Comment & Analysis

Politics should be about respect, not about putting up new barriers
"It is hard at this point to know what an election will change”, writes Martin Mansergh

Prof. Ronan Fanning 

The history of the  independent Ireland that originated 100 years ago last year has hitherto fallen into two main periods. The first 40 years were guided by Sinn Féin ideals of self-sufficiency and the notion that Ireland was as much guided by spiritual as material ideals. By the 1950s, in much changed world circumstances, the momentum had faltered, and the population was sapped by the haemorrhage of emigration. 

In some people’s minds, the viability of the State itself was in question. The turn-around and the decision in principle, even if only implemented gradually, to open up to the world and in particular to Europe is for ever associated with the Secretary of the Department of Finance Dr Ken Whitaker working with the political leadership of Séan Lemass. 

He passed away shortly after reaching his 100th birthday. He combined values and vision with caution and prudence.

In addition to his role in beginning the transformation of the Irish economy, he was also instrumental in setting the stage for North-South détente, accompanying Lemass and later Jack Lynch to their ground-breaking meetings with the Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O’Neill between 1966 and 1968. Though born in Rostrevor, Co. Down, in December 1916, he was not born, as a recent Sunday column asserted, in Northern Ireland, which did not yet exist at the time. On the contrary, as quoted in Anne Chambers’ very informative official biography, “because I was born in the undivided Ireland of 1916, I took a special interest in the possibility of reunification”.

Realistic

He was very realistic about the obstacles, and played an important part in ensuring through Jack Lynch that the government was not carried away by the storms that broke in 1969 into thinking that reunification was only just around the corner.

Ken Whitaker unveiled a statue of the great singer Count John McCormack in Iveagh Gardens in 2008. Before he spoke, the chairman of proceedings was incautious enough to say that there was probably no one still around who could remember his performance of Panis Angelicus at the time of the Eucharistic Congress in 1932. When he came to speak, Whitaker in his early 90s cheerfully admitted that he had been present.

Elements of the Good Friday Agreement, such as the North-South institutions and the constitutional changes, were prefigured by Whitaker and Lemass in the 1960s. 

It required an immense labour by many people to build a peace that might last after the immense destructive force of the Troubles. To stop the fighting and the deaths, to bring together painstakingly political opposites, required a lot of diplomatic skill with so many different parties as well as the governments involved. 

Dermot Gallagher was, as ambassador in Washington, familiar with the American scene whose influence was brought decisively to bear in the 1990s, but back at home in the last months leading up to the Good Friday Agreement he exercised a skilled diplomacy with all the parties, aimed at softening differences and intransigence, and led a quite large but very effective team from the Department of Foreign Affairs. After 1998, he was centrally involved in the difficult and tortuous task of implementing the Agreement.

Sadly, he died at the moment when, after 10 years relative stability, an achievement reflecting well on all those involved, the institutions foundered, temporarily at least. 

It was sad also for the deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who has had to step back because of health problems. Apart from the more obvious causes, differences over Brexit have also been unsettling. It is hard at this point to know what an election will change and whether there will be the same will to rebuild and rework the institutions, without placing politically impossible demands on them. A prolonged hiatus would mean that Northern Ireland would not have a government voice locally in the Brexit negotiations and that direct rule would be carried out by British Conservative ministers.

Prof. Ronan Fanning, a leading historian of independent Ireland, also died in January, having left amongst innumerable writings a fine history of the Department of Finance up to 1958, the year of Whitaker’s seminal paper on economic development, and in Fatal Path a very critical and masterly account of British government policy towards Ireland in the period 1910 to 1922. Like the two public servants mentioned above, he was a strong believer in the State in a non-partisan way.

The funeral of Dean Victor Griffin, formerly of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, was held in Limavady last month. He was one of the principal proponents of pluralism from the Church of Ireland in the 1980s, and took a leading part in the social controversies of the time. 

Contrary to then, concern for the rights of minorities has given way to attempts to reconstruct a new and secular majority ethos. Through a constructive relationship with then Taoiseach Charles Haughey, he managed to keep road widening at a safe distance from the cathedral, and to negotiate appropriate State support for the ancient choir school. He too supported the State, and wanted to be able to contribute to it.

The beginning of the Brexit negotiations, a new and, in style unusual, American Presidency, and the Northern Ireland situation pose significant challenges and create a lot of uncertainty. It is in such conditions that belief in ourselves and in sane values, based on the best traditions that have been handed on to us, is so important. Social cohesion is about maintaining consent and respect, and not about putting up new barriers. 

Life is often about trying to combine new approaches and old realities, so that progress can be achieved. Irish society has no need to be timorous about the future.