Thursday 14 December 2017

'Know': the most treacherous word in politics

John Downing samples some shades of 'knowing' from Irish political times past

Charles Stewart Parnell
Charles Stewart Parnell

WHO knew what and when? The theme is a key question in the latest episode of 'Shattergate'.

But the word 'know' is one of the most slippery terms in the English language – a term which becomes even more fluid and elusive when it is cast into the political domain.

When does a politician actually 'know' something?

Does one 'know' something when it is common knowledge deemed to be fairly well accepted by all – even those omniscient 'dogs in the street'?

Or does one know something based on current rumour and the indispensable political skill of being able to see around corners?

The long answer is: all of the above and a bit more.

The real answer centres on what happens when political life goes into crisis mode. In times of strain, one generally only 'knows' something when that knowledge is produced in a written and official presentation, usually stamped and sealed.

The converse of that conclusion is that most denials of knowing centre on denials of this formal knowledge.Q PARNELL AND KATHARINE O'SHEA

Many in political circles 'knew' that Charles Stewart Parnell (left), the uncrowned king leading Ireland towards home rule, was living with Katharine O'Shea (below) and was the father of three of her children. She acted as go-between in talks with British Liberal leader William Gladstone over Parnell's support in return for Irish Home Rule.

Her husband, William O'Shea, used his estranged wife's liaison to further his Irish Parliamentary Party career. But when Katharine's hoped-for inheritance did not materialise, O'Shea filed for divorce in December 1889.

There was outrage at the 'revelation'. Gladstone warned that he could not do business with the Irish Party under Parnell. The Irish Catholic bishops felt Parnell could not lead the party.

Now that they 'knew' about his domestic affairs, the majority of Irish MPs ousted him. The split set back Home Rule hopes by a generation. This piece of political 'knowledge' helped frame a whole chunk of Irish history.

The delay in Home Rule ultimately helped open the door to physical-force revolutionaries.


In 1973, two English brothers, Keith and Kenneth Littlejohn, were on trial in Dublin for one of Ireland's biggest bank robberies when their links to the British security services emerged in court. The criminal pair had inveigled themselves into the spy world by infiltrating the Official IRA while also doing extensive freelance bank and post office robberies.

Then the new Fine Gael-Labour Coalition published proof of the 'knowledge' that Fianna Fail leader Jack Lynch (left) had been told of their British spy links before he lost office as Taoiseach months earlier. Apparently nobody had acted upon that 'knowledge'. Intrepid reporters tracked Lynch down to his holiday home. Had he 'known' all this? Lynch was cornered and had few options. He opted for the simplest way out. "Yes – but I forgot," he said blithely.


The Reynolds-Spring Fianna Fail-Labour coalition ended in late November 1994 in the most tangled welter ever of 'who knew what and when'. A subsequent parliamentary committee of inquiry failed to untangle things.

Most commentators agree things were worsened by the destruction of trust between Taoiseach Albert Reynolds (left) and Tanaiste Dick Spring, especially caused by the Beef Tribunal report.

Labour could not accept explanations offered for the mishandling of extradition proceedings involving the notorious paedophile priest Brendan Smyth.

Matters were compounded by Reynolds' insistence on appointing his Attorney General, Harry Whelehan, as High Court president. It all ended in a total mess.


Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin was Enterprise Minister when he appeared before the Oireachtas Health Committee on April 20, 2005. But the grilling related to his period as Health Minister in the years 2000-2004. They were specifically interested in his 'knowledge' of illegal nursing home charges being levied on people with medical cards in long-term public nursing home care.

In fairness to Mr Martin political 'knowledge' of this illegal practice was scarce – even though it had been going on since the mid-1970s at least and long before his tenure at the Health Department. Mr Martin insisted he had no knowledge whatever of the issue until controversy broke. He had no recollection of being briefed by officials – he had not read a lawyer's opinion. He just did not know.

Irish Independent

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