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Is there a Socially Liberal wing left in Fine Gael ? November 26, 2012

Posted by irishelectionliterature in Fine Gael, Irish Politics.

Was talking to a very unhappy FGer today … unhappy with Austerity? No ….. but unhappy with they way Fine Gael have managed over the last few weeks to portray themselves as one of the last bastions of social conservatism in Ireland.
I may be wrong but in the last few weeks since the Savita tragedy, the supposed ‘Liberal’ wing of Fine Gael has been very thin on the ground in their media appearances and statements. Indeed TCD YFG got short shrift from the party when

they backed a call for the government to bring forward legislation for the X Case and voted for full abortion up to 10 weeks to be allowed in Ireland.

Michelle Mulherin, John Bannon and others have been wheeled out to emphasise Fine Gaels Pro-Life values, yet there doesn’t appear to be many Fine Gael TDs willing to step above the parapet in support of ‘Choice’ or anything remotely divergent from legislating for X. It’s all ‘wait for the expert report’.
In the eighties Fine Gael had a good number of TDs that could have been classed as socially ‘Liberal’, of course it had Alice Glenn and Oliver J Flanagan too but there were a good deal of Socially Liberal TDs.
Are the new generation of Fine Gael TDs almost all economically and Socially to the right?
Over its lifetime, did the PDs gather those economically to the Right and socially liberal, whose previous home would have been Fine Gael?

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1. sonofstan - November 26, 2012

It was, of course, that liberal saint, Garret who got us into this mess in the first place.

RiD has an interesting account of the flip-flopping of a prominent FG-er on the issue…….and it is also germane to the issue that many of the prominent younger FGers in this government came from that same TCD YFG branch.

doctorfive - November 26, 2012

Free the markets, regulated the women.

Very interesting to see a number of TDs and their ‘evolving’ opinions. Is the Savita case somehow more nuanced then the rest or were they just not prepared to listen before?

WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2012

Or a bit of political expedience I’d think as well, though of the two options you suggest doctorfive I’d go for the latter.

WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2012

On the broader issue it is striking how even rhetorically that socially liberal line has simply left the building. It could be the PDs, but I think it’s also a change in FG. I wonder though if the running back to ‘evolve’ is a belated recognition that they might have tipped too far the other way for an electorate that fairly clearly seems willing to go with legislation on X?

RosencrantzisDead - November 26, 2012

Were the PDs socially liberal? They would seem to fit the mold of the ‘free markets and free love’ types, but I thought they came out as pro-life.

Mark P - November 26, 2012

It should probably also be remembered that “socially liberal” back in the days when certain elements of Fine Gael portrayed themselves as liberals tended to mean things like favouring divorce, wider availability of contraception and, possibly, if you were a real radical, support for the decriminalisation of gay sex.

I suspect that much of the Fine Gael parliamentary party would still be “socially liberal” by those standards.

gabbagabbahey - November 26, 2012

In answer to Rosencrantz’s question, I remember in UCD around the 2006 or so the Young PDs explicitly trying to recruit people on the basis of progressive social attitudes to gay rights, etc. (and their achievements in lowering unemployment ha), but I don’t recall one way or the other where abortion came in. I wonder if there isn’t a schism within social liberalism in Ireland where reproductive rights isn’t a step too far, something that is the preserve of socialists and active feminists?

I was intrigued to read in the Magill (I think) article about the 1982-3 amendment campaign that was linked in the comments here recently that Fitzgerald eagerly agreed to the initial proposal for a pro-life amendment, figuring it would help his other desired constitutional changes such as divorce, but backed off somewhat later when the obvious Catholicism of the proposed amendment threatened the pluralism he was seeking in Irish society. So reinforcing the Catholic sanctity of life was, initially at least, compatible with pursuing social liberalism in other fields.

2. Damian O'Broin (@damianobroin) - November 26, 2012

I wonder is it simply a case that Labour is now the party of choice for middle class social liberals?

A combination of Labour being a less threatening home for such folk, FG having been out of power for so long and increasingly dominated by the right wing, and as Mark P says, the liberal agenda having moved on substantially from the 1980s. 1983 is a generation ago, after all.

Mark P - November 26, 2012

I wonder is it simply a case that Labour is now the party of choice for middle class social liberals?

Must… restrain… self…

Damian O'Broin (@damianobroin) - November 27, 2012

Ah no, you don’t want to be going restraining yourself ;)

3. Ivorthorne - November 26, 2012

Is it possible to be socially liberal and oppose introducing abortion laws similar to those in Britain and elsewhere? It would seem that some of those who one might call social conservatives favor legislating for the X case.

I’m not sure how meaningful the old liberal-conservative distinction is in this day and age. Virtually no elected TD opposes civil unions, divorce, contraception etc. By the standards of the 80s, almost all of our TDs are liberals. Is abortion the only “social” issue on which our elected representatives disagree?

