Behind the O'Connell affair
THE POLITICAL PARTY nominating conventions have caused greater bitterness and controversy this election than ever before. The Labour Party has had its problems in East Limerick where Councillor Michael Lipper was offered a ticket for tWo days "due to doctors ordcrs" and in Dublin North East where it took the threat of Party Leadcr Brendan Corish to resign to ensure Dr. Conor Cruise O'Brien was acceptcd as thc candidate in that area. Fianna Fail has had its problems too, again in East Limerick, Dr. Hilda O'Malley resigncd from the Party and has declared hcr candidature as an Independent charging Fianna Fail with rigging thc convention therc; and in Dublin North Central where the Haughcy/Colley dispute of a few years back raised irs ugly head again over the nomination of Tacatcer Dcrmot Ryan and ex Lord Mayor Tom Stafford. BUt it has bcen the gentlemanly sedate, middle-class Finc Gac1 that has becn most beset by convention difficulties, controvcrsy has surrounded conventions in five constitUencies in the Dublin area alone.
By far the most serious of these controversies has of course bcen the one in Dublin South Central which led to the refusal of the standing committee to ratify the nomination of Mr, Maurice O'ConneIl-the subsequent resignation of Mr, O'Connell from the Party and his stand as an Independent candidate in that area. A Maverick O'Connell has bcen branded as a maverick within the Fine Gael party practically since his eleCtion as a member of Dublin Corporation in June 1967, In October of that year hc wrote a letter to the Press criticising the equivocation of party policy and calling for a more explicit committment on social issues. This letter evoked a mild rebuke from Mr, Gerry Sweetman the p~s director of organisation, who in the course of a communication on another matter mentioned that he "would be much better off helping the party in Byelections than writing letters to the papers" .
In the March 1968 issue of Hibemia O'Connell wrote an article again criticising the party's equivocation and general issue, this time there was no official reaction of any kind.
At thc 1968 Ard Fheis O'Connell castigated the leadership for allowing Olivcr J. Flanagan to rcpresent thc party at a recent ecclesiastical function
as he had in the previous February advocated the practice of political jobbery on thc Late, Late Show. A few weeks later on June 4th O'Connell appeared on Scven Days and in the coursc of a pancl discussion said that Cosgrave would "not be Leader of Fine Gael for ever"--c1early implying that he would prefcr a more dynamic and purposeful candidatc for Leader of the Party. Shortly afterwards he was requested by the standing committee to give reasons for his T.V. remarks and he rcplied that hc thought the times demanded a more determined and convincing leadership, but that he had no pcrsonal animosity towards Cosgrave.
The standing committee were very dissatisfied with the terms of this reply and the question of O'Connell's expulsion from the Party was discussed. However due to the intervention of Ritchie Ryan and Garret Fitzgerald a compromise was agreed to whcreby O'ConneIl gave a written undertaken not to raise the leadership question again.
In January of this year when Dec1an CosteIlo reaffirmed his dccision to retire from politics, O'Connell in a statement to the newspapers said that under a more vigorous and dynamic leadership Costello might well have decided otherwise. There was no official reaction to this statement.
O'ConncIl justifies this apparent breach of his undertaking not to raise the leadership issue on the grounds that Costello's refusal to retUrn to active politics itself raised the leadership question and he was simply commenting upon it.
In the meantime a bill was introduced in the Dail providing for the re-drawing of constitUency boundaries. Under the terms of this bill the west end of the existing constitUency of Dublin South East and the east end of the existing constitUency of Dublin South West were to be formed into a reconstitUted constitUency of Dublin South Central. This change brought Maurice O'Connell and Ritchie Ryan together into one constitUcncy.
An inaugural meeting of the new constitUency executive was hcld in February 1969 under the Chairmanship of Mr. Gerry Sweetman.
Mr. Sweetman made it clear that the convention would have to choose at least three candidates and could at its discretion choose a fourth. Mr. Ryan indicated his preference for four candidates but no decision was reached at that time.
