By any measure Seán Lemass is one of the great figures of modern Irish history. As a country we owe him an immense debt of gratitude.
There is no grand city street named after him and no state memorial which honours him. Yet he has a much more important legacy, millions of people who today still benefit because of all that he achieved.
At this important moment when our country is faced with big decisions about its future there is no doubt that one thing we need more than ever is the Lemass spirit in our politics.
From early in life up to the very end of a long career Seán Lemass served his country and helped to achieve great political, economic and social progress. A deep patriot and passionately loyal he was nonetheless defined by his openness and lack of rancour.
He never ceased striving to understand issues better and to find new ways of addressing them. He had no time for the empty rhetoric of the ideologues of the left and the right – people who saw virtue in never changing their minds.
The best way of summing him up is to say that he was a true republican. His loyalty was to the Irish people and to the building of a state which worked in their interests. He respected their will and worked to win their trust and respect.
Even more than this he believed that the values of a democratic republic had to be rooted in a respect for diversity and an openness to international cooperation.
Next year we will mark the centenary of the founding event of our republic. As with most revolutions, ours was begun by people of great bravery and vision. In the face of the largest empire the world had ever known they risked everything on the Irish people’s behalf.
After the Rising was over the Irish people showed their support every time they went to the ballot box. In contrast to movements who have falsely claimed descent from them, the volunteers of 1916 inspired a movement which won every national election while their fight was on.
Seán Lemass was the last person to claim that he played a central part in the Rising, but the determination and bravery he showed demonstrated the great qualities which led to him becoming a national leader very soon thereafter.
He joined the Irish Volunteers at 15 and a year later rushed to the GPO to participate in the Rising as soon as he and his brother Noel heard that it was underway.
His every reflex was to join the fight but in this he was not some impulsive teenager, as he had already developed a strong sense of the need for Ireland to win its freedom. Lemass saw it as the only way to address the many problems he saw all around him in Dublin’s centre.
The fate of many young revolutionaries is let their lives be defined by a single moment of glory and to seek to constantly relive that time. Seán Lemass was the exact opposite of this.
Over the next ten years he developed constantly. He wasn’t interested in sitting back and telling stories. Instead he was constantly questioning and seeking to improve both himself and the organisations he belonged to.
He used his time in jail to read widely on national and international affairs and put this knowledge to work in shaping the programme for the Fianna Fáil party which he was instrumental in setting up.
The radicalism of Fianna Fáil’s founding programme has never been matched by other parties because it was based on clearly identifying the major problems facing our country and setting out practical responses to them.
At a time when much of the world was gradually becoming divided into extreme right and left camps Lemass was instrumental in showing a middle way forward – a way which fundamentally understood that a strong economy and a fair society must go hand in hand.
If you look back on the incredible achievements of that early period the ambition and impact of Lemass and his colleagues remains striking. Many of the core foundations of our social supports were put in place.
So too was an unmatched social housing programme which cleared one of Europe’s largest slum areas. Investment in vocational education was expanded and we produced a democratic republican constitution which was the first in the world adopted in a free referendum.
While many of the industrial policies of those times later became inappropriate they achieved their core objective of ensuring that Ireland could assert its independence and could feed its people.
Seán Lemass’ greatest genius as a leader was how he was only interested in tackling the issues of today and shaping the future. He absolutely rejected the conservative approach. He not only allowed change he actively enabled it.
The periods when his impact was the greatest was when the challenges were the greatest. While a sense of defensiveness characterised many, he embraced the need to create new departures and support new generations.
In every period of his career he made a lasting impression but it was for his too-brief time as Taoiseach that he most deserves to be celebrated.
He succeeded to the leadership of Fianna Fáil and the position of Taoiseach when he had already been active in public affairs for over 40 years. He succeeded a man, Eamon de Valera who was a constitutional giant and a statesman respected throughout the world – and especially in countries striving to achieve independence.
