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Out of the Rut

John Horgan

Sixties Ireland: Reshaping the Economy, State and Society, 1957-73, by Mary E Daly, Cambridge University Press, 426 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-1316509319

If you remember the sixties, someone memorably observed, you weren’t there. Certainly, as Ireland lurched from the full-blown economic crisis of the mid-70s to the mini-crises of the mid-80s and the mid-90s, to the techno-bubble of the early noughties, and finally to the mega-collapse of 2008-16, that decade can sometimes wistfully be seen in retrospect as a slightly psychedelic, all too brief escape from the glum 1950s and the unsettling economic see-saws of later decades.

Part of the problem, of course, is that anyone born in or after, say, 1940, will have some strong, if necessarily incomplete and narrowly focused, memories of what the sixties were like. For those of us who were born into the middle class in 1940 itself, as I was, the sixties were the decade in which we grew to maturity, escaped from parental control, got seriously involved with the opposite sex, saw the dawn of the Irish television age, and – if we were lucky, or privileged, or both ‑ set our feet on career ladders that were to last for the next four or five decades. What was not to like? As might be expected, however, this important book demonstrates that pleasant memories were not the lot of everyone, and that the good times were – as always – differentially distributed.

Mary Daly has both feet firmly inside this time frame: her initial graduation from University College Dublin (in history and economics) was in 1969, and she got her first academic post there in 1973. Her location on this spectrum therefore more than justifies her interest in the long decade (as 1957-73 can probably fairly be described) and her academic credentials are ideal.

Nonetheless, her enterprise is not without risk. Around the beginning of the sixties, a fledgling historian named Dermot Keogh once proposed to the history faculty in UCD that he might do a research MA on the Civil War. Robin Dudley Edwards, the grey eminence of the faculty (in more ways than one), looked at him severely at the interview board and commented: “Young man: we don’t do journalism.” The closer you get to the present, the more people will complain that you are too influenced by your own knowledge of or participation in the events concerned, that you don’t know where the real bodies are buried, or that you have dug up the wrong ones.

Mary Daly has armed herself against such criticisms in the best possible way. She does so not only by providing evidence of her extraordinarily wide reading in the research literature in both history and economics (as well as ephemera), and of her own considerable research output, but also by incorporating all of this in a fluent, persuasive narrative that is such a pleasure to read that you have to think twice before you can identify any points on which you would like to take issue with her.

The structure of the book is deceptively simple: there are three thematic sections (economy, society, and politics), each of them containing between three and six sub-themes. They work for the most part like clockwork. Although the narrative here and there skips backwards and forwards in time, there is no serious asynchronicity to give the reader pause.

Daly’s section on the economy does several things with great clarity. It shows how the social, educational and political log-jams which formed part of the infrastructure of the state operated to slow down, almost to frustrate, the Lemassian developmental impetus. And this analysis is enlivened by a rich range of quotations, many of them brief but no less lapidary for all that. She cites with evident approval Joe Lee’s withering verdict on the dominance of the “possessor principle” in Irish economic life. Here also is Todd Andrews, for instance, declaring as early as 1969 that without Lemass’s state companies “the country would be little better than a cattle ranch, managed by what someone once described as the finest herdsmen in the world”.

Although I entered politics myself in the year this remark was published, it was a politics in which the economy was a shapeless, unmalleable entity, and largely unexplored territory. I can remember someone declaring in the Dáil, without provoking serious contradiction, that criticising “the economy” was in some unexplained sense unpatriotic. And I was once told, by someone wise in the ways of the world, that the prime ambition of the average Irish businessman in that era was to have a company which held an exclusive import licence for any in-demand product of British industry.

Lemass himself was not only keenly conscious of these obstacles and the difficulty in overcoming them, but was more aware than he liked to admit publicly of the key metric by which he felt his own performance could be judged: emigration. On that metric he could claim, at least, a reduction, but even that would have disappointed him: net emigration in the 1960s was still 135,000, even if it was only a third of what it had been in the previous decade. He was not to see the flow finally reversed in the 1970s (he died in May 1971), and the political correspondent Michael Mills once told me that at a late-night sing-song in Strasbourg following some European initiative, when one of those present sang a traditional song of emigrant lamentation Lemass’s face darkened and he left the room abruptly.

