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Friday, 22 May 2015

The ascent of Charlie

This week has seen a lot of focus on the death of Lord Mountbatten in 1979, and that of several of his boating companions. That event also set in place a series of changes in Irish politics that would had even larger repercussions for the country.

Jack Lynch was still Taoiseach in 1979 when Mountbatten was killed. He had led Fianna Fáil into power in 1977 with a majority government, but this popularity was to fade quickly. The worldwide recession in the late 1970s brought a lot of economic difficulties for Ireland, which were exacerbated by a rise in population, and in particular, in an increase in young adults searching for employment.

The Mountbatten assassination was not handled well by Lynch, and the situation was made worse when the public began to believe that he had made concessions to the British by allowing their incursions into Irish airspace. The situation in the North was very delicate at that time, as the H-block protests and hunger strikes were becoming a very emotive factor.

When two by-elections in Cork, Lynch’s home constituency, were won by Fine Gael candidates, it was inevitable that Lynch would step down as leader of Fianna Fáil. Two people emerged as the main candidates for leader – Charles Haughey and George Colley. They represented the opposing factions in Fianna Fáil: Colley, the serving Tánaiste and Minister for Finance, was the respected favourite of the senior ministers and the moderates in the party whereas Haughey appealed to backbenchers with memories of the party’s republican roots and traditions. At the end of the bitterly divisive contest, Haughey carried the votes from the party overall, winning by 44 votes to 38.

Haughey assuming leadership of Fianna Fáil in 1979
Despite this triumph, Haughey remained a controversial figure, and it was essential for him to win a personal mandate from the public. His background as Minister for Finance had been seen as one of his strengths and he initially pledged his intention to control public-sector borrowing and the budget deficit. However, inflation, unemployment and borrowing all continued to rise under his tenure until the election scheduled for 1981.

The next 18 months would prove very turbulent for Irish politics, as three elections were held between May 1981 and November 1982. Control of the government see-sawed between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, both of whom relied heavily on support from smaller parties like Labour or independents such as Tony Gregory.

Garret FitzGerald about to receive his seal of office as the newly elected Taoiseach
30 June 1981
With little differences between the policies of the two main parties, it was almost inevitable that media coverage would focus on personalities, in particular those of the two leaders – Haughey, the man of the people, versus Fine Gael’s Garret FitzGerald, the ‘professor’, with the personal antagonism between the two men only sharpening the contrast. It was the introduction of Americanised style over substance election coverage to Ireland, with two very capable and intelligent leaders ready to seize the challenge.