Excitement of the first Lemass and O'Neill meeting captured

 

THE most significant events of 1965 were the two Lemass O'Neill meetings, the first in Stormont in January followed by O'Neills visit to Dublin less than a month later.

It is interesting to note the Sean Lemass style of government which exudes from the cabinet papers and many memos and documents. It was a brisk efficient style, unfussy but with great attention to detail. Cabinet meetings rarely lasted more than two hours and often half that time; Lemass kept a finger on all aspects of government, but did so with a light touch.

The Lemass O'Neill meeting in January marked a watershed in North South relations largely because of the subsequent undermining of O'Neill in Northern Ireland. This, of course, is not evident from the 1965 papers. Indeed, what is surprising is how widely the visits were applauded (Ian Paisley was a lonely voice) and the rapidity with which ideas for substantial cross Border co operation were put on the table. The drive and vision of T.K. Whitaker can be seen in the urgency with which each. Department was asked to come up with specific proposals.

In the current climate of cross Border co operation, it is striking to see the similarities between what is now being attempted and what was proposed in the 1960s from common tourism, transport and energy policies to co operation in education, culture and the arts. Reading these papers underlines the loss of 25 years of potential development which the Lemass O'Neill meetings might have made possible.

The papers capture the urgency and excitement surrounding the first meeting - Ken Whitaker bringing O'Neill's private secretary, Jim Malley, to see Lemass on January 4th, with a personal message from O'Neill "that a fresh approach should be made in the matter of co operation between the two parts of Ireland" and extending an invitation to Lemass to visit Belfast as his guest. Lemass immediately accepted and agreed to a date the following week. He then informed cabinet colleagues.

The most interesting document is Whitaker's personal account which describes being met at the Border the drive to Stormont, the welcome from O'Neill, who said the historic meeting merited champagne. Lemass told O'Neill that he had long wanted such a meeting to "explore the possibility of practical co operation in the interests of the whole of Ireland".

What followed at the meeting showed that Lemass was utterly serious about genuine co operation, as is clear that most of the preparatory work and the ideas came from him. These included the joint promotion of tourism, the abolition of the Border system for private cars, cross Border exchanges of pupils, teachers and scholarships, cost sharing in the health services, the elimination of wasteful bidding for outside industrial investment (though on this point the Northern Ireland officials were sceptical) joint agricultural research, a reduction in tariffs, electricity co operation, including the joint development of nuclear power, and fisheries and game protection.

And so the first meeting ended, to be followed a few weeks later by O'Neill's visit to Dublin. The files for the remainder of the year show the extent to which Lemass and Whitaker kept up the pressure on their colleagues to make a reality of these proposals. Events elsewhere, however, were to ensure that most of the proposals had to be put on hold, some indefinitely, as the climate worsened. That, however, was in the future, and the files for 1965 closed, full of an optimism that was not to be realised.