A decent patriot

 

During his thirty-seven years in the Dail James Dillon was looked upon as one of the most colourful personalities in public life. In Ireland's age of isolationism and conformism his independent voice, despite a certain pomposity and flamboyance, was like a gush of fresh air whirling through grey political corridors. He was crying out for a biographer. He has now happily found him. Dillon trained to take over the family business in Ballaghadereen. But politics was in his blood. As the faithful son of John Dillon, he repudiated both wings of Sinn Fein and was first elected to the Dail in 1932 as an Independent. He soon joined with another Independent, Frank MacDermot, to establish the National Centre Party. The story of Dillon's early years in politics gives Maurice Manning the opportunity to throw light on the Independents and small parties who tried to steer clear of the two major Civil War parties and their politics. The National Centre Party merged with Cumann na nGaedheal and the Blueshirts, in what Lemass dubbed the "Cripple Alliance", to form Fine Gael.

Though now a loyal party man, Dillon was never to lose his independent radical streak. He disagreed not only with Fianna Fail but also with many of his own colleagues on the question of "compulsory" Irish, claiming that it would "come to stink in the nostrils of our people". On Northern Ireland he abhorred the official anti-partition campaigns almost as much as the militant nationalism of some back-benchers. He asserted: "We have got to win, not only the barren acres of Ulster, but the hearts of the people who live in it". It was his opposition to Ireland's neutrality, however, which earned him most hostility, and forced him out of Fine Gael. For Dillon, Nazism was "the devil himself with twentieth century efficiency". The German Minister in Dublin described Dillon as a "Jew" and "German-hater". And from the altar a parish priest said of Dillon (who was present in the congregation) that de Valera should have jailed him. Among the many good things in Manning's book is the chapter "Wartime Interlude". It tells the story of Dillon's whirlwind courtship. He (40) met Maura (22) while on holiday in Carna on a Friday. When he left on the following Monday they were engaged and were married six weeks later. Some of the dialogue during those three days could have been scripted for an Oscar Wilde drama.

In charge of Agriculture in the Inter-Party Government (1948-1951), his was one of the success stories, especially his Land Reclamation scheme. Welcomed back into Fine Gael, he became leader of the Party from 1959 to 1965. It was his misfortune to find himself pitted against Fianna Fail in the glory days of Lemass. Manning deftly analyses the weaknesses in Fine Gael under Dillon's leadership - the struggles between the Young Turks and the old conservative wing, and the fact that for many in Fine Gael (though not for Dillon) politics was only an interesting sideline.

Dillon did not admire everything he saw in Fianna Fail. He admitted that Haughey was "an extremely good Minister for Agriculture", but he found most distasteful the race for the leadership. Lynch he described as "a young man of integrity". Colley was `'an honest upright man". He added that both were expendable as an old shoe in the eyes of those he called the Camorra - Haughey, Boland, Blaney, Donough O'Malley, Lenihan - "who are now sharpening their knives and whirling their tomahawks, not only for their enemies, but for one another". Dillon retired from politics in 1969, saying to his nephew: "It's all very well to bore other people, but when you begin to bore yourself it is probably time to quit". It was left to his old friend but political enemy, Todd Andrews, to provide his epitaph - "a great and specially decent patriot".

Manning is to be congratulated on an impressive piece of work. It was only to be expected that, as a member of Fine Gael himself, he would be sympathetic to his subject. Yet he is not afraid to discuss Dillon's shortcomings. The significance of this study owes much to Manning's own experience of politics - both as party man and as academic observer. This biography must be strongly recommended.

Donal McCartney is Emeritus Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD. His book, UCD: A National Idea, will be published by Gill & Macmillan in November.