Reflections on the Irish state

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 2004), Reviews, Volume 12

Garrett FitzGerald
(Irish Academic Press, 332.50)
ISBN 0716527758

For good or for bad, intellectuals don’t figure prominently in Irish politics so Garrett FitzGerald can only be regarded as an exception, not only for being one of Fine Gael’s most successful leaders but also for leaving us with an interesting account of his thoughts on the Irish state since independence, alongside an earlier-published autobiography. The essays contained in this book range confidently over a wide variety of issues in Irish public life, and are testimony to the man’s skills as a demographer, historian, political scientist and economist. Many are informed by FitzGerald’s personal knowledge of the key events and the individuals involved and will make interesting reading for future generations of Irish historians. Moreover, in this book FitzGerald grapples with some of the key themes in the study of Irish politics generally, with chapters on the party system, the constitution, church/state relations, corruption and the electoral system, all of which should be of great interest to students of Irish political science. They all (perhaps unusually for an Irish politician) contain interesting arguments about the merits or demerits of reform, and many are informed by comparative perspectives too. Beyond that there are essays on Ireland’s relationship with Britain, the influence of the European Union, the relatively successful education system, and the state’s unusual demographic history. There is to date no equivalent compendium of informed and systematic comment on the state of independent Ireland in the early twenty-first century.
On the one hand this book makes a contribution to the ongoing debate on the performance of the Irish state since independence, and on the other it contains revealing insights into the dominant mindset of the Irish political élite since 1921. The prevailing tone of the book is very much that ‘all’s well that ends well’ and FitzGerald is complimentary about the movers and shakers behind the major turning-points in contemporary Irish history such as the 1916 Rising, the abandonment of protectionism, the entry into Europe, and of course the Celtic Tiger phenomenon. The overall assumption seems to be that ‘the Celtic Tiger’ has brought to fruition the logic of Irish statehood, and some of these arguments might be thought to be teleological in nature. FitzGerald’s attack on the revisionist critique of the 1916 Rising, for example, suggests that if the country had become independent only after the Second World War, it may not have been economically or psychologically ready to reap the benefits of EU membership in the way that it has. A cynic might reply that the timing and manner in which it gained independence also had something to do with its failure to capitalise on the post-1945 boom in western Europe. Nonetheless the arguments are stimulating, and FitzGerald generally defends the record of the Irish state since 1921; the ineffectiveness of the civil liberties provisions in the 1922 constitution, for example, is attributed to the political turmoil existing at that time rather than to the existence of a wider authoritarian mindset among the political élite. The failure to develop non-denominational education after 1922 was understandable in a resource-drained country, while politicians in general can take credit for the way in which welfare payments expanded between 1960 and 1982, a time when there was no electoral advantage in courting the weaker sections of society.

As a political philosopher FitzGerald argues that ideally emotion and ideology should have a small role to play in politics as opposed to that played by ideas and interests, and the combined effect of the arguments of this book creates the impression of a politician very much committed to an Irish brand of one-nation Toryism, rather than the soft version of social democracy represented by Fine Gael since the 1970s. We are told that the Irish state was unusually lucky in having an incorrupt political élite at the helm for the first half-century of independence, that the Irish party system saved the country from being torn apart by the ideological rifts of twentieth-century Europe, and that the Peace Process was in large part the product of Anglo-Irish élite cooperation, which blossomed once British leaders emerged free of memories of Ireland’s war-time neutrality. (Ed Moloney’s Secret history of the IRA had not been published when FitzGerald wrote his book, but it casts doubt on the view that Anglo-Irish diplomacy created the Peace Process.) It might also be objected that FitzGerald’s (partial) defence of the Irish party system is incompatible with his argument that emotion should play no role in politics, since Gallagher and Marsh’s recent survey of Fine Gael party members concluded that it was primarily emotion that separated them from Fianna Fáil in their own minds. FitzGerald’s basic philosophy is revealed in the introduction when he remarks that individualism and collectivism were the two great and destructive heresies from the dominant Christian and European tradition of reconciling individual dignity with the need for social order, and he laments the influence of extreme manifestations of the former in the Ireland of the twenty-first century. This may be justified but, while critical of the Catholic hierarchy’s record on sexual abuse within the church, FitzGerald does not spend enough time addressing the issue of whether Ireland got that balance between the individual and the community right after independence, and if not, why not. On the whole, then, this book contains much that is stimulating and thoughtful but is very emblematic of a certain mindset in the Irish republic. A sense of élite paternalism (if not noblesse oblige), itself a legacy from his father’s generation, pervades the book, and while it is not necessary that every account of the Irish state be fixated on a story of economic stagnation, clerical repression and political complacency, the evidence suggests that Garrett has not lost too much sleep about the record until now.

Bill Kissane


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