Friday 15 December 2017

Review: Sean Lemass -- Democratic Dictator by Bryce Evans

The Collins Press, €17.99

ICON: Sean Lemass hoisted aloft after a poll victory in in 1924
ICON: Sean Lemass hoisted aloft after a poll victory in in 1924
Eamon Delaney

Eamon Delaney

ALL places, Ireland included, like their heroes to be clearly defined, and exaggerate their qualities as a contrast to their exaggerated villains. This is how history becomes mythology.

Hence, Jack Lynch is sainted because he preceded Charlie Haughey, who is now demonised. But the reality is that Haughey was an effective politician in many respects and Lynch was, in fact, a flawed figure with questions still to be asked about his handling of the Northern Ireland arms crisis and about the 1977 giveaway election manifesto which began the State's slide into irresponsible spending.

However, the sepia-toned reputations get fixed, just as the recently deceased "Garret the Good" is lauded in a way that overlooks his economic mismanagement as Taoiseach.

It is the job of historians to challenge these orthodoxies, and Bryce Evans does an excellent job here with the reputation of Sean Lemass, another icon whose legacy is elevated because of what preceded him: the ageing and conservative De Valera.

Lemass is the innovator and moderniser, who embraced free trade after stagnant protectionism, who liberalised us from Catholic conservatism, and whose 1963 visit North to see Premier Terence O'Neill opened up the possibility of a more mature relationship with Northern Ireland. The reality is more complex and nuanced. In fact, as Evans points out, Lemass moved cautiously in all these directions. And more interestingly, he created a very tight control of his party, his ministries and even the national economy, especially during wartime, in a way which earned him the description of the book's title -- Democratic Dictator -- taken from a 1966 article by the far-seeing Bruce Arnold.

Evans is also keen for a reassessment because of the way Lemass's reputation has grown with time: this is only the latest in a number of books about him. He has appealed because he seemed a prototype for the Celtic Tiger, and for the modernism of more recent years. Now that the Tiger has gone sour, Evans thinks we should look more closely at Lemass's policies as well, although this may be too coincidental a reason for reassessment.

As it is, Lemass is a fascinating character and has a popular appeal, possibly because he is not the usual firebrand or nationalist ideologue of that era, or a pious jobsworth. A life-long pipe smoker and poker player, he was sanguine and imaginative, and vigourously practical where necessary. Engaging almost casually in 1916, he then just as casually seemed to take the anti-Treaty side in the civil war, and then, with more alacrity, entered parliamentary life, bolstering democracy and rising quickly in politics and, indeed, in the State's very statist economy. It is easy to underestimate the sheer longevity of his career, and that of his Fianna Fail colleagues. Of the original Fianna Fail cabinet of 1932, four were still there in 1959, when de Valera retired.

In many ways, the Taoiseach's job came too late for Lemass. He was only there a few years before ill-health took hold and he was gone by 1966. Evans rightly stressed that it was during this era, of the fast-changing Sixties, that Fianna Fail became the party of big business and enterprise, although still amazingly managing to offer itself as the movement of the "small man". Lemass embodied both, and presented himself, in that classic Irish way, as both rebel and conservative. But for all his liberalisng instincts, he was still most dutiful to the Catholic Church, and civil-service culture and establishment pieties. In foreign policy, he took a pro-US, hard anti-communist line, although not averse to offering a Bertie-style "socialism" at home.

The book is intriguing in this respect as in so many others. Evans has done solid research in the British archives and in new sources ,and turns up some fascinating details and anecdotes. Lemass had a particularly good relationship with Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister who also saw the job come to him late in life. Lemass confided to Macmillan that being from Dublin was something held against him in an Ireland where the official culture, at least, gave preference to rural life, and the idealised land. (The reality was somewhat different.)

Lemass did much to improve relations with the UK, and saw how crucial were our economic ties there. Such dependency also made him look increasingly towards Europe. Ireland's expansion through the Sixties should not be underestimated, all the more impressive for being moderate and sustainable as opposed to the bubble-boom of recent times.

However, it is a shame that Lemass's more constructive views on the North and the UK did not prevail instead of the tub-thumping nationalism which he felt obliged to vocalise. It is the same with the rest of Fianna Fail. How amazing, for example, that the old doughty Todd Andrews should, as early as 1966, propose a bridge across the Liffey linking the 1916 memorial in Phoenix Park with the Islandbridge Garden of Remembrance to the World War dead, a hitherto hidden legacy that Lemass, too, felt should be honoured. Or how amazing that Sean MacEntee, the 1916 veteran, should have felt, as early as the Thirties, that Articles two and three were a hindrance to Irish unity. What a pity that Fianna Fail, and the broader political culture, didn't follow this line -- the country might have been better prepared for the violent Northern crisis which later emerged.

This is a highly informative and entertaining read, written in a succinct and often opinionated style. But it is also fair and catches the humanity of the restless Lemass, and his era, as well as paying homage to the many recent and more monumental treatments of his full life, although not averse to questioning their conclusions.

It is also a reminder that so much of what we think is contemporary and new has occurred before, including some of the economic challenges that now face us. And as for the world of political slagging, the savagery of the exchanges recorded here between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail -- or indeed between Lemass and his party rival MacEntee -- make the present-day banter sound like the timidities of a vicar's tea party.

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