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The Lemass Tapes will reshape Irish history

The tapes, recorded by hotelier Dermot Ryan in 1967, are an exceptional political testament

Old tapes can throw new light on history. Seán Lemass was a politician who never wrote an autobiography, but he left behind an extraordinary series of interviews, now seeing the public light.

In them, Lemass talks candidly about his life and career, Ireland's relationship with Northern Ireland; and, pertinently, Ireland's relationship with the United Kingdom and the latter's relationship with Europe.

The transcribed tapes are an extraordinary political testament, all the more remarkable for not having been written by Lemass himself, but recorded by one of his political admirers, the hotelier and businessman Dermot Ryan.*

Conducted in 1967, the historical trove has been out of the public eye for many decades, but they have now been presented by Lemass’ great-grandson, Aidan O’Connor, to the University College Dublin archive.

Political memoirs often disappoint.

Lemass' son-in-law, Charles J Haughey, once told an entreating publisher that he had never read a good one. Reminded of the record left by British cabinet minister Denis Healey, Haughey was dismissive: "He never got the top job."

Paradoxically, the fact that Lemass never wrote a memoir, but did get the “top job” after he took over from Éamon de Valera in 1957, makes the Ryan recordings possibly even more valuable than if he had put pen to paper himself.

Of course, there are omissions. The most striking are the years before Fianna Fáil entered the Dáil, and particularly the Civil War. But Lemass had obviously taken a Trappist vow in relation to this troubled period.

Eyes filled with tears

When Michael Mills interviewed him for the Irish Press after his retirement and asked him about the Civil War, Lemass's eyes filled with tears, he could not continue, and had to take a little time to compose himself.

There are only the slightest of hints of Lemass’s view during the revolutionary years.

One, however, comes when he talks of John F Kennedy laying the wreath at the graves at Arbour Hill during his visit in 1963 – the first time a foreign head of state had done so.

“You would have had to be alive in 1916,” Lemass commented almost ruminatively, “to realise the real significance of this event.”

There are a number of reasons why these transcripts – and Lemass’s hand-written annotations on them – are of extraordinary value. For one thing, political memoirs highlight achievements and obscure defeats.

By contrast, Lemass’ frankness is noteworthy. He all but dons sackcloth and ashes at his inability to get unions and managements to agree on national budgetary policy, for example.

Meanwhile, his insights on contemporary European leaders are sharp and perceptive, and quite novel in Irish historiography, while his concerns about the problems of party management and leadership are as relevant today as when they were recorded.

His judgment on some of his contemporaries (including cabinet colleagues) ranges from the benign to the acerbic with a frankness that few politicians have had the courage to apply, before or since.

And – most palpable of all, perhaps – there is his growing sense of frustration, fuelled by a combination of loyalty and impatience, at the length and increasing immobilism of de Valera’s last two periods in office.

All in all, this is a more complete – and a compelling – portrait of a man in high office, of his difficulties, his achievements, and his mindset, as we are ever likely to get, one of universal relevance to students of politics.

Women play little role in the recordings, but that is hardly surprising given the time and Lemass’s need to keep the then most powerful, and largely male, trade unions politically on-side.

Remarkable

Omissions notwithstanding, these transcripts – edited by Lemass himself – of almost two dozen interviews, many of them very lengthy, are remarkable both in style and in substance.

Lemass was an autodidact who left formal education in 1916, but he read copiously and continuously, particularly in economics, and his style was lapidary, evident not only in these recollections. His amendments are brief, but always significant.

Even more significantly, there is a cornucopia of judgments innocent of defensiveness, self-glorification, or hubris, particularly relevant about his own immaturity as an emerging politician and his dawning realisation that dialogue was a necessary adjunct to political power.

In this sense, these recollections will undoubtedly re-shape the history of the decades between 1930 and 1970 in significant ways, particularly about the mistakes made. He notes at one point: “We misjudged the economic climate a great deal.”

On the other hand, he is brusque, sometimes critical – dismissive, even – about political allies as well as political opponents. His frustrations with de Valera between 1945 and 1957 are evident.

“At one time he [de Valera]was the initiator of policy, but this had ceased by 1948 or thereabout. He then became the arbitrator . . . he never asked why you did anything; new ideas did not come from him at all.”

