TO BE A TAOISEACH (I)
Ireland’s ninth Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, died recently after a cruel battle with Alzheimer’s, only days before the twentieth anniversary of the event that will forever define his political career – the 1994 IRA Ceasefire. His death brought to mind the, perhaps apocryphal, remark of his predecessor, Charlie Haughey that, while nobody would go down in history for fixing Ireland’s economy, whoever solved the Northern Ireland problem WOULD be remembered.
Reynolds did not end the violence but he certainly introduced a game – changer. After 31 August 1994 things were never the same. Certainly the pieces had been on the board for some time, but without the dedication, effort – and courage – of Reynolds and a small number of officials, the ceasefire would not have occurred when and how it did. Put bluntly, there are people today who would not be alive but for Albert Reynolds. His otherwise controversial reign as Taoiseach was unremarkable set against this achievement.
Reynolds’ legacy is secure. What of his fellow Taoisigh? He had eight predecessors, and, in the two decades since he resigned, four successors. This in almost a century of uninterrupted parliamentary democracy, something Ireland shares in Europe only with Britain, Sweden, Switzerland and Finland and of which we can justifiably be proud.
The jury is still largely “out” on his four successors, particularly the last two. John Bruton, the shortest serving, Reynolds’ successor, will probably best be remembered as a safe pair of hands who helped further embed the Peace Process. His government also took the first major steps to combat organised crime by sanctioning the seizure of criminals’ assets.
Bertie Ahearn, Ireland’s second longest serving Taoiseach, is still a figure of controversy. What is not in dispute is the sterling work he put in on the Peace Process, a hands on involvement culminating in the current political settlement.
The towering figure of De Valera has to some degree overshadowed his predecessor, W.T. Cosgrave, the first head of government of an independent Ireland ( not, technically a Taoiseach, but included in the pantheon). Cosgrave’s achievements were considerable. He shepherded the state through its first years, including a bitter civil war, in which his government executed, controversially, without trial, seventy seven republicans arrested under emergency legislation.
His government went on to establish the institutions of the new state, including, crucially, a universally accepted and respected unarmed police force, in tandem with the downsizing of a large army. Economically he pursued prudent policies while diplomatically he sought to broaden the scope of Irish independence by pushing the limits of the “ dominion status” accorded to Ireland by the peace treaty with Britain. Under Cosgrave Ireland remained a democratic state even as countries elsewhere were sliding into autocracy or dictatorship.
Cosgrave was succeeded in 1932 by De Valera, who was Taoiseach for twenty one of the next twenty eight years and who has been the dominant Irish political figure of the Twentieth Century. For better or worse, love him or loathe him, we live in an Ireland largely shaped, institutionally, by him. We live by his Constitution, some elements of which are well past their sell by date, but which still, overall, commands a high level of legitimacy and acceptance among the electorate.
Whether he would necessarily have approved the changes made in it since 1937 is moot; the important point is that the Constitution contained sufficient provisions for organic change and amendment to have lasted. The Constitution, making Ireland a republic in all but name, was the culmination of De Valera’s policy after 1932 of using the available constitutional and legislative levers to diminish the remaining trappings of British rule.
His other vital, and defining, achievement was to maintain Ireland’s neutrality – and territorial integrity – during World War Two. The fact that Ireland was not directly in a major theatre of war undoubtedly helped, but it could have gone differently in the context of the Battle of the Atlantic. Britain invaded Iceland in 1941 and Churchill cast covetous eyes at, and made noises about, seizing Ireland’s ports, inexplicably ceded by Chamberlain in 1938 ( but then that was the year of Munich!).
De Valera’s adroit political and diplomatic footwork in the first years of the War was crucial. Ireland would be “ neutral with a certain consideration for Britain,” a Dev quote contained in Joe Joyce’s fascinating recent novel “ Echobeat” about Ireland in the winter of 1940, which I commend strongly. And Ireland remained neutral. De Valera’s one rush of blood came with signing the Book of Condolences for Hitler. Yet he bounced back weeks later with a memorable response to a Churchill tirade against Irish neutrality, his radio broadcast of May 1945 unforgettable.
De Valera stopped short of declaring Ireland a republic. That was done in 1948 in Canada by his successor, Fine Gael’s John A Costello. The declaration appears to have been a solo run but once made there was no going back. This was about his only contribution in two terms as Taoiseach. His first government collapsed in 1951 soon after a capitulation to the Catholic Church over proposals to provide limited free medical care to mothers and children, Costello declaring he was an Irishman second and a Catholic first. The 50s were a dreadful decade for Ireland economically and Costello did nothing to help.
Nor did De Valera, who continued to idealise a pastoral rural based economy before being finally kicked upstairs to the ceremonial role of President in 1959. His successor was the pragmatic Sean Lemass, by then almost sixty, who had been an able and pragmatic Minister for decades. Once in power, he set about reorganising and restructuring Ireland’s economy to drag it into the second half of the Twentieth century. He encouraged FDI, cut tariffs and began attempts to join Europe, as well as commencing a dialogue with his Northern counterpart. He is generally regarded as the father of modern Ireland and perhaps the best manager to hold the office of Taoiseach, partly giving the lie to son –in –law Haughey’s remark about fixing Ireland’s economy.
Lemass was succeeded in 1966 by Jack Lynch, a former GAA star and essentially a compromise candidate. Mild mannered Lynch was in power when the North boiled over. His defining moments came in 1969 and 1970 when he saw off a major threat to our democratic institutions by resisting calls to intervene in the North and later firing several Ministers, including Haughey , over a plot to smuggle arms to republicans. For that we should be grateful. Less so for his tactic of buying the 1977 election, generating a culture of expectation and entitlement which dogs us still.
Lynch’s tenure was interrupted from 1973-1977 by Liam Cosgrave, son of W.T., still happily with us at 94. Cosgrave, a devout Catholic, voted against his government’s legislation on contraception, but will also be remembered for a fearless and no nonsense approach to upholding law and order in the face of threats by subversives.
Charlie Haughey and Garret Fitzgerald continue to stoke public interest and debate sufficiently to merit a second column between them. There will be space also for some thoughts on Brian Cowen and the performance to date of Taoiseach Enda Kenny.