Book review: Nothing is Written in Stone: The Notebooks of Justin Keating

Justin Keating was Minister for Industry and Commerce in the early 1970s and a man of strong convictions, never afraid to voice his opinions. Ryle Dwyer reads between the lines of his collection of writings. 

Edited by Barbara Hussey and Anna Kealy

The Lilliput Press, €20

JUSTIN KEATING is best remembered as Minister for Industry and Commerce in the Fine Gael/ Labour Coalition from 1973 to 1977. 

He was in active politics from 1969, when first elected to the Dáil, until he lost his seat in 1977. He was then elected to the Seanad and served there until 1981.

As a 14-year-old Keating witnessed the murder of his neighbour Detective Sergeant Denis O’Brien, on September 9, 1942. The detective was driving his car down the driveway from his home when shots were fired at him.

“I was less than twenty yards away and frozen by surprise and fear,” Keating said. 

O’Brien jumped from his car and prepared to shoot at his assailants but did not notice a man with a sub-machinegun behind him. He died on the spot with a bullet to the head.

Charlie Kerins, 26, was subsequently executed for the murder. 

“Though I loathe the death penalty I do believe the verdict was correct. But when he was executed, I hurt like hell,” wrote Keating,

He was quite candid about his life, his views, and his loves. He states that he was in love with five women. 

The first of those was his first wife, with whom he had three children and a happy marriage for many years, before they separated.

“We grew apart and it was right, I think, to stop when we did,” he wrote. 

“But we did it without bitterness or rancour.” 

He writes about all of the women fondly.

He did not marry three of the other women for various reasons. 

Then, he had a very successful marriage with the fifth woman, and was still happily married to her when he died on December 31, 2009, just one week short of his 80th birthday.

This book — a compilation of Keating’s private writings between 2006 and his death in 2009 — provides a fascinating reflection on his lifetime. 

“I have many important beliefs, which cannot be so validated, but on which I am willing to base actions.”

He acknowledged that his judgement was not always flawless. 

“I made a serious mistake of thinking I was indispensable,” he candidly admitted.

He grew up as an avowed atheist and communist. 

“By the late 1940s and early 1950s there began to be so much evidence that, far from being the socialist utopia, the Soviet Union was a pretty terrible place.” 

This sullied socialism for Keating.

His candid admissions are of real interest, because he was not afraid to express strong opinions about influential figures. He described WB Yeats not only as “a proto-Fascist,” but “also one of the nastiest, most ruthless, grubbing self-seekers I have ever read about.” 

His views on people with whom he worked were particularly insightful, such as Noel Browne. The two of them joined the Labour Party around the same time and saw plenty of each other.

“There were brief intermissions when I felt that Noel was not quite sane,” Keating wrote. 

“He was suspicious to the point of paranoia.”

However, Keating concluded that “Browne’s Mother and Child Scheme was the most serious effort at the application of some family values in the life of the state, and it rallied an incredible coalition of opposition.”

The author was critical of Seán MacBride, whom he characterised as “one of the most devious, tricky, complicated people I ever knew.” 

Of course, Keating was also critical of Éamon de Valera and the archbishop John Charles McQuaid, for conspiring to develop Ireland into a “bigoted and Church-dominated” country.

Keating campaigned against joining the EEC in 1972, though he knew the referendum would be carried easily. Nevertheless, he actually credited the government with handling the country’s accession “brilliantly”.

“We did extremely well from membership and from welcoming the accommodating attitude of the original six,” he wrote. 

During this period, he and Garret FitzGerald formed a firm mutual respect for each other. Although the Finance Minister Richie Ryan was lampooned by Frank Hall as “Richie Ruin” Keating characterised Ryan “a good a courageous minister in desperate times.”

It has been suggested for decades that Defence Minister Paddy Donegan’s controversial remarks about President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh were cleaned up before being published. 

Keating suggests that Donegan actually used the expletive “fucking,” but he agreed to its deletion with the reporter on the spot.

“Of all the people I have ever been close to,” Keating wrote, Conor Cruise O’Brien “had the greatest sense of the injustice of the world, and of anger against that injustice and inequality”.

He could be “the best company you could ever spend time with,” but there was also another side to him. 

“On his best days, certainly a statesman;” Keating said, “on the worst, which were not infrequent, a buffoon.” 

As Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Cosgrave coalition, Garret FitzGerald was the minister responsible for Northern Ireland affairs, but O’Brien “behaved throughout our years in government as if he were Minister for Northern Ireland.”

“I am an anti-national atheist and I believe, at the time, Conor was both of these things. But by his policy he has borne great aid to the IRA,” Keating said.

O’Brien behaved in relation to Northern Ireland as if “the sky was always falling.” 

Consequently, the author supported the removal of the Labour Party’s shadow spokesmanship on Northern Ireland from O’Brien. Keating was not surprised that O’Brien ended up as a member of Robert McCartney’s UK Independence Party.

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce,” Karl Marx wrote. 

Keating agreed with that assessment. This was probably never more apparent than during the Arms Crisis.

He believed that Jack Lynch was deliberately sitting on the fence watching the whole thing unfold, and that Charles Haughey was doing likewise. 

The author mistakenly suggested that Haughey joined with Kevin Boland in resigning from Lynch’s Cabinet when Neil Blaney was dismissed at the outbreak of the crisis, whereas, of course, Haughey was actually dismissed at the same time. He had provided the government money for the purchase of the arms.

Haughey’s father had been deeply implicated in a similar scheme to smuggle arms to Northern Ireland on behalf of Michael Collins in 1922, and this undoubtedly contributed to the tragedy of the Civil War some weeks later. The whole thing was repeated as farce in 1970.

The author was more worried about more recent international developments in the Muslim world. 

“What is most striking about the US in the near and Middle East is the sheer incompetence and stupidity. They are handing huge victories to Islamic fundamentalism— greater, I think, than Osama Bin Laden could have dreamed or wished.”

Many may agree with this assessment, but the author grossly overplayed his hand with a rather distorted puerile attack on “the imbecilic glove-puppet George W Bush, instructed by Rumsfeld and other senior soldiers.”

Nobody will agree with all the sentiments in this book, but most people will likely find his views interesting. 

They should be taken for what they are — one man’s candid opinion of what he observed during an active political life.


Lifestyle

I am dating a lovely guy. However, he seems really awkward about being naked in front of me.Sex File: Boyfriend keeps his T-shirt on during sex

To instantly power up your look, veer towards the hard shoulder.Bold shoulder: How to instantly power up your look

Plums are a wonderful autumn fruit, useful for all sorts of recipes both sweet and savoury. In Ireland we are blessed with wonderfully sweet plums.Currabinny Cooks: Juicy plums work for both sweet and savoury dishes

The rise of home skincare devices doesn't mean that salons and clinics no longer serve a purpose.The Skin Nerd: Don’t try this at home — new treatments in the salon

More From The Irish Examiner