Diarmaid Ferriter: Some rare cases of Irish political backbone

Our politicians could benefit from reading some documents at the National Archives

In January Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys announced an €8 million project to improve facilities at the National Archives in Dublin, to begin in September. Once completed, it is estimated the new facility will provide accommodation for 137,000 archival boxes of four million records, containing an estimated 100 million pages.

Any announcement of investment in our national archive is to be warmly welcomed. But what about an even more radical idea, which would involve our politicians actually visiting the archive to read some of the documents preserved there? Whatever way the general election count goes this weekend, those engaged in politics could do worse than look at how challenges and promises have been managed in the past, as reflected in the documented history of government business since the foundation of this State.

Trawling the records can provide salutary lessons, reveal continuities in misgovernment and the consequences of false promises as well as attempts to rectify mistakes, efforts to map out some form of vision and conjure solutions by both politicians and civil servants.

A housing and land ownership crisis in the early decades of the State, for example, which the first minister for agriculture, Patrick Hogan, observed in 1924 had resulted in those bereft "prepared to exercise their claims with gun and torch", was responded to with new land legislation. In the 1930s, as revealed in the archive of the Department of the Environment, aggressive state intervention ensured that nearly 80,000 houses were built in that decade of straitened finances, as Éamon de Valera dealt rigorously with local authorities attempting to halt their construction and castigated the "red tape" that slowed their construction.

‘Equitable distribution’

The archival records also reveal the dangers of recklessness and attempts to dismiss those who raised concerns about the vulnerable. In 1965 for example, Fianna Fáil’s

Kevin Boland

, as minister for social welfare, called for increases in social welfare, as there was a “general feeling that we have not paid sufficient attention to the weaker sections of the community and that there has not been an equitable distribution of the increased prosperity which we point to as an achievement”. In response, minister for finance

James Ryan

accused him of attempting to “wreck” the Second Programme for Economic Expansion.

The following year, minister for education Donogh O'Malley caused a storm with his announcement of free secondary education. O'Malley had defiantly done a solo run and flung protocol out the window. The Department of Finance was apoplectic, but what stands out in the archive is his unrepentant letter to taoiseach Seán Lemass: "I believe that it is essential for a government from time to time to propound bold new policies which both catch the imagination of the people and respond to some widespread if not clearly formulated demand on their part".

Short shrift

Decades before “fiscal space” entered the political lexicon, the governor of the

Central Bank

, TK Whitaker, wrote to minister for finance

Richie Ryan

in 1974 in relation to tax and spending promises: “As a public servant who has had reason to believe in the predominant influence on our economic development of a general public confidence founded on evidence of good management of the national economy, I am most disheartened by the prospect ahead . . . profligate small countries can expect only short shrift from foreign lenders.”

That same decade, in relation to political reform, attorney general Declan Costello suggested that transformation of the senate electoral system was necessary; that more frequent debates on matters of urgent public importance were essential and that joint committees should examine European affairs and the activities of state sponsored bodies.

Of course there are urgent contemporary issues that do not have an archive of state papers to illuminate their evolution and background, such as climate change, and on this subject, current politicians need to make their own history and give credence to the frequent and accurate assertion that it is “the biggest challenge facing humanity”.

Much enlightenment

But in relation to the other issues highlighted above: housing, fairness and redistribution, managing of finances, propounding “bold new policies” and political reform, all of which continue to be matters of serious importance today, there is much enlightenment available in the archives.

This weekend some politicians might lose or fail to retain seats because they told it straight or because the message they communicated in good faith was not appreciated. For those in that position who are licking electoral wounds, another letter in the archives, from 1977, after the Fine Gael-Labour coalition lost heavily to Fianna Fáil, might raise a bittersweet smile. It was written by Fine Gael TD Oliver J Flanagan and sent to outgoing taoiseach Liam Cosgrave: "There appears to be no place in Irish politics for honesty. I am sorry to have to say this. Those of us in public life often neglect our homes and children when we should be with them instead of rendering service to an ungrateful people."