Garret FitzGerald on the lack of civic morality

Garret FitzGerald  has written the first of an interesting two part reflection on why Ireland lacks  the sort of  civic morality that might have prevented Ireland’s financial collapse on such a grand scale  and disfigured its politics for even longer. Note that there’s no argument at all about the lack of  such morality. By itself this is quite stunning. Going in and out of the Dublin corridors of power for half a lifetime but dealing mainly in cross border issues, I’d no idea that public conduct was so poor, despite the tribunals and the Haughey history. We now know that most people shrugged and took it for granted, Ah sure Charlie  was the boy!

Anyway, Garret puts the deficiency down to public ethics imposed for centuries by an alien regime and a gombeen culture where a spit in the palm and a shake of  the hand sealed the deal ( though he quite doesn’t  put it like that).

And what was the Church doing? Obsessing about sex and behaving  “do as I say not as I do”, as we now know ( though Garret doesn’t put it like that either.)  

Ireland’s popular Catholic Church, in opposition to the dominance of a ruling Irish minority of another faith and then to aspects of an alien UK system of government, could not be expected to instil much respect for public authority amongst the bulk of the population.

One might have hoped that all this would change with independence. Yet the Irish Catholic Church sought instead to bend the new State to its purpose, relying upon the strong personal faith of members of successive governments to secure its objectives. And it succeeded – up to a point. It secured censorship of books and films, and was successful in having contraception banned.

Next week, he explains why the deficiency became fatal only in the modern era.

 G arret is remarkably fatalistic about it all. A man of  high integrity himself, you’d have thought he’d have been a bit more worked up about it  – now and throughout the quarter century of his public life.

Why did the mere fact of gaining independence fail to wean people off old habits of going agin the government?  The answer may lie  in the fact  that until recently the Irish State was the most reluctant expander of social provision in northern Europe.The State lacked – still lacks – the infrastructure for running its expanded self, its quasi- public sector. It  still franchises out most of first and second level education to the Church and chunks of health too.    The banks, (run by Prods who were a hangover of the past or imitation Prods), and the State kept well clear of  each other until the Men in Mohair Suits came along. The rest is history and in Tribunal reports.  

Wasn’t the situation remarkably similar in the North ( minus the banks? It was the rise of the welfare State, the assumption taken for granted for example that it is duty of the State to provide adequate public housing that produced pressure for properly accountable government – pressure that seemd irresistible until it was tragically diverted into widening communal division and atavisitic violence for over a generation.

In the socially cohesive south, why were the pressures for reform so much less insistent when there was correspondingly less to divert them? Perhaps Garret will tell us. Fintan O’Toole has written the polemic. And while he’s about it, Garret might also tell us why he and his generation were not able to make the changes still awaited today. Unfashionable as it may be to say so, the Irish State needs to expand its democratic accountability to take account of its actual responsibilities. If it doesn’t begin to happen soon, will it ever?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London