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Death by Respectability?

John Horgan

Tuairim: Intellectual Debate and Policy Formation: Rethinking Ireland, 1954-1975, by Tomás Finn, Manchester University Press, 264 pp, ISBN: 978-0719095436, £16.99

At some stage during the 1977-81 Dáil, I was discussing a knotty political issue with my then party leader, Frank Cluskey, when he interrupted one of my lengthy attempts to set out the options and consequences of a particular course of action. “The trouble with you intellectuals,” he remarked mildly, “is that you always see both sides of the fucking problem.”

Although such a reaction to Tomás Finn’s fascinating book would be manifestly unfair, it throws into sharp relief one of the most conspicuous problems he addresses, even if an answer continues to elude both him and us: why has “intellectual” always been a dirty word in Irish politics? Is it something we inherited from those famous seven hundred years of foreign rule, something absorbed through our educational system, or from our culture generally? Among other nations, and especially the French, no such inhibitions circumscribe public life.

The members of Tuairim down through the decade or so during which the organisation flourished (the 1954-75 timeline in the title is a tad generous, especially at the latter end) would no doubt have recoiled in horror at such a description of themselves; but this is what they undoubtedly were. And where this book works best is where it identifies their undeniably powerful and thoughtful contributions to intellectual debate – if rarely enough to policy formation ‑ during the 1950s, a decade that has often been – as we are now tending to realise – mischaracterised as empty of promise and undermined by despair and economic underperformance.

In this sense, Tuairim was a vehicle without which those contributions would probably have been realised only with greater difficulty; but it is far from certain, or demonstrable, that they could not have made them without Tuairim or that Tuairim as an organisation was an essential element of the modernisation of Irish society that was taking place during the same period. Other elements were undoubtedly more significant: television; the opening up of the educational system (however limited), economic development; the Vatican Council, and the reduction in emigration among them. Fergal Tobin’s sweeping survey of Ireland in the 1960s (The Best of Decades: Ireland in the 1960s, Gill and Macmillan 1996) has only two references to Tuairim, one of them a pithy footnote describing it as “discussion group, largely composed of liberal intellectuals and controversialists [which] acted as a ginger group for many new ideas, in the first half of the decade in particular”.

One of the Tuairim group who was probably most tuned in to the difficulties faced by the organisation was Donal Barrington. Indeed, although many of the author’s surmises about the role and influence of the organisation are a bit short on verifiability, there is a ring of accuracy about his suggestion that Barrington’s free-thinking, independent and learned spirit, as expressed in his various Tuairim contributions, may well have ensured that he was not appointed to the chair of constitutional law at UCD. (Archbishop McQuaid, a surprising believer in the influence of Tuairim and a huge power in the UCD of that era, was concerned at what he perceived to be its influence on government. I wish.) UCD’s loss was, of course, eventually the judiciary’s gain, so that the nation as a whole was not unduly impoverished.

Barrington probably had a better grasp than most, in the organisation’s early years, of the fact that politics is a contact sport, played largely without body armour, and, while hesitant about the prospect that Tuairim might become directly engaged in politics, he did voice the possibility that this might become necessary if the policies it put forward were ignored by politicians.

Finn identifies a paradox here. The calcification of the party system after the civil war was, in the 1950s, still seemingly impregnable, despite the brief flowering of Clann na Poblachta in 1948 and the second Interparty government in 1954-57 (indeed Fianna Fáil was to enjoy another sixteen years of uninterrupted rule from 1957 on). Tuairim members, and others, saw the way to influence as requiring independence from this calcified system – an option which in any case suited the many Tuairim adherents who would have had family, ideological or other links with one of the three main parties, and who would also (although not necessarily for this reason) have had different responses to the problems facing Ireland.

The problem about political independence is that, except in rare circumstances, it comes yoked to political impotence. In 1950s Ireland, and indeed for many years thereafter, the party system shrugged off independents (Lemass’s 1961 minority government was a notable exception). Politics throughout most of the twentieth century has also been characterised by a high level of dirigisme, which was as evident on the opposition as on the government benches. Lemass and John A Costello – although Lemass made polite noises about Tuairim from time to time ‑ shared the profound conviction that national policy was to be decided by the majority in Dáil Eireann, indeed by the minority of that majority known as the Cabinet, and by them alone. Politics were praxis; and the key elements of that praxis were getting, and retaining, political power: ideas were useful only insofar as they could be harnessed to this central objective. Liberalism was not necessarily an antidote to this mindset: vide Garret FitzGerald’s apparently reductionist view, as a Tuairim member, that the function of the electoral system was “to elect a government” rather than, as one might have hoped, to clarify the political, economic and ideological options available to the electorate. In this context, Tuairim’s aspirations towards “a more consensual view” of national politics were doomed from the start. Outside voices are heeded by Irish politicians only on the very rare occasions when they pose a real political threat, something which Tuairim never did.

