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Judging Lemass, The Measure of the Man by Tom Garvin. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2009. pp. xiii + 281, €30.00, ISBN: 978-1-904890-57-7.

“I think it would be right to inform Deputy Davin that Fianna Fáil are a slightly constitutional party. We have adopted the method of political agitation to achieve our end, and because we believe, in present circumstances, that method is in the interests of the nation as a whole and of the Republican movement and for no other reason”. Here we have an early reflection of the progressive and pragmatic Seán Lemass as he addressed Dáil Éireann in March 1928.

Born in July 1899, Lemass, a revolutionary in his formative years, was destined to spend most of his life as an enlightened and active parliamentarian, culminating in the office of Taoiseach. As a boy of sixteen he served in the General Post Office during the rebellion of Easter 1916 though, as Garvin records, “a characteristically Lemassian scepticism about Pearse’s militarist romanticism set in fairly early on” (p. 47). Later he was involved in the War of Independence and the Civil War only to emerge as a founding father of the Fianna Fáil party, displaying that zeal and organising ability which was a hallmark of his entire career. “De Valera’s phenomenal charisma and Lemass’s organisational energy eventually made Fianna Fáil an unprecedentedly successful Irish political entity” (p.8).

His debating skills quickly developed. “Although a nervous speaker as a young man, he persevered, and was to become one of the most incisive, aggressive and well-prepared public speakers of his generation” (p. 52). What a joy it was to listen to Lemass when, in devastating form, he challenged opponents in Dáil Eireann, the old Physics Theatre in University College Dublin or at an election rally at the GPO on the eve of a general election.

On entering government in 1932 he became Minister for Industry and Commerce, the portfolio so clearly identified with him for most of his ministerial career. Here he applied his missionary zeal to industrial development. Two phases may be recognised – the pursuit of economic nationalism in the 1930’s coupled with a regime of protectionism, to be followed by the gradual elimination of tariffs with the emergence of freer trading in the late 1950’s. “Whether he was back in office or in noisy opposition, the 1950’s was to be Lemass’s decade, and a long rehearsal for being Taoiseach during the crucial years 1959—66” (p.178). He recognised a valuable ally in the Department of Finance. “When the draft of Whitaker’s Economic Development was circulated to government, Lemass contacted him and said it was exactly what he needed” (p.194).

A key element in Lemass’s achievements was the establishment of commercial state-sponsored bodies. Though staunchly committed to private enterprise he acknowledged the role of the state in particular circumstances. Addressing a conference at the Institute of Public Administration in March 1959 he explained: “Industrial development in Ireland is based on private enterprise and the profit motive: State financed industries have been set up only where considerations of national policy were involved or where projects were beyond the scope of, or unlikely to be undertaken by, private enterprise”. Paradoxically he opposed the creation of Coras Iompair Éireann, partly because he believed that nationalisation of transport would inevitably result in state subsidies. He opposed the Industrial Development Authority initially because he saw it “as a typical Fine Gael, academic and impractical, exercise, designed to avoid real action” (p.182).

Moving on to his premiership, one of the highlights was his meeting with Terence O’Neill, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. “The Lemass-O’Neill meetings and their sequelae arguably helped to start a chain reaction involving both parts of Ireland, Britain and, eventually, the European Union (EU) and the US” (p. 17). Lemass could also rejoice in the rapid advancement of the European Economic Community and Ireland’s prospective membership. A significant domestic development was the generational change in appointments to the Cabinet, a courageous but essential reform which “caused a lot of anger among the older men in the Fianna Fáil elite” , typified by the remarks of Seán T. O’Kelly in a letter to Seán MacEntee: “I hope the bold as brass young fellows will do as well for the country as the old brigade” (p.216). Lemass resigned as Taoiseach in October 1966 and died in May 1971, “generally regarded as one of the most successful Irish political leaders of his generation, or even of his century” (p. 253).

The book can be readily recommended as a comprehensive and thought-provoking text, meticulously referenced with a delectable collection of archival documents. Readers will be tempted to reflect on many issues inspired by the study. For example:

  1. What if the dynamic Lemass had replaced De Valera as leader of Fianna Fáil in 1945 rather than wait a further fourteen years to become Taoiseach?
  2. What is the function of a Department of the Taoiseach where Lemass sometimes felt underemployed? In the meantime that Department has assumed a raft of extraneous functions, perhaps to the neglect of its strategic role.
  3. Should Ireland change to a modified form of proportional representation for the election of deputies to Dáil Éireann - PRSTV in single-member constituencies as recommended by Lemass? The existing system – PRSTV in multi-member constituencies - is eminently fair but results in disproportionate influence by minority coalition partners.
  4. Should civil servants be more proactive in the formulation of public polcy?. Lemass told a conference of senior civil servants in 1961 that departments should be ‘development corporations’ and castigated those who “wait for new ideas to walk in through the door”.

Thomas P. O’Connor,