SAVING THE STATE: FINE GAEL FROM COLLINS TO VARADKAR

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2021), Reviews, Volume 29

STEPHEN COLLINS and CIARA MEEHAN
Gill Books
€22.99
ISBN 9780717189731

Reviewed by Barry Walsh

Barry Walsh is a solicitor and a former vice-chairman of the Fine Gael executive council.

This book has caused a lot of puzzlement among the many amateur historians in Fine Gael. While it contains a wealth of political facts and anecdotes, as a work of history it falls far short of what it sets out to do. The problems start with the scope of the book. Is it intended to be a full history of Fine Gael? Does it ‘chart the evolution of the party through the lens of its successive leaders’, as the blurb on the cover claims? Or is it a thematic examination of times when the party ‘saved the state’, as its dramatic title suggests?

The authors try to achieve all of these aims within the confines of just 418 pages but have bitten off more than they can chew. Collins is a journalist of four decades’ experience whose Power game: Fianna Fáil since Lemass (2000) was a valuable contribution to modern political history. His clear, engaging prose and journalistic style are recognisable throughout the book. Meehan is one of the finest of a generation of young historians who have come to the fore in the last decade. Her towering monograph The Cosgrave Party: a history of Cumann na nGaedheal (2010) successfully challenged many misconceptions about Fine Gael’s forerunner party.

This latest work is very much a potted history—a whirlwind trip through a century of political events, hurriedly covering ground that has been well trodden by many others. There is little here that cannot be read in the previous work of both authors, or in the work of others such as Michael Laffan, Maurice Manning, David McCullagh, Brian Maye and Stephen O’Byrnes. An interesting chapter on the short but eventful leadership of Alan Dukes is the only section that covers ground that will be genuinely new to most readers.

A feature of the book is its regular startling omissions. For example, a fourteen-year period from 1934 to 1948 is almost completely skipped, with Richard Mulcahy’s leadership receiving only a passing reference. These years, which Manning has described as ‘the most dismal in Fine Gael’s history’, are key to understanding how it evolved into the party it is today.

Other instances in which it might credibly be argued that Fine Gael or its leaders ‘saved the state’ are skimmed over. Take four examples: the Army Mutiny of 1924; the Arms Crisis of 1970; the economic collapse which the party inherited in 2011 and had largely stabilised by 2015; and the conclusion of the tortured Brexit negotiations in 2019. These enormous national crises, in which the party and its leaders were intimately involved, are zipped through in less than ten pages in total. In places, the authors are oddly candid about the reasons for their brevity. The role of the Church in the Mother and Child Scheme controversy is dismissed as ‘well known and thoroughly documented, making it unnecessary to cover well-worn ground here’. On Brexit the authors say that ‘this chapter does not allow the space for more than a brief look at Fine Gael’s position’. Really? Why not?

These admissions suggest a rush to publication or the culling of a large amount of material in the editing process—or perhaps both. There is virtually no consideration of the party’s structures, membership or voter base. Its youth wing, Young Fine Gael, through which four of its six current cabinet ministers were recruited to politics, receives just five cursory mentions (and not four, as the index erroneously suggests). Its affiliation to the European People’s Party—vital to its own recovery after 2002 and to the country’s recovery after 2011—is barely mentioned. There is no real analysis of Fine Gael’s shifting ideology through the decades. The opening paragraph of the book asserts that the party was at one time ‘the most liberal in Irish politics’. On its final page, a comment by Leo Varadkar that its members need to ‘talk to each other and define our identity’ is left hanging in the air with no exploration of where this might lead.

Chapters covering more recent decades rely heavily on newspaper reporting instead of original research, with fourteen current correspondents for national news outlets being mentioned by name. This runs the risk that errors made in the fast-paced political media will be cited as historical fact. Worse still would be for accurate newspaper reporting to be misinterpreted, as occurs here in a passage on the fractious convention for Fine Gael’s nomination for the 2011 presidential election. The authors assert that the eventual nominee, Gay Mitchell, ‘had aimed his campaign for the grassroots, and this had paid off’. In fact, he had done the very opposite, focusing on the party’s TDs, senators and executive council, which together comprised 80% of the total electorate. (As Mr Mitchell’s election agent I witnessed the success of this strategy firsthand.) This was accurately reported in the Sunday Independent at the time but, bizarrely, the authors cite this report as the basis for their version of events and so appear to have completely misinterpreted its contents.

The final chapter, ‘The End of Civil War Politics?’, jars completely with the rest of the book and is effectively a party-political broadcast for the current government, complete with 600 words of unchallenged quotations from Leo Varadkar and Paschal Donohoe. To conclude on such a hagiographic note will be off-putting to even the most stalwart supporters of the party. While this book provides plenty of red meat for the base, a thorough history of the Fine Gael party remains to be written.

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