Return to Reviews menu



DR O’Connor Lysaght

5th September 2003

Bruce Arnold, Jack Lynch: Hero in Crisis, Merlin Press, Dublin, 2001.
T.Ryle Dwyer, Nice Fellow: A Biography of Jack Lynch, Mercier Press, Cork, 2001.

In the two years since the man died, there has developed something of a cult around the late Jack Lynch. Far more homage has been done him than might be expected even for the Republic’s third longest serving head of government. A memorial meeting is held at his grave on the anniversary of his death and two biographies praising him have been given overwhelmingly positive reviews.

This is the more remarkable in that the sum total of Lynch’ positive achievements can be compared to a less than quarter-filled space. In twenty-one years of ministerial office, his one positive legacy was the end of the ban on married women teachers, and this seems to have been forced on him by desperate necessity.

Naturally, this cult is being promoted most enthusiastically by the Progressive Democrats, the party to which the officially retired Lynch acted as grey eminence. It probably benefited from it at the last general election. Moreover, there is conviction beyond this opportunism. Lynch’ career as Taoiseach was one of reigning over a state facade, while such as O’Reilly, Smurfit, Goodman and the multinationals ruled. This practice is in keeping with modern capitalism. All it expects the electorate to ask of its political choices is that they be personally honest and don’t rock the boat (the boat that is, for the Tory ideologue, Michael Oakeshott, to be kept motionless on the sea.). For the rest, to paraphrase the arch conservative, Calvin Coolidge, ‘The business of Ireland is business’,

That is the case put by the books considered here. Their authors’ problem is that in volumes respectively of 230 and 405 pages it is difficult to celebrate nullity and keep the interest. They avoid total disaster in several ways. They emphasise their subject’s undoubted affability. They stress the interesting times in which he lived. Bruce Arnold is particularly determined to inflate his subject well beyond what his achievements merit. Like T.Ryle Dwyer, he concentrates much of his emphasis on the 1970 arms crisis, though such concentration tends to reveal that crisis’ overblown nature. However, Arnold exaggerates Lynch’s achievements in a manner that Dwyer is too good an historian to attempt.

For this reason, as Vincent Browne has noted, Dwyer’s book is both larger and better than Arnold’s. The shorter work belongs to the same school of hagiography as Gerry Gregg’s notorious four part video on Lynch’s old protégé, Desmond O’Malley. To make his subject seem profound, he mentions, on pages 79 and 80, ‘remarkably good’ speeches that Lynch made shortly after becoming Taoiseach, including an ‘extraordinarily radical’ one that he claims contained ‘elements of socialism’. As he does not give any quotations, the reader is entitled to conclude that Lynch’ political philosophy went no further than the idea that it was a great country where a tailor’s son from Blackrock could get to head the Government. (And so it was; what was not so great was that, in this case, the tailor’s son was Jack Lynch.)

Dwyer does not bother to mention these speeches. Indeed, he admits (P.400) ‘At times [Lynch] was more intent on being popular than right.’  He qualifies this: ‘because he believed that, as a leader, it was important to be close to the people,’ but does not ask how he tried to educate the people to go the right way, or if, indeed, he tried at all.

In the end, both writers agree that their subject’s talents were, as Arnold puts it (P. 104) ‘reactive rather than innovative’. For Dwyer (P.398), ‘even his most devoted friends could not have called him a particularly innovative politician.’

To Ireland’s rulers, this conservatism was a positive virtue. There was, after all, little that could be done by bourgeois politicians to improve matters during Lynch’s period in office. Moreover what could be done in twenty-six county politics might be dangerous; the more conservative the state’s society, the less likely many young socialists would be to see the national issue as a lever to topple the capitalist state. It should be added that, although, as will be shown, Lynch could act politically with much of the cunning he had shown on the hurling field, there is no evidence that he had the strategic vision to operate (or rather not operate) as he did. Essentially he was happy to preside over society as he found it, and that was that.

