How we changed . . . and stayed the same
Colm Tóibínreviews Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s By Diarmaid Ferriter, Profile, 823pp £30
Ireland in the 1970s was a great country to emigrate from. As the debate about joining the European Economic Community raged, I saw a poster put up by Official Sinn Féin opposing membership. “Would you like your daughter to work in the Ruhr Valley?” it asked. I had no daughter, but I remember thinking that if anyone were willing to pay for a single ticket to the Ruhr Valley I would be only too happy to stay there for as long as I was let.
Diarmaid Ferriter’s history of the decade, which is painstaking in its use of primary sources and filled with nuanced consideration of detail, makes clear, however, that such an attitude was too simple and not based on the evidence. The picture he offers is of a society slowly changing, with leaders who were, while uninspired and oddly flawed, also well meaning and serious minded, and civil servants who were dutiful and hard working. He is careful also to look at other material as the margins in Ireland became more influential; he studies the work of women’s groups and community groups and individuals who sought to create a new agenda for the country.
Ferriter can write about the 1970s as the State documents, for the most part, are available under a 30-year rule. He is scrupulous in how he assembles his narrative, using internal reports, debates as they unfolded and sources such as Hibernia and Magill magazines. He depends on contemporary documentary evidence and in doing so offers a masterclass in historical writing.
He does not use memoirs for accounts of important events or interviews conducted with those from the period who are still alive. He is interested in the texture of things on the day before the next thing happened, when no one knew what was coming. He is concerned with what things looked like then; he does not impose a pattern or allow hindsight to colour, or indeed deform, his version of the recent past. Thus history is written by a historian rather than by the victors or by those who lived to tell the tale.
This means there is, by necessity, much emphasis on the machinery of the State itself and on its internal debates on policy, as that evidence is available; there is much less about some of the other forces at work in our society. The IRA, for example, has little more than a shadowy and menacing presence in this book, and the Catholic Church, which has not released documents about controversies or about internal debates between key members, cannot be dealt with in any real detail.
Ferriter is also scrupulous not to highlight events merely because they echo with the present. Obviously, the reader will find some of the debates and burning issues from the 1970s highly relevant, but it is not the historian’s job to point this out or dwell on it. Ferriter does not allow easy connections to interfere with the intellectual austerity and clarity of tone he brings to his investigations.
Subtle but forceful
Because his book refrains from colourful pen portraits or sweeping statements or passages of knowing analysis, certain figures emerge in ways which are subtle and gradual, but all the more forceful for that. It would have been easy to have devoted large attention to, say, Garret FitzGerald, Charles Haughey and Conor Cruise O’Brien because of the power of their personalities. Instead, the three politicians who emerge as most interesting and admirable from these pages – Jack Lynch, Liam Cosgrave and Frank Cluskey – do so because of the persistent refusal of the first two to do their worst, or to cause damage, or to impose their personalities on events, and because of the ability of Cluskey, who was a mere parliamentary secretary – a junior minister in today’s parlance – to implement progressive policies on social welfare quietly when no one else seemed to be looking, when the bright boys in the cabinet were busy making noisy headlines.
The importance of Ferriter’s book is not merely in its methodology, however. The significance of his version of the 1970s also comes from an odd and fascinating dichotomy in his narrative. Some of the events and debates he describes seem very remote, part of another century. Some events and questions, on the other hand, loom large because we live with their shadow still, or indeed their substance. Matters that deformed our society in the 1970s, or seemed intractable or in urgent need of attention, still do so.
Thus some of the chapters on the quality of governance in Ireland and the systems of decisionmaking may be written again when someone comes to write the history of our decade, except not in as much detail since our rulers are much more wary of what they put on paper because of the Freedom of Information Act, and because emails will not be kept in the same way as memos once were.
Debates about whether to televise the Dáil, or whether to have an ombudsman, or whether the availability of contraceptives or the use of seat belts in cars was a good idea, seem like history. Garda brutality in the south – chillingly described here – or efforts to solve the problems in Northern Ireland also belong to their time.