Fine Gael would not exist without the Blueshirts, author tells party meeting

 

THERE WOULD have been no Fine Gael party without the Blueshirts, academic and author Prof Michael Cronin told a party gathering in Dublin on Saturday.

"They were the midwife which brought a new party into being. The members of the Blueshirts went legal, he said, having re- energised the political landscape. They went on to become Fine Gael councillors, TDs, activists and party members," he said.

Extreme politics gave birth to a new party, with the old Blueshirts forming the bedrock of the Fine Gael party.

Prof Cronin, academic director of the centre of Irish programmes in Boston College, Dublin, and author of The Blueshirts in Irish Politics, was speaking at a symposium to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of Fine Gael. It was organised by the party's defence spokesman and Kerry North TD, Jimmy Deenihan.

Prof Cronin said that there was a perception, in some people's minds, that the Blueshirts were an entirely bad thing and a memory that was difficult to cope with.

"What was so bad about 50,000 men and women becoming active in politics at a local level?" Prof Cronin said that in the minds of Fine Gael, General Eoin O'Duffy epitomised "the drunken uncle at a family wedding".

There was a wariness when talking about the Blueshirts and particularly O'Duffy. Some, to a degree, wanted to forget where Fine Gael came from.

Prof Cronin said that the actual blue shirt was seen as deeply problematic.

"We have to separate Ireland of 1933 from Nazi Germany during the war. Ireland has a long tradition of uniforms.

"Robert Emmet liked his uniform, as did the Irish volunteers and the citizen army.

"People wore uniforms and there was nothing new in it. It is the whole linkage of the shirt with the right-armed salute, and so on, which posthumously gets the Blueshirts into a lot of problems," he said.

Prof Cronin said that the Blueshirts were first brought together as the army comrades' association, but it did not really become a political group in the party sense until the appointment of O'Duffy as director general.

O'Duffy had a good and essential career as the first head of the Garda and a distinguished war record. He was also a good administrator.

He was, too, the "sacrificial cow", having been stood down from his job as head of the Garda. There was no love lost between O'Duffy and Éamon de Valera.

"O'Duffy cycled around various parts of Europe, taking a brief sojourn in Italy where he witnessed Mussolini's country at work. He came back wanting to get involved again.

"He was a man of action and not somebody to sit quietly and read the newspaper in his slippers," he said.

Fianna Fáil, said Prof Cronin, panicked, believing that the Blueshirts would physically seize power, so they banned them.

Prof Cronin said that there was a feeling among the Blueshirts that freedom of speech was being eroded and that Fianna Fáil would weaken law and order and discriminate against those who had supported the treaty.

"The big issue, however, was the economic war," he said.

It was fascinating that O'Duffy lasted only 11 months as the head of the new Fine Gael party. The problem was that the Blueshirts got locked into a cycle of violence and O'Duffy had developed a severe drink problem, becoming more erratic and difficult.

Dr Michael Marsh, professor of comparative political behaviour in Trinity College, said that the electorate was becoming more volatile.

"The anchors which once held the electorate down to particular parties have shifted and eroded and are really not there," he said

Prof Marsh estimated that the support of two-thirds of voters was "up for grabs" by political parties.

"Fine Gael's potential support is shared widely across all parties, including Fianna Fáil," Prof Marsh said.