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Tuesday 23 September 2014

Those who stood by the Republic

Published 14/10/2012 | 05:00

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In his new book, John Drennan chronicles 50 Dail debates that have shaped our nation

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CYNICS, or observers of our current Government, are often inclined to support the belief that, as in life, the maxim of plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose sums up the political condition.

Initially, Standing by the Republic, which traces 50 Dail debates that chronicle the evolution of our Republic from the cradle of its declaration in 1948 to the grave into which Biffo and his awful crew threw it, appeared to justify the belief of our amoral French realists that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

In particular, the similarities between this decade and the Fifties, when a variety of short-term, unloved and often fretful administrations failed to reverse the trend of a nation in danger of extinction, appeared to prove this was the case.

However, while Standing by the Republic may show human nature doesn't change that much, it also illustrates that everything doesn't always stay the same; even in our Republic.

As is the case today, there were bitter debates such as that over the Mother and Child Scheme and the resignation of Noel Browne, where the stormy petrel of the left, the right and the centre declared that "I know the consequences which may follow my action. The honesty of my motives will be attacked by able men; my aims will be called into question, ridicule and doubt will be cast upon the wisdom of my insistence".

Intriguingly, despite then Taoiseach John A Costello's angry response that "all this matter was intended to be private and to be adjusted behind closed doors", which unveiled the toxic strain of secrecy which has continued to poison Irish politics to this day, readers of the debate will be left feeling rather more sympathy for Costello.

But for every Mother and Child debate or for each evaded opportunity to tackle the evil of child abuse, there are moments of hope.

Nothing epitomised the insipid lethargy of the Fifties more than the declaration by one TD on the accession to power by Lemass that "some good men I know have gone on the beer -- to put it straight -- they got so tired waiting for an opportunity".

But the simplicity of the promise by Lemass, that he would lead "a revival of patriotism" that would be centred on a "determination" to add to the State's "prestige and achievement", carried weight when compared to the ambiguous pieties of de Valera.

Politics, even in Ireland, can work and sometimes resilience and courage can come from the most unlikely of sources. When, for example, the State was threatened by the toxic duo of Haughey and the Provos, it was the somewhat less than charismatic Fine Gael leader Liam Cosgrave who faced these political jackals down.

After Cosgrave took on the prevaricating Lynch, and a Fianna Fail ethos that was rotten to the core squealed "take him out", the Fine Gael leader told his fretful backbenchers not to worry: "I will not be silenced by anyone".

So could Enda Kenny yet play that role of being the quiet man with steel in his spine? Well, while our faith is diminishing, there are moments in the text, such as when Kenny put a bridle on the escalating appeasement process with a coruscating attack on the "capitulation of the sovereign government in the face of IRA intimidation'' over Jerry McCabe, which suggests Kenny has a bit of the Cosgrave steel could he but find it.

Of course, times, or more accurately, political styles, do change. In our staid focus-group-dominated age, it is, alas, unlikely we shall ever hear rhetoric such as James Dillon's warning to Independents who were flirting with de Valera that they might suffer the fate of the "young lady from Riga who went out for a ride on a tiger -- I know the poem goes on that they both came back from the ride with the lady inside and a smile on the face of the tiger'.'

Of course, it is doubtful any speech will ever match the dramatic impact of Garret FitzGerald's ominous "flawed pedigree" speech on Haughey's accession in 1979, that "the feet that will go through that lobby to support his election will include many that will drag; the hearts of many who will climb those stairs before turning aside to vote will be heavy".

Yet in a sign of how only the location of our battles change, these same sentiments came to mind when Sinn Fein flirted with being a presidential contender for surely heavy too would have been the hearts of any army officers who would have had to salute Commander-in-Chief McGuinness.

One of the happier aspects of Standing by the Republic was the discovery of some hitherto unknown stars. Among those was the colourful Labour TD Sean Dunne whose comment on the reluctant acceptance of the Taoiseach's job by Jack Lynch was that "it is often said of the equine or canine species that they won pulling up. Here we have the case of a winner who was backing away.''

There are the delights posed by our travails over censorship such as when Labour's Jimmy Tully spoke of the dangers of excessive "raw material" in certain books without, thankfully, spelling out what he meant by "raw material", or when Oliver J Flanagan tried to raise hares over the implicit sexual depravity of a story involving a young girl carrying a trout in a jug.

Haughey is the dark star of Standing by the Republic, the chameleon who perhaps best captured the contradictions in the Irish character, caught as we are between a Gatsby-style penchant for the fantastical and a pragmatic peasant-style amoral ruthlessness.

In Standing by the Republic, the dark side of the Fianna Fail dream first begins to surface when in the wake of Lynch's triumph, James Dillon, after seeing Haughey's face "white as parchment'', claims, "He is finished. He stinks politically''.

