Taoiseach Profile: Jack Lynch, Ireland's most popular Taoiseach?

The new leader for Fianna Fáil...

 General Election, Fianna Fáil, Taoisigh

Jack Lynch in 1983. Image: RollingNews.ie

With the General Election nearly upon us, we take a look back at some of the Taoisigh that have graced the halls of the Leinster House, what their greatest political achievements were and how this has impacted directly on Ireland.

From Eamon DeValera to Enda Kenny, the careers of these Taoisigh changed the course of Ireland's political history and helped form this little nation.

The third in our series today is Jack Lynch, the leader of Fianna Fáil from 1966 following the resignation of Seán Lemass.

Who was he?

Born in Cork in 1917, John Mary, or Jack as he was known, was the youngest of five boys with two younger sisters. His mother died at an early age and he was taken into the care of his aunt. While working in the Circuit Court Office in Cork, he attended an evening course on law in UCC, later being called to the bar and setting up a small practice in Cork. He married Máirín O'Connor in 1936. The couple had no children.

Lynch was a keen sportsman and won an impressive number of medals in the years he was active.  He won five All-Ireland hurling championships with Cork and Cork’s first All-Ireland football championship in 1945. He also had a keen interest in handball and rugby.

In 1948, he topped the poll for the Cork borough and was deemed elected to the Dáil where he became a research assistant and speech writer for Eamon De Valera while the party remained in opposition.

Back in power

Lynch was given the position of Parliamentary Secretary when Fianna Fáil came back to power in 1951 eventually taking over the brief of Minister for Education in 1957, a post he contributed monumentally to, raising the school leaving age and reducing class sizes. He also removed the ban on married teachers keeping employment.

Following the resignation of De Valera in 1959 and the ascension of Lemass to Taoiseach, Lynch assumed the role of Minister for Industry and Commerce, a role he took from the then Taoiseach, a mark that was severely felt by Lynch who found it difficult to manouevre around the role. He assumed the office of Minister for Finance in Lemass's second government, an appointment which meant he was being prepared for the role of leader after the Lemass departure.

In 1966, after the resignation of Lemass and a hotly contested leadership race, he assumed the role of Taoiseach and leader of the party.

An Taoiseach

Although Lynch was an extremely popular leader, he led a shaky party. Three prominent members had run against him in the leadership race and he gained a reputation of being somewhat the "Reluctant Taoiseach", a label he completely wanted to disassociate himself from, claiming he was in this for the long run.

However, during his term, the issue of the North began to raise its head once again. Relations had continued on somewhat the same level since the Lemass cabinet but in the North, the real Troubles were just about to begin. The situation began to deteriorate with many believing that Ireland would intervene miliatarily, although Lynch and his cabinet ruled this out. On the 30th of January, 1972, 14 unarmed civilians were killed by British soliders and the British Embassy was burnt in Dublin due to anti-British sentiment in the South.

Then came the Arms Crisis. Allegations came to the fore in 1970 which accused two of the prominent ministers in Lynch's cabinet of using aid to buy arms for the Provisional IRA. Those Minsiters were Charles J. Haughey and Neil Blaney and they were both subsequently sacked from the party by Lynch, an act which caused division in his party.

A modern Ireland

Lynch continued to build on the Lemass vision while in office. Famously, he let his Ministers control their own briefs, assuming more of a Chairman type role and he also pushed for Irish involvement in the EEC. In 1973, Ireland was officially accepted, a defining moment for the country and for European relations.

Social changes significantly helped his popularity. Free secondary school education was introduced along with free travel for students. This was also extended to old age pensioners. He also introduced a number of welfare changes for women, means-tested allowance for unmarried mothers, a maternity allowance and an allowance for a destered mother.

Opposition and Second Term

In 1973, Lynch found himself in opposition for the first time in 16 years when the coalition of Labour and Fine Gael went into Government. During this time, he managed to assume complete control of the party, eventually nominating Haughey back to the front benches, an act he was criticised for greatly. His time in opposition made sure that Fianna Fáil made it into government again in 1977 with a 20 seat majority. Lynch himself received the biggest personal vote in the state.

However, on entering the Dáil, Lynch had already decided that he would not run for another election. Despite an impressive range of economic policies which included the abolition of car taxes and domestic rates, the economy suffered badly in 1979. 

He also faced an open revolt in the party, particularly around the issues of farm tax and the controversial Family Planning Bill introduced by Charles Haughey. Haughey proposed that only married women would be able to avail of contraception. One TD failed to turn up to vote, a TD who was not supsended by Lynch, damaging his reputation.

Things became worse in 1979 with a five-year postal strike and the flaring up of Troubles in the North. Lynch attempted to work out a deal with Margaret Thatcher but led to direct challenges against his leadership. The visit of the Pope was the last great hurrah of his government and by December, Lynch was forced to resign. Although Colley was his favourite choice of successor, Haughey took over following a challenging leadership race.

Impact on Politics 

Although Lynch was often named as the Reluctant Taoiseach, he had a number of positive impacts on the country and on Fianna Fáil. Taking over after the last of the old guard was never going to be easy but Lynch somehow managed to smooth over some of the obvious divisions in his party.

However, the party somehow got away with him. Highly regarded, he never fully gained control over livewire members who lusted for power and leadership. With changes made to the economy, in 1979 Ireland recorded the worst economy in a developed world. Something wasn't working. The situation in the North proved to be out of his control, perhaps through no fault of his and with Ireland constantly changing, his party were finding it a little difficult to keep up with the changes in lifestyle for ordinary people.

Described as the Relucatant Taoiseach, he was later referred to as the Real Taoiseach and the opposition leader, Liam Cosgrave, claimed he was the "most popular politician since Daniel O'Connell".