‘Every vote counts’ was one of the key themes that emerged out of the weekend’s coverage of the Seanad referendum. Emphasising the closeness of the result, reference was made on more than one occasion to the 10,000 votes that separated Eamon de Valera from his Fine Gael rival at the 1966 presidential election. I couldn’t help but think of the parallel with the late Garret FitzGerald and his Constitutional Crusade of the 1980s. Arthur Beesley’s column in today’s Irish Times could easily describe the former Fine Gael leader’s failed initiative:
[Enda] Kenny emerges with his authority dimmed from the unsuccessful campaign to scrap the Upper House. It was he who championed abolition, ran with it in the 2011 election and led the push for a referendum. Now it has failed, he is most closely identified with the defeat.
On becoming Taoiseach for the first time, FitzGerald announced that he wanted to ‘lead a crusade’ that would revise the Irish constitution and create a republic based on the principles of Tone and Davis. Almost immediately his aim of building a pluralist Ireland was derailed when he acceded to a request from the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) for a constitutional referendum to copperfasten the right to life of the unborn.
Towards a New Ireland, published in 1972, was FitzGerald’s blueprint for the type of society he wanted to create. In the penultimate chapter of the book, he summarised the specific steps that could be taken to seek reunification of the country in terms that would be acceptable to Northern Protestants. Abortion was not included. In fact, several pages earlier, he had argued that abortion ‘is not an issue with the bulk of Northern Protestant opinion’. FitzGerald, however, clearly underestimated Protestant views on abortion, or, more specifically, on the State legislating for abortion. Even if the moral ethics surrounding the medical procedure were taken out of the equation, FitzGerald still undermined his own message. Although he had claimed that abortion was not an issue for Northern Protestants, he had also written about the need to assure Unionists that the law-making process in the Irish state would not be subject to the demands of the Catholic lobby. The eighth amendment to the constitution was very clearly a product, and reflected the power, of that lobby.
FitzGerald subsequently attempted to pull back from his commitment to PLAC. Arguably, this was partially due to his declared Constitutional Crusade, but he was also influence by the views of his government’s Attorney General, Peter Sutherland. Sutherland was of the opinion that a constitutional amendment was unnecessary, as the right to life of the unborn was already protected under existing legislation. Moreover, he was uncomfortable with the wording proposed by PLAC:
The state recognises the absolute right to life of every unborn child from conception, and accordingly guarantees to respect and protect such a right by law.
He strongly advised against putting such an amendment to the people. However, the momentum was behind the Pro-Life campaign, and with Charles Haughey — FitzGerald’s great rival — also willing to support an amendment, FitzGerald found himself in the position of having to protect himself from accusations of being sympathetic towards abortion. His efforts to outmanoeuvre his Fianna Fáil rival produced, as one one angry letter-writer to the Irish Farmers Journal put it, an ‘anything you can do, I can do better’ attitude.
FitzGerald ordered that the parliamentary party should not take an active public part in the campaign. However, the party’s pro-life lobby, led by Oliver Flanagan, Tom O’Donnell, Michael Joe Cosgrave and Alice Glenn, campaigned actively in favour of the amendment. Flanagan, in particular, campaigned extensively in various constituencies outside his own of Laois-Offaly.
The referendum was carried on 7 September 1983 by a majority of two to one, with 841,233 people voting yes and 416,136 voting no. FitzGerald later admitted that he had regretted the referendum, which had left many wondering about his leadership. An editorial in the Connacht Sentinel remarked ‘there is something pathetic about a head of government admitting he was wrong in his warm endorsement of the wording and his promise to put that wording to the people’. Early on, Gemma Hussey — Minister for Education in the FitzGerald-let government — had written in her diary that ‘Garret has shown a lack of leadership’, and it was hardly surprising that whispers of potential alternative leaders waiting in the wings began to circulate.
If the amendment campaign had de-railed FitzGerald’s constitutional crusade, the referendum on divorce offered him the chance to revive his pluralist agenda – and to prove his leadership. However, the anti-divorce divorce lobby stole the initiative. Their message that the amendment would impoverish women and undermine their rights was so effective that it placed the pro-lobby on the back foot. The failure of the divorce referendum marked the end of the constitutional crusade.
Gemma Hussey’s diaries from her time as Minister for Education, written without a view to publication, offer a thorough account of cabinet life during FitzGerald’s second government. Though her respect for FitzGerald is clear from her entries, there was a growing sense of frustration about his leadership. A steeliness of character that Conor Cruise O’Brien had identified in FitzGerald when they served together as ministers in the National Coalition (1973-77) appeared to escape FitzGerald when he became government leader, and, at one point in 1984, Hussey considered him to be someone who lacked steel and could not be ‘totally relied on’. She made the observation in the aftermath of the abortion referendum, which FitzGerald himself admitted he did not handle well. From as early as December 1984, she recorded that his position was ‘under fire’.
The Constitutional Crusade was the brainchild of Garret FitzGerald; an initiative associated solely with him and his leadership. Its failure severely — though not fatally — damaged his position as leader. With FitzGerald’s experience in mind, the test now for Enda Kenny is how he recovers, responds to his critics and handles future referenda envisaged by his government.