An intellectual heavyweight ko’d by people politics

Though I was only in my late teens when David Thornley announced that he was joining the Labour Party, I can still remember the excitement.

Although he was one of a number of well-known intellectuals who joined the party in the late 1960s, he was the most attractive.

He had been the star of an equally well-known group of people — the presenters of Seven Days. It’s hard to imagine now that programme’s importance. Broadcast in black and white (RTÉ didn’t introduce colour until the early 1970s), it was RTÉ’s first foray into hard-hitting current affairs. The presenters became household names — Ted Nealon, Brian Farrell, Bill O’Herlihy, John O’Donoghue, and others.

Thornley was the star. Brilliant and passionate, he used the medium as well as it has ever been used. Imagine Jeremy Paxman, but without the dryness and cynicism.

In 1968, Jack Lynch’s government introduced the 4th Amendment of the Constitution Act, to do away with proportional representation and replace it with a straight-vote system. It seemed Lynch’s patent decency would persuade a majority to vote for the change — until a famous broadcast by Thornley. He had analysed the statistics from the most recent local elections, and established that in the absence of ‘PR’, Fianna Fáil would be guaranteed a majority, despite not having anything like a majority of votes. When the referendum was defeated by a 60-40 majority, Lynch reluctantly credited Thornley.

So Thornley’s decision to enter politics, and to align himself with the progressive left, should have been the start of a major political career. He swept into the Dáil in 1969 but was swept out again in 1977: four years as an opposition member, and four years as a government backbencher.

A year after that, he died. In Leinster House, he is remembered as a TD who was too fond of alcohol.

Thornley was a man of very considerable potential, and he failed to fulfil it. The first half of his public (pre-politics) career resembled a star in the ascendant; the second half was more like the burning out of an exploding sun, collapsing in on itself.

Edward Thornley (David’s brother) sets out to explain why. There is a fundamental problem with the book — too much of it consists of Edward settling scores with the people, in his view, who did David down, or failed to recognise his worth, so Noel Browne, Garret FitzGerald, and Conor Cruise O’Brien come in for a particular savaging.

But there are also great insights into the mind and personality of a brilliant and flawed politician. Thornley sums up, by inventing two new words — macro-judgment and micro-judgement — the reasons his brother was misunderstood.

On the grand scale, there have been few better analysts of, and participants in, our politics and public discourse than David Thornley. But when it came to understanding the smaller things — like personal ambition in others — David’s lack of insight let him down.

It’s the reason, maybe, why many great men don’t become great politicians. Politicians have to be good at the micro insights. Those who can attach the macro to the micro, and master them both, become statesmen. Those who can master the macro only become former politicians.

For all that, David Thornley deserves to be remembered. He was brilliant, he could be charming, he was immensely talented at a lot of things. He did the State no small service in his time, and it is unfair that he has been written out of history.

For all those reasons, Edward Thornley deserves a thank you for keeping his brother’s memory alive.

Lone Crusader: David Thornley and the Intellectuals

Edward Thornley

Ashfield Press, Dublin


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