Some tried to set up a false contest between Eamon de Valera and Seán Lemass. The fact is that they had immense respect for each other and to the younger man the stature and vision of the Chief was untouchable.
Lemass came to power at a moment when the long post-war recession was ending but what was desperately needed was a new agenda.
Lemass was proud of all that had been achieved but was absolutely focused on building a modern Ireland which took its place in the world. He initiated a decade of modernisation unprecedented in our history and in its long-term impact.
He believed in the power of helping people to develop their own abilities, so he supported a dynamic education policy which threw open the gates of secondary and third-level education.
Lemass understood the need to support a strong business community to create good jobs and provide essential funding for expanded public services. This is the way he opened-up the economy and encouraged innovation.
He also knew that Ireland needed to move forward to reflect the changed realities of society and began a process of legal reform which removed outdated controls and began the process of respecting equality.
What is truly dramatic about this proud nationalist revolutionary is his unyielding belief in the power of reconciliation between and within countries.
Internationally this meant that he saw Ireland as part of a community of nations which would respect each other’s interests and share responsibility for many tasks.
At home this meant a concerted attempt to build a bridge between the two jurisdictions on our island and to find a way to common action.
In all of this he carried out his work in a low-key manner. He had no big press office. He never went in for hype or for over-blown rhetoric. He had no interest in the news cycle or winning headlines. He was man of genuine humility and also a man of action.
His vision was clear. Ireland needed to be given new hope and a clear path for the future. He set out that path giving priority to investing in people, supporting enterprise, being open to the world and embracing reform. He saw a country which would be able to serve its people and deliver rising standards of living and genuine opportunity.
Today we are at a similar moment to when Lemass assumed the role of Taoiseach.
Our country has come through a deep recession. There are many deep problems which have developed and there is a growing sense of hopelessness in politics to chart a way forward.
Profound crises are affecting many areas of public service and wider society – crises which are not rooted in levels of funding but in governmental indifference and a lack of a commitment to the long-term.
The one and only thing our government thinks about is re-election. It puts politics first in everything. Instead of attacking problems it believes in attacking its opponents and it refuses to recognise any problem until it develops to the level of being a crisis.
In relation to housing, crime, drug abuse, workplace exploitation, health, Irish Water, Northern Ireland and many other areas entirely predictable crises have been allowed to develop because of a complete disinterest in the long-term.
This is by some distance the most political government we have ever had. It is obsessed with trying to manage news headlines and it is more aggressive than any previous government when it comes to shutting down debate and hiding information.
The Dáil today has less power than at any time in its history. For example, never before has a major inquiry reported and the government refused to allow questions on the report or allow an extended discussion.
The government’s handling of a growing series of scandals shows a core unwillingness to admit error or hold itself to basic standards demanded of everyone else. The cynical tactics used to manipulate media coverage and naked use of power to refuse to answer questions is unprecedented.
When the Moriarty Report showed major failings and political involvement in the award of the most valuable commercial licence ever signed in Ireland Fine Gael and Labour ignored it. Four and a half years later not one of the Ministers involved in that decision has explained if they acknowledge any errors.
Now we have a report which shows clearly that pressure from the Taoiseach led directly to the departure of the Garda Commissioner and he is the only person who will not acknowledge this. One of those involved described his account of having thought of the Commissioner’s resignation as “fantasy” – yet all we hear are aggressive claims of ‘vindication’. Every single piece of information about the Taoiseach’s involvement was dragged out of him. He volunteered nothing.
What is revealed in Fennelly is the culture at the heart of this government. They had a problem, they thought of the politics first and when caught out first tried to hide and then just ignored it.
This is the model of leadership which means that the government refused to even plan for housing until there were massive price and rent increases and 1,500 children in emergency accommodation.
This is the type of politics which sees a massive bureaucracy created for water supply which is installing meters which are not being used and imposes a charge so complex and unfair that it is actually costing money to impose it.