Of course, Haughey did finally secure what he wished for and so followed the drama of Dick Spring's 'evil spirit' speech, the ending of core values, such as single-party government, as FF and the PDs engaged in a chilly embrace that would set in train a series of events that would destroy Haughey first, then the PDs and finally Fianna Fail itself.

Our new Coalition of Grumpy Old Men, who appear intent on holding a referendum on every issue under the sun, might be wise to read John Kelly's cri de coeur on the ill-fated divorce referendum when the last original thinker to be elected in Dublin South said of a government that could still achieve things that "it should even think of ... indulging in a year-long cat-fight about divorce is enough to make its friends despair''.

John Kelly also had a handle on the nature of Bertie Ahern, noting of Bertie's disappearance from the divorce campaign of 1986 that the poor ward boss was only copying Charlie Haughey who, "caught between his hillbillies and Hot Press", was doing "the cute thing and lying low like Brer Fox".

Strangely, though 20 years had passed, the staccato surrealism of the events that led to the implosion of the Republic was coloured in the sepia of the Haughey era. The importance of history is captured by the Dail debates of this era for one of the great myths is that no one saw the sequence of events that would destroy the State coming.

But this, like many of our other myths, is essentially untrue. Back as early as 2004, Richard Bruton warned that far from being a "Keynesian", Charlie McCreevy's principles were "those of the hog cycle; fuel the boom, suck poorly informed people into taking a chance, and when it gets difficult, renege on the promises, pull all the credit lines and let the innocent be crushed".

The only people who ignored Richard more comprehensively than FF were his own FG colleagues.

The inevitable denouement of the FF/PD hubris is hinted at even in Cowen's accession speech where a man, visibly fearful over being yanked out of the permanent fluid political adolescence he had so visibly enjoyed, pleads with the Dail to secure "a blanket of goodwill for many months".

Months were all we got before we entered the horrors of the bailout of the banks. Standing by the Republic reveals there was no absence of prescience there either as Joan Burton warned of the dangers posed by the Government's "extraordinary blank cheque" which meant if we were not careful, "the Exchequer, or some specially created public agency, may become an owner of vast amounts of dodgy debts and the property associated with them''.

Leo Varadkar was shushed too when he disagreed that "the main problem with the banking sector is liquidity" and warned "there is a capital problem as well".

The subsequent IMF debate reveals just how vast the difference is between what politicians tell us and the actual truth. For undoubtedly benign reasons, we see Brian Lenihan claiming "the initiative for requesting this assistance, both from the EU and the IMF, rests with the member state''.

In a statement at variance with his subsequent claims that Ireland had been bullied into the deal, he said "there is no arrangement whereby a member state can be invited by the EU Commission or the ECB to request such assistance". We had instead apparently had what Lenihan called a "very constructive and positive engagement and dialogue" after which "the Government then met on Sunday afternoon to consider the outcome of the engagement" and just like that, "agreed to request financial support from the EU".

The genie, however, was let half out of the bottle when Lenihan admitted "the provision of financial assistance to Ireland is necessary not only to support our banking and budgetary situation but also to safeguard financial stability in the EU and the euro area".

Though Lenihan, with little support, had done his best to stand by the Republic, we were, to paraphrase a very different Eamon Gilmore, signing away the deeds of the country to bail out corporate German venture capitalists.

Nothing summarises the extraordinary nature of this time more than that final spectral morning of January 2011 where, in scenes that oscillated between Edmund Lear and Shakespeare's Lear, poor tortured Biffo lost most of his Cabinet.

Ultimately the farcical nature of things was best summarised by Brendan Howlin's comment that "members need to know who is the Minister for Justice and Law Reform. That is a basic question".

The 50 debates which constitute this text obviously take as their central theme the great standing by the Republic meditation from Dessie O'Malley over yet another row about contraception.

O'Malley's rejection of the smart politics of being "one of the lads'', in favour of standing "by the Republic", set the template for what politicians have to do. Their role is to stand by the Republic. And though, O'Malley made that speech in a very different time, looking at the Roisin Shortall affair that is still the essence of the great task of our politicians.

Ironically having stood by the Republic verbally, few remember that Dessie abstained in that vote. It set the pattern for far more serious moral absenteeism as O'Malley and his successors decided to stand by Fianna Fail, and in doing so, ensured their own destruction.

Their fate is a lesson that a Taoiseach who, on taking office in the last debate examined in Standing by the Republic promising a new politics of truth, should note.

If there is a key theme which emerges from Standing by the Republic, it is one of resilience and of the capacity of our less than perfect political system to eventually act in a manner that restores our faith in democracy. The message in Standing by the Republic therefore is one of hope.

'Standing by the Republic, 50 Dail Debates that Shaped the Nation', by John Drennan, published by Gill & MacMillan

Sunday Independent

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