In fact, Lynch’s rise and final departure illustrates the working of that mysterious factor known as ‘luck’. Historical materialists tend to sneer at this, though such a stance is less easily taken now without the illusion prevalent up to 1991 that one school of Marxism or another contained all necessary answers in its sacred texts. Chance, or luck has still an important role in human affairs and will continue to do so under socialism, though the accompanying growth in human knowledge may weaken this. Even in the major issues of life or death for societies, luck can be effective, as, notably, in the case of the early Russian winter of 1941 during the Axis invasion. It can and will become more decisive in a narrower perspective, above all that of individual fortune. In such a perspective, Jack Lynch was very lucky indeed.

As these biographies record, the man was first and foremost a hurler. The achievements of his later career represent less in human ability than his winning of nine All Ireland medals. If, at the height of his subsequent career, he showed tactical skill approaching that which he had shown on the pitch, such skill would never provide, by itself, any overall strategic vision.

Admittedly, he recognised his weaknesses better than his fans. His biographers do not mention his confession to the reviewer’s cousin in the late forties: ‘I have failed as a civil servant, failed as a lawyer, failed in business, failed in politics.’

If anything, he was too hard on himself. He had not failed completely as a lawyer; his friends allowed him easy briefs. He did alright, but would never make District Justice.

But politics would make his fortune (if not like it did for some of his contemporaries). Though, in the 1946 Cork city by-election he stood down for his friend, Patrick (‘Pa’) McGrath, the 1948 general election did not force him to make such a choice; he was one of four Fianna Fail candidates. Although he was the only one not a sitting deputy, his personal friend, the non-party member, Seamus O’Brien, organised a personal campaign that caused him to top the slate, at the expense of two of his running mates.

His biographers do not mention that he did not top the full constituency poll, which was headed by the old Blueshirt, Dr. Thomas O’Higgins. Nor do they mention his spotty electoral record in the fifties. His hurling medals did not make him more than Fianna Fail’s regular second string, after McGrath and. on McGrath’s death, the lack-lustre John Galvin. In 1954, he came fourth in the overall poll. This was less impressive than the consistent poll-topping of his future official challenger, Liam Cosgrave, but Cosgrave more than compensated for his lack of charisma by an almost masochistic appetite for constituency work.

Cosgrave worked his constituency and flaunted the fact. Even as Taoiseach, he would see that the order paper published his questions to his own ministers on local issues. However, this was offset by what was, to put it kindly, a negative charisma (another bit of luck for Lynch). This lack was magnified by his attempts to overcome it through his use of such phrases as  ‘mongrel foxes’  and ‘blow ins’, and (this reviewer’s personal favourite; it shows Liam trying to imitate  a world statesman) his appeal to Arabs and Israelis to try to resolve their differences ‘like Christians’

Lynch’s record of electoral under-achievement ended in the 1961 general election, when he started topping the poll consistently. The cause for this was that he was now the focus of Fianna Fail’s campaign. In turn, the cause for that was a double help of good luck.

Since 1957, he had been a full minister: his party’s first such minister from Cork city, and one  whose seat  had to be maintained above all. His position might not have been achieved without an earlier stroke. In 1951, de Valera had been returning to office after the Mother and Child fiasco. A number of his former under-secretaries had lost seats since his previous government. To ensure a majority, he offered the senior post of Under-Secretary to the Government to Noel Browne’s ally, Jack MacQuillan. Aborting a partnership that would have ended in tears, MacQuillan refused the offer. The second choice was Jack Lynch. He accepted and received, in addition, the Under-Secretaryship for Lands. Again, the details given in this paragraph are not to be found in either biography discussed here.

As under-secretary, Lynch started as he would continue: as overseer of a department of special interest to his Taoiseach. Under Dev he administered the embryo Gaeltacht Department and the Department of Education. Under Lemass, he occupied his leader’s old office at Industry and Commerce and then the office that had been held by Lemass’ closest ally, James Ryan, at Finance.

