BRENDAN Behan famously quipped that the first item on the agenda of any new political organisation in Ireland was 'the split'. And it seems that if a party manages to get beyond item one, it won't be long before 'the heave' works its way onto the agenda. Last week's move against Enda Kenny was at least the 18th time a party leader was challenged since Eoin O'Duffy got his visit from the Fine Gael men in grey suits back in 1934 and was politely asked to consider his position. That works out at an average of one heave every four to five years. In the last 40 years, as the undying loyalty to the leader became a thing of the past, the average has been closer to one heave every two-and-a-half years. And they're just the ones we know about. The 18 heaves do not include the times when new parties were formed out of splits – as happened with Fianna Fáil or Democratic Left. So as Fine Gael licks its wounds after a week of bloodletting, what better time to look back on the 17 previous times when the family patriarch (and in one case matriarch) was challenged – nine times unsuccessfully, eight times successfully.
After Cumann na nGaedhael, the Centre Party and the Blueshirt movement merged to form Fine Gael in 1932, Eoin O'Duffy became the first leader with WT Cosgrave serving as the party's leader in the Dáil.
After a year in the role, O'Duffy was confronted by one of the party's vice-presidents James Hogan, who attacked O'Duffy for his policies. The erratic leader had advocated an invasion of the north and in direct opposition to the ideology of the party of law and order, he had suggested that farmers should not pay their rates.
It was on the back of these radical policies that key figures in Fine Gael such as James Dillon and Patrick Hogan started to attack him publicly. After that, O'Duffy resigned as leader of the party. A few days later, he said he had only resigned as Fine Gael leader but he had not resigned as leader of the Blueshirts.
There was a split in the Blueshirts after this and the vast majority of them stayed with Ned Cronin while O'Duffy's crew went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. While there was not necessarily an organised heave against O'Duffy, his party colleagues had clearly lost confidence in him before his resignation.
It took 44 years before a leader of Fianna Fáil was publicly challenged from within his own party. Fresh from his acquittal in the arms trial, Charlie Haughey – who had been fired from the cabinet by taoiseach Jack Lynch – announced to the media that those "responsible for this debacle have no alternative but to take the honourable course that is open to them". When asked to explain what he meant, Haughey added: "I think it is pretty evident." Another of those acquitted, Neil Blaney, declared he would support Haughey for Taoiseach. Lynch was in the US on official business but when he returned to Dublin, there was a massive show of support – the entire government (bar two who were out of the country) and 50 TDs and senators, along with the Fianna Fáil War of Independence old guard of Frank Aiken, Sean MacEntee, Paddy Smith and Mick Hilliard, were there to greet him. The following night he won a vote of confidence from the parliamentary party by 70 votes to three and a day later a no-confidence motion in the Dáil.
Liam Cosgrave had led the party to defeat in the 1969 general election and he was under constant threat within the party from Young Turks such as Dr Garret FitzGerald.
In 1970, Cosgrave's popularity soared during the arms crisis after he pressurised Taoiseach Jack Lynch into acting against some of his senior ministers who were involved in importing arms for the north.
But Cosgrave's position on the IRA nearly lost him his leadership. He was determined to support votes on government anti-terrorist legislation in the Dáil but there was much internal Fine Gael opposition to his position, especially from the fledgling liberal wing in the party.
Fine Gael's liberal wing opposed the government's stringent legislation on civil liberty grounds while Cosgrave was adamant that the security of the state and its institutions should be protected first.
Cosgrave faced down his opponents in the party at the Fine Gael ard fheis in May 1972. During a landmark leadership speech, he departed from his script and rounded on his leadership rivals with an impassioned speech.
But his leadership looked certain to end with his decision to support the government's 1972 Offences Against the State bill, which was being opposed by many in his party. However, when bombs exploded in Dublin on the night the Dáil was due to vote, everything changed. Cosgrave's position was vindicated and his party backed his stance and voted for the tough legislation, saving his leadership in the process. Within months, Cosgrave was Taoiseach.
Lynch had been leader for 13 years and was going to go in early 1980 anyway, following the conclusion of Ireland's presidency of the EEC, and he decided to go in early December in a futile bid to catch the Haughey camp on the hop. But there's little question that his hand was forced by internal plotting against his leadership. Matters came to a head when Fianna Fáil lost two by-elections in his home city of Cork in November and there was a controversy over British overflights on the border with Lynch's northern policy the subject of strong internal criticism. TDs were being identified with criticism of the leader and Charlie Haughey openly laid down a challenge – albeit in Fianna Fáil code – with a speech stating that partition would have been "totally inconceivable to Padraig Pearse". There were reports that a number of dissidents had signed a petition asking Lynch to step down. Lynch acted to pre-empt any moves by announcing on 5 December that he was stepping down as Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil. He had been persuaded to do so by the supporters of finance minister George Colley who believed a short, quick campaign would suit Colley. The move backfired, with Haughey emerging as the new leader.
