No room at Fine Gael inn for John Bruton's ideas
Conservatism of former Taoiseach's colleagues has historical echoes as far back as Michael Collins, says John-Paul McCarthy
By all accounts, Conor Cruise O'Brien found his tenure as a cabinet minister markedly less nourishing than his work at the UN, or his stint at New York University. But one particular meeting of the Cosgrave government seems to have seared itself into his memory.
After the then foreign minister Garret FitzGerald opened proceedings by emphasising the absolute centrality of some kind of all-Ireland council to the gestating Sunningale process, most of his colleagues nodded assent. O'Brien was the only minister to dissent from the consensus, and he asked FitzGerald how he could be so confident that the all-Ireland structures would not end up deranging the internal power-sharing negotiations. FitzGerald replied with a tart assurance that John Hume had worked all that out.
O'Brien wrote later about how he suddenly felt acutely conscious at that moment that he was the sole non-practicing Catholic in the cabinet room; an elite of one, even.
One wonders if former Taoiseach John Bruton does not experience similar feelings. The most interesting aspect of his recent interventions on the Great War, Redmond and 1916 has not been in the quality of the opposition he has encountered, but rather in the torpor of his own party. Few of his colleagues seem moved to protect his flank against charges of being anti-national. Why might this be so?
One obvious reason is the fact that Fine Gael's progressive credentials on both national and social questions have always been more apparent than real. Bruton's searching critique of the revolutionary tradition probably has few admirers in Fine Gael given the party's ancestral commitment to the cult of Michael Collins - a cult that reached its meridian point in the Neil Jordan film.
There is no appetite in Fine Gael for confronting the type of figure who emerges from Seamus O Maoileoin's unsentimental memoir of the revolutionary era, B'fhiu an Braon Fola. He recounted here an exchange with Collins about what should be done about a meddling priest in Cork city who took his excommunicating powers too seriously. In the end, it was decided not to shoot him on grounds of general prudence, but what is interesting is that the thought crossed Collins's mind and that he felt no need to fret about his inherent, unappealable right to do so.
We also caught a glimpse of this kind of imperiousness in Charles Townshend's recent book, The Republic, where he recounted the obscure, even slapdash manner by which Collins compiled his famous target-list for the Bloody Sunday executions. None of this seems to have had much purchase, though, within the party.
The other drag, so to speak, on Fine Gael's formally progressive aspirations is their other hero, Declan Costello. The Beal na Blath orations are frequently studded with deferential references to Costello's Just Society document from 1965, but some of us remember him more for his revolting High Court injunction in the X-Case in 1992 that temporarily barred a pregnant child who had been raped from leaving the State.
Those who favour "balance" in all things like to think that the Just Society cancels that out, but, in truth, any serious analysis of that document will reveal its own roots in the conservative, Catholic, nationalist cosmos that so stung O'Brien. The Just Society proclaimed that a "united Ireland can and will ultimately be achieved". And Costello formally admitted that his analysis was "informed and moulded by the social doctrines contained in the Papal Encyclicals." Now, it is true that these encyclicals expressed a certain kind of solidarity with the poor on occasion, but it is also true that they were openly contemptuous of individualism, liberalism, and socialism, not to mention motion pictures ("an incentive to evil passions"), and unchaste wedlock. To attempt to build a theory of genuine human dignity on this paranoid and disordered corpus was like pulling on a rope of sand. The fact that Fine Gael have been trading on the spurious prestige of that document for so long says a lot about their basically conservative philosophy.
Garret FitzGerald himself, Fine Gael's most all-round successful leader, also helps us account for Bruton's isolation. For all his facility with the common-name-of-Irishmen rhetoric, FitzGerald inherited some of the more abrasive nationalist preoccupations of the Free State area. He wrote candidly in Towards A New Ireland about how what he called a "deep-seated but rarely admitted belief that ultimately Irish unity must prevail, lies at the heart of many Northern Protestant attitudes." Charles Haughey could scarcely have phrased it more effectively. Remember, too, how cabinet secretary Dermot Nally felt obliged to scold FitzGerald as Taoiseach for sounding increasingly indistinguishable from the H-Block committees?
Bruton's isolation makes sense within these unhappy contexts.