This was undoubtedly the reason why many of the younger adherents of Tuairim – Garret FitzGerald, David Thornley, and Michael D Higgins among them – decided eventually to take the high road of party politics instead. But there was probably also another reason, which Finn correctly identifies: the decision to exclude from membership anyone over the age of forty. With hindsight, is possible to see the unwisdom of this ageist policy – but at the time, when the leaders of the main political parties were in most cases visibly elderrly it was an understandable reaction to what was probably being increasingly seen as gerontocracy, even though it plainly hindered the development and potential longevity of the organisation itself.

One of the problems about this book is that not even the Sisyphean labours put into it by its author come anywhere near proving its core thesis: that Tuairim was, in and of itself, an indispensable element of the formation of Irish public policy in the period during which it existed. This is partly because political modernisation was not easily visible to the naked eye, even by the end of the period concerned (1975). But is also partly because of the impossibility of ascribing probative weight either to Tuairim or to any of the other factors already mentioned, and to which the author also gives reasonable credit. Indeed, many of his judgments in this regard are highly provisional: Tuairim “may” have done this, or “might” have influenced that. Post hoc is not necessarily propter hoc.

A case in point is his discussion of the relationship between Tuairim and the political parties, most notably in connection with the two referendums on the electoral system, but also elsewhere. It is tempting to suggest, as Finn does, that the readiness of members of the major political parties to participate in Tuairim-sponsored debates and discussions on these issues was indicative of a kind of obeisance to the influence that they supposed that Tuairim could wield. However, it would be as logical to suggest that, in hard-fought political contests of this kind, the protagonists are prepared to go out and garner support wherever they can find it, and that their participation in such events was less a homage to the organisers than a carefully calculated attempt to reach members of the electorate, and to reassure or enlist allies, through any and all communication channels that might be available.

Perhaps what defeated Tuarim in the end was not any of the factors outlined above, or even its own missteps in terms of organisation and agenda (the amount of energy it wasted on the issue of whether or not UCD should move to Belfield must have sapped its strength for many other, more worthy controversies), but one of the core factors in Irish culture, then and now. This has been the maintenance, even the worship, of a profoundly, pathologically hierarchical model of secular (borrowing no doubt from the religious) political authority.

A textbook example of this is the controversy surrounding the Tuairim-sponsored event in Limerick in 1966 at which Fr Peter Connolly, then teaching English at Maynooth, gave an erudite and reasonably sympathetic critique of the novels of Edna O’Brien, some of whose books had at that time already been censored by the State, and who was present in the audience.

I have to declare an interest here. I was the Irish Times reporter at that meeting (although identified in that report only by the soubriquet “Irish Times Reporter”) on whose account Finn relies to a large extent, and very fairly. As it happened, I had been asked by the newspaper to investigate, on my way down to Limerick, a rumour that the priest in O’Brien’s parish of Scariff had publicly burned one or more of her books. An embarrassing and unproductive half-hour in Scariff ensued. But last year, when I was in correspondence with O’Brien, she put me right. The books had indeed been burned, not in Scariff, but in the neighbouring parish of Tuamgraney, all of a mile down the road! So near and yet so far.

The point Finn makes is that, although the meeting was a succès de scandale, it did not seriously address a number of the underlying issues about censorship in Ireland. This is true. However, it can also be pointed out that the idea of a courageous and intelligent priest – and a lecturer in Maynooth at that – publicly challenging the clerically endorsed, authoritarian Irish censorship culture in the Ireland of 1966, and the previously unheard of public interplay of argument and dialogue between clergy and laity on a “moral” issue, was intrinsically far more newsworthy at that time than any exploration of the intellectual substrata of the censorship issue would have been. In news terms, challenges to authority, then as now, tend to obscure the finer points of the arguments involved. My case rests.

In this sense, it can be argued that one of the most significant aspects of Tuairim’s existence and role during those years was not the specific content of the arguments it advanced or the themes it adumbrated, but the intrinsic value of its implicit challenge to hierarchical notions of society, of governance, and to ethical standards. The problem for Tuairim can therefore be redefined as the fact that that its emphasis on the content of policy in an enterprisingly wide number of areas was often compromised, despite its best efforts, by a failure to address critical issues of process, and by its unrealistic yearnings for political consensus. There was a class element to this too: even the London branch of the organisation, perhaps the most heterodox of all its offshoots, “felt restricted in what it could say, perhaps partly by its respectable nature but more by the constraints imposed by contemporary society”.

