FitzGerald: How a single Dail debate lanced a bloody boil of war…

I’ve no doubt we will hear more about the way we need to handle the past in the wake of the publication of last week’s publication of the Saville report. But I was struck by Garrett FitzGerald’s piece in Saturday’s Irish Times which subtly highlights the difference – at the time of the shootings – between having a functional democratic parliamentary assembly (ie the Oireachtas), and having a supremely dysfunctional one (ie, contemporary Stormont) in this personal anecdote, first on local reaction amongst people who theretofore had been highly moderate nationalists:

Three days later, with Tom O’Higgins, Alexis FitzGerald and Michael Sweetman (a young and brilliant party activist tragically killed shortly afterwards in the Staines air crash), I drove to Derry for the funeral. We were met at the Border by a friend of John Hume. After the funeral we were brought to an SDLP house for a meal. But when afterwards I brought plates into the kitchen a woman said to me “Isn’t it great that so many are joining?” “Joining what?”, I asked, bemused. “The IRA, of course,” another woman answered.

And then in Dublin

…on the day after the funerals, which had been a day of mourning, there was a full nine-hour debate.

In his opening remarks in that debate the taoiseach, Jack Lynch, warned that people proclaiming to be members of illegal organisations had gone around intimidating people and seeking to give the impression that these organisations were now to have a free hand. They would, he warned, play on the sympathies and emotions of ordinary people.

The fifth speech was by Neil Blaney, an Independent since he had been arrested and charged after the Arms Crisis two years earlier. We should do what any red-blooded people would do, he said: stand up and tell Mr Heath and his government that we were getting our Army on full stand-to. We want the Army on the Border, he said, and if the Dáil gave the right leadership, the Six Counties were now ours for the taking.

That speech had a profound effect on the rest of the debate, with many voicing their concerns about the dangers to our democratic system if emotions were allowed to determine the direction of our policy. My own remarks about what I described as Neil Blaney’s “war policy” provoked him to describe me as a liar and a “ranting halfwit”.

During that debate a dangerous boil was lanced. The solidarity of our democratic politicians won through, against the tide of emotion about the Derry atrocity that could so easily have overwhelmed us.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty