Sunday 25 September 2016

From submarines for tourism, to the Legion of Mary for Russians

Published 04/01/2009 | 00:00

The latest batch of State papers in the National Archives released last week reveal the workings of a government which, then as now, was under considerable economic and political pressures. Jack Lynch's return to power in 1977 with an unprecedented majority might have provided a solid base for realistic economic management; rather it saw an indiscriminate spending splurge, which was to compound the serious economic problems facing the State.

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Adjustment to membership of the European Community was to have its costs as well as its enormous benefits.

A striking aspect of the Department of the Taoiseach records are the number of annual reports, policy papers and planning documents concerning state enterprises which have long since either been privatised or have bitten the dust.

In other respects, however, the affairs of government remain eerily familiar. In 1978 an increase in fees for inspection in "meat and bacon factories" was, for unexplained reasons, rushed through the Cabinet using an emergency procedure. If there was a contamination scare, the Government seems to have kept the lid on it rather more effectively than in 2008 (2008/ 148/348).

Then as now, there was trouble on the equality front. In 1978, Labour Minister Gene Fitzgerald decided that, with the Employment Equality Agency and the Council for the Status of Women in operation, the Womens Representative Council chaired by Eileen Desmond TD, was no longer needed. The council protested vigorously, seeking the support of the Health Minister, Mr Haughey.

His response is not on the file, but as the council held its farewell Christmas dinner in his favourite restaurant, the Coq Hardi, it is possible that they bumped into him over dessert (2008/134/5).

In May 1978, the Education Minister used an emergency procedure without explanation to seek immediate government approval for the purchase of a site for the National Institute of Higher Education Dublin (NIHE Dublin). After the Taoiseach had been consulted the matter was allowed to go forward for decision a week late. Finance smelt a rat: why was such a procedure being used for such a mundane matter?

It looks as though Education was deliberately pre-empting a mooted and "controversial" link up of NIHE Dublin with the sprawling City of Dublin Vocational Education system. That would have been the kiss of death for a new institution seeking a distinctive educational identity.

NIHE Dublin's director Dr Danny O'Hare wrote directly to the Taoiseach stressing the need for "programmes of higher education on a national as well as a local scale" -- his undated letter was marked "no reply necessary" by an official, but his message evidently got through. On 19 May, the Government agreed that NIHE Dublin could acquire a site in Ballymun, previously set aside by Dublin Corporation for transfer to the VEC.

From the time it admitted its first students in 1980, NIHE concentrated on degree and postgraduate courses with a practical and technological bent and involving innovations such as in-course industrial placements and study abroad which universities disdained. By the time I joined NIHE in 1982 the ambition for university status was clear, the academic agenda had been broadened to include the sciences, languages, communications and journalism.

After a decade of steady growth and achievement in hard economic times, it became Dublin City University in 1989. That is not something which could have been predicted from this 1978 file, yet it records the key decision involved.

In the early 1970s a well meaning Irish American in Massachusetts proposed a campaign to persuade the United States navy to decommission their submarine the John F Holland, named after the Clare-born inventor of the submarine, and to donate it as a tourist attraction to be moored off Liscannor.

This, it was argued, would stimulate greater interest in the region amongst Americans and other foreign tourists. The Department of Defence was appalled at the idea: the submarine would have to be maintained, guarded and overhauled. Foreign Affairs officials were worried that such a US "weapon of war" would become a focus for demonstrations against American militarism across the world. The idea died a quiet death. (2008/79/512).

The process of rolling negotiation by which European integration was advanced has generated a mass of records in almost every department of government, though such material is of interest primarily to specialists.

By contrast, the immediacy and political sensitivity of the Northern crisis is vividly brought home in Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs records.

By the late 1970s, the Department of the Taoiseach, which for decades had mainly co-ordinated government business, had become the key department for Northern Ireland policy.

Working closely with Foreign Affairs, officials such as Dermot Nally, Wally Kirwan and Frank Murray were intimately involved in handling and analysing the ramifications of the Northern crisis. Officials were alarmed in November when the itinerary for a planned Irish visit by the pro-republican American congressman Mario Biaggi reportedly included meetings not only with Sinn Fein and other republican figures but with the Minister for Health, Charles Haughey.

This report was seen by the Taoiseach, on whose instructions an official rang Mr Haughey's departmental private secretary. The response was reassuring: "They have received no approach from Biaggi, and will ensure that if one is made, it will be rejected." (1978/148/762).

Relations with Britain were difficult in 1978. The Callaghan government, beset by a host of national and international problems, had given up on the active pursuit of a political way forward in Northern Ireland.

Its energies there were focussed almost exclusively on security, where one aim was to reduce the regular army's direct involvement through increased reliance on the RUC and the Ulster Defence Regiment, enabling the armed services to concentrate on preparing for a war against the Warsaw Pact which, of course, never materialised. It is one of the paradoxes of peacetime professional armies that they resent open ended "aid to the civil power" commitments such as Northern Ireland, even though soldiers were far more likely to experience real action there than anywhere else where they served.

Reduction in its Northern Ireland involvement had been the British Army's ambition since 1970, and it gained weight after the decent but inadequate Merlyn Rees, overwhelmed by the Northern Ireland portfolio, was succeeded by Roy Mason.

Mason's blunt Yorkshire miner's exterior reflected rather than concealed his private opinions and mindset. As a previous defence secretary, he was the very much the army's man. His support for robust action by the security forces in Northern Ireland had some effect. The number of killings dropped sharply in 1978, and Mason saw this as a vindication of his policy. The main difficulty which the Dublin government had with Mason's approach was not that he was hard on the Provisonal IRA, but that London appeared to have abdicated any responsibility to promote or pursue a long term political settlement.

Mason was less than diplomatic in his handling of Anglo-Irish affairs. In the aftermath of the Provisional IRA's La Mon Hotel bombing of February 1978, in which a dozen people attending a motor club social function were incinerated, he told the Commons that the perpetrators had most likely taken sanctuary across the border within hours of the atrocity.

Mason was also believed to have briefed journalists privately on Irish security failings. The Irish government was particularly stung by Mason's public and private assertions, especially as the British Embassy in Dublin was taking a far more measured and nuanced line on security co-operation. In a detailed riposte sanctioned by the Taoiseach for presentation to the British ambassador, the Irish used British statistics on cross-border security to bear out their thesis that there had been a marked decrease over the preceding years.

The Irish view was that co-operation was both sincere and effective, and that Irish action against republican organisations was rigorous, as evidenced by the large number of activists convicted and imprisoned by the Special Criminal Court.

During a bilateral meeting on the margins of a European summit in Copenhagen in April, Jack Lynch outlined his Government's resentment at Mason's approach to the British Prime Minister James Callaghan. They agreed that public bickering on security should stop. Security co-operation and related issues such as extradition would, however, continue to be major sore points in Anglo-Irish relations. Callaghan was, also, very reserved about the possibility of future political progress.

Border insecurity remained an understandable bugbear for the British government, even if Dublin thought that London used the grievance largely as a means of passing the buck for their own security failures.

As one Irish official minuted to the Taoiseach: "Blaming border security -- particularly on our side -- is an old ploy. In effect it is an added argument for the abolition of the border!"

It was one to which the Thatcher government, which was elected in May 1979, was to resort time and time again (2008/148/740).

Arrangements for the 1975 visit of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, seen, with his glamorous wife Margaret, as the embodiment of Canadian modernity, included an incongruously old-style "men- only black tie" dinner in Iveagh House (2008/79/1157).

A brief Shannon stop-over by Romania's President Nikolai Ceaucescu raised the awkward possibility that the Romanians would seize on the chance to propose the establishment of diplomatic relations. The Romanians were particularly anxious that their president be received with "at least equivalent protocol to that accorded recently" to the Yugoslav president.

In the event, the monomaniacal dictator contented himself with an exchange of pleasantries with the Foreign Affairs Minister, followed by inspection of a guard of honour and a brief visit to the duty-free shop. No purchases were recorded (2008/79/1262).

People will recall the pioneering work of Aer Rianta in establishing duty free shops in Moscow airport in the 1980s. Another Irish organisation, Frank Duff's Legion of Mary, got to Russia before them.

The legion's ambitions were reported on in quietly sardonic terms by ambassador Ned Brennan. In 1978 he explained that "they come out every year for a tour of major cities where they try to sell to leading Orthodox Church administrators the idea of establishing a Legion of Mary organisation within the Orthodox Church".

The "main selling point, which . . . smacks very much of a narrow-minded intolerance calculated to appeal to the traditional xenophobia of the Orthodox Church here, is that the adoption of the Legion system" could help the Russians "fend off what they uncharitably describe as 'the freak religions"', as well as guarding against "pornography, crime, immorality and drugs". (2008/78/11).

Eunan O'Halpin is Professor of Contemporary History at Trinity College, Dublin

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