Tuesday 19 November 2019

John-Paul McCarthy: Labouring under no illusions in Education

'Inside the Department' provided a welcome and stylish insight into ministerial life, writes John-Paul McCarthy

RTE's recent fly- on-the-wall documentary on Ruairi Quinn's tenure at the Department of Education made for riveting television.

We got vivid insights into the myriad pressures of ministerial life and the reality of sectional factional fighting.

At one point Quinn told a group of pleading teachers that since 80 per cent of his entire budget had been frozen by the Croke Park Agreement, they'd better start thinking proactively if they wanted him to leave the pupil/teacher ratio unmolested.

A ministerial aide asked the teachers to suggest four alternative areas for cuts, so as to enable them to save that ratio. They seethed in silence.

Quinn muttered, "Fascinating," as he left the meeting.

And fascinating stuff this was for sure.

The Education portfolio has been held by some unusual personalities.

Past ministers include a German-speaking Kant scholar from Kerry (John Marcus O'Sullivan), a charismatic alcoholic who used the job as a springboard to political immortality (Donogh O'Malley), a doctor (Hillery), and a maths teacher (de Valera).

Today an architect is at the helm.

Quinn emerged as someone possessed of an admirable lack of self-regard.

Judging by the books on the shelf behind his desk, he is also someone who values long-term thinking and who acts in the spirit of Brecht's jolly command to be good while yet surviving.

There was some unsurprising Labour material on Quinn's shelves -- a book by his colleague Barry Desmond, a biography of President Robinson, some Robert Fisk.

Quinn also had Edward Pearce's book on the hard-charging unionists of the early 20th Century displayed prominently, suggesting a taste for polemical rough-housing.

It looks like he has also read Thomas Bartlett's recent 2,000-year history of Ireland, a book that presented our current economic malaise as the worst depression since the Great Famine.

These gloomy comparisons must help Quinn retain a sense of perspective as he battles teacher unions and the Catholic bishops.

We are not overly endowed with stylish insights into ministerial life in Ireland, and to that extent, Inside the Department is very welcome.

The best material came from the Free State era.

Think of WT Cosgrave's last political will and testament, written (on the day Arthur Griffith died) out of fear that he too would be murdered before long with the rest of the cabinet. Or then attorney-general Hugh Kennedy's meditation on his "despair for irreparable loss" as he trudged once again towards Glasnevin to the sound of Beethoven's Eroica.

Later memoirs tended to be more abrasive, even vindictive. Think of Dr Noel Browne's devastating portrait of Taoiseach John A Costello, the peppery barrister who wanted to resign after messing up the repeal of the External Relations Act in 1949.

Browne's aggression was offset in some respects by a self-awareness that is rare amongst men of bravura disposition.

He was good on the intimate minutiae of ministerial life, recalling his inability to read Irish and the extra help he needed in this regard from the somewhat mysterious first secretary of the new Department of Health, Padraig O Cinneide.

Browne remembered being baffled by the term "Aire Slainte" on the first legal paper he signed as minister in 1948.

Browne never forgave Sean MacEntee for calling him a "piece of flotsam", a charge carefully recalled in his memoir as if for the purposes of after-the-fact therapy.

Other ministers painted in softer colours than Browne though. Conor Cruise O'Brien recalled an hilarious dinner President de Valera hosted for the new Fine Gael-Labour cabinet in 1973.

As the fine wines began to take hold, a stooped and somewhat agitated de Valera suddenly stood up to lecture the new cabinet on the evils of proportional representation and its malign tendency towards coalition.

O'Brien recalled the way the then Taoiseach, Mr Cosgrave, laughed so hard at this moment that he coughed up his whiskey.

Lemass exuded humour and generosity in his memoirs. He made special mention in his long retrospective interviews with Michael Mills in 1969 of the American industrial managers who came here like angels of light after 1945.

"After the war," Lemass recalled, "when international agencies were set up, it was almost inconceivable to us that high quality American personnel could be made available free to advise us on our resources and development plans."

There was a strong sense of performance anxiety coursing through Ruairi Quinn's department in this programme as we watched his mandarins attempt to impress the man who berated them in the Dail in 2010.

As someone who held Finance in happier times, Quinn has unusual self- confidence.

By disposition though, many cabinet ministers are quite brittle, even melancholy.

Garret FitzGerald admitted candidly in his memoirs that he just wasn't sure that he could take another term as Taoiseach after 1987, such was his physical and intellectual exhaustion by that point.

He also wrote movingly about his sense of personal shame as he struggled through his memorial address in St Patrick's Cathedral for Christopher Ewart-Biggs, the British ambassador who was murdered by the Provisional IRA in 1976.

FitzGerald spoke haltingly that day of the need to reanimate "our joint and unequivocal determination once and for all to destroy this conspiracy against freedom and against life -- which in Northern Ireland has already wrought such universal tragedy".

A moving synthesis that hints at adversity's ability to polish as well as pulverise, the very elixir of ministerial life.

Sunday Independent

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