By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Tens of thousands of people paid tribute to former Taoiseach Jack Lynch last week during three days of national mourning that culminated in a state funeral in his native Cork.
President Mary McAleese, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, government ministers and leading figures from all walks of life joined with his family and friends at a service Saturday in Cork’s North Cathedral, where Lynch was baptized 82 years ago.
The congregation at the funeral Mass spilled out onto the streets outside and heard Cork’s bishop, John Buckley, describe Lynch, who died Wednesday, as a "great and good man" who could "rightfully take his place in any pantheon of great Irish people."
The bishop paid particular tribute to Lynch’s widow, Mairin, for the unstinting support she had given during his long career.
"Honest Jack," whose political integrity and modest circumstances have been compared with the lavish lifestyle and hypocrisy of his successor, the disgraced Charles Haughey, was the first Irish leader of the post-independence generation.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
In the Cathedral congregation, Haughey was seated beside Desmond O’Malley. In 1985, O’Malley was thrown out of Fianna Fail for "conducting unbecoming" when Haughey was leader.
O’Malley, who went on to co-found the Progressive Democrat party, was a close friend and political protégé of Lynch. It was not a senior Fianna Fail figure, but O’Malley, who had been dumped by the party, who delivered an emotional graveside oration in St. Finbarr’s Cemetery.
Standing beside another former Fianna Fail minister, Martin O’Donoghue, who was also reduced to non-person status under the Haughey regime and even saw his government department vanish, O’Malley said he was overwhelmed at being chosen to mark the passing of one of the great Irish leaders.
He described Lynch’s life as one of public service and he spoke of the "deluge of volatility among other things" that followed his leadership.
To applause from the crowd standing in pouring rain in the cemetery, O’Malley said Lynch’s most important legacy was his guidance of the country as a democratic state during the early stages of the Northern Ireland Troubles.
"Thirty years ago as a nation we were confronted with a stark choice," O’Malley said. "We could have caved in to sinister elements and put our country at mortal risk. Jack Lynch chose not to. When he came to the crossroads of history 30 years ago, he knew which turn to take.
"Confronted with some of the most difficult decisions to face any taoiseach of the modern era, he took determined and resolute action to defend democracy and to uphold the rule of law. Upon such foundations, are freedom and prosperity built.
"Had this country taken the wrong turn 30 years ago, I fear to think what might have befallen us."
Praise from leaders
Lynch was one of six children of a tailor and a seamstress and was taoiseach during some of the most turbulent times in modern Irish history when law and order broke down in Northern Ireland.
His policy of non-violence and his steadying hand is credited with preventing a serious deterioration in the situation and an overspill of violence into the Republic when the North erupted.
He held office from 1966-73, during which time the Northern Ireland Troubles began, and again from 1977-79.
President Mary McAleese, who said he brought special qualities of integrity and commitment to a distinguished career, led warm tributes to him.
She said he was a gentleman who had "seed-bedded" the peace process.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern described him as a statesman who would always be associated with his great feats of sportsmanship and his unique political charisma.
"His leadership saw the nation through a period of great political tension and turbulence."
Highly popular with his ever-present pipe as his trademark, his most notable political achievements were to lead Ireland into the EEC and negotiate entry into the European Monetary System, thus ending the one-for-one parity between the Irish punt and Britain’s sterling.
He also steered Fianna Fail to a new policy on Northern Ireland at a time of high emotion.
He was TD for Cork from 1948-81 and said he was motivated to stand for the Dail to try and help alleviate poverty he had grown up with in Cork. He served as minister for finance, education and industry.
A former civil servant and barrister, he was originally regarded as a reluctant leader of Fianna Fail.
He took over the helm of the party in 1966 as a compromise leader when it was divided about whether ministers George Colley, Charles Haughey or Neil Blaney should succeed former Taoiseach Sean Lemass.
He once said, "Yes I was reluctant, but, nevertheless, having overcome that reluctance initially, then I discarded it completely ever after and took on the job with a will and a purpose."
His soft-spoken, mild-mannered image concealed a steely determination.
Before he entered politics his name was already nationally known for his GAA achievements. He held the unique distinction of winning six All-Ireland medals in a row in both hurling and Gaelic football in 1941-46. It is a record that has never been beaten.
Lynch showed his political mettle when he fired two of the most power members of his party, Haughey, then his finance minister, and Agriculture Minister Neil Blaney, in 1970 in the so-called arms crisis.
