Ba mhaith liom aitheantas a thabhairt agus fíorbhuíochas a chur in iúl do gach duine a chuir clár imeachtaí an lae inniu le chéile.
Tá aithne ag pobal Chorcaí ar fad ar Jack Lynch ach de réir mar a shleamhnaíonn na blianta ar aghaidh tá éagsúlacht saoil Uí Loingsigh agus a chuid oibre go léir caillte go minic.
Ní éiríonn ach le fíorbheagán daoine barr feabhais a bhaint amach in aon réimse den saol nó in aon ghníomhaíocht. Rinne Ó Loingsigh amhlaidh i ndá cheann de na réimsí móra dúshlánacha seo -an spórt agus an pholaitíocht.
Ar ndóigh, de réir gach tuairisce agus fianaise atá againn dá bhfanfadh sé mar státserbhíseach nó abhcóide bheadh sé chun tosaigh agus ag barr na ngairmeacha sin chomh maith.
It is a serious failing in how we look at political history in Ireland that we so often paint caricatures of former leaders – seeing our role as choosing sides between contrasting visions rather than using the benefit of time to create new perspectives. In a world of colour and shade we too often look at our history, and so many other things, solely as black and white.
Jack Lynch deserves far more study and reflection than he has received since he retired and since his passing 18 years ago. The centenary of his birth and the programme for this symposium is a moment to start addressing this gap.
Ireland is today one of the world’s longest continuous democracies. Jack Lynch is not some passing footnote in this. In the three elections which he contested, the Fianna Fáil party which he led received an average support of 47.5% – making him on this measure the most successful electoral leader in Ireland’s history. He secured and he retained levels of public support unimaginable today.
This didn’t happen by accident and it didn’t happen simply because of his status as one of our greatest ever sportsmen. Jack Lynch was a man of great substance and a patriot whose record includes practical achievements which benefit us to this day. He had flaws and he made mistakes, but he deserves a place of honour in our history.
I freely admit that I am predisposed to Lynch because he was a longstanding friend of my father, with whom he played football and shared a love of this great city. In later years I met him and Máirín many times – mostly talking in Irish.
The last time I met him was in hospital shortly before his death. Though clearly failing he remembered enough to correct Máirín when she said he had played hurling with my father.
After his death I was honoured to receive a photograph of him receiving his seal of office from President de Valera as part of Seán Lemass’ first government. For me that picture has always made a powerful point about his status, about those who worked with him and trusted him about his role as a figure in modernising Ireland.
The speakers today represent an exceptional cross-section of expertise in the many dimensions of Jack Lynch’s life and career. I don’t propose to go into detail in the areas they will cover – instead I would like to make some overall points which fit within three particular themes. First, we should do more to understand the context and character of Lynch, particularly his class background. Second, we need to see beyond a series of myths which stand between us and a deeper understanding of his significance. Finally, we should recognise the substance of both his record and his continued influence.
Jack Lynch’s personal story is compelling whatever way you look at it. This was a working class boy, who was born into a large family and who lost his beloved mother when he was still a child. He was not only the first in his family to get to secondary education, play at inter-county level, join the civil service, become a barrister and enter politics – he excelled in each of these fields. In fact, he reached the top or was on track to reach the top in nearly everything he ever did.
This didn’t happen by accident. He was as pure a meritocrat as it is possible to be. His family had no money and no connections. His family, class and community background were what formed him and drove a modest and quiet man to achieve so much.
And we should not forget the distinct nature of the games in which he excelled. Gaelic football and hurling are unique in many ways but surely the most important is in how they appeal across all social barriers both in the crowd and on the field. There is no other country in the world where 80,000 people gather to watch amateur teams made up of players from all backgrounds and professions.
Jack Lynch’s remarkable calmness under pressure and his security in himself on the field, in different jobs and in high office came from the foundation of knowing where he came from.
He was a part of, and a leader of, what Cardinal Newman once predicted would be “the rising generation” – a generation which embraced opportunities and in turn created new ones.
Born on the eve of the War of Independence, Jack Lynch’s career and character were directly linked to a republican idea of a state where old barriers were broken down
And yet the reality is that both during his career and since then he has suffered from different myths which have been used to underestimate his significance.
The first myth is that he was simply a personality whose popularity as a sportsman ensured his success in other areas. As I’ve said, this just doesn’t stack up because he excelled in everything he ever did. He won scholarships in education. In the civil service he was rapidly promoted to important jobs which required a person of real ability. While his profile certainly helped his first election to the Dáil, this couldn’t have sustained him over three decades and All-Ireland medals have failed in other cases to secure electoral success for their owners.
Most of all, if he had just been a sporting personality he would not have received early and rapid promotion by Eamon de Valera and Seán Lemass. DeV once confessed to preferring rugby and Lemass was not one to put sporting success ahead of ability and intellect.
As a new TD, Lynch was persuaded to put aside the law for a year in order to serve as the parliamentary party’s first researcher. He was made Minister for Education in order to reinvigorate that Department.
Lemass entrusted him with his own Department of Industry and Commerce and then promoted him to the pivotal Department of Finance. Finally, Lemass, a dynamic meritocrat, persuaded him to become Taoiseach because he saw in him a man who would be progressive and European.
