Jack Lynch and the defence of democracy in Ireland, August 1969-June 1970

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 17

Taoiseach Jack Lynch at the Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis in January 1970—when he left Dublin on 9 August 1969 to begin his holidays in West Cork little did he realise how difficult it was going to be to maintain party discipline and respect for cabinet government. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Taoiseach Jack Lynch at the Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis in January 1970—when he left Dublin on 9 August 1969 to begin his holidays in West Cork little did he realise how difficult it was going to be to maintain party discipline and respect for cabinet government. (RTÉ Stills Library)

When Jack Lynch left Dublin on 9 August 1969 to begin his holidays in West Cork, he had cause to be both relieved and very apprehensive. Seven weeks earlier, on 18 June, he had led Fianna Fáil to a convincing general election victory. Lynch’s presidential-style leadership campaign echoed that of Éamon de Valera. Yet he also drew upon the more reserved style of Seán Lemass, whom he had succeeded in late 1966. Lynch was part of a middle generation in the party, coming into the Dáil for the first time in 1948.
Both his predecessors, Éamon de Valera and Seán Lemass, had been out in 1916. The two men were veterans of the War of Independence, the Civil War and founder members of Fianna Fáil. Lynch was six when the Civil War ended in 1923 and nine when the party was established in 1926. Despite Seán Lemass’s flawless revolutionary pedigree, he had found it very hard as taoiseach in the 1960s to gain convincing victories in two general elections. Lynch, the first post-revolutionary leader of Fianna Fáil, had successfully retained power in the 1969 general election, and with an enhanced majority.

Wayward and headstrong ministers
The challenges facing the new government were daunting. But Lynch may not have fully realised at that time just how difficult it was going to be, in the lifetime of the new Dáil, to maintain party discipline and respect for cabinet government. He had been forewarned. He had witnessed Lemass’s difficulties in containing several members of his cabinet. Lynch, too, faced the challenge of reining in a new generation of wayward and headstrong ministers.
As minister for finance in 1965/6, Lynch had witnessed the rebelliousness and virtual contempt shown for the leadership by Neil Blaney, Kevin Boland, Charles Haughey and Donogh O’Malley (who had died on 10 March 1968). Those men, to varying degrees, simply refused to accept Department of Finance spending guidelines in 1965/6. In 1966, when Lynch became taoiseach, none of them changed their contemptuous attitude to the leadership. In naming Charles Haughey the minister for finance, Lynch sought to use the tactic of turning a poacher into the gamekeeper of public finances. It was a gamble and a risky strategy.

Northern Ireland prime minister Terence O’Neill is received in Dublin in February 1965 by Taoiseach Seán Lemass. Lynch continued his predecessor’s efforts to ‘normalise’ relations between Dublin and Belfast. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Northern Ireland prime minister Terence O’Neill is received in Dublin in February 1965 by Taoiseach Seán Lemass. Lynch continued his predecessor’s efforts to ‘normalise’ relations between Dublin and Belfast. (Belfast Telegraph)

In other respects, Lynch had been very cautious in picking his new cabinet. Overall, he had gone for continuity rather than radical change: Haughey remained in finance, Blaney retained agriculture and Boland returned to local government. It was not widely known that Lynch had had particular difficulty persuading Boland to take a cabinet position. On 27 June 1969, Boland wrote to the taoiseach ‘assuring you of my own personal loyalty to you in all circumstances and to say that everything that has happened since you were selected as taoiseach has strengthened my conviction that your decision to accept the role the party had already spontaneously decided you should have was the salvation of the party’. Boland also told Lynch: ‘You know also that I am not in agreement with the approach to Partition and to the stationing of troops outside the country in present circumstances’. This was a reference to a small contingent of Irish troops serving with the UN in Cyprus. Boland asked Lynch to leave him out of the cabinet. The taoiseach persuaded him to take a ministerial post, but Boland’s letter reveals his strong differences with the taoiseach over Northern policy.
Cognisant of the dangers that Northern Ireland was likely to pose for his new government, Lynch promoted Dr Patrick Hillery to become minister for external affairs. The latter had the task of overseeing Ireland’s negotiations for membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). He was also central to the implementation of the taoiseach’s Northern policy.

