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?

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  • In fairness its nothing new.
    The time honoured tradition of it being ok to break “British” laws merely translated into “ok to break the law” after Independence.
    As the physical force tradition merged with the social banditry tradition of the Jacobite Gallopin Hogan, Brennan on the Moor, Ned o’ the Hill or na rópairí on the Mountains of Pomeroy have a tradition that extends to cheap imported cigarettes and fuel laundering plants along the border.
    What can I say? Im morally weak, being a nationalist and a republican and Irish.
    Thats how we are. We are to be pitied. Or saved. Or dismissed as children of a lesser God by those of a different and (obviously) better tradition.
    To be fair to Garret FitzGerald, he actually tried to pay the money he owed a bank. And was treated exactly the same as the rest of us would be.

  • otto

    The problem apparently is a corrupted civic society in need to redemption.

    Garrett’s the first to admit he’s a bit of a snob but what’s loveable about him is that his snobbery drives him towards social democracy, a lifelong commitment to education and the resolute defence of honest open agreement and the rule of law.

    He’s his (industrialist’s daughter) mother’s as well as his (poet nationalist) father’s son. A campaigning, socially committed Victorian. Perhaps even Gladstonian.

    God bless him.

  • tacapall

    When it comes to money and power its parasites living off parasites, its also known as the social ladder and you dont get to the top of it without being a parasite. Garret would be better looking back at the choices he made getting up that social ladder.

  • pippakin

    Its a good article but I think its a cop out to keep blaming the British, nor do I think its right to blame the Church (if blame is the right word) when our politicians should always have stood up to them and should always have put the country first.

    I actually wonder if the rot set in with Haughey. He ran rings around what ‘system’ there was, and still is. He showed that it could be done with hardly a loss of credibility or prestige. Did he lead the way?

    Don’t misunderstand I’m not saying the British and the Church don’t hold some responsibility but not all and in the past few decades not much.

  • Henry94

    The political system is corrupt because it suits politicians to keep it that way. People extract their entitlements from the public service via the politicians. What we see as corruption is just business as usual on a larger scale.

    It’s probably easier to take it as read that the British and the Church are responsible for every problem so we can skip that step and get on with solving the thing. But that’s where it all falls down. We have had a big debate about the Seanad recently. There were the reformers on one side and the abolitionists on the other. It was a good debate too. But you can bet that the position that will prevail is the one nobody spoke up for ie the status quo. There will be no reform and no abolition.

  • perseus

    honest words fitzy
    everyone who has a heart loves ireland
    <cinderella of the empire:

  • perseus
  • aquifer

    The british have been gone for generations, maybe it was the manner of their explulsion that was the problem. The revolutionary nationalists spurned a continued relationship with Britain, its commonweatlh, values, and laws. As a small peripheral island it even tried an economic boycott and ended up exporting irish workers to Britain while its economy slept.

    Maybe ethnic national separatism is not a good idea for a small island on the periphery of europe and next an economically powerful neighbour.

    But it may endure, when economic failure can so conveniently be blamed on the former managerment, absolving the current owners from responsibility.

    And don’t expect the church to help. Its business is souls, whether bankrupt or solvent.

  • perseus

    I reject your analysis; partition did all the damage.
    Had Home Rule in full been implemented;
    Ireland almost certainly would have remained within the commonwealth like Canada, India.

  • Mick Fealty


    You are every bit as fatalistic as Garrett. I think it’s the scale and depth of the problem and that blame for is partially located beyond professional politics, in a weak civil society.

    Tinkering with the institutions won’t make that go away. But which party for instance has a clear plan for tackling the unaccountable powers of county managers?

    People in the country make the rationale decision thst that the council is useless at service delivery and plump instead to send a TD to bully nation departments to release local resources instead.

  • Brian Walker

    btw he’s a one “t” Garret- I thought dementia was setting in, but I’ve checked with his autobiog on my shelves.

  • Henry94


    I am indeed fatalistic about real change coming from the present government. The promised abolition of the Seanad will be a test of their intentions. Rightly or wrongly they both promised to do it. I’m certain they will not but they won’t reform it either because it will never be allowed to challenge the Dail. Nor should it. It will be retained more or less as is.

    Your point about the voters and councils is quite right. The majority of TDs owe their seats to that calculation so they are a huge impediment to change. Why give up your edge?

  • Pat Mc Larnon

    “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).”

    Is that how Peter Sutherland (former AIB chairman and FG bigwig) wrote off the 200k that the saintly Garret owed over the GPA shares?

  • Taoiseach

    Garret the man of great integrity who bailed out Allied Irish Banks and was then bailed out by them in return when he was going to lose his house after his disastrous greedy efforts with Guiness Peat Aviation. The man who led a crusade against Catholic morality and then spent the next thirty years moaning about the absence of anything to replace it. Great man.

  • aquifer

    ‘ partition did all the damage’

    No it didn’t.

    Actions by the states over the border compounded the damage terribly. Collins’ toleration of the IRA’s war against the new northern state, the states sectarian character with a special position for the catholic church, the ‘Belfast Boycott’ that entrenched partition, the unilateral changes in the constitution, state sponsorship of terrorism by fianna fail members.

  • Alias

    Garret, as a eurogombeen, probably thinks he is pleasing his “EU partners” by blaming “our property and financial crisis” on “Irish deficiencies in civic morality” and the “land reforms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries” while irgnoring all mention of the who actually governs Ireland macroeconomic and monetary system and regulates its banks, i.e. the EU.

  • Brian Walker

    As Mick suggests,partly blame Jack Lynch for abolishing the rates after 1977 and creating the absurdity of county councils without revenue raising powers and county managers appted by the centre. Cognitive dissonance… but it goes back much, much further than that. Myself,I blame the double dealing of Red Hugh O’ Neill who couldn’t play it straight with QE1. At least in those days, the earls suffered for their sins..

  • Alias

    Well, collective responsibility is illegal under international law these days but no surprise to see a eurogombeen such as Garret try it on as a means of supporting the twin concept of collective responsibility. The stated argument is “The Irish nation, due to genetic flaws in its charecter and systemic flaws in its political system” are collectively responsible for the collapse of the monetary system in Ireland and for the risk of contagion to the rest of the eurosystem. The unstated argument is “Therefore, they must bail out the eurosystem.”

    In reality, those who are responsible for the collapse of the monetary system in Ireland are those who actually governed the monetary system in Ireland, and that wasn’t anybody in Ireland apart from the ECB’s man in the ECB-controlled Central Bank. They’re the same folks whose misgovernance of the monetary system and macroeconomic policy along with banking regulation is responsible for the sorry state of 6 of the 17 eurozone economies.

    Next in line are those eurogombeens such as Garret who insisted that Ireland should join the eurozone and who ignored all the warnings about what would ahhepen to its economy if it did.

  • Alias

    Typo: “…as a means of supporting the twin concept of collective punishment.”