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A piece of paper in his top pocket

April 30, 2011

An approaching election concentrates the mind wonderfully, and in campaigns, they say, truth is the first casualty. So, as we head for May 5th we have a welter of claims and counter claims from our political parties, and an electorate that is not quite sure what or whom they should believe or distrust.

Actually, I think it goes further than that: I don’t think we really know exactly what we want from our politicians – so it’s no wonder they constantly seem to be letting us down.

You can make a stab at it of course with words like honest, hard working, committed, knowledgeable and suchlike, but when it gets down to brass tacks, the definition becomes a little trickier. Do we want loyal party servants or mavericks who stand up for their ideals? Do we want someone who puts his constituency first, or who is mindful of his place in a national parliament. Are we looking for someone who looks out for minorities or who pleases the majority? Should he be smooth and slick, or comfortingly ordinary. JFK or John Major; even, dare I say it, Iain Gray or Alex Salmond?

The problem is: I think we want a bit of all of that, and I’m not sure it’s possible for politicians to meet our conflicting demands. I’m not letting them off the hook, mind you, I still believe they must act to the highest standards, but I really wouldn’t like to write a job description for them, nor a person specification for the job.

To explain the dilemma I go back to a politician from Ireland in the sixties. Yes – it is a very different time and place, but I think distance lends a perspective which makes reflection easier.

At this remove, it’s easy to view Donogh O’Malley as a cartoon of a mid century Irish politician. Brought up in a comfortably well off family in Limerick, he attended the exclusive Crescent and Clongowes Wood Colleges and achieved an Engineering degree at University College Galway. He used his degree and entrepreneurial know how to launch a successful engineering and construction firm and then became first a city councillor, then Mayor of Limerick, and finally TD for Limerick East. After ten years in the Dail he became Minister for Health and then, in 1966, Minister for Education.

He was almost pathologically sociable, and, in the early days of his career, achieved notoriety for his ferociousness when in his cups. His ministerial appointments came after he had seen the error of his ways and gone on the wagon.

For all that, he was not the caricature of a pol that you might think. His party loyalty, for a start, was out of kilter with the expectations of the times. In 50s and 60s Ireland, party choice was dependent on family tradition, and that in itself could be traced back to the Civil War of the 1920s: Pro-Treaty =Fine Gael, anti-Treaty = Fianna Fail. O’Malley’s family had been more than pro-Treaty – they could be seen as almost loyalist: there were union jacks in the house in the thirties when Donogh was growing up and a relative had been quietly warned in the street for selling British poppies. He should have been dead cert Fine Gael, but he chose the more populist approach of Fianna Fail – he felt more comfortable with ordinary folks, and he, literally, put his money where his mouth was.

Post war, traditional Limerick industries, like bacon, clothing manufacture, and flour milling were sinking fast; O’Malley realised the impact of this and fought to bring modern industry into the city – but he did more. When the Matterson’s meat workers were on strike without pay, he took out a £12000 loan ( a huge sum then) to pay their wages; he got to know the dock workers and supported their struggles; in one of his property deals he bought and renovated a pub and, even when dry himself, held court there, available to all, as he was on the streets of Limerick to all his constituents. He always refused to spend weekends away from the city – even when a Dublin minister. He was determined not to lose contact with ordinary Limerick folk. Nightly phone calls to the wife and children who remained in Limerick were composed not so much of sweet nothings, but of close questioning on city events, the feeling on the ground. People would stop him with requests, a note would be taken and put in his top pocket. To the despair of his departmental civil servants, Monday mornings would be a stream of scraps of paper: ‘Could you look into that for Pat Tiernan of Corbally?’ ‘That needs doing down at the docks.’ ‘That road hasn’t been repaired yet’. Client politics, surely, but, just as certainly, operating for the right clients: the ordinary folk of his constituency.