‘Responsibility . . . rests with the Stormont and London governments’

In early August 1969, Lynch’s real cause for apprehension sprang mainly from the deteriorating situation in Northern Ireland. On 1 August, Hillery had been sent to London to warn the British government about the unprecedented crisis looming in Northern Ireland—an inflammable situation likely to spread quickly out of control. Derry was a veritable powder-keg, Hillery said, and the coming weeks promised unprecedented levels of violence unless timely corrective action was taken. The flashpoint was the Apprentice Boys march on 12 August, which was bigger and more threatening than in previous years. Even if the Irish government’s diagnosis was correct, Hillery was told in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: ‘You accept, of course, that responsibility for this area rests with the Stormont and London governments, and not with your government’. That mind-set exemplified a dogmatism that has thankfully been outgrown in Anglo-Irish relations today.

Charles J. Haughey—in naming him minister for finance in 1966 Lynch sought to turn a poacher into a gamekeeper of public finances, a risky strategy. (Irish Times)

Charles J. Haughey—in naming him minister for finance in 1966 Lynch sought to turn a poacher into a gamekeeper of public finances, a risky strategy. (Irish Times)

As he set out for his holidays on 9 August 1969, Lynch knew—and his recent successful conflict-resolution exercise with Boland was a dress rehearsal and a warning—that the pending crisis in Northern Ireland would bring to the fore significant philosophical and political divisions within Fianna Fáil. The politics of partition were emotive. Those differences were, as the Boland letter in June showed, also present within the cabinet. Lynch had become taoiseach in 1966, when Northern Ireland and the question of partition took a second place to the securing of Irish membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). Both Lemass and Lynch had taken significant steps to ‘normalise’ relations between Dublin and Belfast. A number of the members of his cabinet did not like his politics of accommodation and conciliation with Stormont. By summer 1969, Northern Ireland was a polity in crisis. In those radically changed circumstances, was Lynch now the man to lead Fianna Fáil and secure an end to partition?
Lynch did not use the traditional emotive Fianna Fáil rhetoric on partition. His family background, his upbringing in Cork and the intellectual influence of his wife, Máirín, conditioned him to be sceptical of the radical republican camp. His ministerial experience in education, industry and commerce and finance reinforced his strong convictions that placed emphasis on the power of tolerance, mutual understanding, persuasion and conciliation. Atavistic surges and radical demands for ‘the re-integration of the national territory’ were not characteristic of his leadership style.
Lynch’s friendship and intellectual relationship with the secretary of the Department of Finance, Dr Ken Whitaker, endured throughout his public life in the 1960s and into retirement in the 1980s and 1990s. Lynch relied very heavily on the latter’s advice and speech-writing skills throughout the critical period of 1968–73. Dr Whitaker, as governor of the Central Bank from 1969, continued to advise Lynch and to help formulate policy on Northern Ireland. The delineation of that relationship does not in any way downplay the important role in this regard played by his senior officials in the Departments of An Taoiseach and External Affairs. The diplomat Eamonn Gallagher, who died in May 2009, is deserving of a major study. He was consistently the diplomat most central and important to Lynch in the early and most difficult years of the conflict in Northern Ireland. His deep knowledge of, and high-level contacts in, Northern Ireland were to make his reports essential reading for Lynch.
When news of the violence in Derry and elsewhere in Northern Ireland reached Lynch on 12 August, he made immediate preparations to hold a cabinet meeting the following day. All ministers and relevant senior civil servants were recalled from their holidays. The atmosphere in the cabinet room on 13 August was highly charged and emotions ran high. (I have reconstructed the course of that cabinet meeting in my biography of Lynch.) The initiatives taken that day were quite practical and avoided any suggestion of deploying Irish troops across the border in Northern Ireland. Instructions were given to the army to establish field hospitals in County Donegal adjacent to Derry and at other points along the border.

