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Dublin: 16 °C Thursday 30 October, 2014

Column: What is Jack Lynch’s legacy?

Despite the highs and lows of his political career, former Taoiseach Jack Lynch was still described as “the most popular politician since Daniel O’Connell”, writes David McCann on the 14th anniversary of the death.

David McCann

LAST SUNDAY MARKED the 14th anniversary of the death of former Taoiseach, Jack Lynch. The famous Cork hurler and politician led Ireland through very difficult times as he dealt with a divided party and the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

When Lynch became Taoiseach it marked a real departure from the past, as he had no connection with either the War of Independence or the Civil War. Lacking the republican credentials of his predecessors, Lynch immediately faced dissent from the more hard line elements of the Fianna Fáil party dismissing him as ‘the reluctant Taoiseach’ who would be little more than a interim leader until somebody more substantial was ready to take over.

Bertie Ahern once said the best thing in politics is to be underestimated by your opponents. Lynch found this statement to be true during his time in office as he successfully managed to stay in the top job for 13 years. Lynch did this through being a delegator and promoting those like Charles Haughey who were possible challengers to his leadership. Unlike Lemass, Lynch favoured long cabinet meetings and consultation with his colleagues over decisions that needed to be taken.

Highs and lows

Using this approach Lynch did achieve some notable successes during his time as Taoiseach. His quiet diplomatic approach was a key asset in gaining Irish membership of the European Economic Community. This key success would help modernise the country’s infrastructure and help to finally move Ireland out onto the world stage.

Then we have his relationship with the electorate. Lynch, to this day, remains the most electorally successful leader that Fianna Fáil has had, winning two majorities in 1969 and 1977 while narrowly losing the 1973 election. Lynch’s unassuming manner was a vote winner for his party and helped him achieve sustained electoral success. No leader before or since has ever managed to take the party back to the electoral heights that it enjoyed during the Lynch era.

There were failures during his time as Taoiseach; his approach to Northern Ireland was one. While Lynch deserves credit for ruling out the use of force and for facing down those within his government who wanted to militarily intervene in Northern Ireland, he also made some huge mistakes. The fact that he let senior ministers take their leave just before the outbreak of violence in August 1969 was a serious error of judgement.

Moreover, his chairman-style effectively allowed hard liners like Neil Blaney to dominate his cabinet. Only when Lynch bit the bullet and sacked the more conservative elements of his government was he able to take on the IRA and develop a realistic Northern policy.

The ‘giveaway’ manifesto

Another failure was the 1977 giveaway manifesto. Contrary to the historic narrative that exists today, the outgoing government pledged equally extravagant promises to the electorate – but the polices that followed from this manifesto led to massive increases in spending which effectively sent the economy into the deep recession which would take nearly a decade to escape.

Ironically, the manifesto that helped propel him into office in 1977 would sow the seeds of his downfall as the landslide victory brought to power a new generation of TDs who ultimately drifted over to the camp of Lynch’s main rival, Charles Haughey. Lynch’s early resignation in December 1979 was completely motivated by a desire to outflank Haughey and put in his preferred successor, George Colley. Needless to say, things did not go according to plan as Haughey beat Colley for the leadership.

This underestimation of his main foe would ensure Lynch would have an unhappy retirement and Haughey effectively wrote Lynch out of Fianna Fáil history. Lynch’s name was rarely ever cited at party events and it would not be until the late 90s that he would get any mention.

Legacy

What is the legacy of the Lynch era? Overall I think he did make a positive contribution to Irish life. His government made some mistakes but, then again, which government doesn’t? Lynch took the country into Europe and successfully kept Ireland out of military conflict in Northern Ireland. For these two achievements alone Lynch deserves a special place in Irish history.

Liam Cosgrave once remarked that Lynch was “the most popular politician since Daniel O’Connell”; the fact that he could win such a tribute from one his opponents tells its own story. While he may have been reluctant to take on the job, he did an awful lot of good with it. Ultimately he was a singularly decent man, who deserves a moment of remembrance on this anniversary.

David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster.

Read previous columns by David McCann>

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