Titans of political history reflect on Fine Gael’s role

ANALYSIS: Two of Ireland’s elder statesmen – Declan Costello and Garret FitzGerald – share memories of their careers and Fine Gael’s first 75 years over dinner, writes Elaine Byrne in the Irish Times November 15 2008

THERE WAS something rather charming about the tickled way Declan Costello and Garret FitzGerald read aloud the ambitious draft of article one – “All right to private property is subordinated to the public right and welfare of the nation . . .” The 1922 Free State Constitution, chaired initially by Michael Collins, was drafted in the Constitution Room of the Shelbourne Hotel. The Constitution Room, restored to its original glory during the recent refurbishment of the hotel, has on display an original version of the Constitution.

I invited to dinner these two statesmen of Fine Gael, to listen to their reminiscences about their careers and look back on 75 years of the party to which they were devoted. We ate in the hotel on the day Barack Obama was elected to the American presidency. While most of the world was huddled around their televisions and laptops to discern the future political direction of the United States, these two titans of Irish political history gathered to talk about the past.

“I think I’m younger than you Garret. I’m a young fellow!” smiled Declan Costello when he met Garret FitzGerald.

To say that the Costello and FitzGerald families go back a long way is perhaps not to fully appreciate the full import of their influence within Irish public life stretching over the last 90 years.

Born only six months apart in 1926, Costello and FitzGerald share an immense pride in their parents. John A Costello served as attorney general in the 1920s Free State government, when Desmond FitzGerald was minister for external affairs.

Desmond FitzGerald, “an Englishman who understood the English”, was an imagist poet, playwright and novelist. His “bohemian” writing abilities were put to good use as director of publicity for the Dáil government during the Irish War of Independence. Desmond FitzGerald was just 31 then, though such youth was typical for those in government during the foundation years of the state.

Garret FitzGerald particularly treasures a copy of the literary magazine, The Apple, which was signed by the British journalists covering the war and presented to his father as a memento of their departure from Ireland.

Desmond FitzGerald retired from political life in 1943 and had discouraged his son from entering politics. Instead, he had wished him to pursue law, although he had probably inadvertently sown seeds of political interest when the boy was brought to the Dáil gallery at 11 years of age to observe the fiery 1937 Constitution debates. Garret FitzGerald regarded his mother, Mabel McConnell, a Belfast Protestant nationalist, as the more political of his parents.

The lives of the Costello and FitzGerald families continued to intersect. In 1969 Garret FitzGerald yielded to the inevitable and was elected to Dublin South East for Fine Gael, succeeding John A Costello.

The proudest political moment for John A Costello, a Redmondite supporter, was to sit in an independent Irish parliament when first elected to Dáil Éireann in 1933.

Declan Costello describes his father as “two separate people”. At home he was a quiet, simple man, fond of his dog, Slemish. “And then when I went down to the courts, there he was – a barrister, firing away and shouting at the jury. A very strong advocate. I remember seeing him for the first time on the back of a lorry down in Donnybrook. There he was, holding forth, in the oratorical style.”

The Civil War record of Richard Mulcahy, leader of Fine Gael, made him an unacceptable choice as taoiseach for coalition partners Clann na Poblachta. Fine Gael, then 16 years out of power, proposed John A Costello as compromise taoiseach in the first inter-party government in 1948-1951.

At this time, Declan Costello was based in Switzerland, recovering from TB. A fortnight after his appointment, John A Costello wrote a lengthy letter to his son outlining the circumstances of his election. “He was absolutely, genuinely, completely surprised by the fact that he was asked to be taoiseach.”

At the end of the letter, in different ink and dated differently, John A Costello had evidentially overcome the initial shock of his appointment. “PS. I’m now resigned to the whole thing and I think I’m going to enjoy it.”

Declan Costello was selected as the Fine Gael candidate in the 1951 election. Just 25 when elected, he remembers his first day in the Dáil as “terrifically exciting”. Father and son sat together in the Dáil for the next 18 years. As in the FitzGeralds’ case, John A Costello had not especially encouraged his son to enter politics. Both of the sons believe that their parents would have been proud of their accomplishments.

