Political Notebook: A political treasure

God bless the innocence of holy Catholic Ireland.

God bless the innocence of holy Catholic Ireland.

Perhaps it was not so holy, after all. Perhaps, too, there was not that much innocence. Behind it all, the underbelly of Irish public life was riven with scandal and cover-up in so many respects.

The scandal of our orphanages alone is an illustration.

Back in 1967, few people were screaming about the scandals of institutions like Daingean, although the journalist Michael Viney had written a compelling series of articles in “The Irish Times’’ a year earlier exposing the wretched conditions of children there.

Other matters were defining the agenda.

In November 1967, the Dail descended into farce when the colourful and always controversial Oliver J Flanagan, Fine Gael TD for Laois-Offaly, questioned the morality of sections of “An Anthology of Short Stories’’ for school children.

It is just one of the Dail debates contained in a splendid book recently published, John Drennan’s “Standing By The Republic, 50 Dail Debates that Shaped the Nation’’.

The Portlaoise-based journalist, who is a well known political writer with “The Sunday Independent’’ and a broadcaster, has trawled through some fascinating Dail debates since the 1940s, putting them in historical context with extensive quotations.

In 1967, Mr Flanagan confronted the then Minister for Education, Donogh O’Malley, with the claim that the textbook was unsuitable for children of 13 years because it “contains on several pages certain words and phrases’’.

Mr O’Malley, a Minister in a hurry, had little sympathy with the complaint.

His curt reply noted that people only of very delicate sensibility would have an objection and expressed confidence in the good sense of teachers.

Mr Flanagan hit back. He asked about the quotation: “The capitalists pay the priests to tell us about the next world so that you won’t notice what the bastards are up to –‘’.

The quotation was from Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation’’, although Mr O’Malley referred to the wrong short story in the exchanges.

A fellow Minister, Charles J Haughey, asked if Mr Flanagan was also plotting to abolish Shakespeare and the Bible as well as Ovid and Horace.

Mr O’Malley snapped: “It is not for me to refer to Blessed Oliver or anything like that.”

Mr Flanagan said he would raise the issue again. And he did, only to be rebuffed by an exasperated Mr O’Malley.

Mr Drennan notes that the debate was a good example of how formidable a politician Mr O’Malley was at the peak of his powers.

“But a few months later he was deceased, and with him went a little, if not most, of the radical spirit of the musketeers,” he adds.

The musketeers referred to were Mr O’Malley, Mr Haughey and Brian Lenihan. Sean Lemass, as Taoiseach, had given them their heads in crucial Government departments as he tried to rescue the country from the doldrums of the 1950s.

One commentator called them the three musketeers and it stuck. They were dynamic, Mr O’Malley, most of all. Mr Haughey made his contribution in Justice and later in Finance, while Mr Lenihan reformed the censorship laws.

Mr Drennan is right when he claims that the death of the most dynamic, Mr O’Malley, in many ways ended the Lemass revolution.

Nothing underlined that unfortunate end as much as the arms crisis of 1970, which Mr Drennan deals with in a chapter headlined “The Arms Crisis: A State And A Party Confront The Enemy Within.”

He writes: “It all started off so innocently on a Tuesday afternoon in 1970.”

The Fine Gael leader, Liam Cosgrave, asked if the resignation of the Minister for Justice, Micheal O Morain, was the only one that could be expected.

The Taoseach, Jack Lynch, pretended he was unaware of what Mr Cosgrave had in mind. As Mr Drennan points out, “Cosgrave’s line was hooked and baited.”

Later that evening, the Fine Gael leader confronted the Taoiseach with evidence that there had been an illegal attempt to import arms.

Mr Haughey and Neil Blaney, powerful Ministers, were fired, and Kevin Boland, lost in the remnants of the Civil War, resigned. Fianna Fail survived but lost power in 1973.

That arms trial debate was bitter and illustrated a parliament incapable, like the aforementioned Mr Boland, of moving on from the Civil War.

Labour TD David Thornley, later to die tragically young, outlined the reality within Fianna Fail.

He noted that there had been “an extremely effective junta in the cabinet which, effectively some people say, ran the cabinet over the heads of the Taoiseach.’’

Those same Ministers were drunk with power. The long stretch of Fianna Fail rule had led them to believe the party and themselves were untouchable.

Without the guiding hand of the great statesman and patriot, Mr Lemass, matters had run out of control.

The retired Mr Lemass, who was to die a year later, must have looked on in horror from his modest suburban Dublin home.

Mr Drennan’s book is an invaluable piece of political and social history.