FG’s birthday may be in doubt, but its early achievements are not

THIS week Fine Gael has been remembering John A Costello and the 60th anniversary of the Fine Gael-led coalition government that came to power in February 1948.

The party is understandably keen to highlight a time when it was in government, even though ironically, Costello never wanted to be Taoiseach.

He was a reluctant compromise candidate for the job after the other parties, including Clann na Poblachta, made it clear that Fine Gael leader Richard Mulcahy was unacceptable to them as Taoiseach because of his civil war record.

Fine Gael also has a choice this year in terms of a more significant commemoration. It can celebrate the 75th anniversary of its foundation if it chooses to take 1933 — when Cumann na nGael (CnG), the National Centre Party and the Army Comrades Association (better known as the Blueshirts) merged to form Fine Gael — as its starting point, or its 85th anniversary if it believes the formation of CnG in April 1923 from the grouping in Sinn Féin that supported the Treaty was the real beginning for the party.

Senior party figures have not always agreed what age the party is. Costello used to refer to “our predecessors” in CnG, and Alan Dukes was adamant in 2003 that Fine Gael was 80-years-old, while Garret FitzGerald and John Bruton were more equivocal. All, however, were keen to stress the importance of Michael Collins to the party, even though Collins died eight months before the formation of CnG.

Perhaps what is more important than confusion or disagreement about its origins is the fact that Fine Gael’s history has so often unfairly been used as a stick with which to beat it, and its legacy of providing stability in the 1920s rarely received the recognition it deserved.

In 1980, Fianna Fáil TD Patrick Power bellowed across the Dáil chamber that Fine Gael was “the party who sold out this country” — a convenient way of ignoring the crucial work it had done to ensure Fianna Fáil inherited a stable democratic State in 1932.

CnG governments of the 1920s are often remembered for their failure to court popularity, their pension cuts, their neglect of social services and a poor record in providing housing, rather than for their State-building under pressure. This was done without the luxury of a blueprint for reform because of the circumstances in which it took power.

The longer Fianna Fáil was in power after 1932, the more vitriolic the references became to the record of CnG in the 1920s, as if somehow it lacked patriotism because of its decision to accept the Treaty and face down the IRA. But is also the case that the short dalliance with the Blueshirts did it lasting damage, and shaped negative attitudes towards Fine Gael that have lasted and overshadowed CnG’s achievements in the 1920s.

Perhaps inevitably, some within the party will prefer to remain quiet about the 75th anniversary because of this involvement with the Blueshirts. This silence has been more noticeable in recent years.

It is 25 years since James Dillon, who led Fine Gael from 1959-’65, when addressing a Fine Gael audience in 1983, received rapturous applause in response to the following contribution: “I want to recall with pride that we fought a desperate battle for the preservation of free speech in this country, and let it never be forgotten that we could not have won that battle but for the Blueshirts who helped us win it. And as they fought, they were fighting not for party but for democracy, and democracy won. No thanks to those who were opposed to it.”

It is true that many in the Blueshirt movement saw themselves as fighting for free speech and were genuinely fearful of an IRA dictatorship. But in one sense, the very dynamic that brought Fine Gael into existence in 1933 is the thing that damaged it, particularly the disastrous short-term leadership of Eoin O’Duffy.

Tragedy and farce were evident in abundance during O’Duffy’s career, but the Blueshirt phenomenon was a product of the nature of Irish politics and society from the 1920s to the 1940s.

O’Duffy was essentially an audacious fraud, endlessly reshaping himself in the search for a more heroic self-image, but his and the Blueshirt’s extremism was also a product of fears about the effects of IRA violence, tensions over security and rabid anti-communism.

During a difficult decade for democracy throughout Europe, there was much admiration in Ireland for fascist forms of government, particularly from those who viewed toleration of the IRA and suppression of the Blueshirts as a glaring double standard.

It should also be recognised that by the early 1930s, CnG needed to do something radical to revive itself and its image and it took a risk by backing O’Duffy in order to do so. The Blueshirts also did Fianna Fáil a favour by allowing it to shed its “slightly constitutional” image and turn the forces of the State against O’Duffy. The problem for Fine Gael, when William Cosgrave resumed the leadership in 1935, was that it was difficult to present the party as representing something new when in effect it looked like a rebranded CnG. Because of the Blueshirt episode, there also remained a perception there was something dark at the heart of Fine Gael.

Other problems included the persistence of the idea — justified by CnG’s economic priorities in the 1920s — that it was a party associated with a wealthy niche group, and that it was a clerical right-wing party. This view was held with some justification, as the government led by Costello from 1948-’51 was the most clerical in the history of the State.

LIKE all parties, Fine Gael is dishonest and selective about its own history. Its website, for example, refers to Fine Gael’s ethos of “pluralist tolerance” in the 1940s and suggests that because of the “narrow nationalism” of the Irish electorate, it suffered as a result.

This is a convenient attempt to dismiss the voters of the past and pretend that the values espoused by Garret FitzGerald in the 1980s existed in Fine Gael in the 1940s, which is nonsense.

Another thing that cost the party dearly was the failure of the Just Society wing of the party audaciously to rebrand Fine Gael in the 1960s. The real problem, according to Niamh Puirséil, historian of the Labour party, was that the Just Society was “an effort to turn Fine Gael into a slightly left-wing party for people who were too snobbish to join the Labour party”.

She justifies this assertion by pointing out that Garret FitzGerald, though he had toyed with the idea of joining the Labour party early in his career, ultimately did not because of its ties with the trade unions. She argues that this hostility to the interests of workers lingered and that social partnership could have become a reality much earlier if Fine Gael had not been so hostile to trade unions when in government in the 1980s.

All of these contentions are debatable, but it cannot be denied that the main problem for Fine Gael — whether it is celebrating 75 or 85 years as a party — is its lack of experience in government.

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