Declan Costello’s experience as a TD for the Dublin North West working-class constituency motivated him to write Towards a Just Society, the policy document that became central to Fine Gael policy formulation in the 1960s.

“There [in Dublin North West] you saw the reality of life, the reality of Dublin, the reality of Irish life. There was terrific poverty in Ireland. Small [homes], three bedrooms, with 19 people living in them.”

Just Society had profound consequences for Irish politics. Fine Gael was galvanised into real policy debate regarding Ireland’s future. For the first time in decades, concerns over social justice and redistributive economic policies were at the heart of party debates.

An internal Fine Gael policy committee, chaired by Liam Cosgrave, was established and policy proposals on education, mental health, youth affairs and the economy, among others, formed the basis of Fine Gael’s 1965 election manifesto.

But it almost never happened. These views were not well received by the then leadership of James Dillon and, in particular, by Gerard Sweetman, a powerful and immensely able figure of vigorously conservative views on economic matters.

At our dinner, Declan Costello recollected the 1964 internal process, which he found frustrating. Garret FitzGerald was not yet then a member of the parliamentary party.

Costello: “I was on the front bench and I could see I was getting absolutely nowhere. I decided to go straight to the party and I produced this document, it was a page and a half of principles. I didn’t discuss it with anyone.”

FitzGerald: “Nine points?”

Costello: “Something like that. And then we had a long debate.”

FitzGerald: “On the front bench?”

Costello: “No, I didn’t send it to the front bench.”

FitzGerald: “Well, where was the debate? In the party?”

Costello: “In the parliamentary party.”

FitzGerald: “You were a front bench member.”

Costello: “I was a front bench member.”

FitzGerald: “You were breaking . . .”

Costello: “Yes, I was breaking all the rules.”

FitzGerald: “Quite right!”

Costello: “And I said, I am breaking the rules and I said there you are, I’m proposing this. It was clearly a resignation thing. I had become absolutely fed up with the position. If it had been planned it would have been very good, but it wasn’t planned at all . . . It was leaked to the press. John Healy, the backbencher in The Irish Times , had it all verbatim, all the extracts. It made a complete difference. The whole press got a hold of it. If I knew this was the way to do it! It worked out. The debate took off. We had a full debate then a week later. Then there was support developing.”

FitzGerald: “My recollection is that your father said to you, you are so deep in Fine Gael you have to put this to them first.”

Costello: “You are right. As I said, my father didn’t interfere with me except on that occasion. He said to me, ‘Look I know, Declan, how you are feeling, but give them a chance.’ So I did.”

FitzGerald: “And then they agreed.”

Costello’s proposals undoubtedly were a factor in making possible the 1973-1977 Fine Gael/Labour coalition government. The taoiseach Liam Cosgrave appointed Costello as his attorney general, and FitzGerald as minister for foreign affairs. Fifty years earlier, their respective fathers, W T Cosgrave, John A Costello and Desmond FitzGerald had held the same portfolios.

Under FitzGerald’s leadership from 1977, the Just Society views became mainstream party policy and provided the impetus for the liberal agenda of his two governments in the 1980s. Fine Gael moved to the left.

Long since forgotten, the Just Society also perceptively advocated the “effective co-ordination” and a greater control of the banking system. The Just Society underlined the conflict between the public interest and the interests of the depositors and shareholders of banks and noted, in 1965, that “the Irish banking system has many striking peculiarities, not the least of which is the lack of informed discussion on it”. In characteristically forthright language, Costello pointed to “human nature being what it is . . . the commercial banks are perfectly aware” of the weak “moral influence of the Central Bank”.

Costello was always ahead of his time.

In 1974 he established the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and eliminated the practice of allocating State briefs based on party allegiance. He was later appointed to the High Court and retired as president of the High Court in 1997.

Both men lament the absence of genuine policy debate and the “lack of concern for social justice” in today’s politics. In that sense, they were enthused by Obama’s wonderful oratory and his ability to infuse new ideas and new thinking into a political system that initially had little appetite for either. They jointly believe that political contributions should be abolished and that elections as well as parties should instead be publicly financed.

Fine Gael celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. For much of those 75 years, the Costello and FitzGerald families engaged with and fostered public debate. And for that we have much to be appreciative of.

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