The Early Years:
Young people have always been involved with Fine Gael, since the days of Collins and Mulcahy. In the eclectic 1930's University College Cork (UCC) had an active unit of the Blueshirts, and reports of regular jousts, both verbal and otherwise with the local sons and daughters of Fianna Fáil along College Road are part of UCC lore. Student Activism in the late 1960's in Ireland was quite a different creature from its continental cousins. It was a time dominated by the growth of Student Union power, and many of our current Parliamentary Party cut their teeth in the Subbuteo world of SU Politics. However a void did exist, there was a niche within the Fine Gael family, for an independent youth political movement. The year was 1977, the man was Garret Fitzgerald.
The Fitzgerald Years:
Young Fine Gael was founded in 1977, as a result of the organisational revolution which gripped Fine Gael after Garret Fitzgerald acceded to the leadership. The post of National Youth Officer was created in order to foster the growth of YFG, and look after the fledgling organisation's administration. The first National Conference was held in November 1977, in Liberty Hall, with Roy Dooney (currently Commissioner of the Eircom League) elected as the first National Chair. The initial growth was exponential. By the springtime of 1978 there were over 100 YFG branches in existence. 1979 was the year YFG took centre stage, Fine Gael was undergoing a major period of renewal, Garret had completed a national tour, and wherever he went, vigour, enthusiasm and spirit was left behind. At the 1979 National Conference YFG passed its first policy manifesto, it was liberal, progressive and dynamic. Greater Family Planning options, repeal of the homosexuality laws, the abolition of illegitimacy, a ban on the building of single sex schools and control of the price of building land. At the 1979 Ard Fheis YFG's Madeleine Taylor was elected one of the party's Honorary Secretaries, a truly remarkable feat, given the age-profile of previous incumbents, several YFG'ers made it through that year's local elections, and the crowning achievement of the year had to be 22 year old Myra Barry's victory in that November's Cork North East By-Election. 1979 was a year of renewal, the year of YFG.
By 1980 YFG embarked on its crusade to change the illegitimacy laws. Over 150,000 petitions were collected. Garret received a rapturous welcome at that year's National Conference, when he called for YFG to deliver "Free Debate and Uninhabited Declarations". The Haughey Government was floundering on the rocks of gombeen patriotism and financial recklessness, FG waited in the wings to take power. The 1981 Ard Fheis is remembered by many past members, as one of our finest hours. The mood was upbeat, the attendance a record, the enthusiasm and the thirst for victory unquenchable. YFG continued its upward curve, with Maria Stack being elected Vice President of the party aged just twenty years. When the ultimate summit was reached after the 1982 General Election, YFG continued to campaign vociferously on social issues. The 1983 National Conference in Galway was a passionate affair set against the backdrop of the Pro-Life Amendment Debate. YFG rejected the need for a referendum as it threatened to derail the much-vaunted Constitutional Crusade, promised by Fitzgerald. 1983 was a watermark year, it saw YFG and Fine Gael diverge on issues of policy, and this is testament to the independence of our membership at the time. 1983 saw YFG develop North-South Links for the first time. 1983 was a stormy year, the Abortion debate was particularly vicious, conflicts between the conservative and progressive wings of the party opened up, with YFG literally stuck in the middle but never surrendering its independence, a fact graphically illustrated in 1984 when YFG stuck to its guns and led a national protest over the visit of US President Ronald Reagan to Ireland. The 1984 National Conference policy platform was radical. Radical policies on minimum incomes, care for the homeless, and control of building land prices were called for.
The passing of the Status of Children Act, 1986 reforming the Dickensian laws on illegitimacy, marked the culmination of five years of YFG campaigning. The 1986 National Conference in Malahide, saw YFG launch its appeal for a 'Yes' Vote in the Divorce Referendum.
The Fitzgerald Years were a golden era for YFG. YFG set a radical political agenda which challenged the dismal consensus of previous decades. It saw young people participating in politics at the highest level for the first time ever. It ushered in a new era of north-south relations for young people. It was a period of law reform, a period of social justice and a time when it wasn't unusual for a Taoiseach to use the YFG National Executive as his sounding board for political decisions in Government Buildings.
1987-1994 A time for Consolidation:
The loss of power after February 1987 was a reality to be faced up to by the next generation of YFG. The vexed questions of social policy had either been solved or shelved, so the focus changed towards economic policy. YFG developed a Policy Council structure in the late 1980's and emerged as a think-tank for the senior party.The late 1980's saw a pronounced shift in the balance of power towards college-based branches. This has been a mixed blessing. The early dynamism of our rural branches which lit the flame for others to follow had been eroded, by a brasher and more debating focused creature. YFG had to adapt. More people were going to third-level so the organisation simply had to move with the times.
