The latest in our series of profiles of unlikely individuals takes as its subject the late Kevin Boland, which might cause readers to scratch their heads a little. Kevin, it must be said, was not an anti-capitalist, nor was he an anti-imperialist except in the limited sense of being consistently anti-British. Yet this most establishment of Irish politicos would end up as an exponent of a distinctively Irish strand of radicalism.
It was of course the explosion in the North in 1969, and the consequent Arms Non-Crisis, that threw Kevin into a serious political tailspin. Unlike Neil and Charlie, he himself had not been implicated in the arms importation scheme; nonetheless, he resigned not only his ministry, but even his Dáil seat. (Kevin was always one for standing on his honour, even at some cost to himself.) He then went further and set up a splinter party, vowing the destruction of the Fianna Fáil party he had grown up in. This was in sharp contrast to Charlie, who in Kevin’s colourful phrase ate humble pie till it was coming out of his ears, being determined, doubtless on the advice of Pádraig Ó hAnnracháin, to stay within the fold at all times and wait for his inevitable elevation.
There is a superficial version of this put about by those who have reasons to burnish the Lynch legend. The argument is – Stephen Collins recaps this in The Power Game – that Kevin was an unstable character, given to threatening resignation whenever he felt at all unhappy, and that anyway he’d always been an extreme republican. By this interpretation, the vast majority of the Fianna Fáil party prior to 1969 was “extreme republican”. You can’t explain by this why Gerry Boland had savagely suppressed militant republicanism during the Emergency, or why Kevin sat in the cabinet that interned republicans – notably Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, at the time an elected TD – during Operation Harvest.
The explanation is that the Bolands, in distinction to the Lemass technocrats, were Fianna Fáil ideologues. That is to say, they continued to take the party programme seriously. Today, the Fianna Fáil “ethos” has got pretty convoluted, and the party’s former radicalism a museum piece. But the original 1927 programme repays study – the ideas found in the La Scala speeches, the resolutions of the First Ard Fheis and the Seven Aims written into the Córú. Nowadays, the Seven Aims – which may still be in the Córú for all I know – would be as obscure as cuneiform tablets to your average FF TD, what with the economic ones being in breach of EU law, reunification being reduced to the rhetorical level and language revival not far behind it.
Make no mistake, although the New Departure of 1927 was a turn to constitutional methods, the programme was a revolutionary one, for the abolition of the Saorstát. This divided into two stages, removing the legal impedimenta to the southern state’s independence and ending partition. As we know, the first was achieved, more or less, with the enactment of the Bunreacht in 1937. The second would remain in abeyance. Then, when the northern colony collapsed and an opportunity to end partition presented itself, Fianna Fáil buckled. The question Kevin had to ask was, why?
The answer was a sobering one, about how a once radical party had become institutionalised. As Kevin would point out, quoting Seán Etchingham’s arguments in the Treaty debates, the party had accumulated decades of Free State fat. From being a movement dedicated to abolishing the state, Fianna Fáil had become one of the biggest vested interests in the state. Hence the cry that went up in 1969, “We must preserve what we have achieved down here”, and its obvious corollary, “We must restore stability up there”.
That’s how Kevin came to the position that, if FF was no longer the constitutional republican party, it needed to be replaced. He was worried that FF’s desertion would lead to the national struggle devolving to the Provos. (A lot of us thought that, although not all of us were worried about it.) This was the logic behind the Aontacht Éireann experiment, which ended in failure, notwithstanding Blaney’s Provisional Fianna Fáil being a sort of local analogue in Donegal. The failure was probably inevitable – the new party had few defectors, no resources and its political horizons were confined by the historical FF programme. There was also FF’s legendary discipline and pronounced leader cult, which led lots of party activists to tell Kevin they agreed with him, but couldn’t break from the party. And, all told, maybe in the 1970s there really wasn’t a market for a slightly constitutional republican party.
So, Kevin didn’t leave a political movement behind him, and it’s tempting to see him just as a holdover of an earlier era, a traditionalist Fianna Fáiler who couldn’t accommodate to the new technocratic age. But he did bring his old-fashioned republicanism to bear as a sharp critic of the Irish political class, and, while he never moved leftwards, he did deepen his critique over the years in some relevant ways, notably in economic policy. And anyone who’s interested in Irish political history might like to track down his books, which are all long out of print but can still be found in second-hand shops. Up Dev! is a rollicking personal account of the Arms Non-Crisis and its aftermath, scathing about the Lynch administration and told with a mordant wit that belies Kevin’s image as a dour old curmudgeon, and well deserving of a reprint. The Rise and Decline of Fianna Fáil takes in a broader historical sweep and is narrated in a more restrained style, but still useful for the student of FF. There are some minor works as well, but those two will give the reader a fair taste of the old-fashioned de Valera republicanism that tends to make de Valera’s latter-day heirs shuffle their feet in embarrassment.