Ineffectual ’70s left us with mountain to climb

Diarmaid Ferriter’s Ambiguous Republic portrays an Ireland where change came very slowly. Alan Dukes wonders how much, if anything, has changed

Ambiguous Republic Ireland in the 1970s
Diarmaid Ferriter.
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THE TWO sentences that conclude this monumental tome neatly convey its substance: “In early 2012, the letters page of The Irish Times was filled with indignation — much justified — about the failure to introduce promised reform in local government, the welfare of abused children, plans for a new children’s hospital, secularism in schools, financial crisis, the power of unelected EU officials, treatment of mental illness, protection of the environment and unanswered questions about a murder in Northern Ireland. What such observations highlight is that questions, or versions of them, that had first been aired in the 1970s cast a long shadow that the Irish Republic continues to live under.”

The most appalling feature of these concerns and of many others is not that nothing has been done about them over the period since the 1970s, but that so much passion has been expended on debate and so much action has been initiated to so little effect, leaving us still with mountains to climb in what threatens to be one of the most difficult decades since the foundation of the state.

Ferriter takes a thematic approach to his review of the 1970s which serves to analyse why, in so many areas of public policy, the pace of change was so glacial (and, perhaps, why that pace has not changed much up to the present day). One of the reasons for this may be found in the profound anti-intellectual attitude so prevalent for so long in the Irish political system. Echoes of this are to be found in Ferriter’s many expositions of the reactions to such figures as Conor Cruise O’Brien, David Thornley and Garrett FitzGerald. He recalls that George Colley (one of a more cerebral frame of mind than was common in Fianna Fáil) chaired a committee in 1966-67 which recommended the abolition of Constitutional recognition for the special position of the Roman Catholic church, a relaxation of divorce laws (but only for Protestants) and the inclusion of the principle of consent in relation to reunification.

The only one of these recommendations taken up by Fianna Fáil in government in the early 1970s was that in relation to the Catholic Church, with the recognition of a special position being removed from the Constitution in 1972. Fianna Fáil pretended to be neutral on divorce in 1986, but actually opposed the measure then proposed. It was not until many years later, in the context of the talks leading up to the Good Friday Agreement of 1999, that it accepted the principle of consent.

Ferriter describes the late John Kelly as “… an intellectual in Irish politics and thus a rare breed”. He goes on to quote Michael D Higgins as suggesting that “… being an intellectual in Irish politics was a greater disadvantage than being sexually perverse”. Even during the 1980s, Fianna Fáil in opposition used the term “intellectual” as a put-down of Government ministers and it was surely no compliment to Garrett FitzGerald to refer to him as the “nutty professor”. The upshot of this was a dearth of serious analysis in debate in the Dáil and Seanad. In the 1980s, indeed, the late Brian Lenihan Sr (who ironically was himself a closet intellectual) abused the FG/Labour government for its “paralysis of analysis”.

Another inevitable result of this anti-intellectual bias was a chronic populism in political discourse. In case after case, Ferriter illustrates the extravagant terminology of public debate. Every cause was hugely urgent in the eyes of its proponents and subversive or worse in the eyes of its opponents. His accounts of the debates of the decade rarely paint a picture of a purposeful ordering of social or political priorities.

This was particularly evident in relation to budgetary and economic policy. The Fianna Fáil deficit budget of 1972 set a trend which was to continue through the decade and far beyond. It was not until 1994 that a budget surplus was again seen. The oil shocks of the 1970s, together with domestic industrial unrest and politically-stoked expectations gradually worsened the prospects of restoring a sense of reality to economic management. This was in spite of clear and cogent advice from Ken Whitaker. One of his truly prophetic comments, delivered to Richie Ryan in September 1974, resonates today: “Profligate small countries can expect only short shrift from foreign lenders”.

The absence of purposeful ordering of social and political priorities meant that a succession of governments through the decade — Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael/Labour coalition and Fianna Fáil again — were forced to spend a great deal of energy in improvising economic and budgetary policy in response to both the pressure of external events and the self-imposed pressures of trying to live up to ill-considered election promises.

Part II of the book deals with the impact of the Northern Troubles on the Republic. Ferriter illustrates well the intense, passionate and committed engagement of important parts of the Republic’s political and administrative machinery with the intractable nature of the conflict and the fragmented responses and ambitions of all the parties to that conflict. The SDLP, the Unionists, the Republican camp, the Irish Government, the Irish opposition and the British political and administrative systems were all riven by disagreements and dissension, which contributed to the perpetuation of injustice, death and misery.

Ferriter has made masterful use of access to previously-untapped archival material. One result of this is a new insight into the performance of the civil service, and their advice to politicians. The most striking impression is that the default position was one of suspicion of change and resistance to innovation. At the same time, the civil service frequently provided inspired advice (as was the case in the Departments of Foreign Affairs and of the Taoiseach) and measured judgment (too often ignored in the case of the Department of Finance).

Remarkably, one of the most striking stories concerns the Council for the Status of Women. After an admittedly long lead-in of campaigning, the CSW published a report with 49 recommendations in 1972. Two years later, Chair Thekla Beere estimated that half had been implemented or were in the course of implementation, one third had been accepted in principle and one fifth had not been acted on. Compared to the glacial pace of reform in other areas of public policy, this was rapid progress.

There is a cursory treatment of the early years of EEC membership. It contains a contestable claim of a difference between Irish rural attitudes and those found in other member countries. Against the background of a substantial material improvement in rural life (the EEC’s Common Agricultural Policy brought rural Ireland into the consumer society for the first time), Ferriter asserts that: “… land was still seen in Ireland as an important end in itself and part of the family heritage (unlike in other countries, where it was seen more as a marketable commodity).”

This is simply not true. The UK was perhaps the only EEC member state where land was a less emotional matter than in Ireland.

In this rich, impressive work an account of a peculiarly Irish history during a very troubled decade, pungent comments by two gifted commentators stand out.

John Kelly remarked in October 1977 on “…one particularly Irish characteristic … a morbid preoccupation with the question of our own identity …We alone among the peoples of Europe seem to be caught in recurrent dreary absorption with the problem of who we are”.

John A Murphy remarked in 1976 on “…the pathetic yearning for an unmistakable cultural distinctiveness”.

On reflection, perhaps the distinguishing feature of Ireland during the 1970s (and still) is that we are slower learners and much slower “doers” than many of our neighbours.

There must be a suspicion that the reason is too much populist and superficial debate rather than too little democracy.

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