Eamonn Lynskey reflects on some Irish politicians who made a difference
If conversation is floundering, one sure way to revive it is to criticise politicians. Politician-bashing is a favourite pastime in Ireland and we are not alone in this. It is as popular elsewhere, though not widespread in countries where one is not sure who might be listening and when the knock on the door might come.
Unfortunately, there is good reason to take a jaundiced view of the political world. Criticism, not to say derision, is often wholly deserved. Squabbling and name-calling in Dáil Éireann are never an edifying sight. Venality in the form of receiving bribes for favours also does nothing for the reputation of the body politic. And public representatives often do not live up to the standards that were heralded by their campaign literature.
Nevertheless, one can become too cynical and start subscribing to the view that ‘they’re all the same: out for themselves.’ This well-worn cliché has, like all clichés, a grain of truth when applied to some individuals and we can all remember the self-interest displayed by particular politicians over the years. But there have been many politicians who were not out for themselves and who courted considerable opposition because of their principled stand on particular issues. These are people who, after their time in politics, have left Ireland a better place – men and women who have contributed enormously to the well-being of our nation and in ways far above what would usually be expected. They were people with a vision of a future Ireland better than the one they found around them when they were elected to the Dáil.
Despite fashionable cynicism, everyone will have a few candidates in mind when considering who measures up to this kind of standard. Regrettably, since I will deal with the relatively recent past, I must exclude St Patrick, who had to do a great deal of politicking with local chieftains when he arrived here to drag us out of our heathen ways. Similarly, the revolutionary leaders of the Republic’s foundation wars will not feature because their sacrifices place them above the working-out of day-to-day politics. These men and women were concerned not with making the Republic a better place but with creating it from scratch. However, it is with one those who risked their lives in that period of breaking from colonial rule that I begin my own short list
Sean Lemass was born in Dublin in 1899 and was first elected to Dáil Éireann in 1924. By then he was a veteran of the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and the bitterly fought Civil War. And it was probably this background that gave him the grit and determination that was to reach full flowering when he became Minister for Industry and Commerce in 1929. He it was who moved the Republic’s economy out of its early insular notions of self-sufficiency to become one which looked for trade beyond Britain towards Europe and the world; one which welcomed foreign investment. His was a proactive type of mind, summed up in his remark that there was a tendency in some government departments ‘to wait for new ideas to walk through the door’.
There are still Irish people to whom the words ‘foreign investment’ connote dark, outside forces intent on taking over our country. There were a lot more of them in Lemass’ time but, undeterred, he pursued to the end his vision of an Ireland capable of providing employment for its people, thereby breaking the age-old curse of mass emigration. Great deeds are rarely accomplished alone and in TK Whitaker (1916-2017), he found a civil servant of like mind. Yet there can be little doubt that Lemass was the driving force of those new departures and is widely regarded as the father of modern Ireland.
Many Irish people would also consider Dr Noel Browne as a politician who changed Ireland for the better. Born in 1915 into a family that suffered severely from the scourge of tuberculosis, he saw both his parents and five of his siblings die of the disease and his one surviving brother disabled by it. If the State’s foundation wars had supplied Lemass with his determination, it was the horrific experience of this dreadful disease that spurred Browne’s single-minded zeal to eradicate it from Ireland. No wonder then that, from the time he was first elected to Dáil Éireann in 1948, this was his main objective. Again, like Lemass, he had help from civil servants and from his predecessor as Minister for Health, Dr James Ryan, who had introduced a White Paper on the matter the year previously which had resulted in the 1947 Health Act. Like all Acts, a Minister willing to put it into full and immediate action was needed and Browne was that Minister. Mass screening commenced alongside a huge construction programme of hospitals and sanatoria. He was also fortunate in the arrival on the market of the new drugs of BCG (bacille Calmette-Guerin), streptomycin and penicillin. Looking back now, the enormity of Browne’s task of organising and coordinating this mass campaign of TB eradication is stunning. He also faced some opposition in the Dáil with regard to compulsory aspects of the campaign and on the question of financing it. However, like Lemass, he wasn’t to be put off. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Or cometh the woman. Mary Harney (b.1953) was appointed Minister of State with Responsibility for Environmental Protection in 1989 and it is for the ban on the sale of bituminous or ‘smoky’ coal in Dublin the following year that she is remembered most – and most particularly by those who saw their relatives succumb to the ravages of bronchitis or saw them survive because of Harney’s determination to get the better of the coal lobbies or, as they euphemistically styled themselves, ‘The Coal Information Service ‘. As with Lemass and Browne, she knew that it was absolutely necessary to pursue this health issue to the very end. There had been days in Dublin suburban council estates when one couldn’t see beyond four doors down the road because of a pea-souper that was as bad as anything Dickens wrote about in his London of the nineteenth century.
