On a Sunday morning late in the spring of 1965, a car pulled up outside the church in the village of Clonbullogue, Co Offaly, just before Mass came to an end.
A young boy jumped out of the passenger seat with a three-legged stool and carefully placed it outside the church gate. Just behind him was his father, Oliver J Flanagan, who, since 1943, had been the sitting Fine Gael TD for the Laois-Offaly constituency. A general election had been called for April 7th.
As the congregation filed out of the church, Flanagan, a colourful speaker, began his short stump speech. He finished it with a thumping catch-cry of “Put them out!’, a reference to the long-incumbent Fianna Fáil government.
The boy was Flanagan’s son, Charles, then eight years old. It is his first distinct memory of being involved in politics.
“My job was to ensure the three-legged stool was safe in the boot of the car as we went on to the next church,” he says. “I had to put it in the car because he was pumping hands with people outside the church gate. He had a rota of churches to get to that day and I was also in charge of the timing on the rota.”
And such was the beginning of a long apprenticeship in politics for Flanagan. Even then, his father told acquaintances his son would succeed him when he retired. Charles duly did that in 1987, shortly after his father died.
Now, 36 years later, Charles Flanagan has announced his own retirement, bringing an end to a Flanagan presence in the Dáil stretching back 80 years. There has been a continuity of service, but not of world view.
His father was an outspoken, arch-conservative, old-school Catholic who spent his political life railing against the liberal agenda. Early in his career, he made anti-Semitic statements in the Dáil. His most remembered quote was that there was no sex in Ireland before television.
“My father was a controversial figure. He was deeply conservative, closely associated with the Catholic Church,” says Flanagan.
Charles is a horse of a different colour. Sitting in the lounge of Buswell’s Hotel in Dublin this week, he reflects on his complex relationship with his father.
“I disagreed with much of what he stood for, but it did not in any way interfere with what was a hugely loving relationship,” he says. “He was my mentor. He was my dad. I loved him.”
Flanagan recalls a night in the mid-1980s when he was a guest speaker at a Divorce Action Group meeting in Portlaoise. On the same night, in the same hotel, there was an anti-divorce meeting, which featured Oliver J as the guest speaker.
“As I addressed a small gathering of pro-divorce people in a small room, I could hear my father’s voice bellowing through the partition to a crowd [of hundreds],” he recalls. “That was the first occasion in which there were public differences between us.”
Over the course of his career, Flanagan says he had no difficulty in voting for divorce, same-sex marriage, to repeal the Eighth Amendment and also the abortion legislation that followed it.
Personality-wise, he shares some traits with his father: outspoken, occasionally bristly; and not afraid to court controversy.
“Charlie is a politician who wears his heart on his sleeve and that has sometimes cost him,” a colleague observed.
Out of step
You get the sense that it was not just the length of service that cemented Flanagan’s decision to retire, but also that he finds himself out of step with the changed atmosphere around politics. He has referred to the volatility of discourse, polarisation and what he sees as intolerance. And he does not hold back in venting his opinion on these matters.
“The liberal agenda has accelerated in recent years in a way that causes me discomfort,” he says. “It is about euthanasia, a very radical ideological transgender agenda, commercial surrogacy and a move towards liberalised abortion, completely different from that for which I voted five years ago.
“I haven’t suddenly become a raving right-wing extremist bigot. But I do find that the plurality of voices long evident in Leinster House are not as evident now. There is a dangerous intolerance of any view that is not being pushed by vociferous, well-financed and well-funded non-government organisations.”
Which NGOs in particular does he mean?
“I don’t want to get into specific names,” he replies. “But I have said to colleagues that I would have more influence on Government policy if I was a middle-ranking official with an NGO than I have as a Government backbencher, and I regret that.”
His argument is that the centre ground is losing authority in Irish politics and the space for reasonable discourse has narrowed. He then claims that the long-standing parliamentary approach to politics in Ireland has been upended and manipulated.
“In Leinster House if there is an issue of controversy, an all-party committee is set up. The all-party committee is handpicked. It holds hearings. The hearings are preordained. The hearings are often one-sided. The report can be written before the committee actually sits, with the greatest of respect to all involved, and I’m speaking in general terms,” Flanagan says.
“Then a report is published. The Taoiseach or Tánaiste is asked about it and say a committee has reported and we accept the recommendations. That is the way that legislation is being put forward.”
His take is contentious and would be strongly rejected by senior colleagues in Government.
Flanagan was marked out for progression from the day of his first election. However, he backed the wrong horse in internal Fine Gael battles over the years and that stymied ministerial advancement. His biggest regret in politics was that he voted against John Bruton in the failed heave against him in 1994.
“John Bruton was head and shoulders above his peers in terms of integrity, parliamentarianism and his vision for Ireland and Northern Ireland,” he says.
He also voted against Enda Kenny in another failed heave in 2010. Kenny did not appoint him to ministry in 2011, but the pair struck up a strong relationship when Flanagan became party chair.
Kenny brought him back into the fold in 2014, when he appointed him to cabinet. He served in three portfolios – children, foreign affairs, and justice – over the next six years. As a solicitor and a core Fine Gael politician by instinct, justice was a natural portfolio for him and possibly his most successful.
When Flanagan talks of trying to balance family life with that of a public representative, there is a catch in his voice and he needs several beats to compose his thoughts.
“I do recall leaving the house oftentimes with a heavy heart being away from my wife, Mary, and my two daughters, (Olwyn and Sophie) for days on end. Mary sacrificed her own career on my behalf.”
Being a political family, there was discussion in the past about the next generation stepping up, but neither daughter considered it an option.
For a man coursing with ideas during his career, his answer to what will happen next is surprising.
“I don’t have a plan,” he says.