This was no handicap to him when the post of Taoiseach fell vacant. Lemass   denied that his health was bad, though it was worse than that of de Valera who would survive him by four years. More significantly, he was a gambler who had lost on early throws of the economic dice, was enjoying relative success, feared that it would go pearshaped (as, indeed, it did) and determined to quit while still ahead. Healthier and more confident, he might have tried to continue until his choice, his son-in law the able but erratic Charlie Haughey was ready and popular enough. (He had no doubts about Haughey’s extra-curricular financial exploits; during the emergency, his wife had used the ministerial merc, and its petrol allowance, for shopping trips.)  The pliable Lynch seemed an obvious choice as caretaker. Only George Colley challenged this, but he had served only eighteen months as a full minister.

At first, matters seemed to go as planned. Lynch seemed happy to act as the smiling face of Haughey, Niall Blaney and of the rich party benefactors in Taca who foreshadowed the greater sleaze to come. As Dwyer (but not Arnold) records (PP.160-1), he defended Taca and rebuked Colley for hinting on ‘low standards’ in ‘high places’. His loyalty was to be expressed after he had broken with his old allies in his outburst to Michael Mills (recorded by both his biographers):’How can I trust anyone ever again?’ This was more than disappointment at being betrayed. His role caused the columnist, John Healy to coin the nickname ‘Honest Jack’, an expression of contempt for a clean mudguard covering a polluting engine.

Both biographers describe accurately Lynch’s role in his party’s 1969 general election victory and on its effect in strengthening his enjoyment of his job. They are less effective analysing the background. Dwyer dismisses the charge (levied by the then-leftie, Conor Cruise O’Brien) that he murmured softly the red scare propaganda made more crudely by his lieutenants, but he did; it was good cop/bad cop and it worked. Both Arnold and he agree that Labour and Fine Gael combined might have won, as they did in 1973, since they had taken a larger percentage of first preference votes the earlier year. What they ignore is that Labour’s 1969 vote was swollen by disaffected Fianna Failers who would return to the fold to vote against coalition in 1973. Neither could understand that, to Socialists, the issue was never one of replacing one capitalist Government with another, but of starting the long haul of replacing capitalist Government with a Socialist one, utopian, if seen in terms limited to the Irish Labour Party, but one which had to be fought there, as it contained the largest number of Irish Socialists at that time.

With the overall mandate denied his predecessor, Lynch entered the three-and-an-half years that constituted his most successful period. Just what did he do? The biographers claim to have it pat; Lynch stopped the northern struggle from ‘coming down here’, preventing civil war. This is the public view of the vast majority of the Irish bourgeoisie. In fact, they did not fear civil war but a more serious threat to what they held truly sacred. They feared social revolution.

The bosses were frightened by false fires. This reviewer knows; he was trying to make them real. Certainly, the objective conditions for such a revolution existed. Economically, the gilt had indeed come off Lemass’ gingerbread. Unemployment and working class militancy were both high. The Second Programme for Economic Expansion was about to be scrapped quietly. The struggle for gender equality was just beginning. The minority challenge to the northern Irish state could have been a catalyst to a more threatening challenge to both Irish entities and beyond them.

That it wasn’t, was due that old, old problem, the crisis of working class leadership. Nobody outside some diehard Republicans had realised that the prevailing ideology of the Protestant workers made them reluctant to defy their bosses if it would endanger their ascendancy over their Catholic equals.

Once they reacted, the left was all over the place. Of course, the Irish Labour Party was unable to rise to the occasion and the trade union bureaucracy ensured it stayed aloof from the industrial struggles. As the northern crisis worsened, the party retreated into reformism. As in the twenty-six county civil war, it took a stand in defence of ‘the fabric of bourgeois society’, and dashed into the arms of Fine Gael.