The convention was held on March 28th and was chaired by Mr. M. Clinton. A decision was takcn by 24 votes to 11 to the effect that there should be just three candidates selected. Ryan as sitting deputy and front bench member was declared elected unanimously and an election was held for the remaining tWo positions. Proposed were O'Connell, Mr. P. Kelly and Mr. N, McShane. O'Connell secured a near unanimous vote in a secret ballot and he and Kelly were declared elected. Relations betWeen all candidates and all sections of the constitUency appeared at that stage to be very harmonious and nobody expressed any disagreement either with the decision to choose just three candidates or with the choices that actUally had been made.
At a meeting of the constitUency cxecutive on the 18th of February the Terenure branch which has traditionally been a Ryan stronghold reinrroduced the question of the numbcr of candidates and proposed a fourth candidate to be there and then chosen. When it was pointed out that according to party rules the constitUcncy executive had no confidence to reverse the decision of the convention Ryan interposed that there was "no room in Fine Gael for rules and procedures-lets leave that to the Communists". The matter was put to a vote and by 22 votes to 20 the convention decision was reaffirmed -whereupon Ryan left the meeting remarking that he was going to another Fine Gael function where the people would have "the interests of Fine Gael at heart". There were shouts of traitors and saboteurs from some members of the Terenure branch and the meeting broke up in disorder. Some people were under the impression that Ryan had threatened to resign his candidatUre entirely but this cannot be confirmed,
An account of the meeting appeared in the following mornings Irish Times including Ryan's alleged threat to withdraw and in the Evening Herald of that day a statement appeared from Ryan-that "I have been a Fine Gael T,D. long before some mischief makers came on the scene and I will be there long after they are gone" . The statement also asserted that the meeting of the previous night had been undemocratic and involved irregularities and furthermore that "the selected candidates are not ratified and therefore cannot be regarded as official" .
On the following Monday a Herald report appeared that an investigation of alleged irregularities was being carried out by the national director of organisation Mr. G. Sweetmen, The latter did not contact either Mr. O'Connell one of the prominent participants in the controversy nor the constitUency secretary.
On Wednesday the 23rd of April Mr. O'Connell himself contacted Mr. Sweetman and went to see him in Leinster House. O'Connell enquired as to the purpose of the investigation and what the alleged irregularities were. Sweetman replied that he would not be cross-examined and the meeting ended abruptly with the sound of the division bells. O'Connell however submitted a written statement on the constitUency executive meeting and its aftermath to Mr. Sweetman on the following day.
The question so keen indecd candidate being constitUency. A combination of each of these factors: a genuine wish to have the KimmagejCrumlin area represented on the ticket; fear of losing his seat; and fury at losing control of the constitUency machine is probably the nearest one can come to interpreting Ryan's motives.
Standing Committee Decision
On April 24 the Standing Committee met to discuss ratification of candidates. There were only five or six members present at the meeting including Sweetman, Ryan, Des Humphreys (a Sweetman man from Dublin North-West) and Michael O'Higgins who acted as Chairman. It was decided to ratify the nominations of Ryan and Kelly for Dublin South-Central, to refuse ratification of O'Connell's nomination, and to order the holding of a new convention to elect two further candidates. It was understood that Michael O'Higgins was deeply perturbed by this decision and threatened to resign his chairmanship of the Standing
Committee unless it was reversed. In a letter to the Dublin SouthCentral ConstitUency Secretary informing her of the decisions taken, no reason was given for the refusal to ratify O'Connell's nomination. However, it is interesting to note that this refusal was given in conjunction with a decision to nominate two further candidates i.e. four in all, as Ryan had originally proposed.
Thus it would appear that the initial Standing Committee's decision was motivated more by Ryan's personal fears than any apprehensions about O'Connell's suitability as a candidate. The reaction to the refusal to ratify O'Connell was one of bewilderment from Prcss, Public, and Party alike. The Press assumed that the decision was related to O'Connell's previous public criticisms of the leadership but this was not necessarily so.
The reaction among the "young tiger" element in Fine Gael was one of anger. There was talk of mass resignations and provoking a major row at the Ard Fheis. EventUally it was decided to demonstrate support for O'Connell at the Ard Fheis and have him ratified then and there if possible.
