How Jack Lynch led the way


BIOGRAPHY: Jack Lynch: A BiographyBy Dermot Keogh Gill and Macmillan, €26.99 - I JOINED FIANNA FÁIL in 1971. Jack Lynch was the party leader. He was a figure I admired greatly and that respect played a big part in my decision to become a party member.

Jack Lynch led Fianna Fáil for over 13 years or 4,775 days to be exact. That latter figure was brought to my attention last Christmas when a member of my staff informed me that I had overtaken Lynch as Fianna Fáil's second-longest serving leader. For me, that was a proud achievement. Jack Lynch was a leader of great stature and enduring appeal. To have matched his record of long service and commitment to Fianna Fáil is special.

This book not only charts the highs and lows of Jack Lynch's entire tenure as Uachtarán Fhianna Fáil, it also explores in detail Lynch's early years as well as his life after politics. Dermot Keogh is a historian of renown and accomplishment. He deploys his full range of talents in this impressive biography of a great Taoiseach. Keogh's research is extensive and he brings fresh understanding to the forces that moulded and shaped Jack Lynch.

Keogh is particularly strong on Lynch's family background and community life in Cork in the 1920s and 1930s. I also especially enjoyed reading about Jack Lynch's first job and this took me down memory lane. On leaving school, Lynch left his native Cork and secured a position in the newly established Dublin District Milk Board. Thirty-three years later, in 1969, my first job was as an accounts clerk in the Dublin District Milk Board. I remember well the office banter that all newcomers had to endure. This ran along the lines that I was getting a good start because another fellow who started off here ended up in the Taoiseach's chair. It was all good fun. I never even dreamed in those days that my career path would follow a similar trajectory to that of Jack Lynch.

Sport is an essential element in the Jack Lynch story. He was one of the most illustrious hurlers the game has ever seen. He was also a footballer of fine prowess. Long before his political triumphs, Jack Lynch had already achieved legendary status by becoming the first (and still the only) player ever to be on the winning side in six All-Irelands in a row. The GAA fortunes of the Rebel County were a regular source of conversation in my house as I grew up. My mother and father were proud Cork people and they saw Lynch play in his prime in the late 1930s and 1940s. They often reminisced about that golden era.

In a great career, Jack garnered an Aladdin's cave of honours, including five all-Ireland hurling medals, one all-Ireland football medal, 10 Cork county senior hurling championships, three National Hurling Leagues, three Railway Cups, two Cork county senior football championships and a Dublin senior football title. In 1996, Lynch gave all his medals to the GAA museum in Croke Park. When the GAA officials called to Lynch's home to collect the medals, Keogh movingly records: "Lynch, now enfeebled by serious illness and only a shadow of his former self, betrayed uncharacteristic emotion as he handed the unique collection to his visitors. 'Take good care of them. They were hard won', he said".

Lynch got his first big break in politics in 1957 when Eamon de Valera appointed him minister for education. In recent times, there has been some controversy about class sizes increasing from 27:1 to 28:1 but these figures stand in glowing comparison with the situation that Jack Lynch faced. In 1958, he told the Dáil that "the average number of pupils to a class in national schools in Dublin county borough was 47".

Lynch did give political priority to tackling overcrowded classes and he had some notable successes. He sanctioned a major building at the teacher training college in Drumcondra so new teachers could be brought into the system. He also removed the marriage bar on women teachers. Keogh notes of this groundbreaking move: "The lifting of the marriage bar on primary and vocational teachers may appear to people living in the twenty-first century to have been a routine administrative decision. But an entrenched policy had to be overturned. Without fanfare, Lynch changed that policy."

Prior to his election as taoiseach, Seán Lemass had spent almost his entire ministerial career in the Department of Industry and Commerce. Keogh points out that Lemass appointed Jack Lynch to his old ministry with the specific purpose of bringing about a shift to free trade.

Following the 1965 general election, Lynch became Fianna Fáil's first non-founder member appointed to Finance. In both of these key departments, Lynch was at the apex of public policy at a time of real transformation and change. Keogh's study makes it clear that Jack Lynch was a key architect in the modernisation of the Irish economy. Lynch implemented many decisions crucial to our national progress through the Programmes for Economic Development and in the move towards internationalising our economy through foreign direct investment.

Europe was central to Jack Lynch's vision of a more prosperous Ireland. Shortly after he became taoiseach, the government committed itself to publishing a White Paper on Ireland and the EEC, in early 1967. Keogh expertly narrates the journey Lynch led this country on in pursuit of membership of the Common Market. There is no doubt that this was a decision of incredible foresight that set Ireland firmly on the road to economic prosperity.

