Diarmaid Ferriter: James Downey took the long view

But he believed the answers to Ireland’s problems lay in the here and now

Downey frequently looked back to evaluate contemporary politics and society. Photograph: Alan Betson

Downey frequently looked back to evaluate contemporary politics and society. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

James Downey, the veteran political correspondent who died on Thursday, was much more than an astute analyst of the politics of the moment over the decades since he started out in the early 1950s. He devoured history books and suffused his journalism with a determination to take the long view, honed by awareness of both national and international politics.

He also took an honest look at his own career in his memoir In My Own Time, published in 2009. This offered him a chance to write powerfully of the poverty of 1950s Ireland, and also settle various scores and vent his anger at not becoming editor of this newspaper in the 1980s.

Downey lifted the lid on some of the internal dynamics of the journalism scene in Dublin and London in the 1970s and 1980s: the boozing, bitching and backstabbing, the creativity and the quest for answers about the uses and abuses of power. But he was also interesting about the loss of the idealism of the 1960s.

Downey was instrumental in formulating the Labour slogan in the 1969 general election – “The Seventies will be Socialist”– and was a candidate for the party in that election, but bombed at the polls and ultimately continued as, in his own description, a socialist in principle, but “a middle-class individualist at heart.”

This was also reflected in his championing of payback for that middle class when writing for the Irish Independent as the economy grew in the 1990s.

Controversies

Downey frequently looked back to evaluate contemporary politics and society. In March 1974, in this newspaper, in relation to controversies over contraception, he wondered how much had changed in Ireland since the early 1950s: “We have got the pig out of the parlour, but not yet the bishop out of the bedroom.”

But things were changing: by the end of the 1970s he wrote of a republic that had become “oddly ambiguous”. A transition to a new affluence had been “speedy and disruptive” at the price of a lessening of social conscience, but could be characterised as “alive, vivid and thrusting”.

He sought to keep his fingers on those pulses. As a journalist, he wrote that “most of my work has taken me out of the streets and into the palaces of the mighty”, but he sought to remain a “foot in the door” reporter.

As an elder statesman of Irish political journalism, in recent years Downey offered more reflections on the Irish political and social journey and the gulf between the rhetoric of the revolutionary events that ushered in this state and the reality of what the republic became. It is worth in particular recalling an assessment he penned in 2012 about the quest for freedom the Rising represented

“It’s tempting to say that our ancestors won it and that our own generation threw it away. Not only tempting but in important respects true . . . but some of the aspirations of the 1916 Proclamation were never feasible anyway, No country, even the biggest and most powerful, has ‘unfettered’ control of its destinies.

Marxist paradise

“Independent Irish governments did not set out to make Ireland either a Marxist paradise or a dreamy medieval version on the de Valera model. They set out to make it a normal liberal-democratic capitalist state.

“To a considerable extent they succeeded . . . where they went wrong was not so much in the excesses of the Tiger years – although these have brought and will continue to bring us much suffering – as in the failure and worse than failure, to curb corruption and what we like to call gombeenism.”

In relation to who has the power and the will to eradicate these abuses, Downey finished by declaring: “We won’t find answers to such sad questions in commemorations. We have to seek them in the here and now.”

The need to focus on the urgent needs of the present does not mean the unprecedented focus on commemorating 1916 over the last few weeks, and which will continue into next month, is something to be disparaged. Of course acts of commemoration can lead to deliberate, contrived construction to serve contemporary needs and involve convenient omission as well as self-satisfied affirmation.

But neither is an artificial compartmentalisation between past and present the answer: active citizenship needs to be about lively inquiry into how we have got to where we are, not through fashioning a project of denigration or forgetting, but by making an honest effort to distinguish between memory, myth and reality.

Of course, as highlighted by the work of Jim Downey, this does not require blandness – he could be very caustic – but it is a lot more valuable when there is an appreciation of both achievements and failures and changing contexts, as exemplified by the noble and elegant Downey as he took the long view.

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