Civil servants are an invaluable source of information

An unhealthy culture of secrecy surrounds our civil servants despite the fact they are a valuable source of historical information, writes Ryle Dwyer

SOME families of those portrayed in the Charlie series on RTÉ have been upset by the depictions of their loved ones. Whether those depictions are fair or not may be open to question, because an unhealthy culture of secrecy surrounding the civil servants has been facilitated, even encouraged.

The series was intended as a drama, not an historical documentary. As with the Michael Collins movie, the producers have taken a certain amount of dramatic licence.

PJ Mara was depicted as one of the main players, but that depiction in the first two programmes was really a composite of himself and Frank Dunlop, who each served as government press secretary at different times while Charles Haughey was taoiseach.

Civil servants are an invaluable source of information

Haughey was the main focus of the series, so the dramatic licence in relation to other characters is understandable. It matters little that it was not PJ Mara but Frank Dunlop who reminded Haughey that he had promised his first interview as taoiseach to Geraldine Kennedy.

So many characters were introduced in the series that many younger viewers would have had difficulty following the story.

Most of the sources of information for the series were politicians, or political activists with their own personal axes to grind. Dermot Nally — secretary of the Taoiseach’s office from 1980 to 1993 — figured prominently throughout, but his involvement was based largely on the recollections of politicians, or advice that he would have tendered in writing prior to 1985.

Politicians, on the other hand, have been able to write their memoirs. Why should civil servants not do so?

Over the next nine years Nally is likely to figure prominently with the release of the state papers covering 1985 to 1993. Of course, by then very few of senior politicians, who dealt with him, are likely to be around. So the interpretation of those events will be left to the spinners. Surely this is not in the interest of democracy.

When Dermot Nally died in 2009, no biography of him had been published, much less his own memoirs. There is not even a biographical sketch of him on Wikipedia.

Back in 2001, RTÉ viewers elected TK Whitaker, the former secretary of the Department of Finance, as “Irishman of the Century”. Doubleday Ireland recently published a biography of Whitaker by Anne Chambers. It is about as close to a memoir as we are likely to get, because the author had full access to the subject and his papers.

Whitaker became secretary of the Department of Finance in 1956 at 39 years of age. He went on to become famous as the author and inspiration of the First Programme for Economic Expansion in 1958. At the insistence of senior members of government — taoiseach Eamon de Valera, tánaiste Seán Lemass, and finance minister James Ryan — Whitaker was given unprecedented recognition as the main author of that national economic plan.

“It was a deliberate decision, part of our effort to get economic development away from party political tags,” Lemass later explained. In this way the plan was raised above politics and this worked magnificently.

During the 1960s, Whitaker essentially steered the economic recovery associated with the Lemass years, and he also played a pivotal role in trying to normalise relations between Dublin and Belfast. He helped to organise the meetings between the Northern premier Terence O’Neill and both Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch, while each was taoiseach.

Whitaker served six different finance ministers — Frank Aiken, Seán MacEntee, Gerard Sweetman, James Ryan, Jack Lynch, and Charles Haughey. He developed a warm and affectionate relationship with the first five, but his biographer notes that such affection was “noticeably absent from his relationship with Charles Haughey.”

Whitaker retired at the age of 52 in 1969. Speculation about his reasons for his early retirement has been fuelled by his own reticence to address the issue.

He has been emphatic that he “was not pushed”. He insisted that he “left having accomplished all he could at Finance”. That suggested that he thought that working productively with Haughey was going to be a problem.

“But it was to be Haughey’s involvement in the emerging crisis in Northern Ireland that, more than anything else polarised the differences between the two men,” according to Anne Chambers. This was before the eruption of the arms crisis.

It is often suggested that civil servants are effectively the real government, but we have a crazy system in which our civil servants are expected to remain quietly in the background.

Maurice Moynihan was government secretary from 1937 until 1960. In February 1948 he objected when the taoiseach John A Costello sent Pope Pius XII a fawning message drafted by Seán MacBride, the minister for external affairs. On behalf of members of the government, the telegram expressed a “desire to repose at the feet of Your Holiness.”

Moynihan objected that such a message on behalf of any sovereign state was undignified. As a result of his stand he was henceforth excluded from cabinet meetings, even though he was the cabinet secretary.

Men like TK Whitaker and Maurice Moynihan provided invaluable service so the silly convention seeking to silence them should be scrapped. Such people should, in the interests of democracy, be encouraged to write their memoirs, because a more informed electorate enhances democracy.


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