An Irishman's Diary
IN THE blunt-speaking county of Yorkshire they have a saying: Nowt as queer as folk. To that profound observation on the human race I would add the rider “except politicians”. Having worked as a journalist in three parliaments I have encountered them in all their splendour and in all their foolishness, writes WESLEY BOYD
In Stormont in the days when the Unionists under Lord Brookeborough dominated and controlled the assembly there was an easy camaraderie between the press and the politicians. Occasionally a few of us would be offered a lift back to the city centre by a minister in his official car. It was a welcome opportunity to save our bus fares at a time when we were perpetually broke. Even more rewarding, a minister might accompany us into the Duke of York and buy a round of drinks. The Duke of York was the pub favoured by journalists from the two rival Unionist morning papers, the Northern Whigand the Belfast Newsletterand the odd stray from the nationalist Irish News.Like many pubs in Belfast it was owned and staffed by Roman Catholics and was situated down a narrow laneway (or entry in Belfast parlance) called Commercial Court, just off Donegall Street. It was in this entry that Gerry Adams struck his first blow for Irish freedom.
Gerry was an apprentice barman in the Duke’s. One evening the minister for home affairs, Robert Parker, was in the bar, having given a bunch of journalists a lift from Stormont. Gerry tells the story himself in his autobiography, Before the Dawn(Brandon, 1996). “. . . I slipped out and with the help of the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner I rammed a potato up the exhaust of his limousine. Presuming that this would cause it to break down, I was exhilarated at my audacity.” And what if he had been caught? “How could I explain myself? Arrested for possession of a potato?” The car started and Gerry escaped arrest. The Potato Rising had failed and The Cause was lost again.
Far from the Duke of York, in the Palace of Westminster , where I was working as a lobby (political) correspondent, it was the custom for the prime minister of the day to invite the members of the lobby to Downing Street for a Christmas drink.
Harold Macmillan, the millionaire Tory leader who won the 1959 general election with the slogan, “You’ve never had it so good,” was the host. As the drink flowed Macmillan was recalling (as was his wont after a few whiskies) to a small group of us in a corner his family’s progress in a few generations from impoverished highland croft to international publishing. Emboldened by the prime minister’s hospitality some of us had the temerity to question the real degree of the family’s highland poverty.
The prime minister was not amused. He led us out of the reception room and took us to his private study. Switching on the light he pointed to a small, fuzzy, framed photograph on the wall. It showed a tiny, single-storey habitation on the slope of bedraggled bogland. “There,” he declared triumphantly. “Look at it. That’s my grandfather’s croft.”
Back in Ireland in the 1960s it was the Labour Party that had never had so good. It attracted a number of bright, young leftwingers to its flag, among them trade union officials Barry Desmond and Michael O’Leary, television commentators, Justin Keating and David Thornley and the multi-experienced Conor Cruise O’Brien. All stood with success in the general elections of 1965 and 1969. Those of them fighting inner-city constituencies in Dublin used to gather for a post-canvassing drink in the Pearl Bar, now defunct but then the external office of The Irish Times.
One night I was in the Pearl having a pint with Frank Cluskey, who became leader of the party in 1977.
We were joined by Michael O’Leary who was to succeed Cluskey as leader in 1981 before defecting to Fine Gael a few years later. After comparing notes on their respective campaigns O’Leary announced that he had encountered Michael O’Riordan, veteran of the Spanish civil war and leader of the Irish Communist Party, on the street outside. “I always had a great admiration for that man,” he told us. “I slipped him a fiver for his campaign.”
“And how much did you donate to my campaign?” inquired Cluskey with mock innocence. “I need all the money I can get for my own campaign,” said O’Leary. “And so do I,” shouted Cluskey. “That f...... O’Riordan is standing against me in my constituency and you’re supporting him with fivers. The national executive will hear about this in the morning.” It was the start of a long period of bad blood between the two campaigners.
Politicians are among the world’s greatest rumour-mongers. In the Dáil I occasionally had lunch with James Dillon, the leader of Fine Gael and the best parliamentarian and orator in the House. One day Charles Haughey, then newly appointed as minister for agriculture, came into the canteen. “Now there’s a remarkable young man,” said Dillon. “Oh, he’s more than that,” said Dillon. “Do you know that one of my members came to me this morning and told me he had seen Mr Haughey at a dance in Limerick last night. Half-an-hour later another member told me the minister had been seen at a social function in Castleblayney last night. And then another one reported that he had heard that Mr Haughey was at a rally in Kanturk. A very remarkable young man.” And indeed he was.