His great loves were rugby and greyhound racing; typically he played rugby, (and but for the war he could well have been an international), not for the establishment Garryowen club, but for the more working class Shannon team – a choice that even his own mother found hard to forgive!

In his short period as Minister for Health he faced up to the problems of 1960s Ireland, with a health service almost totally dependent on the Church, and a hopelessly outmoded administration. However, it was as Education Minister that he really made his mark.

By 1967, there was still no free secondary education in Ireland. Secondary schools, and thereby entry to third level education, were run by the Church, and were fee paying. Apart from the basic social injustice of the situation, O’Malley also realised that this was suffocating any chance Ireland had of a progressive, modern future for its citizens. He was fortunate that he was a member of the Irish State’s first outward looking government since Independence, under Taoiseach Sean Lemass. Despite hugely conservative forces arraigned against him, Lemass did make progress on Trade and industry and, in particular on relations with the six counties. But it was hard going. He was keen to make universal secondary education available, as were O’Malley’s two predecessors in the Education Ministry, Paddy Hillery and George Colley. However, vested interests, predominantly the Church, were unwilling to release their control, and the wheels ground painfully slowly.

So, on September 10th 1966, addressing, of all things, a weekend seminar of the NUJ, O’Malley, without reference to Cabinet colleagues or civil servants, announced that, within two years or so, secondary schooling would be freely available to all. He was speaking to journalists, it was Saturday, and the Minister for Finance, Jack Lynch, was out of the country. None of this was accidental.

By the time Lynch returned, the Sunday papers had had a field day, the Opposition were on the attack, and the country at large was delighted. It was a fait accomplis. Lemass made a show of reprimanding his Minister but seems privately to have been delighted with the speed at which this ambitious and crucial tool for economic and social wellbeing had been achieved.

In announcing the move in such a way, O’Malley had angered and confronted all the great movers of State – Church, civil service, party colleagues and the opposition; it could have been suicidal for his career, but he had taken the risk on behalf of the thousands who were figuratively disenfranchised by their lack of advanced education. Together with announcements on rural school transport, his policy transformed life for thousands in country areas, for the urban poor, and, particularly, one might surmise, for generations of girls, in a country that had traditionally been unacceptably patriarchal and restrictive towards women. It’s hard to imagine either Mary Robinson or Mary McAleese being accepted as Irish presidents without O’Malley’s decision.

To weigh the importance of this move, some 45 years later, it is only necessary to view the education statistics for Irish people of my generation: in the 55-64 age group, 42% of people have only primary education. Yet, in the years following O’Malley’s declaration, Irish education developed to such an extent that the pressager of the true Celtic Tiger, as opposed to the property boom, was the huge number of young highly qualified graduates that Ireland sent around the world in the 80s and 90s as leading trainers for all the most modern high tech industries. A complete turnaround in fortunes, traceable to O’Malley’s September speech in Dun Laoghaire.

In addition, he long campaigned for university status for Limerick’s college of technology – this was a predictable support for local jobs and investment, but, in insisting that the university, when created, should be heavily based on technology, he showed vision far ahead of his time. The college became a National Institution for Higher Learning in 1972 and a university, linked to the country’s first National Technology Park, in 1989. It took time, but O’Malley’s foresight was eventually effective.

These are the choices politicians can make that make a difference.

And what of Party?

As already mentioned, O’Malley’s links to Fianna Fail were far more shallow than would have been expected for a politician of such influence, but, along with Neil Blaney, Kevin Boland, Brian Lenihan and Charles Haughey, he was hailed as one of ‘the men in the mohair suits’ – the young Turks who were to lead the party into the late twentieth century. He was his own man, but no ingenue. He was well aware of the importance of the Party machine and regularly used it to the benefit of his own, and his constituents’, aspirations. He enjoyed the rough and tumble of political life but he also had a sure feel for what to do politically – and when to do it.

