Soldier, Statesman

Savage says Sean Lemass pushed Ireland forward

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

As a soldier, Sean Lemass was at many key flashpoints of Ireland's war for independence in the early 20th century. But it was the battles he fought decades later as a statesman, says Irish Studies Associate Director Robert Savage, that place him among the great Irish leaders.

As taoiseach, or prime minister, in the early 1960s, Savage explains, Lemass pursued economic and political strategies that helped transform Ireland from an insular backwater into a modern, sophisticated nation that later became a major player in the world market.

Moreover, it was Lemass - renowned as a zealous combatant in the Irish rebellion and civil war - who made overtures to Northern Ireland and England during his administration, ushering in the long period of slow but steady reconciliation that continues today.

Savage examines Lemass' long and illustrious career in the forthcoming book Sean Lemass , offering an insight into a man who, although recalled as an activist unafraid to take chances, was a tenacious, canny politician who accepted, if grudgingly, the need for compromise to achieve his ends.

"Lemass is a fascinating person and a pivotal character," said Savage of his subject, who died in 1971 at age 71. "Relatively late in his life, he became something of a pioneer, because he recognized the need for change if Ireland was to grow and prosper.

"If Lemass looked at Ireland today, he'd see that a lot of his dreams have been realized . Emigration has largely halted , the economy is robust , the Church's influence is less absolute , and the peace process, for all its problems, is still going on."
Robert Savage: "If Lemass looked at Ireland today, he'd see that a lot of his dreams have been realized."

Among 20th century Irish leaders, Savage says, Lemass stands alongside yet well apart from Eamon de Valera, another veteran of the rebellion who co-founded with him the political party Fianna Fail. After years in de Valera's cabinet, Lemass became taoiseach in 1959 and proceeded to dismantle the counterproductive, protectionist tariffs his predecessor had imposed.

The resulting foreign investment and public spending breathed new life into Ireland's economy, which grew 4 percent in five years - double the rate even Lemass had predicted - and brought new jobs and healthy consumer spending. Although Ireland would suffer serious economic setbacks in the 1970s and '80s, it was well on the way to establishing its presence in the global marketplace.

Another challenge Lemass faced was addressing the Catholic Church's role in Irish society. For Ireland to become a truly modern country, Lemass believed there should be "a more distinct line drawn between church and state," Savage said, and a constitution less overtly Catholic. He convened a special committee to explore these issues, and how Ireland could recognize the sensibilities of Protestants or other non-Catholics. This effort eventually fostered a wider discussion on sensitive topics such as divorce and contraception.

Lemass is also remembered for his attempts at rapprochement with England and Northern Ireland, prompted by his rejection of political violence after the torture and murder of his brother during the civil war of the 1920s.

"His experiences gave him good credibility in opening a dialogue with Unionists and London," said Savage. "He could get away with doing that and not be accused of selling out. In doing so, he changed the Irish Republic's mode of thinking: Where the government had regarded the North as simply 'the Six Counties,' now it was 'Northern Ireland.'"

Events in Northern Ireland in the years following Lemass' resignation in 1966 snuffed out any hopes of immediate compromise or reform, but Savage says his efforts deserve acknowledgment.

"Lemass' desire to engage the Northern Ireland government was a sincere attempt to find common ground where both administrations could at least begin a dialogue," he said. "The concept of economic cooperation as a way to encourage reunification was overly optimistic, perhaps even simplistic. But he genuinely sought to find an alternative to the hostility that had defined Dublin-Belfast relations since the 1920s."

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