Saturday 20 October 2018

A rebel without a political platform

Paul Dillon

Unquiet Spirit: Essays in memory of David Thornley

Edited by Yseult Thornley

Liberties Press, €25

David Thornley was a contradictory character. A late convert to active Catholicism and an active socialist. A rebellious and dissenting TD in the Labour Party of the 1970s, who had held senior positions in establishment institutions like Trinity and RTE in the 1960s. And a man of energy and intelligence, whose political career is often seen as a failure.

Of these contradictions, it is the dichotomy between Thornley's ability and his performance as a politician that most exercises the 11 writers in this collection of essays in his memory, which is edited by his daughter, Yseult.

Thornley entered electoral politics in 1969 when he was elected as a Labour Party TD to Dail Eireann, where he served two terms, and he also served in the European Parliament from 1973 to 1977. The views on Dr Thornley's political career expressed in this book are coloured by the relationship between the contributors and Thornley.

Some go so far as to suggest that he should never have entered electoral politics at all. Edward Thornley, David's elder brother, contributes a chapter on The Thornley Family and Noel Browne which is scathing of Browne in general, and of Browne's attitude to Thornley in particular.

The chapter, however, is of little satisfaction in explaining why Thornley was so committed to Browne throughout his life, going so far as to follow him into the Socialist Labour Party following his departure from the Labour Party, a point not mentioned in the book.

One of the weaknesses in the book is that there is due recognition of David's contribution as a broadcaster and academic, but scant sympathy for his decision to enter electoral politics.

A highlight is the inclusion of a series of Thornley's own writings. In his 1964 essay The Development of the Irish Labour movement, he seeks an answer as to why "the Labour movement of Connolly" developed into a "revisionist Social Democratic Party" where "the word Socialism never passes its lip".

It is in this essay where the question as to why he entered electoral politics is perhaps answered best. Writing in the mid 1960s, he saw the political potential of the newfound unity in the trade union movement and the election of Brendan Corish as Labour leader. It was logical that he would seek to answer that question through active involvement in electoral politics.

The essay writers do a much finer job in assessing Thornley's role as broadcaster -- he was a presenter on the Prime Time of the day -- and academic than his career as a politician. Thornley's role, along with his Trinity colleague Basil Chubb, in exposing on RTE the possible consequences of Fianna Fail's attempt to introduce a first-past-the-post electoral system in the 1968 referendum is rightly recorded. Their analysis showed that the system would have granted Fianna Fail power in perpetuity and was pivotal in the referendum's defeat.

But there is no meaningful analysis of his republicanism, a source of controversy during his political career.

Again, it is David's own words which are revelatory here. His argument in 1971 that both wings of the IRA needed to be included in a solution, and that the Irish constitution was in need of reform if engagement with unionism was to be possible, go some way to redeeming the reputation of man whose republicanism is often portrayed as something that is romantic and naive.

Unquiet Spirit is released 30 years after David Thornley's untimely death at the age of 42

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