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Fintan O’Toole: Fine Gael’s virtuous self-image is at odds with reality

Party’s self-perception as the paragon of propriety actually encourages bad behaviour

Billy Connolly said that the problem with the Scots is not that they package goods with pictures of men in kilts striding through the heather. It’s that they buy them themselves.

The problem with Fine Gaelers is not that they makes sententious claims about their own exceptional probity. It’s that they buy them themselves. They genuinely mistake their own sanctimony for saintliness.

Last week the Minister for State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Colm Brophy, was on Morning Ireland. The previous night, determined to put the sick into sycophancy, he told the Dáil that his boss and party colleague Simon Coveney "has exemplified all the things we like and admire in people in public life in this country".

Brophy now widened the scope of his veneration. “What Fine Gael is and has always been,” he told Áine Lawlor, is “a party who [sic] respects the institutions of the State, we’re a party who believe in doing the right thing.”


The context for this, let us remember, is a party some of whose senior members have been defying the Constitution by leaking information from ongoing Cabinet discussions, giving confidential Government documents to outsiders, and/or flouting the Freedom of Information and National Archives Acts by destroying records of the conduct of official business.

Politicians, of course, don’t just blow their own trumpets. They routinely exhale great fanfares of vanity.

So, nothing very unusual here. What is striking about Brophy’s encomium, though, is its evident sincerity.

Impregnable certainty

Fine Gael fortifies itself with an impregnable certainty that it, and it alone, embodies the institutions of the State, exemplifies the spirit of selfless public service and invariably does “the right thing”.

Because its political ancestors established the State, it sees itself as the incorruptible guardian of its laws, procedures and conventions. It is, in its own eyes, the peerless paragon of propriety.

Collective self-images are formed less as an Us than as a Not Them. Fine Gael’s Other was Fianna Fáil. It was Éamon de Valera’s deviousness, and then it was Charles Haughey’s corruption. So long as Fianna Fáil could be trusted to do the wrong thing, Fine Gael could be the virtuous counterpoint to its evil twin.

There are two problems with this attitude. One is that it is at odds with reality. The other is that it actually encourages cavalier disrespect for proper standards.

Since Fine Gael always does the right thing, it follows, in this mentality, that the right thing must be whatever Fine Gael feels like doing. Behaviour that would be disreputable if Fianna Fáil was at it undergoes a process of blue-washing. Filtered through this self-serving mythology, it comes out smelling of righteousness.

Never mind that one of the most egregious episodes of misgovernment in the history of the State – the awarding of the second mobile phone licence in the mid-1990s – had a Fine Gael minister, Michael Lowry, at its heart. (Touchingly, Lowry spoke in Simon Coveney's defence last week, praising "his integrity and commitment, which has been flawless over the years".)

Lucrative development

Never mind that when Frank Dunlop was giving money to councillors in Dublin to vote for the rezoning of lands for lucrative development, some Fine Gael public representatives were up the front with their hands out.

Never mind that in the systemic corruption of planning processes throughout the country, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were often so deeply intertwined in bed with each other as to be in effect one body.

Never mind that, for a whole nine years, between 1986 and 1995, Fine Gael’s own party headquarters was routinely and illegally evading tax by giving staff under-the-counter cash payments as bonuses and overtime.

Never mind that the party in the same period repeatedly broke the law by arranging for outside companies to pick up some of its bills and claim them as business expenses.

By definition, these are all Fianna Fáil-style shenanigans. The party that always does the right thing could not possibly have indulged in such dodginess.

This has been the Fine Gael syllogism: this is bad behaviour; we never behave badly; ergo our misdeeds have nothing to do with us.

Reckless disregard

Hence both the reckless disregard for law and propriety that we have seen recently and the genuine hurt and puzzlement that anyone would think the party capable of illegality or impropriety. The saints go marching into the Dáil lobbies blinded by the light from their own halos.

But things have changed. Fianna Fáil is no longer Fine Gael’s convenient Other. Once the twins became conjoined in government, the contrast blurred into a distinction without a difference. Fianna Fáil’s supposedly greater perfidy no longer sheds a favourable light on Fine Gael’s misconduct.

There is, however, a new Thou to be holier than. Increasingly for Fine Gael, the comfort of not being Fianna Fáil is being replaced by the self-satisfaction of not being Sinn Féin. Is that really the bar the party of the State wants to set for itself?

It would be good to think that Fine Gael has been chastened by its recent experiences. Those is power need a good humbling every now and then. But as the song goes, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.