Second in size to the Labour Party was the block of Sinn Fein (after 1970, ‘Official’ Sinn Fein) and the Communist Party in the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association (N.I.C.R.A.) This group had a programme; indeed, its actions on this programme had helped spark the new struggle. The trouble was that the programme was not merely reformist but too limited to destroy Unionist ascendancy if acheived, while the effort that had to be made to achieve them made the Northern Irish majority more militant in protecting what remained. There was a more thorough draft of a Bill of Rights even before the United Kingdom government  imposed concessions on the Unionists, but it was only after August 1969 that it was adopted by N.I.C.R.A.  The Association continued to command a strong following for mass action, but its leaders tried to use this as a lever to open a middle way between the imperialists and Unionists on the one hand and the anti-imperialists on the other. Finally, after Bloody Sunday at the beginning of 1972, N.I.C.R.A. staged a last and massive demonstration in Newry and then abandoned the streets without explanation. It may have done this to avoid more Bloody Sundays, but the effect tended to ensure greater loss of life in other ways. There was now no major mass alternative to the rival elitisms of Republican physical force and S.D.L.P. constitutionalism.

On the far left the People’s Democracy did have a radical, indeed an increasingly revolutionary approach. Its problems were two fold. In its first crucial year, from October 1968, it saw its way forward as one of achieving working class unity within the six counties, extending N.I.C.R.A.’s democratic demands to ‘one family, one house’ and ‘one person, one job’. What was more, it did this as a loose organisation modelled consciously on the contemporary all-inclusive European centrist movements. Such groups find that this apparently practical approach makes it difficult to manoeuvre. In P.D.’s case, the growth of Loyalism (ultra-sectarian Unionism) caused many to leave. There were two major defecting groups. Some recognised the centrality of partition to the struggle and joined the Republicans. Others counterposed their Socialist aspirations to what they saw as (and what was,indeed, all too often) a backward looking Irish nationalism, retreated to the other side of N.I.C.R.A. and urged twenty-six county recognition of ‘Northern Ireland’, as the pre-requisite for its democratisation, let alone working-class power. By 1972, P.D.’s nucleus was genuinely revolutionary, but also very much an also-ran in the struggle for leadership in nationalist Ulster between Physical Force and Reformism. All it could do was make propaganda to move the struggle across the border and transform it, thereby, into a specifically working-class one.

The Provisional Republicans were the one group who recognised from before their beginning (January 1970) that the struggle was one covering Ireland’s thirty-two counties. They thought that this could be achieved by a simple appeal to the patriotism to both the powerful and also of ‘the men of no property. Although they had a political programme, Eire Nua,  (one rejected by the leadership of the then-united Sinn Fein), its strategy was essentially a revival of the armed struggle of the compromised Anglo-Irish and defeated Civil Wars of 1916-23, albeit with newer hardware and women soldiers as well as men. They came to recognise the futility of this approach after a decade, when a new leadership would start the process followed previously by the Officials and by generations before them, through a social dimension towards reformism.

The twenty-six county bourgeoisie was united almost completely against all these. The exception was a loose group around the rival Fianna Failers, Blaney and Haughey. They hoped to divert attention from their state’s growing economic mess by giving covert backing to the six county nationalist Citizen’s Action Groups (The Provisional I.R.A. was only an embryo at the time of the arms crisis.).  Haughey and Blaney could not offer the bosses more than Lynch or Cosgrave without losing the support of the exploited whose aspirations they would not fulfil enough to get their backing on their national line. Even could the arms plotters have taken over Fianna Fail, they would have found themselves leaders of a rump like Sinn Fein after de Valera’s defection, or, indeed, like a slightly larger version of Kevin Boland’s Aontacht Eireann. The only alternative would have been a coup attempt based on divided and weakened armed forces. Only the plotters’ opponents suggested that this had been a serious option.

