Monday 16 July 2018

Gentleman Jim: conscience of the ‘Irish Independent’

James Downey, 1933-2016

James Downey
James Downey
Jim Downey's first column for the Irish Independent

Tom Coogan

The room was not much bigger than a broom cupboard, it was large enough to accommodate a single desk, and the official "conscience" of the Irish Independent, James Downey.

When he decommissioned his typewriter almost two decades ago - only to re-commission it about 48 hours later - he was dubbed by then editor Vinnie Doyle, as "the conscience of the paper".

The joke was that the office was so "snug" that Jim, as he was better known, would surely have to go into the corridor to change his mind.

But what a mind it was. Talk softly but always carry a big stick, is the stock advice to the diplomat. Jim spoke softly, but the big stick he carried was his breadth of knowledge.

He has been an illuminating and reassuring presence at the crossroads of practically every political milestone over the past six decades.

Back in 1982 I remember him exploding through the editorial office door in D'Olier Street, where he was then deputy editor of the Irish Times. In his hand he brandished a piece of paper above his head with such agitation, one thought it must be on fire.

He wanted to know whom was responsible for the offending story as there was an error in the intro.

Once it was explained to him it was a new hand on their first day, he immediately reverted to his normal subtle but serene self.

While he crusaded against cant and easy soft thinking, he used his strength gently.

He championed the 'less is more' school in his crisp and deliberate style. He could be sharp but always scrupulously mannered and unfailingly courteous.

He was a passionate Crystal Palace fan who enjoyed their successes and accepted their setbacks with droll equanimity.

Because he was sensitive and attuned to the cares and concerns of his readers, he took their causes to heart and this made him an unflinching advocate.

Oscar Wilde once wrote: "By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, journalism keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community."

Anyone familiar with Jim's writing would see what a truly trite remark this was.

He was devoted to precision in fact and word, and the energy and passion he expended to deliver polished, flawless opinions was depthless.

He was endlessly frustrated and disappointed by the way the country was, and is run. But he kept his smouldering anger in check; preferring to remind the comforted of their failings; meticulously pointing out the flaws and futility of their ways. His logic and lucidity gave him a silky ability to persuade rather than pummel the reader.

His spirit may have been torn by tragedy in the North or broken banks, but all the time he remained an impartial clinical observer.

He had a disdain for the shallow and was not slow to render a rueful verdict. But even then his arguments were poised.

Jim was a passionate Europhile, and President of the Association of European Journalists in the 1990s. He strived to make sure that Ireland was kept abreast of events in Brussels.

He railed against the insular and provincial. He saw it as something of a vocation to shatter as much of the plate glass in Ireland's valley of the squinting windows as his time would allow.

As a columnist he had a vigour for the plain unvarnished truth and social justice. It literally pained him to see the pass the country had come to.

Having been a close friend of the Lenihan family, to see Fianna Fáil preside over the destruction of the economy hit him hard.

A couple of years ago he wrote in a characteristically bemused way of how quite a number of people thought Ireland was the best country in the world in the context of the Good Country Index.

It had even named Ireland as "the goodest country out of 125". He was non-plussed, but later greatly reassured by Ireland Inc's reaction, when the same organisation was overwhelmed with emails of angry protest.

In their narrative they had committed the cardinal sin in Jim's book, not only had they taken liberties with the English language; they had failed to tell the full story of everyday Irish life by leaving out our broken banks, unemployment, emigration, negative equity, mortgage arrears . . . his list went on.

Jim was not about leaving people in the dark or ill-informed. Some dismiss journalism as literature in a hurry. They argue that writers glibly trade in the pain of others.

Jim did no such thing. He was a compassionate man who took his time, in his own wry way, to get it right.

In doing so he enriched the time of many others who will be at a loss without him.

Jim on the Civil War parties

For hours on end, accusations flew, many of them of little or no relevance to the subject of the debate. Avril Doyle of Fine Gael even managed to drag in the Arms Trial, all those years ago. I almost wondered if someone would ask who killed Kevin O'Higgins?

