A BALLOONING BUDGET deficit, high unemployment and a queue of young people leaving the country: sounds familiar doesn’t it? This is not the first time that Ireland has experienced these types of circumstances.
It has been 30 years since the year of GUBU. Coined by Conor Cruise O’Brien after reflecting on the short-lived Haughey government of 1982 he termed the extraordinary events that led to the second election in 10 months as grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented. While the economics of the country may have unstable, the political environment had never been better as Ireland seen the greatest electoral battles between two political leaders since the ’20s.
The year began with the sudden collapse of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition after the budget attempted to put VAT on children’s shoes which were rejected by independent left wing TDs bringing the government to an end after just seven months in office. This was the first major political hurdle for the Fitzgerald government and they had failed to sell their message of the need for budget cuts and tax increases.
However the problems around economic strategy were not just confined to the government benches as Fianna Fáil were also wrestling with how to solve Ireland’s economic woes. At the start of the election campaign Charles Haughey rejected the government’s budget outright dismissing budget cuts as harsh and unnecessary but pressure from George Colley and Des O’Malley forced Haughey to change his policy on the need for austerity. This policy muddle over economic policy really masked the underlying leadership issues that were plaguing the party as both Colley and O’Malley struggled to support Haughey’s leadership.
The campaign itself was fought on a shoestring budget by both major parties. Fine Gael ran on issues of leadership asking voters to ‘Go with Garret’ while the divisive Haughey and Fianna Fail ran on competence, running the slogan ‘we do a better job.’ While the slogans may have been slightly boring, the campaign certainly was not as hundreds of people came to public rallies to hear both leaders speak. It was as the Fianna Fail TD Charlie McCreevy who later remembered that “there used to be hundreds trying to get into the room, we could have sold tickets in Kildare for the election meetings”.
“A new aspect of elections came about – the televised leaders’ debate”
During the election a new aspect of the election came about, televised leaders’ debates hosted by RTÉ. An audience of thousands saw Haughey lambast Fitzgerald’s constitutional crusade as ‘psychological and political blunder’ with Fitzgerald coming back at Haughey arguing that he was distorting the facts. There has never been a leadership debate like it since, for not only was this debate and this election a contest between
two leaders – it was also between two different visions for Ireland.
When the votes were counted, the result was another hung parliament with the Fine Gael-Labour coalition losing only two seats between them winning a total of 78 seats. On the Fianna Fail side, the party won more than 47 per cent of the vote, which should have given the party a comfortable majority;. However the party won 81 seats leaving it three seats shy of an overall majority. Both parties would fight for the support of the Workers’ Party and the independent TD, Tony Gregory.
While Fitzgerald had a clear path to negotiate, Haughey had to deal with a leadership challenge organised by his chief critics in the party. In his first challenge to his leadership, luck would be on his side as newspapers predicted Haughey’s demise claiming O’Malley would win easily.
However, it would be an article on 24 February by Irish Independent journalist Bruce Arnold – which listed 46 voters for O’Malley as opposed to just 20 for Haughey – that would scare many wavering TDs back into his camp as he targeted pressure on the TDs named in Arnold’s article.
It is ironic that it was one of Haughey’s most critical journalists that helped keep him in the leadership of the party as the parliamentary party meeting on 25th February saw Haughey re-elected leader without a vote.
What was even more remarkable about Haughey’s skill as politician was that while he fought off a leadership challenge he successfully outmaneuvered his other adversary, Garret Fitzgerald.
“I can’t nationalise the f***ing banks”
Recalling the talks with both political leaders, Tony Gregory contrasted the approach of both men claiming that Fitzgerald lacked a “common touch” claiming that Haughey was more “a man of the people”. The negotiations which culminated in the £80 million Gregory Deal ended with
Haughey gaining the necessary support to become Taoiseach for the second time. As he finished his negotiations Haughey told Gregory:
You’re pushing an open door on most of these issues, but for Christ’s sake, I can’t nationalise the f***ing banks… but as Al Capone used to say, it’s nice doing business with ya.
While the Gregory Deal delivered Haughey the government, it would go on to prove the old adage that ‘if you sell your soul to achieve power, ultimately you end up with neither.’ The deal cast doubt about Haughey’s commitment to rein in public spending and as the economy deteriorated his new Finance Minister, Ray MacSharry, would quickly warn the government about the need to introduce spending cuts.
The government’s economic plan published in late 1982 titled ‘The Way Forward’, promising fiscal restraint, was in direct opposition to the agreement he had signed with a number of left wing TDs. Haughey also during this period faced a number of scandals with the most notable one being Ireland’s most wanted criminal, Malcolm MacArthur, being discovered in the home of Attorney General, Patrick Connolly, where MacArthur had been hiding out without Connolly’s knowledge. These events led to another unsuccessful bid by Haughey’s critics in the party to remove him from the leadership in October.
With his leadership under siege, scandals and a ballooning budget deficit, the final blow would come from Fitzgerald who would table a motion of no confidence bringing the government to an end after just nine months. Fitzgerald ran an energetic campaign, running on what they called the ‘Haughey Factor’, illustrating his leadership flaws and contrasting Fitzgerald as a more honourable leader. This strategy worked brilliantly for the party as they came within just five seats of Fianna Fáil. This would be the party’s best result until the 2011 general election.
The year of GUBU is often written about in a derogatory fashion as a year when Irish society suffered economic hardship and political instability. Yet in so many ways it was the year that changed Irish society. The events that took place during 1982 would be felt for years afterwards as the fallout from the scandal around phone tappings emerged and the desire of both Haughey and Fitzgerald to not repeat the same economic mistakes that they made during their brief tenures in government became entrenched.
When we talk about the best political rivalries in history, most people have to go back 30 years to think of one. While the GUBU year did have its flaws, it also should be remembered that politically it was the year that defined a divided nation. We have not seen since nor are we likely to see in the near future as contentious a debate about this country’s future as we did see in 1982.
David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster.