Few political leaders leave on their own terms. At tonight’s meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party, Enda Kenny pledged to deal conclusively with the leadership issue when he returns from the United States after his St Patrick’s Day visit next month. Although it seems he will name the date of his departure, his hand has been forced. He will now take his place alongside former party leaders since the FitzGerald era who were either pushed or voted out of office.

By the time that Garret FitzGerald stepped down as leader of Fine Gael in 1987, he had taken the party to both its highest and lowest points. At the time of his departure, Fine Gael was suffering an identity crisis. The divisions, which had emerged in the 1960s over Declan Costello’s Just Society proposals,[1] became far more pronounced as FitzGerald took the party into government. Unlike Costello, he actually had the opportunity to implement the policies that formed the basis of his Constitutional Crusade –a plan to build a pluralist Ireland, based on the principles of Tone and Davis. He had attempted (somewhat unsuccessfully) to carry out a delicate balancing act in an effort to keep together a party internally divided on all of the major socio-moral issues that faced his government.

Alan Dukes succeeded FitzGerald, becoming the party’s youngest leader. What followed was a period of instability as the leadership became the target for members disgruntled with the party’s problems. Dukes was considered aloof by some, and the advisability of his Tallaght Strategy – which was, in fact, first proposed by FitzGerald on results’ night in 1987 – was questioned by some elements in the party. Although Fine Gael’s share of the vote rose marginally in 1989, Dukes’s leadership was not secure and it was fatally compromised by the 1990 presidential election. The failure to deliver a high-profile candidate, combined with a lacklustre campaign, resulted in a motion of no confidence, which Dukes pre-empted by resigning on 30 November 1990.

The efforts by a section of the party to oust Dukes ushered in a new phase in the party. Until that point, as John Bruton has pointed out, Fine Gael had acted like a family.[2] Now, however, the party began to turn on its leader as frustrations grew. As Olivia O’Leary put it, ‘it is a real sign of a party in free-fall when it becomes a serial leader killer’.[3] During FitzGerald’s second term in office, Dukes, Gemma Hussey and FitzGerald were closer to the Labour ministers than most of their colleagues. They represented the more social progressive elements of the party. When John Bruton succeeded Alan Dukes, the more conservative elements once again dominated the party.

As Fine Gael struggled to locate its place in the party system, Bruton spent ten uneasy years at the helm, surviving no less than three motions of no-confidence, before becoming the first Fine Gael leader to be voted out of that position. Despite ordering a review of the party’s difficulties and taking Fine Gael into government in 1994, he was ousted by the self-styled ‘dream team’[4] of Michael Noonan and Jim Mitchell.

This latest leadership challenge unsettled the party on the eve of the 2002 election, and the campaign never really got off the ground. Fine Gael’s 2002 contest was summed up in Geraldine Kennedy’s observation that ‘the crass non-professionalism’ was astounding; by the image of a Roscommon voter shoving a pie in the face of Michael Noonan, who was haunted by the legacy of the Hepatitis C scandal from his time as Minister for Health; and of a visibly distraught Noonan conceding election as his party colleagues lost their seats in spectacular numbers. Fine Gael’s vote collapsed, leaving it with its lowest ever share of Dáil seats. The in-fighting had almost destroyed the party, practically wiping out the frontbench, and, not for the first time, it left many wondering about the future. As Gay Mitchell remarked, ‘the electorate was unsure what we stood for’.[5]

In the aftermath of 2002’s historic low, Frank Flannery authored a major report. ‘Forget about history, traditions, places in history, famous old faces, and political records’, he advised. The process of re-building Fine Gael after 2002 culminated in a triumphant return to government in 2011 under Enda Kenny’s leadership. It was not a simple process, however, and frustration once more manifested itself in a leadership challenge in February 2010 when Richard Bruton attempted to displace Kenny.

Enda Kenny survived that leadership heave, leading the party into government in 2011 and back to power again in 2016. His leadership has been under question for some time now, but, like so many before him, he has clung to his position, forcing the party to act. Fine Gael’s history over the last three decades shows that it has no hesitation in doing so.


[1] See: Ciara Meehan, A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-1987 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[2] Author interview with John Bruton, 28 September 2012.

[3] Olivia O’Leary, Politicians and Other Animals (O’Brien Press, 2004), p. 22.

[4] The Irish Times, 3 February 2001.

[5] Quoted in E. O’Malley and M. Kerby, ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold? Understanding the Decline of Fine Gael’, Irish Political Studies, 19, 1 (2004), p. 41.