Mark P - November 26, 2012

Gay marriage and trans rights both spring to mind.

WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2012

And very deep the divide on both those issues there is between social conservatives and social liberals. Though I don’t like the latter term at all tbh.

Ivorthorne - November 27, 2012

On Gay Marriage, the level of opposition from most FF/FG TDs is minimal. They seem to accept it as inevitable, but want to introduce it at the least controversial moment possible.

As for the rights of transsexuals, there are hardly any politicians, liberal.or conservative, who are stepping up on those issues.

And to.be honest, there isn’t really any reason obvious to me why supporters of any one of the “liberal” causes should automatically support another.

Why, for example should someone who supports the availability divorce support the availability of contraception? The link between the.two issues is weak. There is probably a stronger link between, say, the contraceptive issue and legalising some recreational drugs.

WorldbyStorm - November 27, 2012

I’m not entirely convinced Ivorthorne that they’re unrelated. It seems to me that all these issues can be linked to concepts of autonomy in one way or another, and expanding that autonomy.

Ivorthorne - November 27, 2012

Marriage isn’t really about autonomy though. If it was, would people have balked in the way they did when it was suggested that civil unions might be useful to people in non-romantic relationships?

And in the case of abortion, all sides would claim that they support autonomy. The main difference lies in when people think the human organism is entitled to human rights.

In the case of drug legalization, where liberals oppose it, their arguments take the same form of conservatives against the issues the liberal support. Similarly, liberal cases against legalising prostitution also tend to have a lot in common with conservative arguments.

I’m not claiming that these views are devoid of an intellectual basis or that all arguments are equal, but I believe that people tend to only see the merits of arguments that suppo

Ivorthorne - November 27, 2012

Marriage isn’t really about autonomy though. If it was, would people have balked in the way they did when it was suggested that civil unions might be useful to people in non-romantic relationships?

And in the case of abortion, all sides would claim that they support autonomy. The main difference lies in when people think the human organism is entitled to human rights.

In the case of drug legalization, where liberals oppose it, their arguments take the same form of conservatives against the issues the liberal support. Similarly, liberal cases against legalising prostitution also tend to have a lot in common with conservative arguments.

I’m not claiming that these views are devoid of an intellectual basis or that all arguments are equal, but I believe that people tend to only see the merits of arguments that support social practices they are comfortable with.

WorldbyStorm - November 27, 2012

Surely it – or a civil union – is if people want it to be? Particularly if one is forbidden from getting marriage (and divorce of course extends autonomy if the marriage fails). Isn’t the point about arguments pro and contra different issues being similar perhaps more an example of form follows function?

I do agree that people tend to see merit only in arguments for issues they support…

4. Tomboktu - November 27, 2012

But even in back in the day, it was only a wing.

In 1993 when Maire Geoghgan-Quinn introduced the bill to decriminalise homosexuality, she went for a mainly common age of consent of 17 rather than the “compromise” of 18. FG TDs, with Madeline Taylor Quinn, put down an amendment to change that to 18. The liberal wing lost the debate in the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party on accepting an age of consent of 17. Gay Mitchell had the job of proposing an amendment to the bill to raise the age.

In the debate, it was never reached, mainly because another earlier amendment on prostitution from the PDs was discussed ad nauseum, although Nora Owen and Mary Flaherty both came in a t the end of the allocated time to ensure all of the available time was used up on Michael McDowell’s amendment after he had offered to withdraw it.

5. Bartley - November 27, 2012

In fairness, the issues that the 1980s-vintage FG social liberals grappled with were seriously low-hanging fruit, so low the branches almost touched the ground.

Nothing like what faces us today.

I wonder is it simply a case that Labour is now the party of choice for middle class social liberals?

Labours social liberalism is pretty much irrelevant I would guess to the main demographic the party is currently courting. Not that liberalism a turn-off to those voters, but it certainly is not their unique selling point.

dmfod - November 27, 2012

That’s projecting today’s standards onto the past. Divorce, contraception and decrimininalising homosexuality might seem like low hanging fruit from the standpoint of 2012 but were all controversial at the time. You could probably look back in 30 years and say gay marriage was a low hanging fruit, and possibly even limited abortion or decriminalising cannabis.

Bartley - November 27, 2012


Fair enough point about projecting todays standards onto the mood of the 80s.

However I do think the issues addressed back then were far less morally complex. Whatever anyone thinks of marriage breakdown, or contraception, or the homosexual age of consent, nobody dies (usually).

It was much more a case of unhitching the state from Roman Catholic church doctrine, as opposed to navigating a moral quagmire.

ejh - November 27, 2012

I was vaguely under the impression that Labour were courting the voting-for-somebody-else-next-time demographic.