Some of Lemass’s policies aimed at solving our economic problems also had internal elements which militated against the success he desired. His involvement of the powerful trade unions in national bargaining was initially successful, but had unforeseen consequences. Communication difficulties arose within unions, and rank and file union members felt (with some justification) left behind by the rising tide which Lemass hoped would lift all boats. In time the erosion of differentials, intra-union difficulties and vengeful militancy began to take their toll. After two lengthy bank strikes, one of which lasted for over six months, one (admittedly conservative) commentator observed that “Ireland once again showed itself to have all the marks of a banana republic except the bananas”. It is arguable that some of these factors –particularly the increasing awareness of class-related income inequality post-austerity – have dramatically re-emerged in the very recent past, and the degree to which they are manageable by renewed national negotiations and agreements, or by the over-optimistically misnamed “new politics”, is, to put it mildly, problematic.

One of the most valuable chapters in the economic section of Daly’s book is that dealing with regional and physical planning, which has rarely been addressed in such a coherent manner. The catalogue of errors, missed opportunities, naked opportunism, and the lack of joined-up writing in this area is mind-boggling. Four years after the Ballymun high-rise complex was built in 1966, no town centre, shops, social or cultural amenities had yet been provided for its 3,265 households. A Dutch academic cited by Daly noted in 1976 that around a quarter of Irish members of one county council had “improved their positions through land speculation” and that in the same area almost all politicians had derived personal benefit from their offices. The visionary Tom Barrington wrote in 1975 about the need to move from big government to regional government, but his “road to decentralisation” remained, and still remains, to all intents and purposes untravelled, the signposts uprooted or twisting in the wind. A conclusion that can reasonably be drawn from the failure to accept this and other sound pieces of advice from the sixties onwards is that it has generally been against the interests of the political class to do so.

The ignorance that most of our 1960s leaders evinced of contemporary thinking about economics, and their wilful disregard of the parameters of successful spatial planning, were not matched by any innocence in the practice of politics itself. Neil Blaney’s ambitions for Ballymun (which effectively he created) were socially stunted but politically hyperconscious. Although Daly does not avert to it, it is beyond argument that his ploy in diluting that massive, concentrated local authority population by splitting it among no fewer than three Dáil constituencies was based on a conscious decision to prevent the emergence of a coherent, politically powerful working-class electorate which might not always have accepted Fianna Fáil as its saviour.

In the section on society, there is a criticism, or at the very least a valid implied question, about the role of the media, most of which were very backward in coming forward. Hibernia, and some of RTÉ’s current affairs programmes, were notable exceptions. Nor was the Oireachtas alert. The Kennedy report on industrial schools, published in 1970, was discussed, briefly, only in the Seanad, and then on the initiative of Mary Robinson. And Daly’s account of the contraception controversy is an embarrassing reminder of how much we 1970s iconoclasts, including Mary Robinson, myself, Noel Browne, Garrett FitzGerald and John O’Connell, prioritised the argument that changing the law on family planning would help to ameliorate the political situation created by partition!

Cardinal Conway, more conscious than most of his brother bishops of the dangers facing the Catholic Church in the post-conciliar era, took a huge gamble on this issue by changing ground, and by warning that contraception was a danger to society rather than just a breach of the Church’s traditional teaching. In other words, he was moving from arguments based on doctrine (which had traditionally been the Church’s chosen battleground, for obvious reasons) to arguments based on sociological grounds on which there were other, and ultimately more persuasive, authorities. In this context, Archbishop McQuaid’s later salvo, insisting that any change in the law would be morally reprehensible rather than just socially dangerous, must have been paradoxically unwelcome to Conway, as it greatly fuelled the indignation and common sense feelings that were feeding the demand for change. Even then, the cracks in the church’s monolith were beginning to show.

