Fr Kevin Hegarty
Enoch Powell once said that all political careers end in failure. He spoke out of personal experience. His infamous Wolverhampton speech in 1968, which fomented racial tension in Britain, ended his prospects of high office.
One Irishman however contradicted Powell’s generalisation by an exquisite sense of timing. Fifty years ago this month Seán Lemass surprised his party and the electorate by announcing his resignation as Taoiseach. There was no pressure on him to do so. He was the undisputed leader of Fianna Fáil. His government had a secure majority in the Dáil. He was widely credited with leading the revitalisation of the Irish economy after the dismal days of the 1950’s, when industrial levels of emigration haunted the country. Time Magazine put him on the front cover under the heading ‘new life in the ould sod’. He had approved two months earlier, the Minister of Education, Donagh O’Malley’s proposal, to provide free second level education, the most positive thing in the history of the modern Irish state. The simplest and most valid explanation for Lemass’s surprise departure from office is that he was tired. He was 66 years-old and had been involved in Irish political life since he was a teenage participant in the Easter Rising of 1916.
As he travelled to Arás an Uachtratáin to give his resignation to President deValera, his old political mentor, he could look back with pride on a career of substantial achievement. He was an unusual politician for his time. During a period when Irish politicians often clothed themselves in ostentatious displays of catholic piety, he hid behind a reserve of private agnosticism. A quintessential Dublin City man, rural Ireland was a foreign country to him. Though loyal to deValera and fond of him, he was often exasperated by the latters arcadian flourishes, extolling the merits of living on a small farm. Dancing at the country crossroads did not appeal to him. He had little enthusiasm for the revival of Irish as the primary spoken tongue.
Life of service
The career that led him to the Taoiseach’s office in 1959 began as a 16 year-old volunteer in the GPO during the Easter Rising. During the War of Independence he was a member of the Dublin IRA brigade who took part in the assassination of British intelligence officers on Bloody Sunday (21 November 1920). He opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and was interned for his activities in the corrosive civil war that followed. He was among the founders of Fianna Fáil in 1926. As one of the chief organisers, he had helped turn the party into one of the most effective political organisations in Europe. When Fianna Fáil entered government for the first time in 1932, he was appointed Minister for Industry and Commerce. He was the most dynamic member of deValera’s cabinets. He operated a system of protection of new Irish industries to allow them establish a solid footing in the market. Other highlights were the establishment of the industrial credit company, Bord Na Móna, Bord Fáilte, Aer Lingus and Aer Rianta. During the Second World War he was Minister for Supplies.
He became Taoiseach in 1959 as the dismal 1950’s were dwindling to an end. In this office he was innovative and decisive. Seeing that protectionism had outlived its usefulness, he opened the country to foreign investment. Factories sprouted throughout the country and emigration declined. He began the negotiations that led to our entry onto the European Economic Community.
By meeting the prime minister of Northern Ireland, Captain Terence O’Neill in 1965, he began the journey that led to the peace process. There were failures and omissions in his administration but overall it can be said that he proved himself a genuine patriot who believed in living rather than dying, for his country.