This was the heave that never was. Haughey had failed to win an overall majority for the second time in the general election of that month despite the previous Fine Gael-Labour government falling on its first budget. He was still on course to be elected Taoiseach of a minority government but moves were made to allow Des O'Malley – who by now had taken over from Colley as Haughey's main rival – to challenge Haughey for the leadership and attempt to become the party's nomination for Taoiseach when the new Dáil began. However, the challenge collapsed ignominiously after Haughey brought forward the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting to confirm his nomination as the party's candidate for Taoiseach. At the meeting, O'Malley announced he was not allowing his name to be proposed as nominee for Taoiseach and Haughey got the full backing of his party and became Taoiseach.
Charlie McCreevy – once a strong supporter of Haughey but who had become an outspoken critic of the leader – had vowed to himself after the failed putsch of the previous February that the next time it would be different and he would organise it himself. On 1 October, a friend of McCreevy's, driving a yellow Mercedes, arrived at the Kinsealy home of Haughey and handed in a copy of a no-confidence motion. At the same time, McCreevy's secretary handed the original to government chief whip Bertie Ahern. McCreevy had told nobody else about his move. The first Des O'Malley heard of it was when he got a phone call in Spain, where he was on government business, in the middle of the night. He was furious at McCreevy for acting unilaterally when the anti-Haughey faction were so unprepared. But he felt he had no option but to oppose Haughey and he and Martin O'Donoghue resigned from the cabinet and, along with George Colley, mounted a determined bid to oust Haughey. However, in an open vote Haughey won by 58 votes to 22.
On 28 October, 1982, Michael O'Leary, the leader of the Labour party, resigned. He said his decision had been taken because of the party's rejection of his electoral strategy at the Labour party's annual conference in Galway the previous weekend.
O'Leary favoured a free hand in open-ended, post-electoral negotiations on the formation of a coalition government, if the result of the forthcoming election was inconclusive.
But party stalwart Frank Cluskey favoured the decision on future government arrangements to be left to a special delegate conference. After Cluskey's strategy was adopted on the back of support from a number of other key party figures, O'Leary resigned his leadership and membership of the party. The fact that significant figures such as Cluskey openly went against their leader can effectively be viewed as a heave against O'Leary on a substantive issue.
Despite a lifelong tradition in the trade union movement and the Labour party, O'Leary left the party and stood for Fine Gael in the November 1982 general election. He was elected as a TD for the Dublin South West constituency.
The third challenge to Haughey's leadership in a year and the one that came closest to success. Fianna Fáil lost the general election in the previous November and when Fine Gael and Labour took over in government, it emerged the phones of two leading political journalists had been tapped the previous year. Sean Doherty, who had been justice minister in Haughey's government, took the fall for the phone taps, but Haughey's position was so perilous, there were widespread rumours he was about to resign. However, the tragic death of Fianna Fáil TD Clem Coughlan in a car accident led to the party meeting at which the latest confidence motion was to be heard being postponed. An internal committee of inquiry into the phone tapping – later described by one of its members as a farce – exonerated Haughey. That, and a fierce lobbying campaign by his supporters in the days following, saw Haughey once again defy the odds and scrape through by just seven votes. The three heaves took an enormous toll. The party organisation reacted almost hysterically to every challenge and there were stories of threats, intimidation and inducements. The pressure on everyone was enormous, with a number of Fianna Fáil TDs suffering physical collapse under the strain. After the February 1983 heave, however, Haughey was finally in control of Fianna Fáil.
In 1987, Labour TD Emmet Stagg proposed a motion for the party conference, which was due to be held in Cork, that in future the leader of the party should be elected by party conference. Up to that point, the leader had always been chosen by the TDs in the parliamentary party. Changing the rules would mean that the trade union block would have a decisive influence on who would lead the Labour party in the Dáil in future.
The whole purpose of the motion, and the inspiration behind its drafting, was to fatally undermine Dick Spring, and place him in the same position that Michael O'Leary had been in a few years earlier.
The entire trade union movement was behind Stagg's motion before the vote and the party leadership was extremely worried throughout the party conference that Spring would have to resign if he lost the vote. But Spring cast off his jacket, got up on the stage and delivered a passionate speech that swayed the crowd. A counter-motion to Stagg's motion won the day by 38 votes out of over 1,000 delegates and Spring lived to fight another day.
It was a historic victory for Mná na h-Éireann when Mary Robinson was elected president in 1990. But it was a dark day for Fine Gael.
The party's candidate Austin Currie came third in the race behind Robinson and Fianna Fáil's Brian Lenihan, and the humiliation of finishing behind Fianna Fáil and Labour set off rumblings in the party.
Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes had promised delegates at the party ard fheis that he would deliver "a formidable candidate" but this never really materialised. The crowd believed he had Garret FitzGerald in mind but FitzGerald wasn't interested and the party ended up selecting Currie. Currie was well known for his involvement in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and the SDLP, but he did not have enough widespread appeal in the south to garner more support than Robinson and Lenihan.
Dukes was blamed for the party's disastrous performance and Dublin South-Central TD Fergus O'Brien tabled a motion of no confidence in him. The heave was on and Dukes' supporters saw that the writing was on the wall for him.
The confidence motion was due to be heard by the parliamentary party on 14 November 1990. But after sensing which way the wind was blowing, Dukes resigned at a meeting of the party's front bench on the afternoon before the motion was heard.
During 1991, a series of controversies in the business world caused serious problems for Haughey and led to discontent in the party. Backbencher Sean Power tabled a motion for the parliamentary party seeking Haughey's resignation. Finance minister Albert Reynolds backed the motion, along with fellow cabinet minister Padraig Flynn and a number of junior ministers – they were all fired by Haughey. The Taoiseach signalled at the key meeting that he would be going shortly anyway and defeated the motion of no confidence by 55 votes to 22.
At the fifth time of asking, Haughey was finally deposed. Reynolds was biding his time on the backbenches and it was only a matter of when and not if the Taoiseach went. The issue was short circuited when Sean Doherty went on RTÉ's Nighthawks programme and told the nation that Haughey had known and authorised the phone tapping of the early 1980s. Haughey denied this, but with the PDs insisting they could not stay in government with him, he signalled his intention to retire. He stood down as Taoiseach on 11 February.
After John Bruton performed badly in a number of opinion polls throughout 1993 and 1994, key Fine Gael figures Jim O'Keeffe, Alan Shatter, Jim Higgins and Charlie Flanagan were the gang of four on the frontbench who were behind a challenge to his leadership.
Bruton won the confidence motion by a handful of votes after an eight-hour parliamentary party meeting. Afterwards, the Bruton camp claimed a victory with 41 votes to 25 while others claimed it could have been as close as 35/31.
In a rare moment of light relief, Charlie Flanagan reportedly said to Bruton at the time, "I suppose we should give you our resignations now," and Bruton replied, "don't worry; you are already fired."
When Bruton became Taoiseach later in 1994, he overlooked Alan Dukes and a number of other senior party figures when he was offering seats at the cabinet table.
The events of the week beginning 14 November still rank among the most extraordinary the Dáil has ever seen. The furore over the handling of the Fr Brendan Smyth issue brought down the Fianna Fáil and Labour government. Reynolds had made many enemies within his own party for firing so many senior and junior ministers when he took over from Haughey and they were waiting in the long grass. There were still hopes that with a new leader the coalition with Labour could be put back in place. Phone calls were being made and a confidence motion was being tentatively discussed before Reynolds honourably decided to announce his resignation both as Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil.
When Waterford TD Austin Deasy put down a motion of no confidence in party leader John Bruton in November 2000, the move split the parliamentary party and the Fine Gael family was once again at war. Frontbench heavyweights Michael Noonan and Ivan Yates rowed in behind the heave but Bruton saw it off after a remarkable speech at the crunch parliamentary party meeting.
Bruton adopted a completely different approach to 1994 when the previous challenge was made to his position. Then, seven senior frontbench members were demoted in what was perceived to be a warning to anybody contemplating a further heave.
In 2000, he was the last of the 20 speakers at the meeting and he spoke positively of the six people who spoke against him. He said he would consider carefully what they said and he publicly praised their openness, making it clear that they would not face any sanction for their opposition to his leadership. The strategy worked as he shored up enough support to survive the vote – but it was to be a temporary respite.
Bruton's downfall as Fine Gael leader finally came as the party's arch rival Fianna Fáil was embroiled in the controversy and humiliation brought on by the jailing of one of its former TDs, the late Liam Lawlor.
An Irish Times opinion poll, carried out in the weeks after Lawlor's imprisonment, sent shockwaves through Fine Gael, rather than Fianna Fáil. The poll showed a further slump in the Fine Gael support so the main opposition party in desperation went for the nuclear option. A motion of no confidence in Bruton was proposed by the late Jim Mitchell and seconded by Michael Noonan and passed by 39 votes to 33.
Was it a heave? Certainly not in the tradition of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but it was clear that Harney was under pressure to go from Michael McDowell, who believed they had an understanding that he would take over as leader. Harney has told the documentary The PDs: From Boom to Bust – the second part is to be screened tomorrow night on RTÉ – that she had intended standing down from the leadership after the local elections in 2004. However, she said that people such as Des O'Malley and Liz O'Donnell had pleaded with her not to stand down, as they felt that if McDowell took over the leadership, "it wouldn't be good for the party". McDowell, though, wanted the job and there were serious tensions between the two before, in September, 2006, Harney announced she was going.