Category: Archive

Former TaoiseachJack Lynchis dead at 82

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — Former Taoiseach Jack Lynch, who was the first Irish leader of the post-civil war generation, has died, aged 82, after a long illness.

Born in the shadow of Shandon Church in Cork in August 1917, he was taoiseach during some of the most turbulent times in modern Irish history when law and order broke down in Northern Ireland.

He held office between 1966 and 1973 when the Northern Ireland Troubles erupted and again from 1977 to 1979.

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.

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"His leadership saw the nation through a period of great political tension and turbulence," Ahern said.

A highly popular pipe-smoking leader, his most notable political achievements were to lead Ireland into the European Economic Community 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 in the country.

He was TD for Cork from 1948-81 and served as Minister for Finance, Education and Industry.

Fianna Fail leader

A former civil servant and barrister, he was originally regarded as a reluctant leader of Fianna Fáil. He took over the helm of the party in 1966 as a compromise leader when it was divided about whether two others ministers George Colley and Charles Haughey should succeed former Taoiseach Sean Lemass.

His soft-spoken and apparently 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 resigned in sympathy with his two colleagues and Justice Minister Michael O Moráin 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.

Arms crisis

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 as the North erupted.

Former President Paddy Hillery, who worked closely with Lynch as a minister at the time, said Lynch showed immense physical strength in dealing with the crisis. "He suffered terribly. He lost at least half a stone, maybe a stone, in just a week," Hillery said.

Lynch has been criticized for not acting sooner against the arms plot and later, for reigning after two Cork by-election defeats in 1979 and leaving a legacy of a deeply divided Fianna Fail.

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 described him as the most popular man in Ireland since Daniel O’Connell.

Labour’s Jim Tully, the environment minister in the outgoing Fine Gael-Labour coalition, had re-drawn constituency boundaries and it was expected that this would ensure a return to power of the coalition.

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 spelt 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. Inevitably the huge tax giveaway sowed the seeds of serious economic problems as the bills had to be paid.

Haughey 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.

Haughey’s reaction

Haughey said in a tribute that Lynch had unrivalled popularity and he admired him greatly. He refused to be drawn into commenting on differences between himself and 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.

"Taoisigh 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."

The North

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.

He had a difficult relationship with British Prime Minister Ted Heath and 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 skilfully changed his Fianna Fail’s direction on the North. The former policy had been unity of the country by peaceful means but not, as a pre-condition, with the consent of the Northern Ireland unionists. Lynch made consent a pre-condition.

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