His descriptions of difficult Dáil situations not only exemplify his skill as a tactician, but also significant differences between himself and de Valera. "I could sit for hours in the Dáil and listen to ráiméis from Dillon, or speeches from Labour, without showing on my face any obvious reaction . . . Dev could be provoked very easily. He rose to every bait. I used to say this to him and implore him to ignore the traps . . . I think the opportunity to suffer fools gladly is something you can only learn from experience."

He is scathing about the Labour Party and, in particular, its opposition to the purchase of aircraft for the transatlantic route (one of his pet projects). Nor does he spare gadflies like Noel Browne and Jack McQuillan, no doubt at least in part because they provided a two-man opposition to Fianna Fáil at a time when Fine Gael was in the doldrums, but also probably because their speaking style was the direct obverse of Lemass's clipped, economical delivery.

Browne, he remarked “is a queer fellow. He had ideas, but he bored everyone by talking far too much in the Dáil.” Both Browne and McQuillan, “used to work fairly hard in preparing their stuff, but if they condensed it into shorter speeches they would have won far more respect”.

Scathing

Nor, indeed, does he spare his own. He is scathing about Fianna Fáil's minister for agriculture, Paddy Smith. Jack Lynch "would have been less inclined to fight [the Department of Finance] than I would"; Sean MacEntee was "very slow" to take decisions, and other (sadly, unnamed) ministerial colleagues also "had a complete reluctance to take decisions, who suffered from a mental process recognised as a difficulty in passing the boundary line between consideration and decision".

His voracious reading is displayed lightly, not least when, in what is almost an aside about the 1957 election, he picked up John A Costello's comparison of de Valera to Machiavelli. "Machiavelli had laid down the principle in one of his writing that the unpopular things had to be done straightaway and the benefits should be doled out, one by one, over a longer period. He was right: that was what we decided to do." His comments on Stalin, Trotsky and others – notably Adenauer, whose political ability he greatly respected – always display an original level of analysis and insight.

In the light of current events, his observations on the UK's attitude to Europe help to illuminate contemporary debates. Labour had been more difficult to deal with than the Tories in the post-war period, he notes, because they (Labour) were more vulnerable to pro-empire rhetoric from the Tory side, and this did not really change until Harold Wilson became prime minister.

Independent TDs are dismissed, derisively, while his revelations about the internal cabinet discussions on the abolition of proportional representation fascinate. The Fianna Fáil cabinet might have backed PR in single-seat constituencies, but could not do so because of de Valera’s prior public commitment to the “straight” vote, from which he could not resile.

The Lemass tapes will substantially re-shape our knowledge and understanding of Lemass himself, of Fianna Fáil in and out of government, and political history in the four decades after 1932.

Ever frank throughout, Lemass is wryly analytical of the difficulties of the interest groups with which he had to deal.

“In the last resort, the Congress of Trade Unions would back away from the implications of what they were negotiating, and the Employers’ Federation, once they were getting anywhere at all, would become twice as intolerant and demand concessions.” Nonetheless, he expressed sympathy with the difficulties of the trade union leaders “who are dependent for their inadequate salary upon the support of members” and their reluctance “ to become the community policeman”.

Splendidly ironic

And he could, on occasion, be splendidly ironic or mordant about public opinion, and even more so about farmers. "If you say 'we are going to nationalise the farms of Connacht', there are a lot of Leinster farmers who would say that this is the only thing to do with them."

Another is the degree to which he is frank about his mistakes and modest about his achievements, and these reminiscences throw new light, in particular, on the diplomatic, economic and international aspects of the Irish struggle to modernise after the second World War.

These interviews will also contribute significantly, and possibly to a degree with which Lemass himself might have disagreed, to a more problematic re-assessment of de Valera, whom he once described admiringly after the latter’s retirement as being “as tough as teak”. But he had realised, by the 1950s, he says, that “Dev was losing his grip, that he was no longer the man he had been” and he (Lemass) had developed the conviction that “where the organisation and administration of the government was concerned, I could do a better job than he was doing at that time.”

There is plenty of evidence of his own dirigiste tendencies and of his conviction that “when you are speaking for the party you can never admit having made a mistake; you cannot ever admit never having foreseen something that happened which was important . . . sometimes you have to admit that foreknowledge was not possible, and sometimes it would be dangerous to admit that you had foreknowledge without having warned the country.”

There are many, more contemporary, politicians who would say amen to that.

*This article was amended on June 5th, 2018