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Economic disaster, diaries and hand-dryers: Inside the most powerful government department

From the Cuban Missile Crisis to Roger Casement statues, the Department of Finance is involved in nearly every government decision.

Charlie Haughey was well-liked and respected by civil servants as Minister for Finance.
Charlie Haughey was well-liked and respected by civil servants as Minister for Finance.
Image: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

IN 1962 THE world was on the edge of nuclear war. The Cuban Missile crisis had brought the US and the Soviet Union close to all-out conflict. All anyone could do was look on with fear. 

In Ireland, the Department of Finance was concerned too. The government was trying to produce plans for what to do if disaster struck  and the department had a pressing question – how much is this all going to cost?

So reads one file from the never-ending archive of the Department of Finance, the history of which is now being carefully written by one historian, Dr Ciarán Casey. 

Not everything is as thrilling as the Cold War. As he searches through nearly 100,000 files, Casey has come across everything from the cost of a statue of Roger Casement to the bill for hand dryers in department bathrooms. 

It’s not that civil servants are naturally frugal. Instead, there really is simply a lot of finance involved in the Department of Finance.

Casey will publish a book in 2022 documenting the inner workings of the department between 1958 and 1999 as Ireland evolved from one of the poorest nations of Europe to the economic envy of the world. 

He has a lot to live up to. The first book, written by Ronan Fanning, covered the first 36 years of the state in microscopic detail, is a seen as a classic of economic history. 

It’s also nearly impossible to pin down a copy. Fanning’s book has been out of print for years and the remaining copies are confined to select libraries and academic collections. 

Even if Casey’s book doesn’t suffer the exact same fate, it’s unlikely to be a bestseller. Yet for economists and historians alike, it will be unmissable reading. 

In part, this is because Ireland’s economic history is about as dramatic as any potboiler. 

“Ireland in 1959 is at about two-thirds of the wealth of western Europe. Over the next 40 years, it becomes the fastest growing economy in Europe,” says Casey. 

“I think Irish people don’t appreciate how unusual that trajectory is.”

Trying to understand how that happened has divided academics and Casey will try and offer some new insights. 

To do so will mean the daunting task of picking out between 4,000 to 5,000 files, each on average 150 pages long, and scouring them for signs of the day-to-day decision-making that shaped Ireland today. 

But if you’re looking for some kind of grand economic plan, you’re probably not going to find one. 

“There isn’t one master document where someone sets it all out,” says Casey. “I don’t think there was necessarily a plan at the start.”

TK Whitaker, the renowned civil servant and eventual Central Bank Governor, might have been the ‘architect of modern Ireland’ – but even he didn’t predict the direction Ireland was heading. 

Whitaker wanted to increase Ireland’s agricultural productivity, and then develop industry based on that, says Casey. “Beyond that, there isn’t a huge description of what it would look like.”

The ministers

Something that’s also missing is any criticism or denunciations of particular ministers – a fact that might prove disappointing to anyone hoping to use Casey’s book for political point scoring. 

Instead, he says, “it’s about looking for traces of what they thought”.

However, he has also had unprecedented access to previously unpublished diaries from senior civil servants, as well as interviews with some of the staff involved at the time. 

One minister for finance in particular does feature prominently. 

“A lot of the senior civil servants are glowing about Haughey’s abilities,” says Casey. He could be “moody” and “volatile”, but Charlie Haughey – who led the department between 1966 and 1970 – certainly impressed his staff. 

“Senior civil servants really like ministers who can get things done,” Casey says. 

Celtic Tiger

Casey’s book finishes in 1999, just as the Celtic Tiger was becoming embedded in the Irish psyche. 

Looking back, it’s something of a cliffhanger. But does Casey now have a better idea of what caused it all to come crashing down, after ingesting the internal workings of the department that would end up at the centre of the crisis?

When TheJournal.ie spoke to Casey, he hadn’t yet reached the mountain of files from the 1990s but he didn’t think he would find much evidence of concern about the fragility or otherwise of Ireland’s dramatic prosperity. 

irish-euromccreevymoney-bag Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy with a bag of Irish Euro coins in 1999. Source: Chris Bacon/PA Archive/PA Images

“We were unprepared for the Celtic Tiger as we were for the crash,” he says. “The department has a very good institutional memory and is very cognisant of the past and who went before.”

“The last crisis, we were dealing with the risks that came with success” – not a necessarily easy thing to plan for, he says. 

Complex

If anyone thinks about the history of the Department of Finance, it can be easy to generate an impression that it turned from an office run by stuffy, conservatives at the start of the century to one manned by crusading footloose spenders by the end.

Casey’s book will try and prove a corrective. 

Amid the day-to-day decisions of civil servants and officials, the book will likely suggest that our economic fortunes aren’t straightforward as we sometimes imagine. 

“Everything is more complicated than you’d think,” he says. 

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