The ‘smoky coal’ ban was introduced in 1990 with the full backing of the then Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey. It proved immediately effective in reducing smoke and sulphur dioxide and related deaths and illnesses. Since then, it has been extended nationwide. In another public health matter Charles Haughey had in 1979 introduced restrictions on tobacco smoking which eventually led to a workplace ban in 2004. Looking back now, we find it extraordinary that there was opposition to a ban on smoky coal or that smoking should have been allowed in hospitals.
There was opposition to the Minister for the Environment Noel Dempsey’s levy on plastic bags in 2002 though it was far more muted than that against the coal ban. It wasn’t of course a problem of the same order as bituminous coal, but a problem all the same. Ireland had come to believe in its own tourist board advertising hyperbole which presented it as the clean, green emerald isle, the envy of the world. However, any saunter around Ireland’s cities or countryside at that time would have been somewhat spoiled by the 1.2bn plastic bags used yearly, left swirling at every street corner or decorating the hedgerows. Minister Dempsey persisted, and with the introduction of the levy in 2002 this degradation of the environment was largely ended.
Last, though absolutely not least in this attempt to put to flight some of the cynicism that often pervades political discussion, mention must be made of John Hume (1937-2020). As the prime architect of that Good Friday Agreement (1998) that brought a fragile peace to Northern Ireland and consequently to the Republic, he must feature in any roll of honour – never mind in an informal list like this. As with all great figures there is, ironically, not much else one can say about him in a brief summary because a one single great achievement can eclipse all others of a person’s lifetime. Ireland certainly would be a very different place today had he not been around to change things. As with Lemass, Brown and Harney, and others, he is strongly remembered as a force for the good. And it would be unfair to exclude him from this attempt to single out these forces just because his work was concentrated on a ‘separate jurisdiction’. This is one island and his achievement affected everybody living on it.
It is truly difficult to present a short list of those who have contributed most to the life of the Republic but any attempt to do so will give the lie to cynical pronouncements. Many other politicians might feature: Mary Robinson (b.1944) whose term as President of Ireland transformed the office from something of a retirement home (no offence is intended here to former distinguished occupants) into something more resembling the open style of other modern European Presidencies. Many too would regret the omission of Donogh O’Malley (1921-1968) who as Minister for Education in 1967 introduced free secondary school education (to the surprise of his Ministerial colleagues), thereby setting Ireland on course to major schooling reform and the opening-up of opportunities not available to previous generations.
Lemass seized the moment but had to overcome considerable opposition in his drive to change the direction of economic policy. Noel Brown had to overcome criticisms as to the cost of such widespread political intervention in health matters by the State and also from the powerful doctors’ lobby, the Irish Medical Association, as well as from the Catholic Hierarchy who opposed it on the grounds that it was contrary to Catholic social teaching and the rights of the family and of individuals. Mary Harney had a hard battle against the vested interests of the coal lobby. Nevertheless, these politicians persisted in their conviction that what they wanted to do was the right thing for the betterment of the people – whatever the political or financial cost. This is what sets them apart from politicians who owe their presence in Dáil Éireann to reasons other than personal ability and have a reluctance to seize a nettle which is guaranteed to sting.
There was something about these exceptional men and women that raised them above the level of the ‘ground hurling’ that is day-to-day politics. They were possessed of a vision and when the occasion arrived, they were there to meet it. Today’s Ireland is considerably indebted to them.