I would take issue with Daly’s suggestion that Dr Jeremiah Newman, then of Maynooth, was the church’s “leading sociologist”. Most powerful, maybe ‑ but leading? Hardly. That palm must surely go to Dr Liam Ryan, also of Maynooth, whose study of urban impoverishment in Limerick was published in 1970 and is generously cited here, along with much other evidence of the seismic changes taking place within Irish Catholicism. Daly’s section on health shows how little has changed since 1961, when a committee of twenty TDs established to try to reach cross-party consensus on how to best meet the medical needs of the population collapsed in acrimony. Fast forward to 2016.

The section on education demonstrates the continuing success of the church-state nexus in this period, as both McQuaid and Conway combined, in ways that were not understood at the time and are imperfectly understood even now, to frustrate the desire of the teaching orders to retain tight control of secondary education, while minimising the church’s exposure to its costs, by accepting the community school model in which the bishops (rather than the religious orders) maintained or assumed a significant degree of influence.

If there is an element missing from this exegesis, it is a fuller account of the splendidly Machiavellian influence of Sean O’Connor, a senior Department of Education official (and finally secretary of the department), who once described himself to me as a “socialist Republican”. In answer to the howls of protest from the left – myself included – that the community schools’ deed of trust (which took almost a decade to finalise) handed unaccountable power to the majority religion, O’Connor argued sagely (though wisely not in public) that if the Catholic church was not given a significant role in the new schools, the middle classes would not send their children to them. The subsequent history, and the successes, of these schools – many of them comprehensive in all but name ‑ have proved his intuition correct. As a necessary half-way house to a properly secular, public and universal educational system they have had, and indeed still have, considerable value.

The section on politics and international relations gives the impression at times of having been squeezed a bit by the spatial demands of the preceding sections, particularly in relation to the UN operations involving the Irish armed forces, their significance and their consequences. But it is still replete with notable insights and quotations. Here is David Thornley warning in 1964, in words which some members of the last government might ruefully endorse, that “as politics becomes less and less concerned with emotional stereotypes and more and more concerned with complex economic issues, it is ever more difficult to communicate its relevance to democracy”. We are reminded how John A Costello prophesied in 1958 that “certainly, in a few years, there will be a break-up of the present political Parties”. He added: “God alone knows what will be the result.” Daly recalls, also, the failure of Garret FitzGerald’s attempt to rename Fine Gael the “Social Democratic Party”, and of the role of journalists like Emer O’Kelly (for a time a Fine Gael party press officer), Vincent Browne and Henry Kelly, the latter two ejected from the party for dissent in 1969. Stirring times indeed.

You might be forgiven for thinking that there is little new that can be said about Northern Ireland in this period, but here again there are a number of deft brush-strokes that tellingly illuminate not only what happened, but the extent to which attitudes to the North in the Republic were a pitiful mixture of empty rhetoric and full-blown romanticism. It is almost impossible to imagine the hubris which informed the riposte by both the Irish Independent and the Irish Press (!) to Conn McCluskey of the Campaign for Social Justice, who was appealing for more media coverage of Northern Ireland in the early 1960s, to the effect that discrimination in Northern Ireland was not newsworthy. A quotation from Tom Garvin to the effect that Lemass “did to some extent, and like most southerners, retain a certain innocence about northern realities”, is a masterpiece of understatement, further illustrated by the examples Daly adduces.

One factor in all of this, which deserves greater consideration than it gets here, is the role of Fine Gael during this period as the dog that didn’t bark in the night. That party, which of all parties in the Republic had the greatest potential for building a bridge to unionism (a Dockrell in Dún Laoghaire was the only unionist elected in a Dublin geographical constituency in 1918 and his relations were still active in Fine Gael politics for decades afterwards), was no more than a cipher on Northern policy in the 1960s, hobbled as it was by its determination to outflank de Valera by declaring the Republic in 1948, and eclipsed by Lemass’s 1965 initiative.