Both were later charged and acquitted of conspiracy to import arms for republicans in Northern Ireland. Lynch’s local government minister, Kevin Boland, stepped down in sympathy with his two colleagues, and Justice Minister Michael O Morain also resigned because of ill health.
Lynch, with no great pedigree in Fianna Fail, had taken on some of the most powerful members of dynasties within the party. They almost embodied the party while Lynch was viewed by many as an interloper without a republican pedigree.
The arms crisis and the loss of four senior ministers were a traumatic experience for Lynch and it tested his leadership skills to hold the party together.
Former President Paddy Hillery, who worked closely with Lynch as a minister at the time, said he showed immense physical strength in dealing with the crisis. "He suffered terribly," recalled. "He lost at least half a stone, maybe a stone, in just a week."
Ironically, Lynch’s nemesis arose out of his greatest political victory. He got the highest political endorsement of any taoiseach in history when he swept back to power in 1977 with a record 84 TDs.
Former Fine Gael Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave has described him as the most popular man in Ireland since Daniel O’Connell. Even in opposition, Lynch was called the "Real Taoiseach."
Labor’s Jim Tully, the environment minister in the outgoing Fine Gael-Labor coalition, had redrawn constituency boundaries and it was expected that this would ensure a return to power of the coalition in 1977.
The scale of his landslide — leaving him with an unheard of 20 seat majority — astonished Lynch himself and he immediately warned that his huge victory spelled trouble for the future.
Lynch’s 1977 victory also brought economic troubles. He came back to power with a controversial manifesto of tax cuts, including the abolition of property rates and car tax. The huge tax giveaway sowed the seeds of serious economic problems that were compounded in later years by a soaring public service pay bill.
Haughey had fought his way back and was restored to the opposition front bench five years after the arms crisis. He succeeded Lynch as taoiseach when he stepped down in 1979.
Despite still having an unassailable majority, Lynch had departed early — prompted by two Cork by election defeats in 1979 — after a draining period of ministerial and backbench disloyalty.
He accepted assurances from loyal colleagues that George Colley would be able to muster sufficient votes to secure a victory over Haughey. Haughey won by 44 votes to 38.
Haughey said in a tribute on RTE last week that Lynch had unrivaled popularity and he admired him greatly.
He refused to be drawn into commenting on his differences with Lynch.
Haughey said of his firing by Lynch in 1970: "He had to do that. I accept what he had to do and I had to do what I had to do. I don’t think there is any point in dwelling on those matters at this stage.
"Taoiseachs from time to time have to do certain things. We all had to do them. You probably don’t like having to do them. But that’s the job, and you do your job."
Asked about suggestions that Lynch had been very disappointed that he was his successor, Haughey said: "I don’t know about that. I wouldn’t venture any opinion. He certainly never indicated anything of that sort to me."
Lynch’s first administration had to deal thousands of nationalist refugees who poured south when the Northern Ireland Troubles erupted.
He resisted calls from the hard-line republican wing of Fianna Fail to send troops into the North in August 1969, though he sought the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force — much to the irritation of London at the time.
One of the most famous speeches by Lynch at the time has been much misquoted and led to him being derided by republicans as "Union Jack": "The Irish Government can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse."
With nationalist enclaves under siege in Belfast and Derry at the time, this was changed to "the Irish government won’t stand idly by…" with all its implications of Irish troops coming to the rescue and suggestions that the Bogside and Newry would be taken over.
"Somebody imported the word idly," Lynch said later, "I didn’t bother at the time to deny it. I should have I suppose, but now it has gained currency and credence.
"There was no intention whatever to send troops across the border. It would have been completely foolish and irresponsible for us to do a thing like that."
He said the attitude of the British government when the Troubles started was that the North was none of Dublin’s business.
He had a difficult relationship with British Prime Minister Ted Heath. In 1972, he recalled the ambassador from London in protest at the Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry when the British army shot dead 14 unarmed civilians during a civil rights march.
Lynch skillfully changed a divided Fianna Fail’s direction on the North. The former policy had been unity of the country by peaceful means but not, as a precondition, with the consent of the Northern Ireland unionists. Lynch made consent a precondition.
Speaking of the role of Lynch when the crisis in the North erupted in 1969 and ’70, Austin Currie, a founding member of the SDLP and now a Fine Gael backbencher, said that a wrong move on his part would have led to the destabilization of the whole island.
"Jack Lynch did as a much as he could in an extremely dangerous and potentially explosive situation and as little as he could in view of the pressures on him to do something radical," Currie said.