Interest in Irish politics or history amongst most of my lecturers at the London School of Economics ended with the 1921 Treaty. At that point Ireland had gone its own way and apart from the vexed question of the North/Northern Ireland/Ulster/the Six Counties, there was not much that caught the attention. But for a brief period a quarter of a century ago, there was a spark of interest amongst the academics who taught me. Ireland had three general elections in eighteen months. Like two old heavyweight boxers trying to pound each other into submission, Charles Haughey and Garret Fitzgerald trod streets, and stood on platforms, and made countless speeches.
Twenty-five years ago today, on 24th November 1982, Garret Fitzgerald gained the upper hand and formed a government that was to last until 1987.
The politics lecturer believed part of the instability was due to the fact that there was no ideological difference between the two main parties. He recounted a tale from the European Parliament in 1973. At the formation of the new parliament, it was alleged, both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael had applied to become members of the Christian Democrat grouping at Strasbourg. The story goes that the Fianna Fail application arrived earlier and was placed in an ‘in tray’, the Fine Gael application was later, and was placed in the ‘in tray’ above that of their opponents. When the letters were opened, the Fine Gael application was considered first and they were admitted to the grouping, leaving Fianna Fail without membership of a significant parliamentary group.
Perhaps its the fact that the battleground is not clear that makes Irish politics so grey. Few people in England could actually name the Irish prime minister, let alone give his official title.
Not only is the ideological ground unclear, but there is nothing much left to fight over. Most law now originates with the European Union; economic policy is determined by the European Central Bank; foreign policy differences with Europe are hardly possible when you are a small country of four million people. You are left wondering what the government is actually for; most things would run more smoothly if left to a professional civil service.
Lack of issues and lack of powers leaves us with Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny; both very nice, but not exactly inspiring. Watching coverage of the Australian election results on ABC this morning, and the unscripted speeches of the defeated John Howard and the victorious Kevin Rudd, there was a sense that few of our politicians could have risen to the occasion. There are plenty of people here of the calibre of the Australian leadership but they see see no point in engaging in Irish politics.
It leaves you almost longing for the days of Charles J and Garret the Good.