Life of republic marked by patriot

Sean Lemass
April 16, 1999

"All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs."

Enoch Powell's celebrated (and characteristically oracular) dictum has become a cliche. It may hold true as a general rule, but the career of Sean Lemass, taoiseach from 1959 until 1966, provides a notable exception. Lemass, one of the most important figures in the history of independent Ireland, chose his own moment to take his leave of politics. Since his death in 1971 his reputation has risen while that of Eamon de Valera, his predecessor as Fianna Fail leader, has (broadly speaking) continued to decline.

Sean Lemass: The Enigmatic Patriot is the third biography to date. Like both previous efforts it is largely positive in approach; however, it is the first full-length treatment and is based on thorough archival research. A model of sound scholarship and sober judgement, it stands as one of the finest biographies of any Irish politician of this century.

Lemass enjoyed a career of a longevity unusual by any standards other than those of Ireland in its first half-century of independence. He was in office, with only two relatively short breaks, from 1932 to 1966.

His public career did not begin with his entry into cabinet. He fought in the Easter Rising, and was in the IRA during the Anglo-Irish war (John Horgan believes that he was one of the squad which murdered 11 British intelligence agents on "Bloody Sunday" in 1920).

Lemass was an opponent of the 1921 treaty, and left the IRA only when he was expelled in 1925. But he succeeded in moving from revolutionary to constitutional politics and, after breaking with Sinn Fein, was a founder member of Fianna Fail. As Horgan observes, for Lemass executive power became "the primary language of political communication".

Horgan is reluctant to use for Lemass the word that is most often applied to his approach to politics - "pragmatic". But it seems the most appropriate term for Lemass's attitude to Northern Ireland, the area in which his contribution was perhaps most positive and far-reaching.

He pioneered a de facto recognition of partition. He dropped the pejorative description of Northern Ireland as "the Six Counties", and went to Belfast to meet Terence O'Neill, the then prime minister of Northern Ireland. As Horgan notes, his attitudes hardened after 1969, but he nevertheless deserves recognition as a "grandfather" of the Good Friday Agreement.

Only a few of Horgan's opinions are questionable. He says that Lemass felt "contempt" for intellectuals. But how is this to be reconciled with his voracious reading and his interest in economic thought? It is equally hard to accept Horgan's view that Lemass was not hard-hearted when he objected to a proposal to admit 250 Jewish refugees after the last war: De Valera was prepared to accept as many as 10,000. And it is questionable whether the claim that there was a "strong vein of agnosticism" in Lemass's attitude to religion can rest securely on reports that he doubted the afterlife: outwardly, at least, he was assiduous in his practice of the Catholic faith.

Colin Armstrong is a freelance writer specialising in Northern Irish affairs.

Sean Lemass: The Enigmatic Patriot

Author - John Horgan
ISBN - 0 7171 2079 1
Publisher - Gill and Macmillan
Price - £19.99
Pages - 424

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