Against all these the capitalists of the Republic wanted quiet on national and economic fronts. Jack Lynch reflected this. He had shown little interest in Northern Ireland during his first two years from either a nationalist or a democratic standpoint. Even Arnold (P.81) has to admit  ‘Jack Lynch must bear blame’ for ignoring the demand for democratic rights in the six counties. In fact, his view of democracy was almost as limited as his unionist opposite numbers’; it was something to be exercised within five year limits. Neither Lemass nor he tried to combine economic development with increased civil rights, save for Brian Lenihan’s emasculation of the literary censorship. Against this must be set Haughey’s conservative codifying of the Republic’s laws, the imprisoning of strikers and, of course, the attempt (with Lynch as a main mover) to scrap P.R. The liberal reforms of the British (not the Northern Irish) government at this time had no Irish parallel, providing an ‘enlightened’ excuse for justifying partition. This record cannot all be blamed on Lynch early subordination to Haughey and Blaney; it was after sacking them that he passed the Forcible Entry Act and strengthened the Offences Against the State Act. His one stand for civil liberties between 1970 and 1973 was negative; he refused to surrender to British and Irish bureaucratic pressure to reintroduce internment in his state, but this was probably less a point of principle than a shrewd recognition that, in the circumstances, such a move, unlike previous ones, would be counter-productive.

His general strategy was no more than the acceptance of the needs of the bulk of the Irish bourgeoisie without interpretation by Blaney and Haughey. Characteristically, he did not contradict the view pressed by the entire bourgeois media and backed by the largest groups claiming to speak for the exploited and oppressed, Irish Labour and the supporters of N.I.C.R.A. This was that the problem of Northern Irish democracy and, perhaps, eventually, of Irish unity could be resolved peacefully and gradually, and that more forceful activity might provoke sectarian warfare or new Tan War or both. This was reinforced precisely because the Provisional Republicans were the one mass-backed group dissenting from it.

Though quiet on the main strategy, Lynch played a major tactical role in maintaining the fog it needed.  Without Blaney or Haughey, his control of his Government meant that he would make his own luck. Save on the border, he continued as before April 1970, if with more repression. That could be justified by the alleged threat to his state, though this excuse did not cover the Forcible Entry Act. His special contribution appears in his political manoeuvring where he showed moments of skill comparable to those of his hurling career. His reaction to the arms crisis has been praised, though here he showed little more talent than he had before. His reaction to Bloody Sunday, in 1972, was far more impressive. The previous months of internment had frayed belief in peaceful solutions to partition even in the Republic. Now the Derry massacre was causing twenty-six county workers to strike in protest, and even occupy British factories: precisely the merging of class and national struggles that capitalism feared. Lynch allowed the pot to boil for two days after the killings, concentrating police around the British Embassy before a Day of National Mourning when the building was allowed burn in an outpouring of emotion that cost the possessing classes less than the class conflict diverted by the deed. At the end of the same year, he tried another stroke for party ends. This time, he expected that his Offences Against the State Amendment Bill would unite all his opponents against it so he could fight a new general election as defender of law and order. The British had no time for this; they wanted the law to pass. ‘Persons unknown’ set off bombs in Dublin. These blew Fine Gael into the Government lobby, passed the bill and left Lynch exposed to an electoral challenge from a Fine Gael-Labour alliance pledged to enact overdue social and economic reforms.

Lynch impressed the more in that his most loyal ministers were a pretty crummy bunch. They did not include the genuinely able Brian Lenihan and Gerald Collins, who remained serving under him with their own agendas. Of those on whom Lynch could count, the oldest, Erskine Childers stood out in intelligence and ability. He was also the most right wing, neo-liberal and pacific on the border, on which his role, unacknowledged by Lynch’ biographers, was as great as that which they ascribe to the non-Fianna Failer, T.K.Whitaker. Childers can be considered the Progressive Democrats’ posthumous ideologist. He was the more influential because his ultimate career ambition was Arus an Uachtaran, where he was to die. The next generation included Patrick Hillery, Joseph Brennan and Padraic Faulkner. Hillery was, in turn, an hesitantly reforming (if slightly more than Lynch) Education Minister, a Minister for Labour who had strikers imprisoned and the External Affairs Minister who brought Ireland into the European Common Market, it is unclear whether as figurehead or as mover. Brennan and Faulkner will be remembered only as successive Ceann Comharles.  The sixties intake was more showy. P.J.Lalor has his place in history from Frank Cluskey’s comment when he was appointed Fianna Fail’s general election campaign director, ‘There’s confidence for you’. George Colley was the original deficit spender; he would blossom only as his rival Haughey’s Energy Minister when he would scrap O,Malley’s Carnsore nuclear power station scheme and rencourage energy conservation. In 1965, there came Bobby Molloy, of much promise and little fulfilment. Finally, in 1968 there was elected the star turn, Lynch’ favourite son, Desmond O’Malley, a mediocre Minister, but with wit enough to recognise that he could advance by being a good gofer, just as Lynch had been himself. (Later, he would realise that reinforcing anti-Haughey gestures with neo-liberal economics could give him a place in history, if not the headship of the Government.) With such friends, it is not surprising that Taoiseach Lynch struggled to keep Haughey and even Blaney within his party. This explains, too, his recruitment of the economist, Martin O’Donoghue.

