“Who, in the name of God, is that?”
That was the question posed by Jack Lynch 40 years ago when the new Fianna Fáil TD from Castlebar, Pádraig Flynn, bounded into Leinster House, dressed in a screaming white suit and polka dot shirt.
Lynch's personal popularity and a giveaway manifesto creating great public expectation (ultimately at huge cost) had done much to deliver a landslide for Fianna Fáil in the general election, but it seemed Lynch had little interest in, or knowledge of, the new TDs. This did no harm to the aspirations of Charles Haughey, ever hungry for the leadership. Lynch recognised that his overall majority was a poisoned chalice and he only lasted as leader for another 2½ years, having led the party since 1966.
Lynch, the centenary of whose birth was marked during the week, has divided historians. The importance of the personality cult in Irish politics was reflected in his popularity, built on the back of his extraordinary prowess as a hurler and footballer, playing in six successive winning senior all-Ireland teams for Cork. But to contemporary critics in the 1970s it appeared he had few political achievements to his credit and spent most of the early 1970s reeling from the convulsions within his own party, including the arms crisis. As Hibernia magazine saw it, his main political achievement was his own political survival, but that was no mean feat given the strains of that era.
Highly regarded by Seán Lemass, Lynch had served as a minister in the 1950s and 1960s in the portfolios of education, industry and commerce and finance, where he was calm, cautious, competent, much liked and played an important role in preparing Ireland for EEC entry, before succeeding Lemass as party leader in 1966. This was not a job he was keen to take; he was not from a Fianna Fáil dynasty or steeped in tribalism like some colleagues, and was vulnerable to resentful rivals’ machinations.
After defeat in the 1973 election, Lynch adopted a hands-off approach to leading the opposition, which, to his critics, was born of an intellectual laziness. He rarely initiated and was prone to allow matters to progress too far before he bothered to engage. Forty years ago, Vincent Browne referred to the "artful ambiguities" of Lynch, suggesting "Lynch speak" was "a most subtle and baffling political language." But there were generous tributes to Lynch also, including the assertion in Magill magazine that "he gave a sense of serenity to Southern Ireland in the midst of bloodshed in Northern Ireland and perhaps it is for this he will be best remembered". As his biographer Dermot Keogh saw it, Lynch was difficult to unravel because of his "self-contained" world, but his political pluralism was a strength that enabled him to "stand out against the forces of atavism that risked returning the country to a state of war" and he had an abundance of integrity and probity.
Such conclusions are overly generous. Lynch did have not have sufficient authority over his cabinets and although he was seen to act decisively in foregoing crude republican rhetoric and sacking renegade ministers during the arms crisis of 1970 he should never have allowed things to escalate to the level they did. Just how much knowledge he had of what was going on and when during the arms crisis has never been satisfactorily resolved.
Lynch’s personal papers in the National Archives amplify some aspects of his character and leadership and the affection for him. After he lost the general election of 1973 T.K.Whitaker, his trusted confidante, sent him a personal note: “I have always had a special admiration and affection for you as a most likeable person with a gentle and reasonable nature, a warm heart, real patriotism and a quiet strength of purpose. You can look back on your seven years as taoiseach as a period not only of great material and social progress but also of rational evolution of Irish activities, particularly towards the problem of Northern Ireland. Your part in all this was outstanding and will be remembered…you gave all to duty…rebuild your reserves of energy.” Whitaker had played a key role in explicitly advising Lynch on Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s, drafting speeches and memoranda and position papers.
Lynch's papers also highlight, however, his weaknesses as a political leader, underlined in the draft of an interview he did with communications consultant Tom Savage: "I don't push myself. I don't know whether it's a good trait or a bad. I try to engage and involve all the people around me. I'm not a hard task master [because] I know myself my own limitations." Arguably, this was a good summary of his career; he was personally decent, lived modestly and decried extremism, but was too often slack and unassertive, and hardly energised or engaged enough to be considered a great leader.