Saturday 16 December 2017

The turbulent decade that still casts its shadow over us

Providentially, Diarmaid Ferriter has not been discouraged by Leland Lyons' warning about the fundamental disability of contemporary history which places it firmly and irredeemably outside the cognisance of the historical profession. This he quotes, only to stroll majestically past in this magisterial review of Ireland in the 1970s, a survey that covers most aspects of national life from politics and economics to sport, culture and the arts, feminism, health, education and the conflict in Northern Ireland.

He draws on papers released under the 30-year rule, mostly from the office of the Taoiseach, from the voluminous papers of Garret FitzGerald, now deposited in UCD, from a wide range of contemporary journalism, but most often from Hibernia and Magill, on historians such as Roy Foster, Joe Lee and John A Murphy, and the memoirs of various actors and activists in a bibliography of nearly 500 titles.

From all this he crafts a compelling and comprehensive picture of the Republic in a period of turbulence and transition.

Whatever about the "ambiguous Republic", the bounds of the Ireland he delineates are very clearly those of the 26-county state. Northern Ireland enters the narrative only to the extent to which it is a problem for politicians or for the security services.

There is no coverage of social or economic developments in the North, and no data presented from there. In this respect, Ferriter reflects a tendency in the media and chattering classes (the roots of which can be detected in the 1970s) of which Northern nationalists are increasingly aware, to regard Northern Ireland as a place apart.

Ferriter's survey, too, makes it clear that even in the 1970s, when the North dominated the headlines and the political discourse for long periods, re-unification, even if declared later by a Chief Justice to be a "Constitutional imperative", was never regarded by any major party as a political priority, much less a practical proposition. Small wonder, then, that Eddie McAteer's hopelessly unrealistic appeal to Jack Lynch in 1977 for "one more heave" to end partition went unanswered.

It has to be said, in view of recent controversy and unionist demands for apology, that Ferriter's analysis of events surrounding the Arms Trial lends much more support to Peter Robinson's assertion of the culpability of some members of the Fianna Fáil cabinet in the emergence of the Provisional IRA than to Micheál Martin's angry denial of such a possibility.

Apart from this, the 1970s was a turbulent decade -- the end of 16 years of Fianna Fáil rule, two periods of coalition government, serial strikes and lockouts, a papal visit, Bloody Sunday, the fall of Stormont, Sunningdale, the Ulster Workers' Strike, the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, Ireland's entry into Europe, a presidential resignation, rapid urbanisation and, for the first time since the Famine, an increase in population.

Ferriter's judgment on Jack Lynch, that he was personally decent but lazy, not nearly energetic or assertive enough to be considered a good leader, is perhaps less than fair to his achievement in keeping a rein on the hotheads in Fianna Fáil and more widely in the country when the North erupted. He may have dithered, but his courage in sacking ministers and having them brought to trial should not be dismissed.

His main weakness was a lack of interest in economics and a willingness to accept flawed advice, particularly in relation to a giveaway budget and the abolition of domestic rates which is causing trouble to this day.

Liam Cosgrave does not rate much better -- suspicious of liberals in his own ranks, curt and boorish in refusing to apologise for Paddy Donegan's unpardonable disrespect for the office of president, a reflection of the crudeness of the prevailing political culture.

That said, it would appear that Donegan's insult was more the excuse than the reason for the resignation of Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, a distinguished and brilliant man who could be silly at times (as in offering himself as a substitute hostage for Tiede Herrema) and who appeared to be totally disillusioned with the job.

The public will be appalled at the extent to which an intelligent and cultured man was subjected to the indignity of having his speeches mangled and his movements controlled by middle-ranking civil servants in the Taoiseach's office.

Not surprisingly, Garret FitzGerald, both in and out of office, presents as the most energetic and effective politician of the period, travelling widely, generating ideas (not all of them practical) and building up the diplomatic service and establishing Ireland's credibility abroad. This certainly reflects the historic fact, but also perhaps the richness and availability of the FitzGerald archive.

Some civil servants are ubiquitous, not all of them household names, and some clearly peripheral. However, the wisdom of Whitaker is freely offered, even in retirement, especially to Lynch, and the great Dermot Nally is a constant for common sense, realism and political awareness, as is Sean Donlon as the resident expert on the North.

In many ways, the book reads like a view of the present through a rear-view mirror, déjà vu in reverse -- the same problems, the same feeble responses, the avoidance of hard political decisions which have left problems even for the present generation.

There is the failure to hold a referendum on the rights of the child in adoption, the failure to implement the recommendations of the Kenny report which would have avoided the land speculation which fed the Celtic Tiger, the failure to establish a Garda Authority.

And some familiar echoes -- that effective control of our finances seemed to be slipping out of our hands, and Whitaker's avuncular warning that profligate small countries can expect short shrift from foreign lenders.

Most of all, it was a decade of strikes and industrial anarchy, which made peace by way of social partnership a prize worth paying almost any price for, and perhaps explains why public-sector management caved in to illusory productivity agreements which led to equally illusory benchmarking exercises in the years ahead, and ultimately to the fuzzy huckstering of the Croke Park Agreement.

This is a masterly and comprehensive review of what was probably the pivotal decade in modern Irish history.

There is, at times, an overload of detail, too much truffle-hunting in the archives for detail that is interesting but not necessary for an understanding of the period.

In some chapters the narrative is slowed down, the argument lost in a blizzard of figures and statistics. But one can only wonder at the industry that produced this book and the grasp of historical context that holds it all together; the broad sweep of the narrative that gives a true flavour of the period for those who lived through it; the systematic analysis and sharp judgments of politicians and their actions.

In an all-too-short coda, Diarmaid Ferriter argues that questions that had first been aired in the 1970s cast a shadow that the Irish Republic continues to live under. It is hard to disagree -- and this is the contemporary relevance of this major study, which, pace Lyons, does fall within the scope of history, the study of the past as a means of understanding the present.

Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s, by Diarmaid Ferriter, will be published on November 1

Maurice Hayes is a former ombudsman for the North and a former senator

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