At the Ard Fheis O'Connell made a very effective speech on Local Government on the morning of the first day. The general reaction to him
and his speech was decidedly enthusiastic and when Jim O'Higgins, a ,young tiger, proposed that the Ard Fheis should ratify O'Connell the response was overwhelming. However the Chair ruled the matter out of order on the grounds that the Standing Committee was to reconsider its decision within the forthcoming week. The general feeling then was that bearing in mind the adverse publicity which the first refusal had caused and the tremendous support demonstrated by the Ard Fheis in O'Connell's favour, the Standing Committee could not refuse to reverse its previous decision. O'Connell appeared on a "Seven Days Ard Fheis Special" on Saturday 17 May, and when questioned on his views on the leadership he replied "The question does not arise as there is no contest for the leadership". The general concensus of opinion was that he had performed excellently on TV and further enhanced his chances of ratification, Indeed Sweetman who also appeared on the programme although not at the same time, remarked that O'Connell had been very good indeed.
But the support for O'Connell did not confine itself to the general public and the Fine Gael rank and file. Sevcral of the prominent Party members made no secret their regret with what many of them considered a stUpid decision. Among them were Tom O'Higgins, James Paddy Donnegan, Garret Fitzgerald, Paddy Harte, Mark Clinton, and many others.
Second Standing Committee Meeting
The meeting of the Standing Committee to reconsider the refusal to ratify O'Connell's nomination was held on 23rd May. There were approximately twelve members present. It had previously been agreed that O'Connell should attend part of the Standing Committee meeting to answer questions. He first enquired as to the main accusations against him and there appeared to be some confusion on this point. Ryan suggested that it was that he had not abided by the Fine Gael Whip on Dublin Corporation. This was quite a novel accusation and was one which was quickly shown to be untrue. The question of convention or ConstitUency Executive irregularities never arose, these having been the primary charge in Ryan's statement to the Press on April 19th and 21st and the first shots in the entire feud. Sweetman who was equipped with an enormous brief of press cuttings, memoranda, dossiers, etc. acted as Prosecuting Counsel while Garrett Fitzgerald struggled manfully with the brief for the defence.
The question of the apparent breach of the agreement not to raise thc leadership question again arose and O'Connell insisted that the issue had arisen independently of him through Declan Costello's refusal to alter his dccision to retire from politics. This reasoning was not fulIy appreciated.
Thcn a memo was read to him from Sweetman giving a resume of remarks made by him on the leadership to a KimmagefCrumlin branch meeting a few weeks previously. O'Connell explained that this was strictly a party meeting and his opinion on the leadership had been asked by an election worker. He felt obliged to answer honestly "as people who work for you in a campaign have a right to know your opinion". It was established that even \vithin the party it was improper to criticise the leadership in any way. O'Connell was further challenged on his assertions on television on May 17th that as there was no contest for the leadership the question of his views on it did not arise. Sweetman asked accusingly, did this mean that if there were a contest that he would not follow Cosgrave. O'Connell replicd that the question was hypothetical.
O'Connell left the meeting, a general discussion took place, and it was decided to reaffirm the decision of the previous Standing Committee's meeting i.e. thc rcfusal to ratify that O'Connell's nomination should stand. It is by no means certain that O'Connell would have been ratified had Ryan not felt that he was a personal threat to him, but certainly this was a significant if not decisivc factor in the decision.
The most damning piece of evidence that the Standing Committec had on O'Connell was his apparcnt breach of his undertaking not to attack the leadership in public in January last. Howevcr the Committee's failure to take action at the time seems to suggest that they did not regard this as very serious or significant in itself.
PROPHET OF COMMUNICATIONS?
"MINE is a personal philosophy of responsible irrcsponsibility. It attempts to counter the organisation's pseudophilosophy of irrcsponsible responsibility." These words from the resignation of Bob Quinn, producer in RT.E., might welI explain his resignation, which has been controversially and confusedly grccted, as indced his reason for leaving.