In the end, Blaney and Boland lost influence, through alleged contacts with republican groups in the North during the Arms Trial. Haughey was also implicated in that affair, but proved more adept than the others at staying one step ahead, until very near the end of his life. Lenihan perhaps best preserved the mantle of progression carried by the five of them, though even his political demise was shrouded in controversy.

Only Donogh O’Malley’s reputation endures – and perhaps for the most tragic of reasons.

On March 10th 1968, only 18 months after his epoch making declaration, on completing a by-election stump speech for a colleague in Sixmilebridge, Co Clare, he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was only 47 and left a widow and two teenage children. Coming five years after John F Kennedy’s death, the effect on Ireland of the sudden loss of this most dynamic and admired of politicians was described as ‘a little Dallas’.

His loss at the top of his powers and popularity, and the preservation of his status amongst Irish voters, does suggest that politicians who wish to retain their voters’ affection, and their political effectiveness, need to be aware that longevity of career seems to lead towards inevitable disappointment, disillusion, and perhaps abuses, of power possessed for too long.

On his death, apart from property he owned, he left an overdraft of more than £30,000 and a share in a greyhound. The local butcher reported that Donogh had regularly put £1000 behind his counter ‘to make sure there was meat for those who couldn’t afford it.’

But what else can we glean from the career of the politician known affectionately to locals as ‘Dunnick’?

As a man he had his faults, but he led with his heart and used his political skills to chase high minded dreams. He was motivated by an appreciation of people and an understanding of how they had to live. He truly understood the impact of political decisions, but viewed politics itself as a game – to be played to rules, but not a substitute for life. Personally ambitious, he was grounded enough to recognise that political success is built on those who trust you with their vote. He was never willing to betray that trust. Happy to talk politics with party colleagues around the clock, he wouldn’t put them before what he believed to be right, nor his own needs before those of his constituents.

So, he was a man of many contrasts, and great complexity – a social creature who at times could seem lonely, a family man for whom rugby and dog racing were lifeblood, a risk taker aware of his responsibilities; a man who recognised politics as a game, but keenly felt the weight of its effects. And, who knows, it was maybe the strain of these conflicts in his personality that meant he died young.

For all that, when I think of politicians I admire, Donogh O’Malley would be the true measure. All of his qualities combined in the interests of country, constituents and, sometimes, Party. There are many today who would claim, had he lived to become a party elder, Ireland would not be in its present state. He was a maverick who helped steer the party, a constituency representative who fought with equal intensity for his country, a can do pragmatist who made decisions with a head full of sense and a heart full of dreams.

I should declare some personal interest. As a teenager on holiday, in the years immediately after his death, I came to know his widow and children, though I was not fully aware till much later of his impact as a politician. Widowed young, as my mother had been, his wife became friendly with us. She was hauntingly beautiful and possessed a certain quality that left me quite overwhelmed. I didn’t know at the time that the poet Patrick Kavanagh had written the famous song ‘On Raglan Road’ in her honour – and probably just as well I was ignorant. She committed the rest of her life to her career as a doctor, working particularly on the effects of alcoholism amongst the poor. Daughter Suzanne became a designer in the USA and son, Daragh, an actor – probably most recognisable as Sergeant Harper in long running TV series ‘Sharpe’. Maybe politicians also need a sprinkling of ‘star quality’ – whatever that might be.

Taking my benchmark as ‘Dunnick’, I would say we want our politicians to possess charm and transparency, commitment and a sense of perspective, ability and humility – and a sense of how to keep in touch with the voter when in power, and the courage to walk away from power when they sense they have lost that capacity.

It’s a huge ask, and I do wonder who will come close to that in the early hours of May 6th this year. It can be done – and the democratic process demands we aim high – for all our sakes. Media please note – I have not felt the need to use the word ‘perfect’ anywhere – for why should our representatives be required to differ so much from their voters?

John Quincy Adams had it about right, on more than one occasion, when he offered his advice – having been a diplomat, a congressman, and a Senator, before becoming 6th US President:

Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.
If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.

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