Jack Lynch fitted mould of national CEO

The centenary of the birth of Jack Lynch is clearly an event worth marking, not least because he embodied the centrist consensual approach to politics and economic management which on the whole has served the country pretty well.

Mr Lynch was an unusual figure in the Irish politics of his day. He came across as a modest, affable individual following an era of bosses and chiefs. He presided over a country which was still feeling its way in the world.

The writer Elaine Byrne touched a nerve recently when she identified an excess of deference in Mr Lynch’s approach to his British counterpart, Edward Heath, in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday. Ms Byrne is an insightful observer, but professional historians will surely be aware that 45 years is a long time and social mores and pecking orders can undergo considerable transformation during such a period of time.

Ireland’s economy was heavily dependent on that of the UK and this was reflected in our dealings with London.

The Anglo-Irish Free Trade agreement was concluded while Mr Lynch was still serving as minister of finance. In the short term, most of the benefits from that deal accrued to the British who followed a cheap food policy which was to the detriment of Irish farming. However, the deal helped to prepare Ireland for the rigours of membership of the EEC from January 1973.

Mr Lynch’s low key managerial style led opponents and colleagues to underestimate him.

It was ministerial colleagues such as Paddy Hillery, the future president, and later Donogh O’Malley, who led the way in introducing reforms of our education system which helped to enable the Irish economy to cope with the surge in foreign investment that followed membership of the EEC.

Mr Hillery, in particular, presided over an expansion in technical education that provided younger people with the sort of intermediate skills that foreign investors were seeking. Mr O’Malley pushed through the ‘free education’ scheme with backing from Seán Lemass. The degree to which Mr Lynch backed his finance officials who opposed the move is unclear.

Mr Lynch was, in truth, an enabler and conciliator rather than an
innovator. He backed the consensual approach to industrial relations forged by Mr Lemass.

There was clearly a steely side to his character. He displayed this side during the Arms Crisis. He contained what was a rapidly unravelling situation as the North headed towards meltdown in 1971-72 in what was a classic exercise in crisis management. Mr Lynch did make a TV appearance at the height of the crisis in 1972 which proved controversial, but he had the difficult task of both conveying and containing the anger of the Irish people at the time.

As a national manager, Mr Lynch
appeared to be much less concerned about the media than his counterpart in London for much of his tenure of office, Harold Wilson. In part, this was due to the fact that he was an adept communicator, at home in a TV studio.

The world of the smart phone and
social media and before that, Alastair Campbell and the pager device, lay well in the future. The Irish public service was a place where high officials were trained to display respect towards those in authority, the politicians occupying posts at the top of the system.

However, it has become clear that one top official, TK Whitaker, then governor of the Central Bank, played a key role as an informal advisor to Mr Lynch on Northern Ireland, in effect stepping outside his area of responsibility.

By acting in a manner that was outside the strict traditions of the civil service, Mr Whitaker managed to support his leader in the worst crisis to hit the State since 1922.

Critics have suggested that Mr Lynch could be a bit laid back when it came to the detail of day to day governance.

This certainly may have been the case when Fianna Fáil was in opposition between 1973 and 1977.

A man who maintained a tighter grip such as Seán Lemass might never have let that disastrous 1977 election manifesto out of the starting blocks. The abolition of rates combined with reductions in capital taxation meant that wage earners bore the brunt of tax hikes when the economy turned down in 1979 following the second oil crisis.

We are still feeling the effects of those promises in the form of a weakened local government, low on funds and expertise. The origins of today’s housing crisis may be located in the manifesto commitment to do away with domestic rates. Mr Lynch could have done with stronger economic advice. He swallowed old guff that fiscal expansion could generate self-sustaining economic growth. The result was a runaway borrowing binge.

The 1977 campaign won resoundingly by Fianna Fáil can be viewed as a harbinger of a future where voters act as consumers with short-term horizons.

Entry into the EEC in 1973 transformed the way Ireland was governed. Seán Lemass led the way in pressing for Irish entry, but it was Mr Lynch who was on hand to complete the task. He sent his chief ally, the foreign minister, Patrick Hillery, to fill the role as Ireland’s first commissioner at the EEC top table.

In the process, he lost the man who would almost certainly have succeeded him. Hillery’s departure paved the way for Charlie Haughey.

An inward looking bureaucracy was gradually transformed by regular weekly trips to Brussels by officials.

The flow of European funds into Ireland transformed farming and eventually facilitated the completion of many capital projects.

The flood of laws and regulations from Brussels would greatly complicate the task of governance while paving the way for implementation of controls in areas such as the environment which would astonish an earlier generation of civil servant.

EEC membership changed the Irish public service in some ways, but not in others. A new generation of official emerged, but too many of the brightest talents were caught up in the task of Anglo-Irish relations. Bastions of inefficiency endured.

Much of the groundwork for the post-1990 surge in foreign investment was laid under Mr Lynch, though it should be recalled that the IDA was actually founded by the inter-party government under John A Costello, while it was Seán Lemass’s change of heart in the 1950s on the issue of economic openness and exports that represented the real breakthrough.

Jack Lynch got on well with business people, serving on the boards of Irish Distillers and Smurfit Group following his retirement. He lived discreetly in a pleasant Victorian home in Rathgar. He was part of a generation of professionals and managers who received remarkably modest remuneration by the standards of 2017.

So how would Mr Lynch cope as the country’s CEO in today’s world? It is hard to say. He certainly mastered TV. He would not have enjoyed 24/7 journalism, but as a good delegator, he might have assembled a strong team around him.

The task of governance is far more complex in a complex world in which Ireland, these days, is far more deeply connected.

Successful national CEOs such as US President Harry Truman (1945-52) and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, combine diligence with a willingness to admit to their limitations.

Jack Lynch fitted that mould.


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