Fr Kevin Hegarty
There is something about March 9 and Irish politics. On that day, 79 years ago, Fianna Fáil entered Dáil Éireann as the largest party which it remained until our recent General Election. In 1932 the wounds of the Civil War were still raw.
The bitterness even seeped into the poetry. Austin Clarke wrote of the Cumann na nGaedheal party which held office for the first decade of Irish Independence:
“They are the spit of virtue now,
Prating of law and honour
But we remember how they shot Rory O’Connor.”
O’Connor was one of the Republician leaders in the Civil War. After his catpure, he was sentenced to death by the pre-treaty government. Among those who authorised his execution was Kevin O’Higgins, the Minister for Home Affairs. O’Connor had been the best man at his wedding. Dark days indeed.
In March 1932 Fianna Fáil feared that Cumann na nGaedheal would not hand over power to it. There were rumours of military intervention to deny the verdict of the electorate. Several Fianna Fáil TD’s carried guns in their suit pockets as they made their way to Leinster House. One TD was seen assembling a machine gun in a telephone booth.
Fianna Fáil need not have worried. The leader of Cumann na nGaedheal, WT Cosgrave, was an exemplary democrat. He ceded power gracefully to Eamon de Valera.
March 9, 2011, was also a momentous day as the 31st Dáil met for the first time. The atmosphere was, however, carnival rather than corrosive.
There were over 60 new members of various political and sartorial hues. There was a spring-like atmosphere of renewed hope.
Supporters of Fine Gael were euphoric. Having laboured for long in the shadow of the Fianna Fáil monolith their party had become the biggest in the Dáil. For them it was like dying and going to Heaven.
The youngest TD, Simon Harris, in proposing Enda Kenny as Taoiseach made a maiden speech of unusually high quality. Micheál Martin, gallantly leading a decimated Fianna Fail, honourably said his party would not oppose the nomination of the new government. He spoke graciously of Enda Kenny.
The carnival atmosphere of that day should not mask the serious message that the electorate sent to our politicians on February 25. For Fianna Fáil the message was most severe. They have paid the price for complacency in office and a perceived toxic association with dodgy developers.
Together Fine Gael and Labour have the biggest government majority in the history of the State. However, the rise of Sinn Féin and the high number of Independents elected indicate that the people’s trust in the traditionally dominant parties is fragile. Along with the onerous task of setting our economy to rights the new government needs to embark on a programme of political reform to increase the relevance of the Dáil.
It was a great day for Enda Kenny, for his wife Fionnuala and his children and, by extension, for all of us in mayo. All politics is local. In his biography of Michael Collins, Frank O’Connor wrote poignantly of the Leader’s return to his native West Cork after he became head of government in 1922. His supporters remembered him as a very young man, little more than a ‘gasúr’, organising the local volunteers. Now they looked on in awe as he spoke to them as Leader of their country. There was similar awe in Castlebar when Enda returned to his native town for the first time as Taoiseach.
On those who smirked when he said in the doldrums of the 2002 defeat that he would electrify Fine Gael, he has had the last laugh. Those who know him well speak of his warmth and kindness.
As party leader he has shown a capacity for effective delegation. He exemplifies the truth of Samuel Johnson’s aphorism that knowledge is not knowing everything, it is knowing where to find it. An index of this trait is the ability of the party organisers and political advisers he has gathered around him since 2002, a team that equalled Fianna Fáil in its heyday.
After his election as Taoiseach, he made a fine contribution to the Dáil. Missing thankfully from it was his occasional unfortunate tendency to indulge in political bombast that has made some of us cringe. Things one might have got away with at an after-Mass meeting in the early days of his career sound, in the white light of today’s media, like quotes from an episode of ‘D’Unbelievables’.
His speech was inclusive, He paid tribute not only to former Fine Gael Taoisigh but also to Fianna Fáil ones. He promised to enter a covenant based on honesty with the Irish people. Leadership for him meant “public duty over personal entitlement and conscience over convenience”.
I am sure that I speak for the vast majority of Mayo people in wishing him well. May he bring to his new position the pride of Grace O’Malley, the passion for justice of Michael Davitt and the commitment to inclusion of Mary Robinson.
In ‘Benedictus’ John O’Donohue has a prayer for Leaders. May Enda find inspiration in the following extract:
“May you know the wisdom of deep listening,
The healing of wholesome words,
The encouragement of the appreciative gaze,
The decorum of held dignity,
The springtime edge of the bleak question,
May you have a mind that loves frontiers,
So that you can invoke the bright fields
That lie beyond the view of the regular eye,
May you have good friends
To mirror your blind spots,
May leadership be for you
A true adventure of growth.”