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Saturday 16 December 2017

FG will roll with punches, just like it always does

Tales of the party's imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated, writes John-Paul McCarthy

One thing is pellucidly clear now after George Lee's extraordinary show of self-destruction -- Fine Gael will survive his kamikaze attack.

While many commentators have been dining out for years on tales of Fine Gael's imminent demise, that party has been with us since the foundation of the State and will not be going anywhere for the foreseeable future.

It is useful now to remind ourselves of the Fine Gael tradition, and to reacquaint ourselves with its inner toughness, its capacity for astonishing adaptation and its belief in what the great German classicist Friedrich Nietzsche once termed plastic power -- that is to say, the power to roll with the punches.

Fine Gael traces its roots, of course, back to the Free State era, when 11 young men took their places in a small room at City Hall in 1922 and tried to build a viable political community.

The party that pitilessly crushed the Legion of the Rearguard in 1923 would later steal the republicans' clothes in 1949 by doing what de Valera failed to do by actually declaring the State a republic and lurching out the door of the Commonwealth.

The steady-as-she-goes tradition of W T Cosgrave, and the imperial romanticism of the young Kevin O'Higgins, has had to contend over the years, though, with a quasi-republican tradition that has lingered on in the party's DNA.

This is the cult of Michael Collins, and it reached its meridian point during Michael Noonan's leadership in 2001 when he notoriously proclaimed that Fine Gael was an Irish nationalist party at that year's Beal na mBlath memorial as if his party had never signed the boundary agreement with the British in 1925 and as if Liam Cosgrave and John Bruton had never existed.

Fine Gael also draws on a proud liberal constitutional tradition, essentially British in inspiration, as seen in the many innovative clauses of the Free State Constitution that were designed to protect minorities.

(One thinks here of the extern ministers, the reserve powers of the original Senate, and the constitutional ban on religious establishments.)

And yet this liberal pedigree has jousted with powerful countervailing forces.

Their collective wobble during the brief reign of Eoin O'Duffy is well known, when even as cultured a man as Garret FitzGerald's father, Desmond, once wore his blue shirt in the Dail chamber in the 1930s.

Fine Gael also provided a berth for the delusional anti-Semite Oliver J Flanagan in the Fifties, and even James Dillon found the party ethos fully compatible with his frequent speeches defending the Quisling leader of war-time Croatia, Ante Pavelitch and the Catholic Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac, who fantasised about the forcible conversion of millions of Orthodox Christians.

To remind ourselves of these complexities is also to remember that the party which gave us Towards a Just Society also gave us the original court injunction in the X-case in 1992 that prevented a terrified child from leaving the State to terminate a pregnancy that followed a brutal rape.

That injunction was signed by then Justice Declan Costello, the same man who wrote Fine Gael's liberal manifesto in the Sixties, and son of former Taoiseach J A Costello.

Garret FitzGerald turned Fine Gael into a modern social democratic party in the late Seventies, committing it to political pluralism and egalitarianism.

And yet, as Taoiseach, he sponsored the Eighth Amendment, which even surpassed the Victorians in its zeal, leaving real liberals like Hubert Butler to wonder how the second son of a Belfast Presbyterian could support what Butler bravely called the negation of the protestant right of private judgement in matters of bodily integrity and child bearing.

Liberal Ulster protestants like Robert McCartney and the McGimpsey brothers would later argue that Fine Gael's social democratic years were thereby eaten by the Tridentine locusts, and they never listened to FitzGerald again.

We see a similar diastole and systole in Fine Gael's economic tradition.

When John Keynes spent an hour with W T Cosgrave in Dublin in 1933, he came away with the feeling that he had just taken tea with an economic liberal who would not have been out of place in the Corn Law repeal debates of the 1840s or raging against army expenses in William Gladstone's last cabinet.

And yet, as the late economist Patrick Lynch wrote, Fine Gael also produced the State's most original Keynesian mind in the form of Patrick McGilligan at Finance after 1948.

Sean Lemass battered him in the Dail but would later admit that he had misunderstood the potential of McGilligan's modest demand management policy.

These twists and turns in personnel and policy are not inherently damaging.

They show an impressive sensitivity to the ebb and flow of ideas, as well as a wholly healthy thirst to get power, to wield power and to keep power.

As Professor Gary Murphy of DCU told radio listeners last week, Fine Gael is a central part of an unusually robust political system.

This is the party, after all, that saw its first justice minister murdered in 1927.

Tough patriots like Paddy Cooney picked up the pieces after the murder of a British ambassador in 1976.

And his successors in FitzGerald's later cabinet held the line against the H-Block campaign, the Brighton bomb and the Enniskillen massacre.

In short, this party has beaten tougher opponents than disgruntled former journalists who can only spare nine months for Irish democracy's ailments.

Enda Kenny will survive long enough to write another chapter in the Fine Gael history books.

John-Paul McCarthy is a history tutor at Exeter College, Oxford

Sunday Independent

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