Lynch’s 13 August broadcast
The broadcast by Lynch on RTÉ television on 13 August 1969 was not a detached philosophical statement. The message was clear:

l the Stormont government was no longer in control of the situation;

l the forces of sectarianism were abroad and the RUC was no longer accepted as an impartial police force;

l the deployment of British troops would not be acceptable or likely to restore peaceful conditions;

therefore London was asked to request the United Nations to send a peacekeeping force to Northern Ireland.
Lynch told viewers that the Irish government ‘can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse’. The latter is one of the most misquoted lines in modern Irish politics. The same speech also contained a classical nationalist formula that the reunification of the national territory could provide the only permanent solution to the problem. Lynch proposed talks with London to review the constitutional position of the ‘six counties of Northern Ireland’. But reunification would only come, as he said on 28 August, ‘by peaceful means’.

Minister for agriculture Neil Blaney at the Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis in January 1970—a month previously he told an audience in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal: ‘The Fianna Fáil Party has never taken a decision to rule out the use of force if the circumstances in the Six Counties so demanded’. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Minister for agriculture Neil Blaney at the Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis in January 1970—a month previously he told an audience in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal: ‘The Fianna Fáil Party has never taken a decision to rule out the use of force if the circumstances in the Six Counties so demanded’. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Lynch’s consistent position as taoiseach was to eschew the use of force. On 19 August 1969, he had responded very determinedly to an inflammatory IRA statement that purported to speak and act for the Irish people. ‘The government will not tolerate the usurpation of their powers by any group whatsoever’, he said. The instructions to the gardaí were very explicit and unambiguous. Neil Blaney, however, told an audience in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, on 8 December 1969: ‘The Fianna Fáil Party has never taken a decision to rule out the use of force if the circumstances in the Six Counties so demanded’. Lynch said memorably at the Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis on 17 January 1970: ‘And so, as I have said, our course is clear: amity, not enmity, is our ideal; persuasion, not persecution, must be our method; and integration, not imposition, must be our ultimate achievement’. (Those words were drafted by the writer and literary editor David Marcus, who died in May 2009.)
Unmoved by Lynch’s words, Blaney believed that desperate times required desperate measures. Arms were ‘needed’ in the North, and Blaney and Haughey set out to meet that need. There were strict guidelines laid down to cover the official procurement of arms. They were ignored in March and April 1970, when taxpayers’ money was used to buy arms. The subsequent effort to bring the arms in by sea and air failed, thanks to the vigilance of the Special Branch. The arms purchase was not authorised by, or known to, Lynch.
When Lynch sacked Blaney and Haughey in May 1970, and forced the resignation of the minister for justice, Micheál Ó Moráin, he was acting on good intelligence and good sources—sources that ought to have been available to him weeks before if the decision-making system had been working as it should. When given the necessary information by the Department of Justice and by the leader of the opposition, Liam Cosgrave, Lynch took decisive action. Those actions stand out in Irish public life in the twentieth century. Resignation and sacking were, and are, not part of Irish political culture. Lynch did what he did to protect the integrity of his government and to preserve policy and public order. He made history by those drastic actions.
In an answer to those who wanted to employ violence as a tool to end partition, Lynch outlined his thinking on Northern Ireland in a national address on RTÉ on 11 July 1970. He said that ‘all Irish traditions are intertwined; let us all cherish them all’. He committed himself to the peaceful unification of Ireland: ‘In this there is a motive—so I will state that too. It is that in this island there shall never again be fear, turning to hatred, turning to bloodshed.’ Lynch also committed the country to Anglo-Irish friendship, expressing regret for the injuries suffered to British soldiers during their tours of duty in Northern Ireland—a situation ‘which must seem to them inexplicable’. Lynch said that it was for political leaders to govern wisely and justly, and it was ‘not a job for soldiers’. Lynch did not pursue a two-track policy. He kept to the fore the sentiments expressed above, and prevented a number of his front-benchers from developing rival policy positions. That should not be underestimated.  HI

Dermot Keogh is Professor of History, University College Cork, and author of Jack Lynch—a biography (reviewed on p. 65).

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