This government is addicted to behaviour which simply will not acknowledge problems when they can be addressed quickly. They abandoned a successful initiative for reducing hospital waiting lists so after four years of desperate spin those lists have exploded. They closed down 139 Garda stations and the inevitable has happened in terms of crime.
Even more serious is that for four years they neglected the historic progress for peace and reconciliation on our island and allowed sectarianism and party interests to undermine the very foundations of all that had been achieved.
They have focused on a fairy tale story of how they supposedly turned around the economy. The facts show they did no such thing. They voted against a clear majority of measures which turned around the public finances. The only changes they’ve made to our strategy for recovery was to delay it and make it more unfair in a series of regressive budgets.
They keep shaking their heads and wondering why the recovery is still leaving them deeply unpopular and facing defeat. The answer is simple – it’s not their recovery it’s the Irish people’s recovery.
The unprecedented political operation of credit-claiming hasn’t worked and won’t work. This government has quietly presided over a two-tier recovery which could become a permanent two-tier economy where some get ahead and many are left behind in low-skill, low-pay, and low-security jobs.
It ends its term having failed to leave in place any long-term strategy of its own creation.
The core of industrial policy remains unchanged except for a dramatic increase in public relations activity. There has been no effort to set out a new vision for business support or to respond to the new pressures such as the loss of vital talent due to government failures.
Education is more important than ever, but all we have got is four and a half years of political posturing and growing discord. Much bigger changes than anything proposed recently have been implemented in the past, but this government is simply incapable of showing leadership on education.
Our rural communities are losing services and suffering from new vulnerabilities because of government action but all we have from Fine Gael and Labour is a last-minute sticking plaster which is more an insult than a serious proposal for rural communities.
Crime, drugs and homelessness in this city in particular have been ignored. Community development and drugs were actually removed completely from any direct ministerial involvement on this government’s first day in office. Homelessness wasn’t mentioned by them until national outrage forced a response. At a time when we needed a government showing interest all we got was neglect.
The list of areas where they have refused to address problems or even plan for addressing them is far too long to mention here, but it will be a major issue in the coming election.
On the one hand they will try and bribe and spin their way back to power. In contrast we will offer a clear alternative of a government which can secure an Ireland which serves its entire people. An Ireland which will not allow a two-tier economy or society to be entrenched. An Ireland which values innovation and business but also values the weaker sections of our society and the need to invest in the future.
As things stand they are intending to run what is likely to be the most negative re-election campaign in our history.
Four times in the last 10 days the Taoiseach has said that it’s a choice between stability or chaos. In the Dáil he lined up his backbenchers to claim the world will fall apart if Fine Gael doesn’t get your vote.
Basically Fine Gael is saying that you have no choice – the Irish people should just stay quiet and do what they’re told. Enda Kenny says you have no choice and that failing to vote for him is a vote to destroy your country.
In recent history there is no example of a government which sought re-election on such a negative basis. They are saying that whether you like it or not it’s more of the same or the end of the world.
Well they won’t get away with it.
The stability they offer is more of the same. More of the never-ending stream of crises and scandals, of social problems ignored and growing divisions. A government elected because it opposed the measures which turned around the economy now says no one else can be trusted.
I cannot imagine any of the great leaders of different parties who have served our country over the years running such a negative, arrogant and empty campaign.
Let them go ahead. We’re ready for them.
We are a party loyal to the spirit of Lemass. A party which understands the need for change. A party which believes that when times are toughest you have to focused on the long-term future of our country and not the never-ending cycle of news management.
Our party will offer a realistic programme. It will be more responsible than any other party. It will set out priorities and long-term strategies. It will show a commitment to an Ireland which serves all. It will not play sectional and divisive games.
Seán Lemass is a giant in the history of our country and our party. We should celebrate all he achieved but much more than that we should recommit ourselves to his approach of practical republicanism, serving the people and working for all in our community.