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Ronan Fanning: Lemass would have wanted us to be at the heart of Europe

BRUCE Arnold, in a recent article in the 'Irish Independent' (January 9) which took issue with an article of mine in the 'Sunday Independent' (January 1), did me the honour of pronouncing my argument as "interesting", before attacking what he described as my "distorted views of history".

I'm happy to repay the compliment because what I found interesting about his article is not the differences between our historical interpretations but why Mr Arnold should feel compelled to devote a page-long article to a sustained criticism of my assessment of Lemass's role as the founding father of Ireland's European enterprise.

The answer is obvious and has less to do with history than with the politics of 2012 because Lemass remains an iconic figure, a colossus who still casts a long shadow in Irish politics. The essence of my difference with Mr Arnold, in other words, is political, not historical.

But, first, let me quickly dispose of the history.

I stand over my own historical interpretation but see no point in squabbling with Mr Arnold about historical details. His arguments are essentially assertions unsupported by evidence and also, incidentally, unsupported either by other historians or by leading biographers of Lemass, such as John Horgan and Tom Garvin.

Mr Arnold, too, is a biographer, most notably of Jack Lynch, and I fear his admiration for Lynch may have coloured his judgment of Lemass. The sub-title of that biography, 'Hero In Crisis', is suggestive, for Mr Arnold is unashamed in his hero-worship.

I cannot accept his seeing significance in what he calls the "later development" of Ireland's entering the EEC because it "happened under Jack Lynch".

Indeed, even Mr Arnold's biography concedes that "Lynch on his own was never an original thinker in terms of policy, nor naturally disposed to innovative action".

Sean Lemass, in contrast, was an original thinker, whose power of innovative thinking as Taoiseach ensured that, in the words of Noel Whelan, Fianna Fail's historian, "support for the membership of the European Union, as it would become, and for the greater European integration project" then became "a central tenet" of party policy.

He also tacitly recognised that the day might come when we would have to make a choice between Britain and Europe.

Mr Arnold is quite right to identify as "highly political" my proposals urging the Government to turn the likely referendum on the EU Intergovernmental Treaty into an affirmation of Ireland's determination to remain at the centre of Europe.

But if the main thrust of my article was highly political, so was his. While both our articles had a political purpose, those purposes are diametrically opposed.

The legacy of Sean Lemass is important because of his image as the statesman who dragged a dismal and dispirited Ireland out of the doldrums of the Fifties. Today, public opinion craves a latter-day Lemass, who may likewise lead us out of the present crisis.

Those who believe, as I do, that Ireland must seek a role at the heart of Europe and those who favour, as Mr Arnold does, "a closer alignment with the United Kingdom" have this much in common: both sides insist they are the political legatees of Lemass.

Nowhere is this as important as in regard to Fianna Fail because that party is likely to hold the balance of power in determining the result of a European referendum. That, in a nutshell, is why Mr Arnold sought to discredit my argument that Lemass believed in "forging ahead on all European fronts" and that is why he instead wants Micheal Martin to favour what he calls "the emerging option for Ireland of a closer alignment with the United Kingdom".

Yet, in sum, I welcome his intervention as a contribution to what I hope will become a national debate on what may soon be an inescapable choice: between allying ourselves either with Britain's isolationist strategy or with the strategy of deeper European integration, as foreshadowed by the new EU Intergovernmental Treaty.

Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin

Irish Independent