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Column: Three things modern politicians should learn from the Lemass era

Séan Lemass is one of the few Irish leaders whose popularity transcends political parties – but his path wasn’t always an easy one. Modern politicians could learn a lot from his approach to politics, writes David McCann.

David McCann

LAST SATURDAY MARKED the 42nd anniversary of the death of former Taoiseach Seán Lemass. He is regularly lauded as the man who created modern Ireland through dismantling protectionism and normalising relations with Northern Ireland. What is more remarkable about Lemass’s legacy is that he is one of the few leaders this country has had whose popularity transcends political parties, as the last three Fine Gael taoisigh have cited him as the best taoiseach the country has had.

In modern times it has become almost a rite of passage for any incoming government to invoke the spirit of Lemass as a template for how they will govern. Yet in comparison most of them fall drastically short. This has got me thinking are there any lessons for our current politicians from the Lemass era as to how they should approach politics?

It’s ok to cut your own path

In our modern political culture of 24/7 news coverage and the expectation from the general public that government ministers should be on call day and night we tend to see politicians appear to be reluctant to admit that they spend any time away from the office at all. Compare this expectation to Lemass himself who never came into the office before 10am and was always out the door by 6pm. Lemass had as Brian Farrell described ‘a ruthless disregard for time wasting’ which was a world away from De Valera’s approach of spending copious amounts of time debating problems. So for any politicians seeking to follow Lemass; here is lesson one use your time wisely.

Most leaders when they take over face an immediate problem of dealing with their predecessor’s legacy. Now imagine your predecessor had not only been in office for two decades but was also a 1916 commander and founder of your political party. These were the boots that Lemass had to fill when  De Valera stepped down in June 1959. Yet Lemass successfully in a very short period of time fashioned his own style of leadership quickly abolishing De Valera’s practice to two cabinet meetings a week, reducing them to one and operating a much more centralised form of decision making. He departed from his predecessor in shifting the focus of government away from cultural matters toward economic issues as he derided De Valera’s attempts to make him speak better Irish asking for books on economics instead. Here in lies lesson two; it’s ok not to follow your predecessor’s leadership style.

Don’t be afraid to be unpopular

Half a century later we tend to think that Lemass made a seamless change from protectionism to free trade with little political fallout. However from examining the newspapers of that period what becomes apparent is the growing level of scepticism about this change in economic policy. To many people in rural Ireland the government was seen as focusing the country’s prosperity in the major urban centres ignoring the decline in the west.

Lemass faced the humiliation of leading Fianna Fáil to one of its worst election results in 1961 losing the majority he had inherited from De Valera and becoming the first taoiseach to have a minister resign in protest over government policy with the departure of Paddy Smith in 1964. Yet despite all these political setbacks, he persisted with his policy of opening up the Irish economy. This is lesson number three; Lemass was not afraid to court unpopularity within his government or the wider electorate in order to achieve his objectives.

Boldness can lead to greatness

Then we come on to the abandonment of another policy that was not working: Northern Ireland. The summit with Unionist Prime Minister Terence O’Neill in 1965 was arguably the most symbolic event of the 60s. While an event like this would be considered relatively minor by today’s standards, it represented a real departure for an Irish leader at the time. In addition to this, Lemass was not absolutely sure how these new overtures would be received by the general public as his first words to O’Neill were ‘I shall get into terrible trouble for this.’ And here is the final lesson to be learned; be bold.

When we look back on the Lemass era it is easy to think of only the positives, ignoring many of the political challenges that his government faced which – in my view – leads many of our politicians to cite Lemass as an inspiration for all the wrong reasons. While he was in power, his record of electoral success ranked far behind that of De Valera and Jack Lynch. Moreover he served just six and a half years as taoiseach. Yet I would argue that despite his lack of electoral appeal or his limited time in power he achieved much more than any of his successors.

So what is the overall lesson that any of our current politicians should take from Lemass? Don’t get hypnotised by electoral success; it’s what you do with the mandate you receive that ultimately counts.

And whenever advisors tell you that you’ve got all the time in the world to introduce big reforms, the reality is you haven’t got a moment to lose.

David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster. To read more articles by David for TheJournal.ie click here.

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