Jack Lynch didn’t become Taoiseach because he showed Lemass his Dublin Club Championship medal, he became Taoiseach because he was a senior minister, widely respected and very much in tune with the modernising spirit of his times and his party.
A related myth is that he was viewed as an outsider by Fianna Fáil as a whole because he had no revolutionary background. Yes, it is certainly true that his opponents questioned his pedigree, but I would strongly caution against reasoning from this to the wider Fianna Fáil membership and support base.
We should remember something fundamental about the success of Fianna Fáil, it didn’t succeed because it stuck to a revolutionary core – it succeeded because it went far beyond its revolutionary core.
In the party’s first election it received roughly 300,000 votes – effectively the same vote the republican side had been winning since the Treaty split. 7 years later the party won nearly 400,000 more votes. So Fianna Fáil’s success directly came from attracting and holding support from people who had very recently been on the other side.
Lynch did not have the revolutionary heritage of some of his opponents – but neither did the majority of the party’s voters and a large number of its members and representatives. Indeed, let us not forget that Lynch’s successor, Charles Haughey, also lacked republican ancestry. In fact his father had been in the Free State army.
During his leadership Lynch had the strong support of the organisation and he never lost a vote in the parliamentary party. He won the resounding support of the party membership at a tumultuous Árd Fheis where his opponents directly attacked him as not ‘green enough’.
There is no doubt that he was respected by members of all political parties and none as evidenced by the City and County Councils unanimously naming the Jack Lynch Tunnel after him.
In truth it would actually have been highly unusual for a person of Lynch’s background and socially-concerned views to have been in any other party.
A final myth concerning Lynch has been that the 1977 campaign and the policies it proposed were a cynical and unjustifiable attempt to buy people and that it was the sole cause of subsequent troubles.
I think a lot of this has its root in the fact that much of the political and media establishment was so surprised by the result. As we saw last year, failure to anticipate the public mood continues to be an issue with much political commentary.
Rather than question the complacency that expected an unpopular government to be returned, the consensus quickly turned to saying Lynch could only have won because people were bribed. This interpretation misses the entire context for that election.
Deficit spending was extremely common in countries in the 1970s as they struggled with ways of trying to get out of a recurring recession and deal with the impact of the oil crisis. Lynch didn’t invent deficit spending, it was a perfectly standard policy prescription. The expansionary commitments of 1977, and expansionary policies of the following years, caused damage which was made much worse by the international context and the reality of the impact of the necessary break with sterling. This was a crisis which changed economic policy in nearly all countries, and our understanding of that time would be well enhanced by taking this much wider context into account.
It should also be said that the domestic rates promise of that year is by an order of magnitude smaller than the ‘abolish the USC’ promise made as recently as last year.
If we put aside what I believe are myths which get in the way of understanding Jack Lynch’s success and record I believe we can see an important figure who achieved much and who has had a positive influence on our country.
Lynch never sought to be a grand or charismatic figure like his predecessors, but he was an essential figure in shaping the development and modernisation of Ireland.
Lemass was a revolutionary and he understood the need for the massive changes which he began to be moved forward by someone whose instincts could be trusted and who could bring the people with him. There was no ‘counter-revolution’ after Lemass in large part because Lynch’s government’s kept moving reforms forward.
The record of reform under Lynch is undeniable. As Minister for Education in the 1950s he was the one who ended the marriage bar in primary and vocational schools – something he did without consulting the hierarchy. In Industry and Commerce he negotiated a free trade deal with the UK and implemented the wider policy of growth through trade. In Finance he ensured that the government’s priorities were funded.
If you look at the ongoing series of reforms implemented in the period 1966-73 you find them in nearly every area of public life. You find a massive expansion in education, new social programmes, liberalisation of censorship, the removal of the Catholic Church’s special constitutional status and the Commission on the Status of Women which heralded the dramatic equality measures of subsequent decades.
You also find a steady and successful move to join the great project of European cooperation and shared sovereignty. The scale of the wealth imbalance between Ireland and the other 8 members meant that our membership was a risk for all involved – but it was achieved with great skill and determination by Lynch and his key colleagues.
And of course he was steady in his commitment to a policy of peaceful cooperation with Northern Ireland and unity by consent.
The details of the events of 1969-70 suffer a lot from the prominence given to the accounts of direct participants. It is certainly reasonable to argue that Lynch made mistakes – however the bottom line is that his core policy was more widely supported by the public and in government than is generally acknowledged. It is also a policy which fully conformed with Lemass’ and it has been followed by every subsequent government.
The narrative developed by Jack Lynch during this period became deeply embedded in the mainstream political discourse. An uncompromising approach to the peaceful way and the achievement of an agreed solution by persuasion and consent which ultimately led to the triumph of constitutional republicanism over militarism.
The Lynch era was always one which reinforced the economic, social and constitutional foundations on which Ireland’s growth has been based.
A progressive role for the state. Investment in education. Active international trade. Constitutional republicanism. Openness to Europe. These are the features of Jack Lynch’s agenda and for this we have much to be thankful.
On the field of play just like in politics, he was never a flash and emotional character. He didn’t go in for symbolism and he was uncomfortable in promoting himself. But he understood his objectives and was always determined in pursuing them.
As we look back on the growth of Ireland in the century since Jack Lynch’s birth we have every reason to remember him as a great figure.
He inspired us at times but more importantly he believed in Ireland and he believed in its core republican destiny.