ON THIS DAY thirty-five years ago the last Fianna Fáil majority government came to power after winning a landslide victory over the Fine Gael-Labour coalition which had been in office since 1973. The scale of the victory surprised many political commentators with RTE’s political correspondent Sean Duignan describing it as ‘the biggest comeback since Lazarus.’
The election campaign itself was a watershed in how political parties conducted themselves as Fianna Fáil imported many aspects of how campaigns were conducted in the United States with an emphasis on television and effective PR. So effective were these ideas that Fine Gael in the 1981 general election implemented nearly all of the tactics used by Fianna Fail with catchy slogans such as ‘Go with Garrett’ and an election theme song.
The election was at the time portrayed as Jack Lynch’s biggest triumph for not only was this the man who was seen as little more than a short-term leader when he became Taoiseach in 1966 but he had survived the fallout from the arms crisis in 1970 and the loss of the 1973 general election to come back and win the biggest electoral victory since Sinn Fein in 1918 general election. It was an ultimate testament to not only his resilience but political skills to survive one of the most turbulent periods in Irish politics.
“It was in his 1977 election victory that the seeds of his downfall were sown”
Yet it was in his 1977 election victory that the seeds of his downfall were sown. A common misinterpretation of Irish history is that Lynch’s downfall was assured when he brought Charles Haughey back onto the front bench as a spokesman on Health. Yet this thesis forgets that while Haughey had been building up support among the party faithful since his dismissal from cabinet in 1970, this had not translated to parliamentary party as Haughey’s close advisor PJ Mara noted that, in July 1977, Haughey had at best 13 of the 84 members of Fianna Fáil parliamentary party
supportive of his leadership ambitions. Lynch’s hold on the party was arguable stronger than at any period of his leadership.
So where did things start things start going wrong for Lynch? A lot of the reason lay in his leadership style. In his memoirs Bertie Ahern, who had just been elected at the 1977 election, recalled that he never actually ever spoke to Lynch, recalling an incident in the Dáil where the two passed one another in corridor with Lynch passing him not saying a word.
Ahern goes even further saying he doubted whether Lynch even knew what constituency he represented in the Dáil. In contrast to Lynch’s aloofness was Charles Haughey, who was always careful to court his backbench colleagues inviting them to receptions at his home and making sure that all issues that his colleagues had with Health and Social Welfare were dealt with effectively. The vacuum created by Lynch allowed his main rival to thrive as he gained ground not among his cabinet colleagues (only one of whom voted for Haughey in the 1979 leadership election) but backbenchers, who were growing tired of how the leadership responded to their concerns.
A poor relationship with his backbenchers was made worse as Ireland entered a period of economic instability. Lynch won re-election off the back of a giveaway manifesto of abolishing rates, car tax and promising high spending. The mix of siphoning off sources of revenue, increasing spending and the second oil shock left Ireland in a vulnerable position as the country debt increased to staggering 150 per cent of GNP forcing massive tax increases, particularly for those on PAYE (Pay as you earn) in order to service the increases in government debt.
As Ireland’s economic fortunes declined, Lynch’s soon followed as backbenchers began openly rebelling against his leadership throughout 1979. The new deputies that were brought in off of Lynch’s huge popularity and who told the Irish people just two years before to ‘Bring back Jack’ were now openly conspiring to get rid of him as they feared for their seats against a resurgent Fine Gael. Lynch was effectively forced out by his own backbenchers who then proceeded to elect as his replacement his long time rival, Charles Haughey.
So what are Jack Lynch’s, and more importantly, that period’s legacy for Ireland 35 years on?
Lynch is often regarded as the most popular and genuine of Ireland’s leaders since independence and there is a lot of evidence to vindicate that argument as his electoral history was more impressive than that of his predecessor Sean Lemass or his opponents in the Fine Gael and Labour parties.
However there is an equally more important legacy that can be seen from Lynch and it is that of disguising electoral success to make up for a lack of effective policy. While Lynch may have wooed the voters with big tax cuts and extra spending, his predecessor Sean Lemass arguably did the opposite as he sold free trade to a sceptical nation and lost a sizeable amount electoral support as a result. Yet the history books record that decision as being the fundamentally right one for the nation’s future. Historians and economists rubbish the policies and proposals laid out the 1977 manifesto that saw taxes abolished and debts spiral, locking Ireland into a recessionary path for the next decade. Lynch was not alone in advocating giveaway budgets as all parties made commitments to voters that while popular at the time would have detrimental effects in the longer term.
While Ireland attempts to sort out its present difficulties it could do well to look at the mistakes and solutions of those who were in government in the late seventies and realise that political popularity is meaningless unless you use your mandate to do big and great things for your country. People say politics has come a long way since the seventies, however looking at Ireland today I am not so sure.
On this anniversary we could surely do well to pause and reflect on a previous period to gain a better understanding of what we need to do today.
David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster.