Economic alarm bells have distinct echoes from events of late 1970s

IN preparing a timeline for the publication of 1978 State papers, I looked at the front page of the daily newspaper for every day of the year.

Although I was old enough to remember the period, I was still surprised at the number of strikes in the state and semi-state sectors — the post office, CIE, Aer Lingus, RTÉ and ESB.

While in Dublin for that year’s all-Ireland football final — with the “five goals in the rain” — I got on a bus at the start of the route in Abbey Street and went upstairs. After a while somebody went downstairs to make sure the driver had not gone on strike. “You never know these days!” he exclaimed.

The upshot of all of those strikes and trade union irresponsibility was the breaking up of CIE and the privatisation of Aer Lingus. Economically, there were frightening similarities between 1978 and 2008. Both years started out optimistically, but by the end of each of them, it was clear we were in trouble.

In 1979 there were local and European elections in which Fianna Fáil fared dismally. Jack Lynch, the most popular Taoiseach in history, was essentially driven from office.

One of those who helped to drive him out was Bertie Ahern. He obviously recognised the signs in 2008 and he got out voluntarily before they turned on him within Fianna Fáil.

Looking at 1978 really highlighted the accomplishments of Bertie Ahern. There was industrial peace in this country last year, compared with 1978. Social partnership, in which Ahern played a vital role, probably played a key part in the industrial peace.

Another great contrast was in Northern Ireland where Ahern also made a tremendous difference. There was enormous hope at the beginning of 1978. The Women’s Peace Movement of 1977 had demonstrated a desire for peace on all sides in the North.

In 1976, almost 300 people were killed in the Troubles. That number dropped to 112 the following year and to 80 in 1978. During an RTÉ interview on January 9, 1978 Jack Lynch suggested there might be room for an amnesty for the Provisionals and he went on to call on the British to declare an intention to withdraw from Northern Ireland.

This put the cat among the pigeons. Lynch knew a withdrawal was not on and he was not looking for one. He was asking for a pronouncement about some vague time in the future.

When he talked about Irish unity, he was always thinking this would be by agreement, with the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

“My knowledge of the Catholic tradition in the North is really no greater than that of the Protestant tradition,” the Taoiseach told Donal Musgrave of the Cork Examiner in 1978. “My contact with Northern Catholics was mainly through the GAA, although I have probably had more contact with rugby people over the years, especially since my active GAA days ceased.”

Lynch first visited Belfast during World War II. “I wasn’t very impressed by the city and thought how depressing it was,” he said. But he visited the North on two occasions with his wife, Mairín, during the late 1940s. They were both very impressed and liked the area “immensely”.

He explained: “I have always had a high regard for the business capacity of the Northern people. There is a neatness about them. I admired the way they kept their roads, their gardens and houses. I have often been anxious to go back to walk the streets of Belfast, down Royal Avenue. I believe I could walk in the Shankill or the Waterside in Derry as safely as on the Falls or the Bogside. I would like to talk to the people and I believe I would be safe.”

For unionists, talk of a British withdrawal amounted to their abandonment and it was easy to see why they would have been scared about being absorbed by the rest of the island.

One of the hottest political issues at that time in the Republic was the possibility of legalising the sale of contraceptives. The Taoiseach was inundated with hysterical letters predicting dire consequences if contraception were legalised.

Vivion de Valera, the late president’s eldest son, wrote to Lynch about being “bombarded with all sorts of well meaning but ill-informed representations on contraception, very largely from virgins of both sexes”.

If contraception were legalised, one woman warned Lynch, Fianna Fáil would “be responsible for unseating Mary, Our Queen”. It would lead to an increase in premarital sex, divorce, abortion, euthanasia, incest and “VD out of all proportion”.

The Catholic hierarchy was anxious for the government to deal with the issue because the courts had essentially ruled that people were entitled to import contraceptives for their own use.

The church wished to stop this, and Charlie Haughey came up with his “Irish solution for an Irish problem”. Contraceptives could be sold legally, but strictly for family planning purposes, and then only on a doctor’s prescription.

The Catholic hierarchy was being allowed to rule, which helps explain why Northern Protestants were so suspicious of the Republic. We talked about seeking unity by agreement, but we showed no readiness even to listen to their concerns.

The British exhibited the same unwillingness to listen to nationalists, as if listening and surrender were synonymous. They failed to learn from past mistakes.

In 1919 Michael Collins and company deliberately provoked the crown forces in the belief they would lash out indiscriminately and, in the process, drive the Irish people into the arms of the republicans.

A relatively small clique was behind the republican violence in 1920, but the British made the mistake of overreacting in trying to teach them a lesson.

They attacked the crowd at a football game in Croke Park on what would be remembered as the first Bloody Sunday in November 1920.

They made the same mistake again in Derry on another Bloody Sunday in 1972, which was by far the worst year of the Troubles. But they did not learn from that mistake either.

INSTEAD of availing of the window for peace in 1978, the North’s secretary of state Roy Mason and company were more intent on teaching the republicans a lesson. Instead of talking, they adopted an intransigent attitude during the H-Block protests. The IRA then initiated another bombing campaign in November 1978.

Ultimately it was necessary to negotiate with the republicans and the loyalists. Much trouble and strife could have been averted had the British recognised this in 1978.

The Northern peace process stands as a beacon for the rest of the world. We should be taking a lead in urging the world community to learn from the mistakes made on this island.

After the Israelis withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Hamas fired more than 6,300 rockets into Israel from Gaza. They killed 10 Israelis and wounded almost 800. Hamas was trying to provoke Israel into an overreaction.

Israel has overreacted. In three days they killed at least 320, including 62 civilians and injured more than 1,400 people. Now Hamas, which was despised by the Egyptian and other Arab governments, has more support than ever in the Arab world. This is at the expense of the moderates who were looking for peace.

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