Tuesday 25 October 2016

Think again about how we left poverty behind us

An explosively revisionist account of the Lemass era challenges our most conventional wisdoms, writes Dan O'Brien

Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30

INTO THE SWINGING SIXTIES: Sean Lemass, left, receiving his seal of office from then-president Eamon de Valera in June 1959. A new book claims that on Lemass’s watch “the age of auction politics arrived”. Photo: Independent Newspapers
INTO THE SWINGING SIXTIES: Sean Lemass, left, receiving his seal of office from then-president Eamon de Valera in June 1959. A new book claims that on Lemass’s watch “the age of auction politics arrived”. Photo: Independent Newspapers

Sean Lemass was an over-rated Taoiseach. Lauded mandarin TK Whitaker was a 'neoliberal' who had less influence on this republic then is commonly thought. Ireland's economy and society changed much less after the dismal 1950s than is often believed.

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These claims are contained in what may be one of the most profoundly revisionist histories of recent decades. They would be taken with a shovel of salt if they had been written by a young academic out to make a name. But they are not. Mary Daly is the grande dame of academic historians, now retired from UCD and currently head of the very august Royal Irish Academy.

Her new book - Sixties Ireland - looks afresh at what most see as an inflection point in this State's history. The conventional wisdom is that in 1958 Whitaker, then a young secretary-general of the department of finance, single-handedly penned the masterplan for Ireland's opening to the rest of the world. This led to the end of the protracted and chronic economic underperformance that had raised questions about the very viability of the independent Irish State.

A year after writing this plan, Eamon de Velara retired as Taoiseach and Sean Lemass took his place. The new leader was a moderniser who embraced Whitaker's proposals for ending the protectionism of the previous three decades. With these two dynamic men in charge, the accepted narrative goes, the economy began to turn around as the swinging Sixties started to swing.

Daly is having none of this. Her new booking aims to up-end this conventional wisdom. She makes a very convincing case that the "long 1960s" - the period from 1957 to 1973 - was much more about continuity than change.

Start at the beginning. Just how bad things were economically in the 1950s is disputed by no one. Daly cites an IMF report on Ireland from 1957. It stated that most of the countries the Washington technocrats monitored at the time were facing the constraints of growing too fast, but not Ireland. The fund economists wrote, "we are dealing with an economy which - with a few interruptions - has been contracting for more than a hundred years".

Before coming to Daly's views on Lemass, it makes sense first to consider the role of the man who was already the state's top mandarin well before he became Taoiseach.

The reform blueprint Whitaker wrote in 1958 is widely seen now as the genesis of subsequent change. But Daly believes its influence is overstated, mainly because most of its more radical proposals were omitted from the plan actually adopted by the then-government.

She is not alone in this analysis. The IMF's sister organisation, the World Bank, did not think much of the Fianna Fail programme which is now often thought of as revolutionary.

One of that institution's officials described the programme for economic expansion as "a retrograde step from the Whitaker Report", going on to criticise its please-all nature, saying "there is still jam for everyone".

If the book will cause some questioning of Whitaker's legacy, it will also make some think again about his politics. Although Daly unwisely describes his original proposals as "neo-liberal" (a silly term normally used only by the left), she is right in saying that many of his original proposals were indeed of the kind that would have today's usual suspects shrieking charges of "neo-liberalism".

In his blueprint, Whitaker proposed tax cuts funded by reducing spending on subsidies. He advocated tight control of public pending, an end to regional incentives for industry and the abolition of rent controls.

Above all, he wanted one objective - economic growth - to override all others. Such a stance would involve "ignoring goals to create jobs, promote regional development or preserve small farms," Daly writes.

Having established that the first big exercise in economic planning marked no great rupture with the past, it is easy for Daly to take the next step and claim that the notion of boom times arriving in the 1960s is largely wrong. It is even easier, given all the available data from the time, to support her conclusion that there was no dramatic growth surge.

She points out, for instance, that there was no increase in employment over the entire decade between the censuses of 1961 and 1971. What Daly doesn't say is that because the population rose, every person at work was supporting more people who weren't. This is reflected in the data on Ireland's GDP per capita that she cites. In 1960 it was 61pc of the average of 15 peer European countries. By 1973 it had slipped to 59pc.

So what of Lemass himself? It may well be that Daly's take on his legacy will be the most controversial aspect of the book, not only because of his near iconic status within Fianna Fail and, indeed, across party lines, but also because her view is very different from so many of her fellow historians, including the likes of fellow big hitter Joe Lee.

Lee believed Lemass attempted nothing less than to change the national mindset, from one obsessed with holding what we have to one based on performing better so that we could make more of what we have. Daly disagrees. Lemass might have managed a "course correction", but not a "major transformation", she writes.

She also gives a litany of Lemass's failings. Before a by-election in 1965, extravagant promises were made in order to hold a seat. Daly concludes damningly that it was on his watch that "the age of auction politics arrived".

Over his time as Taoiseach, from 1959-66, he was better at talking the talk than walking the reforming the walk. With strong echoes of recent times, Daly adds that his hyping of the economic recovery contributed to industrial unrest, as people sought to get a fair slice of a pie which, they were told so regularly, was getting bigger.

On the putting together of the second economic plan, which was Lemass's first as Taoiseach and one cobbled together with a greater input from interest groups than the likes of Whitaker, she says "the entire process has a strong element of snake oil medicine".

Arguably an even more severe criticism, and one that is almost certainly too harsh, is that Lemass was ready to abandon the longer-term goals for reasons of expediency. Daly writes, "one of the underlying premises behind economic programming was that medium and long-run strategies should not be derailed by short-term difficulties. This principle went out the window in 1965."

If Lemass's reputation as a policy heavyweight takes a pounding, there are jabs at his skills as a stump politician. Hibernia magazine is quoted on his role in the 1961 election campaign, which noted that his appearances on the hustings were "dull and unimaginative from the vote-getting view. He was too academic and spoke over the heads of ordinary people".

'Sixties Ireland' is great history. It questions, challenges and reinterprets. There are inevitably aspects of the book that one could take issue with.

It is, for instance, excessively negative - almost no organisation or individual comes out of this account well. More seriously for an historian, her claim that the opening of Ireland's economy after the 1950s was inevitable is plain wrong (in human affairs nothing is inevitable).

But Daly's deep knowledge and understanding of politics, sociology and economics enriches her analysis and gives it great depth.

Perhaps even more important is her immunity to academic fads, of which there are many. The book is written with the sort of plain-spoken directness of a person not overly concerned if noses end up out of joint, something that is all too rare in small cosy Ireland.

Anyone who is interested in why this country is as it is needs to read this book.

Sunday Independent

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