- 'Bile dissolves rumpus', 1989

Fine Gael are a curious and, in some ways, an anomalous party. They have often made a virtue of conservatism, and their ranks and upper echelons contain people who belong firmly to the ideological right.

Even now in 1990, as in the early days of the state, their staunchest supporters are the bigger farmers, and their working-class support is low and falling.

- 'Gently shifting direction', 1990

History will treat Charles J Haughey kindly, says Bertie Ahern. A daring assertion. What is history? Bunk, according to Henry Ford. A set of lies agreed on, in the view of Napoleon. Truth or lies, agreement is not easily found. Reputations wax and wane.

Over the next 100 years, always assuming that civilisation survives that long, you can bet your life that assessments of Haughey will swing from denunciation to adulation and back again.

Still, the move to rehabilitate him is certainly in full swing, and he has been long enough out of office for a tentative judgment on whether it is justified.

- 'Judgment of history', 2004

Jim on the Labour Party

The public mood remains depressed. Perhaps the chief reason is our apparent inability to establish the causes of the economic crash and the events which led up to it, or to identify and punish those responsible.

That is only one example of the absence of what George Bush the Elder called "the vision thing". No party appears to have any vision of the society which will follow the recovery.

Recently, I heard a contributor to a radio programme outlining measures which he believed would lead to another Celtic Tiger. A female voice in the background cried out: "No! God forbid!"

I agree with that lady. We don't want another boom, succeeded by another crash. We need a very different vision. Who will express it? Not Fine Gael. Not Fianna Fáil, to judge by its performance since the meltdown of 2011. Not Sinn Féin. And not Labour as long as it remains in government.

Blinkered Irish political parties like to "prepare for government". The time has come for Labour to prepare for opposition.

It cannot walk out of the Coalition at this time, but only in opposition can a party refresh itself, think imaginatively, rebuild.

But can Labour, or any party, persuade the voters that it has a vision they can understand and believe in? In our leaderless, motiveless system, that is the biggest challenge.

- 'Only in opposition', 2013

Jim on the Abbey theatre

The old Abbey Theatre was nothing much to look at. A narrow entrance on an undistinguished street corner.

Inside, a lack of comfort for the audience such as could hardly be imagined nowadays.

But comfort is nothing compared with magic. And all theatres offer magic; offer the hidden, the mysterious, the religious, the sexual.

The Abbey had a special magic of its own. Its opening marked the culmination of the Irish cultural renaissance and supplied it with a bricks-and-mortar monument.

Before we had our own parliament and our own courts, we had our own theatre. It was exciting. People took it seriously. There were riots. Some wanted no deviation from a portrayal of a sedate Catholic society.

With time, as it happened, Irish society became all too sedate. As bad luck would have it, one of the very worst periods followed the fire of 1951.

The Abbey took over the old Queen's music hall in Pearse Street, where it put on gruesome comedies with the message, expressed or unexpressed, ah-sure-isn't-this-a-great-little-country.

The rulers of this great little country are not adept at decisions.

They seldom seem to understand that failing good decisions, bad decisions are the next option.

- 'Bring back the magic of the Abbey', 2005

Jim on the McCabe killers

Ever since the outbreak of the Northern troubles 30 years ago, a prime objective of all Irish governments has  been to prevent the violence spilling over into the Republic.

With some exceptions, they have succeeded. There is nothing on this side of the border comparable to the lawlessness which has prevailed on the other side and still prevails. But the exceptions have been spectacular. They have included, among many other sensational events, the murders of Earl Mountbatten and a British ambassador, Christopher Ewart-Biggs, and the abductions of Tiede Herrema and Don Tidey. During the operation to rescue Mr Tidey, a Garda recruit and a soldier were killed.

More insidious (and, it may well be feared, longer lasting) are the effects of the presence in some parts of the country, and not only parts close to the border, of IRA nests. It was members of one of these who killed Detective-Garda Jerry McCabe. Their relationship to the mainstream Sinn Fein-IRA leadership, and the degree of control exercised over them by that leadership, may be in doubt. Not in doubt are the implications of the events which led yesterday to the charge against them from murder to manslaughter.

- 'A plea bargain by any other name', 1999

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