Thursday 24 October 2019

Mary O'Rourke: 'Statesman's wise words from the past we still need to hear'

The thoughts of Sean Lemass, taped for posterity 50 years ago, resonate amid today's Brexit tangle, writes Mary O'Rourke

Legacy: Sean Lemass
Legacy: Sean Lemass

I was quite startled to read recently that Leo Varadkar has on the wall in his office a portrait of Sean Lemass, whom he greatly admires.

Recently, I went to the Kennedy Summer School in Wexford, where there was a great range of lectures from all sorts of interesting people. They included an after-lunch lecture and public interview with Micheal Martin. Later that night, there was a talk by Leo Varadkar, amidst a range of various speakers on all sorts of different areas of Irish life.

Ronan McGreevy of the Irish Times gave a very full account of the Lemass Tapes as recorded in 1969 by Dermot Ryan, a Dublin entrepreneur who was a fervent admirer of Sean Lemass, who was Taoiseach from 1959 to 1966, after a long period of Eamon de Valera as Taoiseach, the latter years of which, by all accounts, were uneventful.

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In these tapes, Lemass, who has had numerous biographies written of him but never produced an autobiography, detailed full accounts of his life and his views on matters national and international. In all, he recorded more than 300,000 words, which was an amazing output.

Among the many interesting items discussed at the Kennedy School were the amazing views of Lemass on the early 1960s, when both the UK and Ireland were looking to join the Common Market.

Lemass fully understood, even before Britain joined the Common Market, that it would have, at best, an ambivalent attitude to Europe. At the time he gave his interview, Ireland was also striving for membership of the EEC. In the tapes, Lemass talked about British ideas about Europe, saying: "I do not think that either Macmillan or any member of the British government ever fully understood that they could not be half in and half out of the EEC. They had to make up their minds."

It is so interesting now to hear of the amazing prescience which Lemass showed at that time about the British intentions towards the EEC.

For us living through this huge Brexit tangle, it strikes such a relevant note. It seems the British thought that they could still have a special relationship with the US, even though they would be getting the rights and privileges of the Common Market if they were admitted to it.

We are now living through the exact working out of that relationship, in which Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, goes on his path of pandering to Donald Trump and is still travelling to Europe to talk with Michel Barnier and the European functionaries about his plan to supposedly leave the EU by October 31, with a deal. Quite amazing that all those years ago Sean Lemass could foresee what the tangled outcome would be when Britain finally decided to leave Europe.

In the tapes, Lemass explains how Britain's imperial hangover made it an entirely unsuitable candidate for EEC membership: "I do not think they had any other idea initially in relation to the Common Market, except to destroy it."

In the lecture, Lemass was summed up as a man who was brilliant in so many ways, but also a wise and shrewd judge of character. The Lemass Tapes do not detract in any way from his legacy; in fact McGreevy thinks that they burnish them.

When asked what his legacy should be, Lemass replied modestly that he didn't mind as long as his children and grandchildren were not ashamed to be associated with him: "If they can say 'My old grandfather was not too bad a guy when he was in it', and feel that this is some advantage, so much the better." I think we would all agree that Lemass need have no worries on that score.

The 50th anniversary of Sean Lemass's death occurs in 2021. It is also the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the State through the Anglo-Irish Treaty. It was suggested that it would be a fitting tribute, then, that the Lemass Tapes be published in an edited, annotated version, as a fine tribute to our greatest politician. I would heartily agree with this idea. Here we have real history, 300,000 words in the voice of Sean Lemass talking to Dermot Ryan, and going fully through the whole history of Ireland, post-1923 up to the 1960s.

It is a wonderful realm of history, waiting to be grasped, explored, explained and published in full. Yes, we can get glimpses of it. But how wonderful it would be to have the whole history laid out in vivid, graphic, personal detail.

These tapes can be accessed by appointment with the research department in University College Dublin. I hope that many will avail of the opportunity.

Some time ago in the pages of this paper, I spoke about my father's involvement with Sean Lemass. In the 1930s my father was a civil servant working in Revenue in Dublin Castle. Sean Lemass was Minister for Industry and Commerce and had business dealings with my father. Lemass took a liking to my father and asked him to consider taking leave of absence from the civil service to run a company which the government was considering setting up in Athlone - a cotton manufacturing company. It was an enterprise which gave work to more than 1,000 people for a long number of years. Lemass thought my father would make a good managing director. And so began the saga of General Textiles Ltd, and the close friendship which developed between my father and Sean Lemass.

My father had been a follower of Michael Collins and the Cumann na nGaedhael government, and later he went forward as an Independent Chamber of Commerce candidate for the local elections. Family lore has it that Sean Lemass said to him, "Ah for goodness sake Paddy, what are you doing running as an Independent - why don't you join a party?" So my father joined Fianna Fail.

Mary O'Rourke is former Minister for Education, Health and Public Enterprise. She is the author of 'Just Mary' and 'Letters of My Life', and co-editor of the book on Brian Lenihan Jr, 'In Calm and Crisis'

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