him and perhaps vindicate the warning Coveney issued in 2017.