Maybe a time of political decency will prevail again

by John Boland

Irish Independent, March 12, 2011

In Colm Toibin’s short story, The News from Dublin, a Wexford teacher in the 1950s is seated in the Dail’s public gallery awaiting an audience with the health minister, from whom he seeks a favour. While waiting, he observes the TDs in the chamber below him:

“The Fine Gael people were different, he thought, they wore better suits and seemed more prosperous. The Fianna Fail backbenchers, on the other hand, had a look that he recognised and liked, less arrogant than the Fine Gael deputies – they were softer in some way, like men who would be easier to approach.”

That was then, and if in the decades that followed they remained easier to approach, it was increasingly by developers and other dubiously interested parties rather than by ordinary constituents seeking smaller kindnesses.

I thought of this on Wednesday while watching the wretched huddle of Fianna Fail TDs in the opposition benches as Enda Kenny’s assumption to the role of Taoiseach was enacted. And I thought of my father, who a long time ago had detected a shift in attitude that would ultimately lead Fianna Fail to the sorry pass in which they’ve now found themselves.

A dutiful and loyal private secretary to Oscar Traynor, first in the ministry of defence and then justice,  my father’s obeisance to those above him was such that, even at the end of his long life, he couldn’t bring himself to recollect his late superior as other than “Mr Traynor.” A Fianna Fail man by professional circumstance rather than upbringing, he regarded his minister as an exemplary and upright politician and he evinced the same respect for Sean Lemass, Frank Aiken and other of Traynor’s colleagues.

So I heeded him when, as he approached retirement in the late 1960s, he confided that he was glad to be getting out. “There’s a new breed coming along now,” he said, “and I don’t like the smell of them. They’re cocky and arrogant and they’re in politics for themselves and for what they can get out of it.”

He was speaking primarily of Charles Haughey, who hadn’t yet done anything to besmirch political life but whom he regarded as a “little turk” with an arrogant sense of personal entitlement. Indeed, in later years he would just chuckle sardonically as revelations about Haughey’s political machinations and personal lifestyle began to emerge. For my father, these were merely prophecies fulfilled and he took a satisfaction from them that bordered on glee.

And so last Wednesday, I wondered what my father would make of the televised spectacle that was unfolding. Profoundly cynical by nature, I fancy he might have felt vindicated by his former party’s current plight, though he would have been appalled at the sight of Gerry Adams and his Sinn Fein colleagues striding down Molesworth Street as if they were about to storm and capture Leinster House by sheer force of will – my father could see justifications for the lethal activities of the old IRA, but regarded Adams’s colleagues in the Provos as just murderers, a conviction inherited by his son.

But I think he would have been much taken by the rhetoric of Enda Kenny on becoming Taoiseach – despite the fact that, like the teacher in Toibin’s story, my father had always been suspicious of the posh airs and graces of Fine Gael. He certainly would have approved of Kenny’s oratorical flourishes, with their promises of “leadership that cherishes responsibility over privilege, public duty over personal entitlement and conscience over convenience.” Why, it could have been Sean Lemass or Oscar Traynor talking, if either of them had bothered to enrol good speechwriters for similar occasions.

And as for the new Taoiseach’s yearning for “kindness and goodness, authenticity and honesty, dignity and compassion” – were these noble aspirations not echoes of Eamon de Valera’s reverie on St Patrick’s Day, 1943, about frugal comforts, sturdy children, athletic youths, happy maidens, villages joyous with the sounds of industry and fireside forums for the old and wise?

My father would have been shocked at the sight of Wexford’s new TD, Mick Wallace, pretty in pink and showing off his hairy chest, but might have conceded that the sheer cheek of it all suited the exhuberantly historic day that was in it, and as an admirer of repartee (though he was no good at it himself) he would have been delighted when, in response to Micheal Martin’s quip about the Taoiseach’s wife, the Taoiseach topped it with an even better riposte. He was an easy man to entertain, my father.

He would have deemed Richard Boyd Barrett a leftie pup who had no business grandstanding on such an occasion, would have looked wonderingly at Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan and thought Gerry Adams ill-mannered to non-native speakers by spouting on in Irish, and if he were watching that evening’s Prime Time he would have dismissed Miriam O’Callaghan’s observation that  the Cabinet featured only two women and “an awful lot of men over the age of sixty” – in my father’s heyday there were no women ministers and if you didn’t at least look sixty you probably weren’t up to  the job.

But when, on the same programme, Richard Crowley asked Gemma Hussey if Enda Kenny had “a vision” and she replied “I don’t know, I hope he has,” he would have shared her wish. Indeed, I think he would have liked Kenny, in whom he would have detected the courtesy and cautiousness but also the integrity and steeliness of the leaders he himself most admired, notably Sean Lemass and Jack Lynch, the latter having become his hero when he faced down Haughey and Blaney over the arms shenanigans.

As a man with access to files on subversives, he was innately wary of a Labour Party that chose to accommodate former members of Official Sinn Fein and the Democratic Left, and I’ve no doubt he would have been happier if Fine Gael had got an overall majority – the notion of absolute power’s corrupting tendencies wasn’t something that exercised him overmuch.

As for his old party, he would have reluctantly conceded that Haughey’s verdict on the “cunning and devious” Bertie Ahern was probably correct and  been aghast at the bumbling premiership of  Brian Cowen. It’s hard to know how he would have regarded Micheal Martin – no doubt as a decent man but lumbered with the unenviable, perhaps impossible, task of restoring the fortunes of a party brought to its knees, not by the global downturn that he keeps harping on about, but by his own predecessors.

Certainly he would have thought that the Fianna Fail leader cut a very forlorn figure in the Dail last Wednesday and this would have led him to reflect on a vanished era when the Soldiers of Destiny for whom he assiduously worked bore the confident demeanour of people who knew what was best for all of us in this benighted little island of ours.

And now, in even more benighted times, Enda Kenny has assumed this responsibility. Across the political divide, my father would have wished him well, and I do, too.

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