Like Lemass before him, Lynch was convinced of the potential of free trade and free markets to develop this country. So much of the progress and new opportunities we now enjoy can be traced back to Lynch's prudence in leading us into Europe. It was a turning point in our history. In the run-up to the referendum campaign on accession, Lynch told the Dáil that Ireland stood "at a most important crossroads in our history. The road we take will determine not only the future of our country for generations to come, but also the contribution we make to the creation of a Europe that will measure up to the ideals of the founders of the Community".

In the aftermath of the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, Ireland today again stands at a crossroads in our engagement with Europe. In charting the future, we should never forget that Europe has opened up immense opportunities in investment and trade for Irish business. We would do well also to ponder the question as to where this country might be, economically and socially, had Jack Lynch's generation chosen splendid isolation on the edge of Europe.

Jack Lynch has been rightly lauded for his vision and his firm principles in regard to Northern Ireland. In his strong reiteration of democratic dialogue as the true means of bringing about a peaceful settlement to the troubles in the North, Lynch followed the lead of de Valera and Lemass.

His perseverance has been vindicated by the success of the Belfast Agreement. The book also highlights the important role played by TK Whitaker in advising Lynch on Northern issues. Keogh makes good use of extensive correspondence between the two men and this is of great interest to anyone wishing to trace the development of the Irish government's Northern policy.

While reading about Whitaker's role, I was reminded of a letter he wrote to The Irish Times in May. This letter followed on from my meeting with my good friend Dr Ian Paisley, at the Boyne, on my final day as taoiseach. Whitaker refers to an earlier and less cordial encounter between an Irish taoiseach and Ian Paisley. Whitaker recounts that he had accompanied Jack Lynch to Stormont in 1967 and he was sitting beside the then taoiseach when their car was snowballed by Paisley. Whitaker wrote: "the erratic snowballing took place near the Carson monument, accompanied by the shouts of 'No Pope Here!' Jack Lynch asked me softly: 'Which of us does he think is the Pope?'"

This, for me, captures brilliantly Lynch's characteristic calm and his dry sense of humour. More significantly still, it shows how far this island has moved on from the enmities of the past.

IN 1977, FIANNA FÁIL WON ITS biggest ever majority with 84 seats out of 148. Keogh outlines the meticulous preparations within Fianna Fáil for that campaign. I remember it well. I was first elected to Dáil Éireann in that election. Jack Lynch's immense popularity was a big factor.

Lynch had also been instrumental in me being added to the Fianna Fáil ticket in the old constituency of Dublin Finglas. He gave me a significant boost in the course of the campaign when he and Senator Eoin Ryan, the party's national director of elections, decided to give me a slot in a televised party political broadcast.

Keogh recounts the difficulties Jack Lynch had to contend with in the parliamentary party in his final term as taoiseach. Following defeats in two by-elections in Lynch's native Cork, it was clear there was some unease in the parliamentary party about his continued leadership.

I was most definitely not of this number. I was only two years a TD at this stage. Jack Lynch had been first elected to the Dáil three years prior to my birth. I certainly was not going to set myself in opposition to such an experienced and talented politician.

I was one of 40 TDs and senators, who greeted Lynch at Dublin airport on his return from the United States in November 1979. This welcome was planned to show our solidarity and support for our leader following the by-election losses.

I hoped Lynch would lead us into the next election and I remember being taken aback when he announced his decision to step down at a parliamentary party meeting on December 5th. Dermot Keogh writes of the contest to succeed Lynch that: "TDs were placed under pressure in their hotels and lodgings in Dublin the night before the election. Canvassing continued into the morning of 7th December as TDs were cajoled, bullied and intimidated into submission".

I can genuinely say that this is not how I remember it. No-one had to cajole, bully or intimidate me into voting for Charles Haughey. I did so willingly. I did so proudly. Haughey had an outstanding ministerial track-record. He was to my mind the most - to borrow a phrase that has in more recent times entered the political lexicon - qualified and able person to lead the party in the 1980s and beyond.

I believe Charles Haughey's many subsequent achievements as Taoiseach justified that confidence. In my view, it is not - nor can it be - mutually exclusive to admire Jack Lynch and to admire Charles Haughey. Many people did so within the Fianna Fáil Party in December 1979. Many people still do.

Bertie Ahern is a Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin Central