RosencrantzisDead - November 27, 2012

They are hoping to rely on good feeling by tackling some of the great liberal causes of the day: more rights for LGBT persons (though we’ll still lag behind other countries – a very Irish radicalism). They are also ‘committed’ to legislating on X; they just did not feel up to it during the summer, but maybe sometime in 2013 once they are feeling a little better and stronger.

BY the by, I would love to sit down with this new expert report and compare its recommendations to Clare Daly’s bill. From the sounds of it, one will be hard pressed to find anything that the report could add.

Mark P - November 27, 2012
RosencrantzisDead - November 27, 2012

I saw that. 14 members of the expert group, including 4 lawyers, were needed to write about 50 pages. And a good 4 of those pages are directly cut and pasted from the statute book.

Good old Irish efficiency, eh?

6. Red Hand - November 27, 2012

I’m sure most people on this site were at both the Savita and austerity marches. Compare and contrast the people at them. The same crowds? I don’t think so. Are different people more motivated by these issues?
I personally think Eamon Gilmore’s statement that Gay marriage is the greatest civil rights issue of the age to be patently ridiculous. I think it is an excuse for posing, pretending to be in favour of a more just society but doing nothing to change social or economic conditions. I would consider the right to choose to be far ahead of gay marriage in priority, but politicians will run from that because there is still a very large anti-choice bloc (including many ordinary people). (Notice eirigi’s position, abortion is more difficult for republicans than armed struggle!)
I also think there is a refusal in the media to realise Gay people are divided by class and politics and don’t all agree with each other on these issues.

Joe - November 28, 2012

That’s a very interesting point, Red Hand, about the different make-up of the crowds at the two recent demos. I wasn’t on the Savita marches but I was on Kildare St as people gathered at Leinster House for a rally one evening when the matter was being raised in the Dáil. I was on the anti-austerity march.
Here’s my take on the different crowds I saw. I’m not trying to diss anybody, just trying to describe them. (Having re-read this before I post, I genuinely am not trying to judge or slag anyone who took part in either of the demos, just trying to describe in a way that makes sense to 52 year old public servant me.)

The people I saw at the Savita demo were mostly in their twenties and thirties. I would describe them as mostly middle-class, third-level educated people, men and women. The kind of people who would produce and read the broadsheet.ie website. There’s a term used on that site – “hipsters” – and I’d say it could be ascribed to a fair few of the people I saw that evening. I guess people for whom how they look, what they wear, hairstyles etc are important.

The people at the anti-austerity demo were, on average, older. Active or fairly active trade unionists – so mostly public servants. Members of political parties – all ages. People from community groups based in working class areas – both people who work full-time in these community groups and people who use their services, participate in their activities. CAHWT supporters.

So, the differences? I guess the primary difference is the people on the abortion marchers are not necessarily of the left. You could/can be FG, FF, PD and support the right to choose or at least support legislation to provide for abortion in certain circumstances. The people on the anti-austerity march are pretty much all consciously or unconsciously of the left.

So why wasn’t I on any of the Savita demos? Why weren’t a lot of the anti-austerity demonstrators on any of the Savita demos? I guess fundamentally, on my part, it’s about prioritisation. I’m hardly active politically at all. The priority for me was the anti-austerity march. Perhaps, this choice can be explained by a comment I think I remember from the late Tony Gregory. I recall that he was criticised (possibly by a left group or by a feminist group) for not participating in or actively supporting campaigns around abortion. And his response was that this wasn’t an issue that came up in the communities he represented. I took that as him believing that his priority was to work for economic justice for the working class – a fairer share, a fairer chance for the communities he represented.

irishelectionliterature - November 28, 2012

I wasn’t at either of the marches but was outside the Dail for the Savita demos.
On a simple level, it was a younger crowd as they didn’t have to rush home to pick children up from the creche etc , bring kids to activities and so on.
again a generalisation

LeftAtTheCross - November 28, 2012

Joe, interesting observations there. The balance between class politics and identify politics, incl. feminism in the latter, is one of tension for those on the Left. As you say, it’s a question of priority, or emphasis. It’s quite possible to be a socially conservative Left who buys into patriarchy and is dismissive of feminism, just as it is possible to be a PD voter and feminist. To some extent I get the impression that the embrace of identify politics by the post ’68 New Left set the issue up as one of conflict between these and the established orthodox parties of the Left, which to some extent persists to this day. Only this morning I was reading an essay about the tensions within the PCE in the 70s over the priority of struggle for women’s rights in post-Franco ultra-RC Spain, and for an economic focus, and how those tensions played out in the various representative pillars within the party. Personally I don’t believe one can be a socialist without being a feminist, but like you say it’s a question of where to focus one’s energy, it’s not possible to be all things to all people at all times. So I wasn’t at the Savita protest either, but then again I’m not based in Dublin either, and there wasn’t one in Navan.

