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Debating the Nation

John Swift

Standing by the Republic: 50 Dáil Debates that Shaped the Nation, by John Drennan, Gill and Macmillan, 292 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-0717152919

This is not a heavyweight tome. Most of the topics covered are interesting, a few are important, the selection is varied. But the analysis is light, profundity is not sought nor posterity targeted.

It is only human to consider oneself and one’s contemporaries more liberated, more balanced  and as possessing a better sense of humour than one’s parents or grandparents. It is gratifying then to find recorded here for a wider audience plenty of good things from an earlier age, including William Norton’s quip from the early 1950s that Peadar Cowan, in voting for the Soldiers of Destiny, had “demoted himself from being a vanguard of the people to being a mudguard of Fianna Fáil”.

There is also more substantial fare. Particularly striking is the Sean Lemass budget speech of April 1963; political courage and political judgement seldom come together as fruitfully as they did here, when Lemass jettisoned not only forty years of cross-party austerity but, more importantly, long-established Fianna Fáil doctrine on self-sufficiency, high tariffs and import substitution. The courage involved was all the greater against the background of an emigration of about 400,000 in the previous decade, and, in spite of that, a substantial increase in unemployment in the same period. According to Drennan, no less than 64 per cent of the Irish population was single at that time – and very few were living in sin! The judgement of Lemass, in embracing Keynesian theory, including increased government spending and substantial investment in education and improved social protection, was justified in the event, not only by improvements in the national economic and financial situation, but by the long-term upswing he brought about in national morale.

Just over a decade before Lemass’s speech, the disconnect between courage and judgement had been dramatically illustrated in the debate on the Mother and Child Scheme. The dispute within the Government ended up in a sterile stalemate, envenomed by doctrinaire positions and personality clashes. Noel Browne saw his Taoiseach as conniving and untrustworthy; John A Costello stated publicly that Dr Browne was not temperamentally suited to be a Cabinet Minister, pointing to the fact that he had announced the details of his controversial programme without clearing them with his colleagues in government. Costello himself was not above using emotive terms like “socialised medicine” and he defended Archbishop McQuaid as personally gentle and kind.

In retrospect, it is not evident why the scheme should have foundered on the existence of a means test, rather than on its inclusiveness or otherwise. Drennan comments that the self-interest of hospital consultants in retaining their private practices and in keeping the taxman out of their offices played as important a negative role as the Church. He also supplies the interesting background that Browne, his siblings and his parents had all suffered from tuberculosis; and that the possibilities of new forms of mass treatment, based on BCG and streptomycin, were just then opening up.

The impact of Northern Ireland problems on political life in the Republic gets three substantial chapters, “Hope and History” on the Belfast Agreement, the strangely-entitled “Apotheosis of the Dragon’s Teeth of Terrorism” on the Omagh bombing and “Appeasement Challenged – Enda Comes of Age” on the Dáil debate of February 2005. For me, this last chapter was the most interesting because I had forgotten not only the details of that discussion but the turning point it represented on the post-agreement delays and procrastinations. There is little enough coverage in depth of Northern issues and problems on their merits; but the quality of the discussions was high and the tone of good neighbourliness evident.

I was struck by Bertie Ahern’s claim that that the basis of the 1998 settlement was that we have to live together on this island, that we needed peace, stability and reconciliation and that, in any event, neither tradition had the means to impose its will on the other. Drennan correctly observes that this language is similar to that employed by Lynch, Cosgrave and FitzGerald in the 1970s; he notes that it had taken a long time and thousands of deaths but some among the Unionist and Sinn Féin slow learners of Sunningdale had evolved by 1998 to reach the point in the political landscape that the SDLP had reached in 1973. The cost of that lost quarter of a century, in blood, suffering and bitterness, and in the squandering of human and economic resources, was immense, and the Irish people, North and South, are still paying it.

Drennan’s book is organised by decade, from 1948 to 2011, with a reasonable bias towards more recent times. Each decade is given an unexceptional descriptive title – Hungry Fifties, New Hope in the Sixties, Grey Seventies, Horrid Eighties etc – and the Dáil debates chosen reflect this. Apart from a focus on personalities – Costello as reluctant, Lynch as “Honest Jack”, CJ Haughey as a political shark, Liam Cosgrave as dry, understated and always willing to defy his own party, Alan Dukes as lofty and ill-starred, Bertie Ahern as ward-boss – and on the ebb and flow of political parties, the two most important themes are the economy and the politics of sexual morality in its various Irish manifestations – censorship, contraception, divorce, abuse and abortion.

