TODAY MARKS THE 40th anniversary of the election of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition that ended a record sixteen years of Fianna Fáil government. Led by Liam Cosgrave as Taoiseach and Brendan Corish as Tánaiste the National Coalition railed against high prices vowing to cut taxes and remove VAT from food. While they are largely forgotten now this government presided over a very turbulent period in Irish politics with the collapse of the Sunningdale executive in Northern Ireland, the oil crisis and the resignation of Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh as President.
One of the biggest defeats in electoral history
However, despite these challenges, what I found from looking at some of the newspapers from that period was that this administration during its four years in power was generally perceived to be a good government. During the 1977 general election campaign most commentators thought that the National Coalition was likely to be re-elected as RTÉ’s Sean Duignan said the week before polling day ‘if Fianna Fail win next week it will be the biggest comeback since Lazarus.’ Yet the government went down to one of the biggest electoral defeats in Irish history. So how did it come to this? And are there any lessons for the current Fine Gael-Labour coalition as it deals with similar problems?
Leaving aside the disastrous decision by the Minister for Local Government, James Tully, to re-draw electoral boundaries that had the unintended consequence of helping Fianna Fail, the government was suffering from wider problems.
The rise of television and the problem of persona
One of the most important developments between the 1973 and 1977 general elections was the rise of television. No longer would the battle for hearts and minds be waged solely at public meetings. For the Cosgrave government this posed a dilemma as few of them recognised the importance of television in getting a message across.
The one notable exception to this was the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Garrett Fitzgerald who regularly utilised the media allowing TV crews to follow him as he did his work as a minister. In contrast, Liam Cosgrave came across as either too aggressive, famously attacking journalists at the 1977 Fine Gael Ard Fheis who criticised his government’s tough crime laws, or too cold, speaking with little emotion as he repeated calls for belt tightening while unemployment soared.
‘You must define yourself before the media or your opponents do’
This problem was not limited to just Cosgrave. The iron law of politics is you must define yourself before the media or your opponents do. Within two years of being in office the government was being labelled as arrogant and out of touch with the Irish people. The actions of the Minister for Defence, Paddy Donegan, in 1976, calling President Ó Dálaigh ‘a thundering disgrace’ and Cosgrave’s refusal to accept Donegan’s resignation simply fuelled this emerging narrative of the government being cold and aloof as Ó Dálaigh became the first Irish head of state to resign.
To make matters worse for coalition, the popular show, Halls Pictorial Weekly, began running in response a series of tough budgets sketches of the Minister for Finance, Richie Ryan portraying him as the Irish Mr Scrooge, Richie Ruin, Minister for Hardship. So damaging were these regular pieces that Ministers within the government complained to the then Minister for Telegraphs, Conor Cruise O’Brien, to force RTÉ to stop running them.
So what is the National Coalition’s legacy 40 years on? When we look back we tend to write this government off as a failed administration as it tended to lurch from crisis to crisis. We think about the self inflicted wounds that I have mentioned above that ultimately proved to be the government’s undoing.
Yet we must balance these failures against some important successes such as Ireland weathering the impact of the first oil shock reasonably well compared to other countries in Europe. It would be as they left office in 1977 that the economy was beginning to improve and sizeable reductions in the budget deficit were being realised. In the North, while the Sunningdale agreement may have failed both Cosgrave and Fitzgerald should be given credit for attempting to solve the problem in Northern Ireland and for helping design a system of government that would go on to become the blueprint for the Good Friday Agreement.
Kenny should remember the mistakes of his predecessor
Today, the current government is wrestling with many of the same problems that Cosgrave faced in the ’70s. In looking at how to deal with them, Enda Kenny, would be wise to remember the mistakes of his predecessor. What in large part brought down the Cosgrave government were the actions of his ministers and the perception that they were indifferent to the public’s concerns.
No government of any political creed is guaranteed a second term and the 1977 election proves that a surge in support for the opposition can happen even when pundits don’t see it coming. Enda Kenny cut his political teeth during this period and on this anniversary, as the polls begin to turn against his government, he should not forget the lessons of this period otherwise – at the next election history – may well just end up repeating itself.
David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster. To read more articles by David for TheJournal.ie click here.