The faux romanticism of the period is bitingly illustrated by the attitude of The Irish Times in 1969, when, as Daly reminds us, the sunburstery of the otherwise sage and frequently acerbic Douglas Gageby led him to predict electoral victory for Terence O’Neill in the Northern election of that year. Worse again were the predictions and self-delusions of the journalist John Healy. Healy acted as a kind of Svengali to Gageby, who allowed himself to be persuaded that his columnist held a unique key to the inscrutable mind of rural Ireland. But Healy never allowed his passion for the rural proletariat to interfere with his enjoyment of his Rolls Royce, while his pleas for social solidarity never extended to a decision to join the trade union which represented his own profession so admirably. Daly has unearthed a marvellous passage by the late Jim Downey which records Healy as predicting “old-time republicans abandoning their prejudices and coming down from the hills to campaign for [O’Neill] in his Antrim constituency” in that 1969 election. Downey commented, with admirable restraint: “In all my life I have never heard anything resembling confirmation of this. I regard it as fantasy.” It is inevitable that all of us who are journalists offer hostages to fortune; but some of us do it more than others.

There are two general observations prompted by this book. They are not criticisms, insofar as they refer to areas with which the author does not specifically claim to engage, and are in any case areas which more properly belong to social and political science rather than to history or economics. However, they are in the long run also essential to any comprehensive overview of this critical decade in modern Irish history, and Mary Daly’s great achievement here will, with luck, encourage others to complement what she has done.

The first relates to social class. It is dealt with here, properly, as part of the section on society. But it is a necessarily small part of that section, and is dealt with primarily as an ingredient or an outcome of the policies and realities she describes so tellingly. What we still need – and what can be achieved without going the whole Marxist hog – is an examination of how social class structures and interests (the latter for the most part cunningly disguised by our chaotic party system and ignored by our purblind national media in their hectic pursuit of the middle-class advertising dollar) are not only the outcomes of social and political policies, but key drivers and determinants of many of these policies.

The second relates to our electoral system. Daly deals very cogently with the hyper-centralisation which has deprived us of anything resembling local government. At the national level, however, there is a related need for more critical examination of the ways in which the design of our electoral system, the absence of effective local government, and the relatively minuscule (compared to other countries) number of votes with which people can get elected to the national parliament, contributes to what Daly tellingly describes as “the primacy of the personal” in Irish politics.

Our constitution states that the ratio of TD to population must be between 1: 20,000 and 1:30,000. It is important to remember, however, that this ratio relates to population, not to voters, and includes many people who have no vote (young people under eighteen, foreign nationals etc.) in contrast to the British and other systems, for example, where the ratio to be applied is calculated by reference to the electorate, not to population.

But even our ratio is to some extent illusory. In almost a third of the constituencies in our most recent election, some TDs were elected with fewer than 6,000 first preference votes. Do we need to look any further for proof of “the primacy of the personal”? It is over half a century (1963), and well within Daly’s time frame, since Basil Chubb memorably described TDs as people whose main job consisted in “going about persecuting civil servants”. The problem is that we are so culturally addicted to this electoral system that nobody will undertake the very difficult task of devising an alternative ‑ which must necessarily be accepted in a referendum ‑ that will enhance the role of TDs as legislators. The 1960s were also, of course, marked by the blatant gerrymandering of Dáil constituencies, a factor which perhaps deserves more attention than it gets here.

Not so much the primacy of the personal, perhaps, as the tyranny of the personal.

In the period covered by this book, two unsuccessful attempts were made to change this system, both of them deservedly defeated. Daly confines herself to pointing out that if either of these referenda had gone the other way the role of the major political parties would have been strengthened, but the situation had, and still has, much wider ramifications than that. Daly’s work should be a timely reminder not only of this, but of the considerable amount of unfinished political business we have inherited from the past, and of the further academic analysis needed to support intelligent and properly democratic solutions to problems that have in some cases become more, rather than less, pressing in the decades since the one she so tellingly describes.

1/6/2016

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.

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