Who's laughing now? Former ceann comhairle John O'Donoghue and Willie O'Dea

What's the difference between 'Old Fianna Fáil' of the Haughey era and 'New Fianna Fáil' of the post-tribunal, post-Bertie, Cowen era? Very little, if the party's behaviour last Wednesday is anything to go by.

Last week Fianna Fáil put tribalism before respect for the institutions of state. The dignity of public office was thrown aside as Fianna Fáil TDs and ministers huddled in the trenches.

They were coming under fire. The combined forces of 'New Enda Kenny' and other lieutenants in the opposition's army standing up, one after another, and explaining why they had no confidence in defence minister Willie O'Dea, were peppering the government's defences.

Given that the story that O'Dea had misled the High Court with a false affidavit was published as far back as 1 November, the opposition could have made the running on this some time ago. They used the issue for their political gain and, with the exception of a concerted effort from Fine Gael senator Eugene Regan over some weeks, most parliamentarians ignored the O'Dea affair until very recently. When the confidence vote came about on Wednesday evening, the opposition did exactly what any other opposition would have done: they sought blood.

But Fianna Fáil's behaviour on the day raises a lot of questions. One of the features of Brian Cowen's tenure as leader of Fianna Fáil has been the value he attaches to loyalty. If you are loyal to Fianna Fáil, then Fianna Fáil will reward that loyalty: that appears to be Cowen's philosophy.

But there is a time for party loyalty and a time for loyalty to the state. Fianna Fáil neglected its loyalty to the state during Wednesday's confidence motion.

"There was something pathetic about it all, a mean-spirited loyalty to colleague over country, a reinforcement of the sense of them and us, an overarching and deep feeling that once again the lowest standard wins the day," wrote former Green councillor and barrister Vincent P Martin last Thursday.

It is difficult to argue with Martin's view, looking at the transcripts of the debate on the very serious matter of a motion of confidence in the person with responsibility for the country's defence forces.

Fianna Fáil, consciously or sub-consciously, in a way that seems ingrained in the party's psyche, circled the wagons. It was prepared to go to any length to save O'Dea from the wolves.

O'Dea was possibly the biggest culprit, as he seemed to believe attack was the best form of defence. Dubbed "one hell of a dirty fighter" the following day when the tape of his interview with Limerick Leader journalist Mike Dwane was released, O'Dea's performance in the Dáil did nothing to detract from his political 'street fighter' image.

In hindsight, even O'Dea must now admit that it would have been better to offer a genuinely remorseful apology to the House. Instead he adopted an ill-judged aggressive tone in a speech that was littered with personal jibes at his political adversaries.

"Deputy Kenny reminds me of the famous quotation about Henry James – that he has a mind so fine that no idea could violate it... In Deputy Kenny's case, he has a brilliant mind until he makes it up," O'Dea commented.

Such remarks are part of the cut and thrust of politics. TDs thrive on them. But surely the issue was too serious to be reduced to tribal political warfare?

Justice minister Dermot Ahern's contribution to the debate was childish, to say the least. Considering his portfolio, it is remarkable that this minister was the most vocal member of the cabinet during the slanging match that erupted as O'Dea spoke. TV images of Ahern sitting beside O'Dea and shouting "Touché!", after O'Dea levelled a "Blueshirts" jibe at Fine Gael, did not suggest a minister who was concerned about the seriousness of the charge against O'Dea.

In an RTÉ Morning Ireland interview on Friday, government chief whip Pat Carey said the government had supported the motion "on the basis of the information that was available to us at the time".

No new information relating to the O'Dea case emerged between the vote and O'Dea's resignation on Thursday night. Yet Carey claimed that the emergence of new factors meant the confidence motion could no longer stand. Perhaps the reality was that all the loyalty in the world could no longer defend O'Dea.