So much for shame

Colm Tóibín

  • Haughey: His Life and Unlucky Deeds by Bruce Arnold
    HarperCollins, 299 pp, £17.50, May 1993, ISBN 0 00 255212 4

My father was a supporter of the Fianna Fail Party. ‘You could salute Fine Gael people,’ he once told my sister – Fine Gael was the main opposition party – ‘but if you ever actually voted Fine Gael, your right hand would wither off.’ Throughout my childhood I believed that you could recognise a Fine Gael person merely by looking at him or her. They looked stern and serious, as befitted a group who had run the state in the decade after independence while our side wondered whether to hand in their guns or not.

Fianna Fail was ‘a slightly constitutional party’, Sean Lemass, who succeeded de Valera as party leader in 1959, declared in 1928. Fine Gael, on the other hand, respected law and order. Its members were richer than us. Solicitors, big shopkeepers and big farmers were all Fine Gael. Secretly, we believed, they were pro-British, not as Irish as we were. And our party, Fianna Fail, once it took over power in 1932, did not represent interests, big or small, but the whole nation, or so its rhetoric went; it was not a political party, but a national movement. It believed itself to be the natural party of government in Ireland, and to some extent it still does.

People had reason to be loyal to Fianna Fail. It held unbroken power from 1932 to 1948 and from 1957 to 1973. Fianna Fail could get you a job, a house, a favour. Being a party activist in a small town could give you a sense of power and purpose. But there were other reasons why people belonged to the party. Especially in its early years, Fianna Fail built up a reputation for representing some sort of social justice in Ireland, for building hospitals and houses, for looking after the less well-off, for getting the country moving – this last phrase being much used at election time. Even in the late Sixties there were men and women working for the party who believed this was Fianna Fail’s mission.

But ordinary party loyalists shared another dream: an Ireland which would use Gaelic as a first language; a united Ireland without trace of the British presence; an Ireland for which our dead heroes and martyrs had fought. Although these dreams became tawdry and faded over time, they were an important element in the rhetoric and appeal of Fianna Fail, a potent mixture of self-interest and idealism. Fine Gael people, we believed, never dreamed.

The first two leaders of the Fianna Fail Party, Eamon de Valera and Sean Lemass, had fought in the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. Their agenda was nationalist rather than social or economic. On St Patrick’s Day 1943 de Valera broadcast a version of his dream for Ireland: ‘a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. It would, in a word, be the home of a people living the life that God desires that man should live.’

While Eamon de Valera dreamed, Sean Lemass, increasingly pragmatic and impatient for power, was left in charge of Irish industry. In the Fifties, as de Valera clung to power, four out of every five children born in Ireland between 1931 and 1941 emigrated. Eighty thousand people left in 1959, de Valera’s last year in power. Ireland could no longer survive on protectionist economic policies and self-sufficiency. In 1957, on Lemass’s initiative, Ireland was admitted to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Lemass and his Secretary of the Department of Finance, T.K. Whitaker, were ready to make sweeping changes. Late in 1958 they published the First Programme for Economic Expansion. ‘We have decided,’ Lemass said, ‘to facilitate external participation, financial and technical, in industrial activity.’ Whitaker later wrote that ‘in industry, export-oriented expansion, even if under foreign ownership, was to be preferred to dependence on protected but inadequate domestic enterprise.’ American capital had come to Ireland, and the country would never be the same. So much for de Valera’s frugal dreams.

Until the mid-Sixties the old guard who had fought in the wars still held power in Fianna Fail: solemn, conservative old men. Outside Dublin, the party did not change, despite Lemass’s much-quoted phrase about the rising tide lifting all boats. The party activists remained decent, quiet-spoken, lower-middle-class people, deeply loyal to the party’s traditions and ideals, superb at organising election campaigns. But in Dublin things began to change.

A relative of ours moved away from our town and became friendly with one of the traditional Fianna Fail families who revered de Valera and who, as the Sixties progressed, had made a fortune in the building industry. I remember listening to accounts of huge dinners in Dublin, the bill a week’s wages. We listened with awe and wonder: this was something new, a new Fianna Fail, a new way of treating money. Around then the word Taca (which means ‘support’ in Irish) began to be often heard: it was the name of a group of rich businessmen who supported Fianna Fail and paid money to the party.

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