He was proud that, in the 1973 general election, his party’s share of the vote increased despite its defeat. His loss was due to the coalition pact, as is stressed by his biographers. They do not mention that Fianna Fail’s increased share of the vote was due partly to the return to it of many who had voted Labour when it was unentangled in 1969, and who could not stick the said coalition.

Lynch’ defeat was probably another stroke of his luck. Had he stayed in office, he could not have avoided the middle east oil crisis. Nor would he have been more successful than Cosgrave in resolving Northern Ireland, though he would not have over-reacted to that failure like the coalition in trying to appease the Loyalists.

As it was, he was able to dredge up Fianna Fail’s Republican aspirations in an alternative northern policy. He seems, also to have taken a certain mischievous pleasure in outdoing the coalitions liberal pretensions by advancing women as Dail candidates; he would choose one, Maire Geoghegan Quinn, as the first since Constance Markievicz to hold government office. Interestingly, most of those elected would support Haughey against Colley to succeed as Taoiseach.

Before this, in the 1977 general election, Lynch defeated Cosgrave’s crisis -ridden coalition with an overall majority of votes cast. This would seem to be his final piece of luck. Immediately after, Fine Gael made its most intelligent move in its history, replacing the dour Cosgrave with Garret Fitzgerald, as nice as Lynch and, to boot, an intellectual with letters after his name to prove it. O’Donoghue’s strategy to revive the economy lasted two years before the crisis resumed. The Government ended state gerrymandering by establishing an Electoral Boundaries Commission, while setting its guidelines to expand the Dail to give all its deputies a chance to keep their seats with a bare majority. By the end of 1979, such a majority was unlikely; the Government was defeated in two bye-elections in Lynch’ native Cork.

Like Lemass, Lynch decided to retire while he was ahead. Like Lemass, too, he had a longterm successor, in Desmond O’Malley, but, also like Lemass, he knew that his intended heir could not win. Unlike him in 1966, Colley wanted the job and, also unlike him, Colley could be trusted to pass the torch to O’Malley when it was time. Of course, neither Colley nor O’Malley had shown anything like Haughey’s ability, but, then, hadn’t Lynch been a mediocre minister, too? But this time there was no Blaney to split Haughey’s support, and most deputies had lost confidence in Lynch and wanted a change.

They elected Haughey. At the next election, Lynch left the Dail. He would keep silent generally, apart from occasional statements embarrassing his successor.

Despite appearances, he may have kept his luck. Haughey was always a High King with opposition; his weakness handicapped his handling the economic mess Lynch left him, until he had to use draconian means to save Irish capitalism. More recently, his reputation has suffered from the discovery of the apparent source of his fortune. Though Lynch had promoted Frank Dunlop, his own personal income was never suspect. Above all, today Fianna Fail is headed by one who comes near to being his clone. Though Bartholomew Ahern is an uninformed soccer fan rather than a hurling gold medallist, he connects to people as an exaggerated Lynch and the coalition he leads is an effective reunification of the party Haughey helped split.

Certainly Lynch needs a good biography. Neither these books fit the description. For Dwyer, It must be said that his book reproduces some interesting documents. As for Arnold, his publication may serve as a stop for a very light door.



Return to top of page