“Saving the State, Fine Gael from Collins to Varadkar”, by Stephen Collins and Ciara Meehan, is a good example of a fruitful cooperation between a distinguished academic historian, and an insightful political journalist.
Ciara Meehan is a reader in history in the University of Hertfordshire.
Stephen Collins is a long time political columnist in the “Irish Times”.
Both have written numerous books separately, but their combined work on this occasion combines readability and rigorous judgement. It deserves a wide readership.
Although I have spent my lifetime intimately involved with the ups and down of Fine Gael, I learned much that was new to me in this book.
I had not known, for example, that in forming his government in 1973, Liam Cosgrave offered the Ministry of Finance to Brendan Corish, the Labour Leader, if Brendan Corish would agree to take it himself.
Corish declined and opted instead for Health and Social Welfare, so Richie Ryan of Fine Gael got the unenviable job of navigating the oil crisis and implementing some very unpopular capital taxes.
Fine Gael was formed as a political party in 1933.
It was of a merger of the old Cumann na nGaedhael led by WT Cosgrave, The Centre Party led by Frank McDermott and James Dillon, and the Blueshirts led by Eoin O Duffy.
It was agreed between the three merging groups that O Duffy, although not a TD, would be the overall leader. This proved to be a mistake and it is a mystery to me that it was not foreseen at the time.
In making this choice, the new party displayed a lack of confidence in itself and what it had achieved and a desire to associate itself with ephemeral contemporary political fashions, as represented by O Duffy.
In his favour, O Duffy had been prominent in the War of Independence and in the formation of the Garda Siochana. He had had executive responsibility. He had set up a movement and had shown he could organize political rallies.
He was seen, according to the authors
” as a Michael Collins type, someone who could excite the party in the way that Cosgrave could not”.
If that was the reason, it was an odd decision, for a party which was, and is, deeply constitutionalist in its convictions and support base. WT Cosgrave, the state builder, ought to be the iconic figure for Fine Gael, and ought to be its model in choosing a leader, then , now, or in the future.
The title of this book, “Saving the State” summarizes very well for me the core value that underlies Fine Gael.
It is that value that has led it to enter government with its traditional rival, Fianna Fail, a decision that reflects credit on both parties.
The book is full of interesting detail, and brings us right up to the formation of the present government.
It is an insightful and readable account……well worth buying for Christmas, if you like modern Irish history.