The attempt to cover as many as fifty separate debates may have been a mistake. Fewer individual topics and more depth would have made a better book. On the whole, debates on the economy are better handled than those on the moral civil wars. The reasons are clear: because there are still real problems to be solved and decisions of substance to be taken on the economy, what happened in the past is still considered relevant. By contrast, the inching forward by the elder Brian Lenihan on censorship of publications in 1967, or Haughey’s “Irish Solution” in legislating  for contraceptives in the aftermath of the McGee case are merely the occasion for a little fun. It is not difficult to find amusement, forty-five years later, in the views of Oliver J Flanagan, Knight of Columbanus and of St Gregory, on certain words and phrases in school textbooks. His problems, it turns out, had to do with “b-words”, bastards, (as in “those bastards up at headquarters”) and buggers (as in “that poor bugger”), both of which featured in well-thought-of short stories by Irish authors. But by contrast to David Andrews’s fulminating about hot dames on cold slabs, John Kelly’s castigating of the willingness of ageing men to discuss solemnly the efficacy of urine dipsticks, because “that is what people expect of us” was serious. It still has resonance, beyond Leinster House and beyond this island.

There is some evidence of hasty drafting and less than adequate revision. The string of descriptive adjectives for speeches (formidable, fiery, incandescent, thunderous – the last in relation to a statement by Liam Cosgrave of all people), is inflated. In the introduction, Drennan says he has tried to resist the temptation to editorialise. His efforts are less than fully successful; see page 110. His liking for the word “prescient” almost becomes a verbal tic. Justin Keating is “eerily prescient” in the introduction; and the same word is used later about ideas expressed by Cosgrave, Garret FitzGerald, Peadar Cowan, Brian Cowen, Pat Rabbitte and Richard Bruton among others.

The bibliography is odd. There are no references to the official debates of the Dáil, and no acknowledgement that the choice of ten chapters, and much of their content, overlaps with the listing of historic debates and speeches prepared by the Houses of the Oireachtas for their Family Day in 2008 (see www.oireachtas.ie/parliament/education/historicaldebatesandspeeches/). In addition, the only periodical mentioned is Magill; most of the fifty-six separate secondary sources listed are by fellow journalists but Garret FitzGerald, journalist as well as politician, is not included. Some quotes in the text, including an interesting one in relation to the Arms Crisis on page 94, remain unsupported and unreferenced.

It may be unfair to criticise a work of selection, even one of items which “shaped a nation”, for what is not there. Nevertheless, I am struck by the lack of treatment of external policy items, and I wonder if this is due to the scarcity of such items in the Dáil records, or to John Drennan’s preference for other subjects. The most obvious absence in this regard is that of Europe, which hardly figures at all.

In the index, there are no references to the EEC or to the Common Market, and only one reference to European Councils, two to the European Commission, three to the European Union and four to the European Central Bank. This hardly reflects the shaping effect that the European Community has had on Ireland since the 1970s, and especially its influence on policy formation over the past five years. The handling of the one chapter devoted to Europe, that of the Dáil debate of March 1972, is not impressive. No adequate idea emerges of the quality of the Taoiseach’s analysis and the seriousness and detail of Justin Keating’s opposition. Instead equal time is given to Joe Lenehan’s “tired and emotional” barracking of James Tully, and to Oliver Flanagan’s condemnation of early rising on the Continent.

John Drennan is by profession a print journalist. It has been said that journalism is a first draft of history. More dismissively, Paul Valéry claimed he did not read newspapers because he was more interested in the current than the froth. A certain amount of the material covered in this book, some of the topics highlighted within that material, and the accompanying commentary reflect the stronger, more decisive currents of the past sixty-five years in the Republic. Such reminders of previous crises bring a different and more salutary perspective to our present economic travails and social woes. Much of the rest is froth – sometimes interesting, often snappily expressed, occasionally memorable froth. But then the world would be duller if there was no place in it also for history as entertainment.

John Swift retired from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in 2006. His last posts were as Ambassador to Cyprus, Ambassador to the Netherlands and Permanent Representative to the UN (Geneva).




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