Tuairim also undoubtedly flinched at moments when it might have been more courageous. Some of its failures are clearly identified, and they were undoubtedly occasions which we can now regret, while acknowledging that few, if any of us, might have acted differently at the time. Its decision to ignore the passionate testimony of its member Peter Tyrell, who had been a victim of serious physical abuse in Letterfrack and who later took his own life, was a huge missed opportunity. Its treatment of industrial schools, while groundbreaking in some ways, was marred by too great a willingness to believe what it was told by the school authorities, and its recommendation of a “special boarding school for travellers” was rightly rejected by the Department of Health’s Fidelma Clandillon because of the educational apartheid and family divisions it would have engendered.

In the matter of the industrial schools generally, it is not perhaps as widely known as it ought to be that both the Department of Health, and the Department of Justice (under Des O’Malley) were increasingly conscious of the can of worms that was our industrial schools policy, and much more so than the Department of Education. Paradoxically, however, it was the latter department where – belatedly ‑ the decisive move was eventually made. This was almost certainly not as a result of Tuairim’s 1966 report (by its London branch), “Some of Our Children”, but came through Donogh O’Malley setting up the Eileen Kennedy committee on the basis of a private and informal recommendation from the OECD “Investment in Education” team involving (among others) Martin O’Donoghue and the late Bill Hyland and Paddy Lynch.

There are other areas where there are minor problems, or where the timeline is somewhat tortuously handled in an attempt to prove a point. Peter Connolly’s criticism of media coverage of his utterances is cited in reference to the 1966 meeting, but is actually dated to two years earlier. Some identifiers could have been more complete: Frank D’Arcy’s role as an assistant editor of the Irish Independent, for example, is not mentioned, although it was undoubtedly more significant than his later career in Magee College in Derry. Equally, the late Miriam Daly’s controversial post-Tuairim role in Northern Ireland is unnoticed. And the index is, frankly, so inadequate that it could readily have been omitted.

But to imply that this book fails to substantiate its implied thesis is, however, to understate its value and importance. Finn’s diligence usefully reminds us of a number of Tuairim initiatives, some of which were truly far-sighted. Paddy Lynch and Charles Carter’s 1959 responses to Whitaker’s paper on economic development, first read as papers to a Tuairim meeting, still resonate today. Declan Costello was proposing the appointment of an ombudsman in 1967: one was not established until 1980. There was a proposal for a press council in 1969: one was to be established almost four decades later. The Oireachtas finally organised a committee system some two decades after it had been perspicaciously recommended in a Tuairim document.

The timeline between Tuairim proposal and political action is sometimes so stretched that the inferred cause and effect relationship is at best doubtful: the implication that some of its discussions on Northern Ireland in the late 1950s “foreshadowed the Good Friday Agreement” almost half a century later is a case in point. The views that Tuairim helped to generate and circulate about Northern Ireland policy then were truly far-sighted for their time, although, like many commentators before and after them, while they correctly identified the need for new organisational structures for nationalists in the north, they shied away from attempting to indicate what shape these might take. The other ideas and analyses they promoted on this topic might seem almost commonplace today but were ignored for so long that it is more appropriate to regret the institutional and political deafness which greeted them than to imply that they were the genesis of what came painfully to fruition in 1998. In that sense, the references to Tuairim’s work on Northern Ireland are more convincing, and more valuable, as a plangent lament for the effect of political myopia and pig-headedness on public policy in this area than as proof that they influenced what was to come much, much later. Truly, in this respect at least, the prophets remained without honour in their own country.

Another sense in which this book is valuable, although one not perhaps explicitly claimed by its author, is as an aide-memoire to a confused and confusing era in Irish political and social history. The first chapter is entitled “Tuairim and the intellectual climate in Ireland” but, really, this is the theme of the entire work, and a very well-researched theme it is too. The number of strands the author draws together is truly impressive, and there is also a sense in which his narrative sets the scene not just for much later political history but for the careers of some of Tuairim’s most interesting people, some of whom are, happily, still around. But the market for ideas, to which Tuairim in its infancy hoped to make a major contribution, is still far from fully developed, and only time will tell whether and to what extent political debate generally can achieve the sort of maturity which Tuairim, in the 1950s and 1960s, confidently but overoptimistically expected would emerge.

John Horgan is a former journalist, politician and professor of journalism at Dublin City University. He was a member of the Seanad, Dáil and European Parliament between 1969 and 1982, and served as Ireland’s first press ombudsman from 2007 to 2014.