MEMOIR: BRIAN MAYEreviews The Widest Circle: Remembering Michael SweetmanEdited by Barbara Sweetman FitzGerald A&A Farmar, 227pp. €20
MICHAEL SWEETMAN, who died in the Staines air crash on June 18th, 1972, at the age of 36, would have been 75 last year. To mark that occasion, his widow, Barbara, decided to record the views of those who had known him, so that future generations may understand his place in Irish history. This book is the product of that record.
Sweetman was one of the most active men of his generation. He worked with Declan Costello of Fine Gael on Towards a Just Society, the party's 1965 policy document, and advised its leaders, most notably on the EEC, Northern Ireland and industrial policy. He was one of the leading Irish industrialists of his day and at the time of the tragic air accident was on his way to Brussels, with 11 other well-known Irish businessmen, to arrange for the setting up of an Irish business bureau.
In her foreword, Mary Robinson attributes the qualities of “integrity, intelligent analysis, political courage and a vision of the future” to Sweetman, and the contributions that follow bear out her assessment. To those qualities Garret FitzGerald adds a “markedly original mind, unselfconscious lack of respect for convention and mischievous sense of humour”.
Denis Corboy, a founder member of the European Movement in Ireland, recalls that in the early 1950s, while he and Sweetman were at school together, they “became fascinated by the new thinking coming from mainland Europe”. They carried this enthusiasm on to University College Dublin by joining the European Youth Campaign and then the European Movement. Sweetman became the director of the campaign that ensured a successful outcome to the referendum on membership.
John Dillon, retired Regius professor of Greek at Trinity College Dublin and a cousin of Sweetman, writes of their involvement in the "forward-looking" Central branch of Fine Gael and its journal the Citizenfrom 1963 to 1966. They were both deeply involved in Tom O'Higgins's presidential campaign of 1966, for which Sweetman produced some highly impressive position papers and scripts for speeches.
Some of his ideas echo down the ages, such as the damage speculative developers were doing and the worrying loss of a sense of national purpose.
John Bruton, who acknowledges Sweetman’s help and influence in the launch of his own political career, describes O’Higgins’s campaign as giving Fine Gael a tremendous morale boost following a disappointing general-election result in 1965. The historian Ciara Meehan quotes O’Higgins himself as describing Sweetman as “liberal in outlook, with a burning zeal for social justice and an intellectual capacity to indicate achievable reforms” and she shows how he articulated his concern for a fairer society when he unsuccessfully contested the 1969 general and Seanad elections.
His 1972 pamphlet The Common Name of Irishman, his response to the Northern Ireland crisis, is seen by Dennis Kennedy as "a prescription for a real rethinking of Irishness, a genuine cultural revolution". Both Kennedy and Brigid Laffan refer to the pamphlet's prescience, in that many of Sweetman's suggestions came to pass in the Belfast Agreement.
Sweetman's central role in the Confederation of Irish Industries (CII) is described by Liam Connellan, director general of that body from 1972 to 1992. As the CII's director of foreign trade, Sweetman produced the 1968 "seminal document" Challenge: Industry and Free Trade. He was ideally placed to point out the business potential for the country of full membership of the EEC, and Connellan documents how his predictions came to be fulfilled.
Interspersed among the contributions are personal family recollections, one of the most moving coming from daughter Caroline. She writes about their happy family home, full of laughter. “And then the day the laughter stopped. The day my father was killed. I shall never forget the look on my mother’s face on the day of the funeral. The dream had died.” Caroline, the joint eldest, was just 14 at the time.
But this is far from being a sad book; it is, rather, a fitting tribute to a multitalented man.
Brian Maye is a journalist and historian. His last book was The Search for Justice: Trócaire – A History(Veritas, 2010)