Diarmaid Ferriter: What Micheál Martin can learn from Seán Lemass

FF founding father’s observations on leadership and political psychology are still relevant

Seán Lemass ‘would not have envisaged a Fianna Fáil taoiseach managing a coalition government’. Photograph: Independent News And Media/Getty Images

Seán Lemass ‘would not have envisaged a Fianna Fáil taoiseach managing a coalition government’. Photograph: Independent News And Media/Getty Images

 

I spent part of lockdown in the company of Seán Lemass, courtesy of the transcripts of 23 interviews he gave between 1967 and 1969, towards the end of his life. Recorded by businessman Dermot Ryan, the 1,057 pages carry added weight and represented quite a coup for Ryan because the former taoiseach was always reluctant, in his own words, “to review my life or achievements and hopes.” He left no significant personal archive and these chats amount to his memoir.

As both a Taoiseach enduring a shaky start and a keen historian, Micheál Martin should read them, if only to reflect on the rise, fall and current state of his own party and the approach to politics of a predecessor widely regarded as singularly accomplished. Martin frequently references the need for Fianna Fáil to return to Lemass’s “practical republicanism”. Former taoiseach Brian Cowen also embraced his legacy, maintaining Lemass defined what “should be at the heart of politics . . . a revival of patriotism, directed towards constructive purposes”.

But the Ryan interviews are not just of relevance to Fianna Fáil; it is also the case that former Fine Gael taoiseach Garret FitzGerald voted for Lemass’s Fianna Fáil in 1961 and when he was taoiseach; and Leo Varadkar kept a portrait of Lemass in his office, to remind him there “are good people across all parties” and that Lemass “brought an optimism to politics” as an outward-looking moderniser.

Sourly tribal

Lemass’s open-mindedness has been exaggerated. Despite his noble refusal to speak publicly of the Civil War, he could be sourly tribal, failing over the course of the interviews to credit Cumann na nGaedheal or Fine Gael with any political achievements: “Their only argument for being allowed to continue carrying on their government was that they had won the Civil War.” He even predicted Fine Gael would not last.

He could also be arrogant; the electorate voted for change in 1948, after 16 years of Fianna Fáil government, he maintained, “just for the sake of it”. He indulged in petty criticism of those who annoyed him, including “left-wing abuse merchants” and “arty long-haired types”. He failed to grasp the psychological impact of emigration and idealised rural life in the west on the back of his summer holidays: “Some of these people are the happiest you could meet . . . They had never thought until the papers began to tell them that they were deprived . . . If I could adjust myself to their mode of livelihood, I would change places with them.”

Lemass had a disdain for sentimentality and prevarication, which he believed impeded effective leadership

But he was astute about many things. He suggested that with the passing of Civil War enmities maintaining discipline within Fianna Fáil would be a new problem. He readily accepted the resignation of his troublesome minister for agriculture Paddy Smith in 1964, partly because he was “a Civil War man . . . it was just inconceivable that he could go anywhere else except Fianna Fáil and therefore there was no danger to party unity”. Ironically, Smith’s resignation gave him the opportunity to promote his son-in-law Charles Haughey, who went on to prove the veracity of Lemass’s observation that “We are in a new situation where new members are going to be far more independent and less amenable to party discipline . . . It will cause more difficulties in the future.”

Attuned to policy

What Lemass would not have envisaged was a Fianna Fáil taoiseach managing a coalition government. Nonetheless, his observations on leadership and political psychology are still relevant. It is tempting when reading these interviews to highlight Lemass’s spiky assertions about his contemporaries, including trade unionists (“We have not enough of the articulate, intelligent trade union type”) or his embrace of free trade, but what is also notable is the extent to which he was constantly attuned to policy: departmental memos, he said, “were more fascinating for me than a novel”. He reflected on his international counterparts, including the self-confidence of UK prime minister Harold Wilson (“He was afraid of nothing”) and politicians who did not allow emotion to cloud their judgments; those with “ice-packed brains” such as the French prime minister at the time, Maurice Couve de Murville. His stance on Irish unity was also revealing; the need to switch focus “to talk about unity as a spiritual and not a political conception . . . My object was to create a relationship between north and south which would be of mutual material benefit.”

He had a disdain for sentimentality and prevarication, which he believed impeded effective leadership. He concluded most successful leaders, “could provoke amongst the people intense personal loyalty or intense personal hatred”. His determination to make decisions shines through: “I often felt that the taking of a decision was perhaps even more important than the soundness of the decision.” He also left a message that strongly resonates today: “There will never come a time when you can say there is nothing to be done in the area of housing.” As for the problems that can give a taoiseach most trouble: they should be “matters which nobody ever heard about”.

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