Kenny and Flanagan echo views of Lynch, FitzGerald and Cosgrave
The days of the hand-holding of northern nationalists may finally be over
In Ken Burns's extraordinary new PBS documentary about the Roosevelt dynasty, one of the contributors offered a striking take on the presidency of the United States. It was not a "bully pulpit", or even a sanitised form of monarchy, but really more like a leather glove. Each new hand that wore it stretched it in unique ways. We saw in the Dail last week that this metaphor also works for the Irish premiership.
In response to an impertinent lecture from Gerry Adams about the Taoiseach's recent trip to Northern Ireland, Enda Kenny explained that there was no financial deal because Adams blocked it. Charlie Flanagan kept the focus on Adams too.
The Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs effectively reached back last week to an older style of statecraft, one that predates the Reynolds and Haughey operations and repudiates the idea that the Irish leader must aspire no higher than to be a head waiter for northern nationalist grievance. Kenny and Flanagan sounded like Jack Lynch and Patrick Hillery, or perhaps more pertinently, like Liam Cosgrave and Garret FitzGerald. Lynch and Cosgrave also reacted badly to the kinds of lectures Adams excels at, if only because both felt instinctively that the central axis of the Northern Ireland problem was not the Anglo-Irish one, but the relationship between the two Ulster communities. They both came to resent various attempts to manipulate them and their offices.
Lynch explained his thinking to the British ambassador, John Peck, in 1972, who reported back to base to say that "as far as he [Lynch] was concerned, he wanted peace and justice in the North and close friendship and cooperation with us". On the matter of unification, Peck felt Lynch "could not care less".
This remained Lynch's analysis even after his huge victory in 1977. There would be no fooling around with "national self-determination" formulas or back-channel negotiations with the IRA in monasteries.
Lynch's diffidence here was partly a matter of temperament, he being a kind of Cork Tory in many ways, but it was also a product of the dreadful load he bore after the Arms Crisis, a load that embittered him.
He could not forget those northerners with the unadorned hearts, who almost dragged him into a border war in 1970, and who tried again after Bloody Sunday, or the humiliation of the Mountbatten funeral in 1979, or the Darkley church murders in Armagh in 1983 that shocked him even in retirement.
Troubles came in battalions, especially in the early years of his premiership. The first chief of staff of the Provisional IRA, Sean MacStiofain, went on hunger strike in Dublin in 1972, and Lynch stated publicly that he could drop dead before he would negotiate with him. (Lynch's own justice minister, Des O'Malley, had to carry a gun with him at all times to thwart republican rather than loyalist death threats).
Liam Cosgrave signed the Sunningdale communique of course in 1973, but like Lynch before him, something in his thinking also calcified after the all-island elements in that agreement destroyed the power-sharing components. In his important Ireland Since 1939 (2006), Henry Patterson traced the poor relationship between Cosgrave and Hume in particular.
As Taoiseach, Cosgrave told a meeting of British ministers in London, in 1973, that any attempt to re-open the partition issue "would dangerously exacerbate tensions and fears". Hume retaliated by accusing Cosgrave of surrendering to "the false liberalism of placating the Unionists". Their relationship never really recovered.
Things got worse though when reports reached the assistant cabinet secretary Dermot Nally in 1975 - Lynch's single finest appointment in a long career - that a faction within the SDLP actually welcomed Harold Wilson's plan to withdraw entirely from Ulster.
Nally advised Cosgrave to cut them loose if these rumours were true. The interest of Ireland as a whole, Nally wrote, diverges "markedly from the interests and policies of the SDLP and a reasonable degree of progress for the three million people living here is more important, no matter what Northern interests think, than power sharing, if the choice comes to that."
Enda Kenny and Charlie Flanagan basically re-iterated this message last week, though their quarry was Sinn Fein rather than the SDLP. Maybe the 'peace process', as framed by the Department of Foreign Affairs, really is over?