Challenging the State

John Mulqueen

Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s, by Diarmaid Ferriter, Profile Books, 823 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-1846684685

Ambiguous Republic offers a comprehensive insight into the observations and opinions of the Irish state’s civil servants and politicians. Diarmaid Ferriter covers a lot of ground in this multi-dimensional study, in just under seven hundred pages of text, drawing largely on the available material in Dublin archives. The 1970s was a decade of ambiguities, Ferriter argues – the northern Troubles reached into the southern jurisdiction, which underwent upheavals of its own. He makes particularly good use of private correspondence and memoirs to explore the turmoils, fears and continuity of what he sees as this transitional decade in the Republic. During this period, he writes, “new boundaries were set” and “new ambitions articulated and occasionally realised”.

The Troubles, with its overspill of violence across the border, in varying degrees overshadowed political life in the state during the 1970s. The biggest shock to its political system revolved around the allegations that cabinet members attempted to import guns for use in the North by those who would form the Provisional IRA, which led to the arms trials of 1970. These complicated events involving intrigues, denials and deceptions are vividly explained – the arms trials chapter, “Lost Reputations and Suppressed Truth”, is a highlight. These events led John Kelly, then a Fine Gael senator, to speculate that democrats in both main parties might unite in a new party that could unequivocally support parliamentary democracy, but he thought this was unlikely given Fianna Fáil’s “animal solidarity”.

There were now two IRAs as the republican movement had split into Official and Provisional wings at the beginning of the year. Following the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry, in January 1972, and the subsequent burning of the British embassy in Dublin, the stability of the state was perceived to be fragile. But the Fianna Fáil government acted against the IRA threat in May and reactivated the non-jury Special Criminal Court. There had been widespread jury intimidation by subversives, mainly by the leftist Official IRA. The taoiseach had earlier been warned by Downing Street that the Official IRA would pose a greater security risk in the event of a Soviet embassy being established in Dublin, which the British contended would function as an espionage centre (the embassy opened in 1974 and British and American fears in relation to spying activities would prove to be largely unfounded). The Kremlin demonstrated its approval of the Officials when Pravda profiled the Official IRA chief of staff, Cathal Goulding, in April 1972, days after he had addressed mourners in Belfast at the funeral of Joe McCann, the biggest political funeral of the Troubles until that of Bobby Sands in 1981. Arguably, the Official IRA’s most significant act during the 1970s was its declaration of a ceasefire in May 1972, which gradually became permanent, creating a template for other paramilitary organisations to follow more than twenty years later. Ferriter, however, downplays the role of the Official IRA in his detailed framework.

As violence exploded in the North following the introduction of internment in August 1971, the minister for justice instructed RTÉ under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act not to broadcast interviews that “promoted the aims or activities” of illegal organisations. In 1973 the new Fine Gael/Labour government made clear that this applied to spokesmen for both the Official and Provisional IRA, and their respective political wings, Official and Provisional Sinn Féin. Newspaper editors had resisted appeals from the previous government to ignore IRA statements. Conor Cruise O’Brien, the coalition’s minister for posts and telegraphs, would be a harsh critic of RTÉ’s coverage of the Troubles, and some of his colourful comments on the subject are included here. Critics of the broadcasting ban would contend that it extended to opponents of a “leaky national consensus” and that they, the critics, were perceived as not being “committed to the democratic state”. The substantive point is that the government resorted to emergency measures because neither the Official nor Provisional republican movements were committed to the rule of law and employed lethal violence within the jurisdiction. And neither movement commanded electoral support – in the following year both Sinn Féin parties each secured under 1.6 per cent of the vote in local elections.

With various republican paramilitary groups and a consequent rise in violent crime, there would be controversies and tensions in relation to the Garda. These included media exposure of a “heavy gang” who beat suspects and the dismissal of the commissioner in 1978 by the Fianna Fáil government. The events arising from a train robbery in 1976 – described as “a judicial charade” against a backdrop of allegations of suspects being beaten – illustrate how the justice system had become compromised. Approximately forty members of the Irish Republican Socialist Party were arrested; two of the three eventually convicted had their convictions overturned; and the third man convicted spent four years in prison before being released on “humanitarian grounds” and later receiving a pardon and compensation. These policing and judicial controversies are skilfully outlined by Ferriter.

The power of the Church to block social reforms in conflict with Catholic teaching would be challenged by feminists and other campaigners. The legal rights of children and women became contentious: not everyone was cherished equally in the eyes of the law. Shocking details provided by campaigners are revealed here on the sufferings of the vulnerable.

The Church proved to be an unyielding adversary when it was challenged by those promoting what would later be known as the “liberal agenda”. Senator Mary Robinson met Cardinal William Conway to discuss her proposals relating to contraception legislation, hoping to establish what she saw as “an atmosphere of mutual intellectual respect”, but, instead, “he took me to a room and tried to bully me”. Contraception would become a controversial issue. A bill in 1974 to deal with the ban on the importation and sale of contraceptives was defeated, with taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and one of his Fine Gael ministers voting against the government. The contraception battle extended beyond Dublin, with family planning services opening in Cork (1975), Limerick (1976) and Galway (1977). Michael D Higgins, a Labour Party senator who had supported Robinson in the Seanad, blamed his failure to be elected in the 1977 general election on anti-contraception campaigners in Galway.

In addition to the state’s security worries, the considerable economic strains of the 1970s are covered here. Excepting lengthy strikes in the public sector, the themes will be familiar to us, although matters were made worse by two oil crises in 1973 and 1979. In the middle of the decade the governor of the Central Bank, TK Whitaker, warned the minister for finance about the level of public expenditure: “As a community we are at present living vastly beyond our means.” (This phrase would be repeated word for word when Charles Haughey, as taoiseach, issued his warning about the public finances in 1980.) Joining the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 would end economic dependence on Britain, following a referendum with eighty-three per cent in favour of membership – the agriculture lobby had strongly favoured the move and the Farmers Journal claimed that the anti-EEC advocates were out of touch and, worse, “devoted disciples of Karl Marx”. Ferriter reminds us that Ireland’s EEC membership would have profound consequences, not least for women in strengthening their economic independence outside marriage. The government finally had to address the thorny issue of equal pay for women in March 1976, when the European Commission made its directive on equal pay binding. The EEC refused to grant derogations to Ireland.

In 1977 fifty per cent of the state’s population was under the age of twenty-six and forty-one per cent under the age of nineteen; this was therefore an opportune time to launch the Hot Press music magazine to target this audience. But if the Irish music scene could now be described as eclectic and vibrant, much of this new energy was urban-based as illustrated by the classified advertisements in Hot Press. Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats (who features on the cover) made waves when he vented this generation’s frustrations with the relative oppressiveness of Irish life. And a new Dublin band, U2, in the next decade would surpass the international success of Rory Gallagher, Van Morrison and Thin Lizzy.

Ferriter is perhaps most passionate when writing about the women’s movement, but, he points out, the 1980s would see a backlash against it, including a divisive abortion referendum. The legacy of the 1970s would be complex and Ferriter sees significant ambiguity here about change and its consequences. This was not just true of feminist struggles, he writes, but applied to a “host of social, economic, cultural and political themes”. Ferriter’s exploration here of the priorities of opinion-shapers in the 1970s is authoritative, engaging and entertaining. This is a significant contribution to our understanding of that transitional decade in Ireland.

John Mulqueen is a tutor in history at Dublin City University


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