WITH ADVANCE PUBLICITY for Oliver Callan’s New Year’s Eve special promising sketches featuring President Michael D Higgins and his aide Kevin McCarthy, RTÉ reportedly asked that the satirist tone down his portrayal of the President and his right-hand man. Politicians have questioned the consequences of political satire on numerous occasions in the past. Perhaps most notable is the association of Hall’s Pictorial Weekly with the defeat of the Fine Gael-Labour government at the 1977 general election.
Broadcast on RTÉ between 1971 and 1980, the satirical programme was the creation of Frank Hall and it featured a newsroom set in the fictitious village of Ballymagash. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition, formed after the 1973 election, offered Hall and his team much to work with.
The cabinet included such larger-than-life figures as Garret FitzGerald, who famously wore odd shoes on one occasion, and Conor Cruise O’Brien, prone to making remarks that contradicted the official government line. And with a global economic crisis occurring just months after the coalition took power, characters such as the Minister for Hardship were easily created.
The Minister, also known as ‘Richie Ruin’, was the Finance Minister Richie Ryan who had the unenviable task of handling the state’s finances at a particularly turbulent time. Praised by The Irish Times in 1973 for delivering the ‘greatest social welfare budget of all time’, Ryan found his 1976 budget speech the subject of a Hall’s sketch three years later. In it, he was seen to promise the provision of bowls of gruel to mothers and children, the reopening of the workhouses and the return of the ration book.
The treatment of the Fianna Fáil government formed after the 1977 general election was not as severe. Critical observers attributed this to Hall’s alleged political leanings towards that party. Hall rejected these accusations, and instead explained that the difference in treatment was due to the nature of the new cabinet. Fianna Fáil Ministers were less likely to pursue a solo agenda, while there was no particular ‘stand-out’ personality around the cabinet table, Hall argued. He recalled one episode featuring Martin O’Donoghue, the new Minister for Economic Planning and Development, but that viewers struggled to identify the politician being satirised.
Reaction from politicians
In a research interview for A Just Society for Ireland?, Frank Kelly, who played several roles in the programme, recounted how the actors themselves had much input into the sketches: “If you characterised a thing a certain way and he liked it, he’d extend that. He’d go on writing that way”.
When asked if any politicians ever complained to him about the way they were portrayed, he recalled one particular incident:
I was once accosted by a politician, who shall remain unnamed, on a bridge crossing the Shannon in Limerick and he attacked me over Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, and said that it was disgracefully irreverent and very unkind to politicians, etc., etc., and as he walked away he said, ‘but if there’s any chance of a mention, don’t forget me’.
When Hall died in 1995, his obituary in The Independent focussed largely on that programme, with the opening line noting ‘His fans claim that Frank Hall had the distinction of single-handedly capsizing the stern-faced Irish government of Liam Cosgrave in 1977’. Though having offered somewhat differing views in the past, Frank Kelly concluded in 2011:
With the wisdom of hindsight and more maturity, I think that can happen, but it’s an accident waiting to happen, but it doesn’t mean that the agenda of the programme is to bring down the government. It means that it’s in the right place at the right time to do it. It just takes something to tip everything over.
The 1977 election
There was widespread expectation among journalists, Fine Gael supporters and other political observers that the coalition would be the first in the history of the state to be returned for a second term. On the eve of the 1977 election, the Sunday Independent ran the headline ‘Coalition are favourites’, while the British Embassy in Dublin felt the coalition ‘could well gain a slightly increased majority’.
And at Fine Gael’s Ard Fheis on the weekend of 21 and 22 May 1977, there was a mood of confidence among delegates. The exception was a young Indian-Irish girl who, in March 1976, used tarot cards for the Sunday Independent to predict Cosgrave’s defeat!
But behind the scenes, there were some warnings that re-election was not inevitable. A memorandum sent to members of the cabinet in 1975 indicated a level of awareness of the tipping point of which Frank Kelly spoke. Marked ‘top secret’, it warned that it was ‘self-deluding to pretend that the possibility of electoral defeat is not a real one’. Inflation, farmer incomes and unemployment were identified as the key areas likely to cause defeat.
While satirical sketches kept the spotlight on the government’s often unpopular decisions, it seems more probable that it was the impact of such decisions, rather than Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, that caused the defeat of Liam Cosgrave’s government.
Dr Ciara Meehan is lecturer in history at the University of Hertfordshire. The fortunes of the Fine Gael-Labour government are explored in her newly published book A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-87 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)