Modern leaders haven't managed to live up to Lynchpin Jack
Taoisigh since 1979 have lacked judgment, underachieved, made policy errors, or have had no vision, says Bruce Arnold
The shortest letter I ever received came up to me in the press gallery of the Dail from the floor of the chamber. It was a note scribbled on a small piece of paper by Brian Lenihan Senior, who had taken the initial business of the House at 10.30. The message had been sent up by hand of an usher.
It said: "Jack is announcing retirement at party meeting 11.30. Do not quote me. Brian."
I thought the last phrase was a joke. I was wrong. Few events as cataclysmic as the one that was to follow had happened in my time covering politics in the Dail.
Brian Lenihan was to remain a central figure. He also became a close personal friend and an excellent reviewer for me when I later became literary editor of the Irish Independent. He was meticulous, often sending me notes to make changes amending his copy; this was always delivered on time and with the right number of words.
That meeting, when Lynch resigned as leader of Fianna Fail, was to set in train a leadership contest which, in my judgment, then and thereafter, led us into the doom-laden rule of Charles Haughey. It went on from that into the financial chaos that did so much damage during the periods in power of Haughey's successors.
I had known of Lynch's intentions. At the instigation of Gordon Lambert, then an appointee by Lynch to the Senate, I had been with the Taoiseach for a long interview sparked by the growing perception that his departure as Fianna Fail leader was imminent. This was on the evening of December 4, 1979.
I wrote at the time, thinking, wrongly, the decision still lay well in the future: "He was relaxed, easy, confident. He felt free to give me 45 minutes of his time and only towards the end did he become impatient."
His address to the party was a lengthy one, setting out the time available for a new leader to establish himself and setting out, too, his own contribution to the most difficult political job he had faced in this country. He was 62. Half his life had been in politics, nine as Taoiseach, 13 as leader of the party.
He was a father figure within Fianna Fail at that meeting, wise, benign, correctly satisfied - though others were not - that he had led the party and governed the country well. Time would tell how it had been better than "well"; it had been safe, honest and secure. I revered him then. I do so much more now, with the wisdom of hindsight.
Despite the calmness with which he made the resignation announcement, that year of 1979 had been a difficult one, with industrial strife, discontent among farmers who took grave offence occasioned by a levy imposed by George Colley, and forthcoming European elections.
More painful for Lynch was the outcome of two Cork by-elections. Polling day was the day of Lynch's departure for America. He went as president of the European Community, accompanied by the US ambassador William Shannon and Shannon's wife Elizabeth. She recalled the terrible shock on Lynch of defeat in both by-elections, in which he had personally campaigned.
He saw in it a message that his time leading the Fianna Fail party should be ended.
The press sensed this and speculative articles, and radio and television programmes, adopted a narrow focus on the options facing the country.
There were two obvious leadership candidates and I published a strong article containing these words: "In absolute terms George Colley is short on creativity. Charles Haughey is short on civility and maybe integrity as well. Led by either, Fianna Fail would lose the next election.
"There are too many question marks over Charles Haughey. He stalks the corridors of Leinster House, the silken predications of control and power emanating from his person.
"Yet nobody knows the nature of his republicanism and how it would manifest itself in terms of policy on Northern Ireland. Nobody knows what the economic recipes would be.
"He has created an illusion. And it is this - that, once the mantle of power falls upon his shoulders, he will then get it all together.
"But at what price?"
Haughey was not pleased. He contacted the Irish Independent immediately, through his solicitors, threatening legal action. My editor, Aidan Pender, supported me when I said I could not accept that solution. No legal action was taken. Instead, through Dr John O'Connell, a friend, I was invited to a luncheon to discuss my "views" with Mr Haughey. Integrity was not mentioned.
After the announcement by Lynch, Irish politics was plunged into an unprecedented battle for the succession and I wrote my way through that, becoming notorious for the naming of names and their identification as to which side Fianna Fail deputies and senators favoured.
