Writing in The Irish Times, Fiach Kelly suggested that ‘for Simon Coveney, it is the soul of Fine Gael. For the supporters of Leo Vardakar, it is just a slogan’. Kelly was referring to Declan Costello’s Just Society, which has been somewhat frequently mentioned in the current Fine Gael leadership contest. I’ve been intrigued to hear the number of times it has been referenced. As the author of a book on Costello’s Just Society, I’m always interested in the ways that subsequent party members engage with the document and its legacy. The idea that the Just Society has become a useful slogan is not a new one. At the time of the 1965 general election — when Costello’s policy was transformed into Towards a Just Society, a type of manifesto — the content did not lend itself to useful canvassing pledges, but the title certainly offered a ready-made slogan. As Jim O’Keeffe put it to me when I interviewed him about the document, ‘the Just Society was like milk and apple pie. Who could possibly be against [it]? And yet members of Fine Gael were opposed to it. If anything, the Just Society is a symbol of internal party division.
Briefly put — knowing that he would struggle to convince the front bench of its merits, Declan Costello broke with protocol and circulated his proposals to the entire parliamentary party in April 1964.
Costello proposed that the policy be based upon eight principles: economic planning (rather than the government’s policy of programming), which would include the private, as well as public, sector; a ministry for economic affairs; government control of the banks’ credit policies; investment in industry; and price control. He also proposed to reverse the government’s policy of reducing social capital investment and the preference for indirect as against direct taxation.
While the proposals were ultimately accepted and were later transformed into Towards a Just Society for the 1965 general election, there wasn’t any great enthusiasm for them. And the party only half-heartedly campaigned on the concept at that election.
Fine Gael’s true commitment to the Just Society would be tested in the aftermath of the general election. The party had adopted the concept in 1965 because the document was already under preparation and there was no alternative on which to fight the campaign. And although there were some signs of activity, for some of the more conservative elements, there was a sense that adopting the policy was sufficient and that no further discussion was necessary.
Fine Gael did not completely shelve the concept. Rather it conducted its campaign for the 1969 general election under the banner of Winning Through to a Just Society. However, there was a sense of disillusion among Declan Costello’s supporters that the party had not done more to develop the ideas laid out in 1964/5. By the time of the next election, Costello had retired from politics. Although he reversed that decision and contested the 1973 general election, becoming attorney general in the newly formed National Coalition of Fine Gael and Labour, as one party activist put it, ‘We were the party of the Just Society … but it was a long way behind us by then’.
So from the outset, Fine Gael was not sold on the policy of a Just Society. If anything, it was very much a symbol of internal division. It is, therefore, all the more intriguing that it has taken on the status of being a key moment or a signature document in the party’s history.
When Declan Costello passed away in June 2011, Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny described Costello’s document as ‘an initiative that helped to modernise the party and broaden its appeal’. Various media sources echoed the opinion that the Just Society had made an important impact. Hugh O’Connell’s assessment for TheJournal.ie claimed that the document ‘would define the party for some 20 years’, while Deaglán de Bréadún writing in The Irish Times described Towards a Just Society as Costello’s ‘monument’. From these, and other tributes, it is clear that many perceive the Just Society as an important document in Irish political history. It came to be identified by Fine Gael as a key moment in the party’s history, and when their old website contained a history feature, the Just Society era was given its own, albeit brief, section.
But the praise that surrounded Costello’s initiative in the tributes paid after his death masks the fact that Fine Gael was not united on the proposals in the 1960s, that the policy had faded away as a priority by the 1970s, and that, while it may well be remembered by members, it was not a consideration in policy formulation over the two decades that followed its introduction. It is reasonable to argue that the Just Society became an inspiring slogan, a useful reference. We’re seeing further evidence of that in the current Fine Gael leadership debate.