7. steve white - November 27, 2012

alan shatter

Mark P - November 28, 2012

It’s actually sort of interesting how far off message Shatter went.

Mark P - November 28, 2012

What I mean by that is that Shatter is someone I disagree with on just about every issue and someone who I have a great antipathy towards, but he’s also one of relatively few of our right wing politicians who fairly consistently give the impression that they have actual political principles. Even if I find most of those principles obnoxious (I’d say the same about Michael McDowell).

There’s also the factor that he’s getting on a bit, is in the job he wants and knows that he can never rise higher. He doesn’t really have to care about toeing the line in quite the same way as an ambitious younger politician.

sonofstan - November 28, 2012

What’s he say that was off message?

Red Hand - November 28, 2012

He implied that the law was wrong and that women were denied proper choices.
On the marches, my impression would be like Joe’s (above), the Savita demos drew a younger and more middle-class crowd than the austerity. (The far-left are the only crossover).

sonofstan - November 28, 2012

Thanks Red Hand – saves me from exposing myself needlessly to the IT/ RTE sites. Wasn’t on the DCTU march, but i don’t think the pro-choice march the Saturday before was entirely hipster central – but certainly I met a lot of people I wouldn’t see on other demos. The first ‘Savita’ demo – the day the news broke – was younger and more studenty though; probably due to the way it was organised and the short notice

8. doctorfive - November 28, 2012

Here is part of the speech -

It is also of course the position that a pregnancy that poses a serious risk to the health as opposed to the life of a woman, even where such health risk could result in permanent incapacity, does not provide a basis for effecting a termination in this State. The reality of course is that there is no impediment to men seeking and obtaining any required medical intervention to protect not only their life but also their health and quality of life. I am, of course, not only Minister for Justice and Defence but also Minister for Equality and it can truly be said that the right of pregnant women to have their health protected is, under our constitutional framework, a qualified right as is their right to bodily integrity. This will remain the position. This is a republic in we proclaim the equality of all citizens but it is a reality that some citizens are more equal than others.

We should not pretend that the limited measures that must now be put in place to satisfy the judgement of the European Court ensure true equality for all citizens of this republic, both men and women. They are however essential to ensuring that pregnant women whose lives are at risk have available to them the medical treatment they require.

and the rest http://oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie/debates%20authoring/debateswebpack.nsf/zoomin?readform&chamber=dail&memberid=1028&pid=AlanShatter&year=2012&month=11&day=27

He was surprisingly frank.
Opened by thanking Clare Daly for her work and everything

sonofstan - November 28, 2012

Interesting indeed. Thanks

LeftAtTheCross - November 28, 2012

Perhaps the fact that he’s not RC contributes to his deviation from the FG orthodoxy on this issue. Good to see some straight talking from a government Mnister for a change.

sonofstan - November 28, 2012

Of course it also gives the FG backwoods(wo)men a whispered behind the back of the hand excuse to dismiss his contribution.

9. Joe - November 28, 2012

So the answer to this thread’s question is:
Yes – Alan Shatter.

sonofstan - November 28, 2012

Meanwhile, if I’m understanding this correctly, his constituency colleague is nailing his colours to the other side of the mast: http://www.independent.ie/national-news/kenny-faces-backbench-abortion-revolt-3308968.html

sonofstan - November 28, 2012

‘His constituency colleague, Peter Matthews….’

irishelectionliterature - November 28, 2012

His other constituency colleague Olivia Mitchell said in I think the debate on the Clare Daly Bill…
“It is beyond my comprehension, why there is still an insistence that sick and possibly terminally ill women must undertake arduous, costly and stressful journeys to obtain abroad a service to which they have a constitutional entitlement in this country and in safe and supportive conditions.”

sonofstan - November 28, 2012

Do you think FG are consciously covering all the bases here? So that, even in what to all appearances would be the echt- socially liberal/ economically right wing constituency, they are making sure conservative FGers have someone to vote for? See also Dublin SE…..

10. CL - November 28, 2012

So, as Alan Shatter says, even if measures are now put in place to satisfy the judgement of the Eurpean Court, the right of pregnant women to bodily integrity and to have their health protected will still be denied under Ireland’s constitutional framework. Are there grounds here for another case before the European Court?

11. Fine Gael struggles with a great issue of the day… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - November 29, 2012

[...] ..to no clear effect. Fascinating how this is panning out in light of IELB’s thoughts here. [...]

12. doctorfive - September 25, 2013

Olivia O’Leary yesterday “sorry to see Richard Bruton, from Fine Gael’s social democratic wing leading the campaign against the Seanad”


Dr. X - September 25, 2013

I think these people don’t actually understand the terms they’re using – like Dan O’Brien and “neo-liberalism”.

They are not on a mission to educate or explain, or spur debate – they simply want to cut a bella figura on the nations’ airwaves.

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