Saturday 16 December 2017

Unflinching honesty from beyond the grave

Politics: Nothing is Written in Stone, Justin Keating (edited by Barbara Hussey and Anna Kealy), Lilliput Press, pbk, €20

Poignant: Keating was embarrassed by his cabinet colleagues' response to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. Photo: Tony O'Malley Pictures Ltd
Poignant: Keating was embarrassed by his cabinet colleagues' response to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. Photo: Tony O'Malley Pictures Ltd
Nothing is Written in Stone by Justin Keating, edited by Barbara Hussey and Anna Kealy
Andrew Lynch

Andrew Lynch

Former Labour cabinet minister Justin Keating's stimulating diaries take sideswipes at a long list of public figures, from Tony Blair to WB Yeats and Mother Teresa.

Justin Keating was well aware that he sometimes rubbed people up the wrong way. "I have been described as an 'opinionated little git' and I think that is fair," he admits in the first line of this posthumous memoir. "As a small opinionated man giving out unpopular opinions in public places, I have often been in danger of 'a belt in the gob' and, indeed, once or twice received one."

During Keating's time in RTÉ, a producer came up with a limerick that captured his prickly personality. 'Whenever I find myself meeting / The man that they call Justin Keating / I carefully wait / Then examine the bait / To discover which Keating I'm meeting'.

As this nicely ambiguous tribute suggests, Keating was also a man of many different talents. His CV featured stints as a farmer, an academic, a television presenter, a Labour cabinet minister, a member of the European Parliament and a president of the Irish Humanist Association. At his funeral in 2010, a group of admirers, including future president Michael D Higgins, sang 'The Internationale' while his coffin was lowered into the ground.

Despite all these accomplishments, Keating saw no point in writing a conventional autobiography. Instead, he left behind eight notebooks filled with personal memories and philosophical reflections, which have now been edited for publication by his widow Barbara Hussey with the help of Anna Kealy. The result is an episodic, stimulating and intensely intellectual self-portrait, designed to answer two fundamental questions - what do I believe about life and why have I come to believe it?

On television, Keating had a habit of leaning into the camera as he drove his arguments home. You can feel the same force of personality shining through these pages. He preaches Marxism, atheism, and environmentalism with the fervour of a terminally ill man, warning readers that "everyone has a duty to rethink their paradigm until the day they die".

Behind his urbane image, Keating was always most at home in the countryside. The book begins with a beautifully evocative account of his 1930s childhood on Killakee Mountain near Rathfarnham, where he was raised by bohemian and anti-clerical parents. "I learned then the sense of awe and delight and reverence from contact with nature that has served me all my life, in the way that religion serves many people."

Two early traumas left Keating with a lifelong hatred of political violence. At the age of 12, he saw his neighbour, Detective Sergeant Dinny O'Brien, shot dead by the IRA and gave evidence in court that led to the killer being hanged. "I hurt like hell," he recalls. On Bastille Day in Paris a decade later, he witnessed a riot that left six Algerian protesters dying in pools of blood and realised he could never physically fight for a socialist revolution.

Keating first became famous as the frontman of Teilifís Feirme, a programme that shocked Catholic Ireland by showing viewers how to deliver a lamb. Looking back, however, he felt deeply ashamed of the intensive agricultural model advocated by his lectures. "The way that I advised people to farm nearly half a century ago contributed in its own small proportionate way to making the earth uninhabitable."

This is a good example of Keating's willingness to be hard on himself as well as others. The book's title, Nothing is Written in Stone, (which, ironically, is carved on his grave in Co Kildare) mirrors a motto that he repeats time and time again, "If you show me better, I must change."

Over the years he did change, becoming less radical on some issues and more so on others - which inevitably cost him a few friendships along the way.

Keating began his adult life as "a completely committed Communist" but disowned the Soviet Union after its barbaric suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. He campaigned against Ireland's entry into the EEC in 1972, but later became a passionate European federalist. He originally supported the state of Israel, but then claimed in a 2005 magazine article that it no longer had any right to exist ("I an anti-Zionist because I love Judaism.")

Napoleon famously asked of his generals, "Are they lucky?" In politics, Keating ruefully acknowledges, he was not a lucky general. A few months after he became Minister for Industry and Commerce in 1973, an oil shock hit the global economy and his biggest challenge was to prevent a public panic.

Although Keating robustly defends the inflationary policies that led to him being dubbed 'Mr Prices', he clearly had no great regard for most of his cabinet colleagues. He was embarrassed by their feeble response to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974, which he later came to regard as an act of UK state terrorism. "I don't think any important Irish person in any walk of life can ever fart without British intelligence, if they want to or need to, hearing about it."

He writes poignantly about his love-hate relationship with Conor Cruise O'Brien, a man who at first appeared to be Keating's ideological soulmate. They parted company over the Cruiser's increasingly unionist views on the North, prompting Keating to describe him as "the best talker and the worst listener I have ever met". O'Brien is also accused of protecting a notorious garda 'heavy gang' that beat up republican prisoners, to which his former friend responds: "Well thanks a bunch, comrade… I looked on that silence as a personal betrayal."

Any living person who ever rowed with Keating should brace themselves before looking up their name in the index. Scores are settled every few pages along with sideswipes against Fianna Fáil, Tony Blair, the Department of Education, WB Yeats, modern rugby, Mother Teresa and many, many others. The book ends on an unexpectedly serene note, however, with its author giving thanks for the "four-and-a-half times" he has been in love, and explaining why his humanist beliefs allow him to face death with calm acceptance.

Barbara Hussey admits that she wavered several times before agreeing to publish her husband's notebooks. She made the right decision. This unflinchingly honest testimony from beyond the grave may well be remembered as Keating's finest achievement of all.

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