Diarmaid Ferriter: Ireland needs a new leader in critical times
Kenny is a ruthless survivor with no vision and Martin’s FF is entrenched in tribalism
Taoiseach Séan Lemass and president Éamon DeValera signing the proclamation to dissolve Dáil Éireann in March 1965. Photograph: INM/Getty Images
When he announced his intention to retire as taoiseach 50 years ago this month, Seán Lemass caused some consternation among his Fianna Fáil colleagues. One of them, Seán MacEntee, who had retired the previous year as a minister, insisted it was “unjustifiable . . . to leave at this junction in our affairs” and maintained Lemass “could not have chosen a worse time to do so”.
Given all that was going on then – protest marches by farmers, improved political relations with Northern Ireland, a new free trade agreement with Britain, and an Irish aspiration to join the EEC still unfulfilled – it was indeed an interesting juncture, but Lemass felt he had served his time. He had been in politics since the 1920s and had overseen the 50th anniversary celebrations of the 1916 Rising, in which he had been a young participant. He felt it was time to make way for the next generation.
DepartureAt the press conference announcing his retirement he noted, “The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Rising reminded me I have been on active national service during all these years, almost 30 of them being spent in government.” As befitting his style, Lemass was understated and brusque in announcing his departure, with a dash of tribalism thrown in. When asked if he had any special valedictory message for the Irish people he responded “vote Fianna Fáil: anything but a Fianna Fáil government could only mean disasters that only another Fianna Fáil government could clean up”.
The political correspondent of this newspaper, Michael McInerney, noted the next day that Lemass was the ultimate “political animal” and observed, “I don’t think he has any other interests”. McInerney penned a profile of Lemass that suggested he was witty, both humane and ruthless, and a politician who regarded himself as a calculated risk taker and a hands-on leader: “I have never seen him in a period of about 20 years with an adviser. He was always on top of his subject and knew more than any adviser.”
Lemass’s generation was new to politics in the 1930s, which like now, was a dangerous time politically when internationally, extremism and xenophobia ran amok. Such immoderation was resisted in this State and it was one of the great achievements of the revolutionary generation that it was; that whatever about civil war passions and Irish manifestations of European fascism, a determination to resist matching the excesses of elsewhere prevailed.
Far-right politicsIt is worth remembering the observations of the late journalist Mary Holland who, writing in 2002, expressed satisfaction that despite the lack of scope for initiative during the formative decades of this State, there was little appetite for far-right politics:
“I’ve written plenty of columns complaining about the lack of any real left-right divide in Irish politics and the consequent deadening effect of virtual consensus on most social and economic issues. But, at this period of transition, it is perhaps time to acknowledge that civil war politics served this State well. The fact that the political debate was rooted in whose grandfather shot who in the early years of the last century was a major factor in enabling us to escape the worst extremes of some of our most sophisticated neighbours.”
It is a point that remains relevant today and is one of the reasons why the Irish voice needs to be as loud as it can be in relation to a clearly defined position on what President Barack Obama gently described this week as the “crude sort of nationalism” finding a vigorous lease of life internationally. It is also striking that the issues Lemass faced as taoiseach from 1959-1966 remain centre stage – free trade, relations with Northern Ireland, Britain and Europe, and industrial unrest.
Scary developmentsGiven the scary developments internationally and the many domestic challenges, leadership is now essential in Irish politics, but the signs that the challenges can be met are not good. After 41 years in Dáil Éireann, Enda Kenny is obviously a ruthless survivor, and he may well be witty and humane, but there is no sense that he has a political vision to match the extent of current political tests. It is hard to see substance behind the soundbites spun by his advisers about the quest to be the “best little country”. What is required now is also what was required during the Lemass era: someone with a clear sense of direction, not beholden to advisers or spin and not clinging to power for the sake of it.
It is also apparent that Fianna Fáil’s tribalism – so well honed by the Lemass generation –now negates any real commitment to new politics, as it seeks solely to benefit from the current parliamentary arithmetic; to pull the plug when it chooses to supposedly, in Lemass’s words, “clean up” after a Fine Gael-led government.
The current and critical “junction in our affairs” cries out for more substance and leadership.