On May 14th, on a film trip in Dundalk, he downed tools, wrote a letter to his colIeagues and went to Clare Island. Quinn, a handsome 34, was one of R.T.E.'s most dynamic producers and had been with the organisation since 1961. He was a member of staff until 1968, when he changed his employment to a contract basis. He was responsible for many of the Horizo1l series of programmes and for such notablc depth 'think' programmcs as "Is God Dead?" with Basil Payne.
His letter is an indictment of the economic state of Ireland, and of R.T.E.'s collusion in the economic and cultural betrayal of the Irish people. In the second paragraph, Quinn describes the "wholesale exploitation of the resources of this country, by our spcculative leaders."
In the preceeding paragraph he describes RT.E. as a factory and says "The factory. . . is reflecting the country as a whole". He considers that R.T.E. has a function to report fairly, and indeed if the sitUation being reported is serious cnough one's duty lies in "interfering, not as an organisation man, but as a man".
A large part of the letter charts the consequences of the frustrations of individuals within R.T.E. and he condemns advertising strongly as the cause of this malaise on the nation and on R.T.E. staff.
The newspapers and the public greeted the letter with suspicion. 'What is the point?' they askcd. The letter makcs four very specific points: that Ireland is being sold out to foreign and native commercial values; that RT.E. should oppose this process; that it is not doing so because of the ever-increasing links \vith advertisers and because its leaders have no philosophy of culture; the resulting depression affects alI of the R.T.E. staff in their individual working roles. And hc gave up his job to makc thesc points.
On May 24th another of R.T.E.'s producers gave up his job folIowed shortly by head of Light Entertainment Lelia Doolan.
Jack Dowling, winner of international prize for tclevision D1ldas, for his Rosc programme, rcsigned in order that the issues raised by Bob Quinn's letter should not be forgotten by the station. His resignation states, "A Programme production staff, initially inadequately trained, is not only overworked in professional continuation training, but increasingly blamed for lack of idcas and technical finesse. The climate of R.T.E. does not stimulate ideas. It is repressive, pragmatic, contemptUous of individuality, eccentricity, novelty. It encourages only conformity and seems to treat intellectUal dissent as a curious species of mental instability". Some of the events of recent timcs would seem to uphold this claim.
Early in 1967 the 'Home Truths'programme was taken off the air, because of the offencc it was causing certain advertisers. Later in '67 a programme on speculation in Mt. Pleasant Sq., Dublin and Fr, Sweetman's comments on housing in Dublin were suppressed on a '7 Days' programme. Early '68 saw the suppression of a '7 Days' film on the Special Branch. This particular issue ended in the emasculation of the '7 Days' programme by an exodus to the newsroom.
Later in '68 the residual question of whether any current affairs comment could be tolerated, outside of the ncwsroom, was debated over the Programmes Division's intention to broadcast programmes on Authority Within the Church, and the Gulf Oil terminal at Whiddy Island. Thanks to trade union action, these programmes were transmitted.
All of these events have left a cumulative sense of deprcssion among RT.E. production staff. Many feel that an auto-censorship is operating among them, i.e. an automatic censorship, dictated by the demands of advertising as much as by their political masters. They feel that Bob Quinn's and Jack Dowling's resignation is an active expression of many of the principles articulated at the recent broadcasting seminar \vith Raymond Williams (see Nusight, May '69).
They have seizcd upon the resignation letters as symbols and guidelines, not with any negotiable end in view, but as an example and a demand for honesty and freedom of speech. May 20th saw the beginning of the deputations when producers Tony Barry and Colm O'Broin went to DirectorGeneral, Tom Hardiman to discuss the letter. Each day brought new delegations of technicians and floor workers to management.
The resignation of the tWo producers was not intended to merely draw attcntion to the repressions existing in the producers' area. Their actions were a demand for the proper delegation of authority to all echelons of production. That this might be fitting is evident from the reaction of the technical crews at the Teach-Ins, who voiced their frustrations most articulately and pronounced their sympathy and support for the producers and Heads of Departments.
Bob Quinn's letter says of large organisations "Eventually the people become functionaries in the systcm, in some cases happy functionaries, in most cascs, vaguely unhappy employees." R.T.E. employees seem determinded to prove they are unhappy cmployees indeed!