In 1989 YFG in Trinity College published a blueprint for the future of national policy. It was an impressive document but being read in 2002 its poignancy for a time of mass emigration, youth unemployment and economic stagnation seems quite remote from the Ireland we know of today. By 1990 YFG had embarked on an ambitious project of representing Ireland in the European Young Christian Democrats (EYCD). Brian Murphy was the pioneer in this regard the doyen of our European involvement. The great achievement of this period in our history was the widening and the deepening of our commitment to the European Ideal. During this time YFG won the Vice Presidency of the EYCD, and we have held it ever since. National Conferences were held in Killarney, Cork and Dun Laoghaire in the early nineties. A young whippersnapper called Brian Hayes became National Youth Officer in 1992 reforming and revitalising the YFG organisation both externally and internally.
Ups and Downs 1994-2000:
The mid nineties seem to have been the era of by-elections. Cork South Central and Mayo gave us the late great Hugh Coveney, and the irrepressible Michael Ring. YFG played a leading role in both campaigns. Many members fondly recall Hugh's campaign in particular when campaign HQ in Cork's Cook Street resembled a home-less shelter as squads of sleeping bag clad YFG'ers descended on the southern capital. 1996 National Conference in Waterford will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Tragically, Senator Liam Naughten was killed that weekend in a road traffic accident. Liam's death cast a long shadow over the entire proceedings, and out of respect the Conference was suspended.
Third Level Grants policy was launched in Galway in 1996, this policy is now the cornerstone of FG's commitment to third level students in our current Election Manifesto.The Rainbow Government saw us campaign in Divorce and Bail Referenda, both ultimately successful. In 1998 we held our National Conference in Connemeara. It has been fondly remembered as the YFG social event of the 1990's. Conor Price of Ballinasloe was elected President, the first holder of the office of National Chair to use the title of President. The by-elections continued thick and fast. 1998 saw us in Limerick East, campaigning for Mary Jackman. Branch development in the late 1990's was increased to levels unseen outside of Dublin since the early Fitzgerald years by Richard Hammond, National Organiser. The Inaugural YFG Summer School was held in Carlingford, Co Louth in 1999. Patrick O'Donovan of Newcastle West in Limerick became President in 1999, and led the organisation into a pivotal National Conference in Dublin in the autumn of that year. The subsequent year was difficult for YFG, regional divisions emerged and output and work didn't always match ambition, however YFG reached the end of the millennium in a good state of health.
2001 saw Fine Gael and YFG both change their leader, two Munster men emerged to the respective posts. Michael Noonan became leader of Fine Gael in February 2001, Gerry O'Connell of Killenaule in Tipperary became President of YFG in August 2001. Gerry's first act was symbolic but it served to set YFG on a new course. The YFG Summer School was held in Beal na Blath, and Michael Noonan and Gerry both laid wreathes on the Michael Collins Memorial. YFG has integrated its activities with Fine Gael, in terms of Election campaigning and political activity. YFG played a starring role in Tom Hayes' victory in the 2001 South Tipp By-Election. The 2001 National Conference was held in North Tipperary and served as a rally for the new leader Michael Noonan, who has the unswerving loyalty of the entire YFG organisation in his bid for electoral victory. YFG commenced general election campaigning in November 2001, a youth manifesto was published, a new Constitution was enacted, and a record breaking recruitment drive was embarked upon.
After the disappointing 2002 General Election, Enda Kenny was elected Party Leader and prioritised the role of YFG in rebuilding Fine Gael. High profile campaigns took place on iimportant issues like helping young drivers and raising awareness of homelessness in Ireland. YFG campaigned strongly for the 2004 Local & European Elections which marked the beginning of Fine Gael's recovery. In 2005, YFG played a key role in the election of Shane McEntee during the Meath bye-election. In the same year a nationwide TALK campaign took place which sought to address the stigma and taboo relating to the issues of mental illness, depression and suicide in Ireland.
Years of hard work paid off in the 2007 General Election which saw Fine Gael gain 20 seats, though unfortunately, without reaching the ultimate aim of entering government. The organisation played an active part in promoting several European treaties during this period, most notably the re-run of the reformed Lisbon Treaty. By 2010, YFG membership soared to over four thousand and multitudes of new college and non-college branches have consistently been launched. YFG continued to hold the government to account and promoted its policies on reducing the rising rates of emigration. In late 2010, a general election was signalled and YFG branches throughout the country entered into a long winter of campaigning against the backdrop of very tough economic conditions. That election, held in 2011, saw Fine Gael's first election into government since 1982, returning a record 76 TD's, 12 of whom were under 35.
YFG have played an instrumental role in the the Stability Treaty and Children's RIghts Referendum campaigns. They have continued to be influential at YEPP level. Following the tragic passing of Deputy Shane McEntee, the organisation campaigned to get Deputy Helen McEntee elected as a TD for Meath East, herself a member of YFG. They have set a political agenda that revolves around representing the needs of young people in Ireland.
Its position as the youth wing of Ireland's largest political party has brought many new opportunities for YFG, which will continue to be explored into the future with the aim of improving life for young people in Ireland.