Fifty years ago today, Jack Lynch became Cork’s first — and only — Taoiseach. Dermot Keogh, Emeritus Professor of History at UCC and author of a book on Lynch, recalls how it came about
JACK Lynch, born in Shandon, Cork, on August 15, 1917, was the first post-revolutionary leader of Fianna Fáil.
His predecessors, Eamon de Valera and Seán Lemass, had both taken part in the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. In 1926, they were founder-members of Fianna Fáil.
In contrast, Lynch, who took up the party leadership and the position of Taoiseach on this day in 1966, did not come from a ‘republican’ family. He was six when the Civil War ended.
Lynch attended the North Monastery school, studied law at UCC, and worked as a civil servant in the Department of Justice, in Dublin, and as a barrister in Cork.
As the holder of six All-Ireland medals (one for football), and many club honours for Glen Rovers, he was courted by major political parties to stand for Dáil Éireann. Although he had no prior affiliations, he joined Fianna Fáil just before the 1948 general election. Selected to run in Cork Borough, he topped the poll, and held the seat until his retirement in 1981.
Before emerging as Taoiseach in November, 1966, Lynch served a long apprenticeship in the 1950s and 1960s as a Junior Minister for the Gaeltacht, and as Minister for Education, Industry and Commerce and, finally, Finance.
Seán Lemass, the Taoiseach between 1959 and 1966, came to see him as his successor, and as the leader most likely to continue his modernising economic policy line to lead Ireland swiftly into the European Economic Community (EEC).
There were, of course, leadership rivals in 1966. George Colley, Minister for Industry and Commerce, was the son of a republican of the first wave. Paradoxically, he was a technocrat like Lynch, not a radical nationalist.
In contrast, Neil Blaney, elected to the Dáil in 1948, was Minister for Local Government. He had taken over the Donegal East seat from his father — a leading IRA member in the War of Independence and Civil War.
Charles Haughey, Lemass’s son-in-law, was Minister for Agriculture. The strength of his radical nationalist views on Northern Ireland was not known to the public at the time. He, too, was viewed in 1966 as a Fianna Fáil moderniser.
The Minister for Labour, Dr Patrick Hillery, declined to put his name forward, despite being encouraged to do so.
After nimble political footwork by Lemass, two candidates stood to contest the leadership, Lynch and Colley, and Lynch won easily. It was widely believed in the party that he had reluctantly taken on his new role. That was simply not the case. He wanted to be leader and committed himself fully to the task, knowing there were those in the party who saw him as a ‘care-taker’ or ‘transitional’ leader, easy to unseat when the moment was strategically right for a putsch. But all that was wishful thinking on their part.
Yes, Lynch was soft-spoken and mild-mannered. He did not wear trendy mohair suits like Haughey and the younger set on the front bench in Fianna Fáil. His opponents would, when the time came, find him neither weak nor a push-over. Lynch sought to build consensus but that did not mean he was an appeaser, as his opponents would find out.
Taking over from Lemass, Lynch kept the same team of ministers, promoting Haughey to Finance which was, in retrospect, a significant error of judgment.
Throughout his public life, Lynch derived great strength and support from his wife, Máirín, who married in 1946. He needed her counsel in the years of the great test between 1969 and 1973 when he contested his first general election as leader, Northern Ireland imploded, Ireland entered the EEC and Fianna Fáil lost power. Her outlook reinforced his moderate, pluralist views.
Having failed in a referendum to abolish proportional representation in 1968, the confidence of his party in their leader was dented going into the 1969 general election, but Fianna Fáil won its first overall majority since 1957, defeating a divided Fine Gael and Labour.
On May 10, 1972, over a million of the roughly 1.2 million who went to the polls in a referendum voted ‘Yes’ to EEC membership which began on January 1, 1973. But in the months between the general election and EEC membership, Lynch faced the greatest political crisis of his career and, arguably, one of the greatest facing the Irish state since the Civil War. The implosion of Northern Ireland, provoked by the adamantine hostility of Stormont to the granting of civil rights to nationalists, divided the Irish cabinet in summer 1969.
Perhaps Lynch might be faulted for not having done more to prepare the state for the handling of the telegraphed Northern crisis. Despite the popular outcry for guns to be sent to ‘the people’ in the North, the Taoiseach was unwaveringly firm in his opposition to military engagement by the Irish government on the northern side of the border or to secret re-arming of the IRA from state coffers.
Historians will continue to be divided over what he knew of a ministerial plot, using government funds, to import arms for distribution in Northern Ireland. Based on the evidence, I have concluded he acted decisively when he was certain of his facts, sacking two senior ministers, Haughey and Blaney, on May 6, 1970, the forced resignation of a third, and the protest resignation of a fourth.
Whatever about the historical debate over what Lynch knew of the plot, and when , he did act decisively and definitively. His message: the Irish state would not aid or abet those who wished to unite Ireland by force of arms. That, in essence, was the Lynch legacy, sustained by successive leaders — including Haughey — and culminating in the Belfast Agreement of 1998.
Lynch’s legacy is more opaque in three distinct areas: his poor judgment in restoring Haughey to the shadow frontbench while Fianna Fáil were in opposition and giving him a ministry after it returned to power in 1977; secondly, the extravagance of the general election manifesto that year; and, thirdly, his misjudgement in anointing Colley as his successor in 1979. This was compounded by the limp campaign run for the succession, the failure of which handed the party over to Haughey and his supporters.
However harsh these may appear, Lynch stood in the bearna baoil when called to do so in 1969/1973 and that alone secures for him a place of honour in the pantheon of the democratic Irish state.
Dr Dermot Keogh is a member of the RIA, emeritus Professor of History, UCC, and author of Jack Lynch — A Biography. His latest book, The Independence Of Ireland: The Argentine connection, was published in Spanish in Buenos Aires earlier this year