The nature of that conflict reflected nothing of the balanced and well-considered speech of departure that Lynch had made.
I gave as detailed an account as I could of those hectic days and later, when I wrote a life of Lynch, I included a comment by him that Haughey had always been overrated and Colley the opposite.
How woefully that turned out to be the truth, down to the annihilating judgments that ended Haughey's periods in power. They grew worse, not better, and the final details behind his lifestyle and his views of the sober sense of duty that should accompany the lofty calling on any leader of this country were missing.
In the end, Haughey disgraced himself in every way possible. He was replaced by Albert Reynolds, a very different kind of person, underrated and with considerable achievements in the peace process to his credit.
He was followed by John Bruton. There are those who consider him a weak Taoiseach. He certainly mistimed his departure, calling an election sooner than was necessary - always a risk as perhaps we are seeing with Theresa May.
Bruton's government was adequate and competent, certainly by comparison with what came afterwards, but its major achievement was probably getting the second divorce referendum through. Hardly a glorious achievement but Bruton's intervention on Morning Ireland the Monday before the vote swung the referendum his way.
Bruton was succeeded by Bertie Ahern, a puzzling figure and a creature of Haughey's before asserting himself, not always sensibly. His tenure included the Good Friday Agreement. Together with the Treaty of 1921, it could be seen as "bookending" the political history of Ireland in the 20th Century. It is hard to praise either the dynamism or the efficiency of this. But what does one add? Infrastructural improvements? The network of motorways? Being in the arms of the EU?
We moved into an era of "spending it while we have it", part of this the major boom that Ahern and McCreevy and later Ahern and Cowen could and should have curbed. It also coincided with the gravest policy error ever made by the Irish State - the decision to join the euro. This set the scene for the tragedy of Guarantee Night and the economic collapse of 2008, with which we are still living.
Ahern was a gifted politician but weak in the face of pressure from vested interests. He bought them off. He brought social partnership to an extreme level and turned ours into a corporate State, where vested interests are given a formal say in its running. This is a first cousin to fascism and is not a nice place for a democratic State to find itself.
Despite efforts to bury various personal controversies, his legacy will always be flawed.
Brian Cowen's tenure could only be described as disastrous. His economic rescue plan, developed with Brian Lenihan Junior, deserves no credit since he collaborated in its creation. His was a woeful administration.
Posterity is likely to be kinder to Enda Kenny as Taoiseach than he deserves. He had two innings, the first better by far than the second, which kept the country waiting for his departure, and waiting, and waiting. He was, strangely enough, the right man in the right place at the right time. This really means he was not so much a Taoiseach as a glorified county manager carrying out the bidding of the Troika, or, from time to time, the EU. The Troika are almost of blessed memory - a kind of pity that they didn't stay longer.
Kenny is a tough and ruthless politician, wasting his talent putting same-sex marriage into the Constitution, but nevertheless well able to fight his corner.
He was able and willing to deflect attention away from himself when he wanted to, and shaft others where he thought it necessary.
He was a good chairman of his first government; however, he is intellectually weak and has no vision. He lacked the courage to go on Prime Time and defend his proposal to abolish the Senate. Had he gone on TV and said its abolition would remove the Taoiseach's right of patronage - to create 11 senators - he would have won the referendum.
Lack of confidence in his ability to debate was a serious flaw. In recent months, his capacity to blunder when off script brought his tenure to an end. He modelled himself, wisely enough, on Lynch. But he had none of the iron will and good judgment of his older exemplar.
This brings this piece full circle, from the resignation of Jack Lynch to the resignation of Enda Kenny. The next Taoiseach will be Leo Varadkar. Both Haughey and Colley were substantial individuals. We knew what we would get with Colley (nothing flash but competence and probity) but were uneasy about what we would get with Haughey (some ability but with a dark side, and we were right). There are always doubts about a changing of the guard. We have no Haughey-like concerns about Varadkar but we don't yet know whether he is a man of straw or a man of substance.
We will, however, find out in a hurry.