Too obvious for his own good

In March 2006 Kevin Higgins was profoundly unimpressed by the memoirs of Labour politician Ruairí Quinn, in Issue 24.

Ruairí Quinn, Straight Left—A Journey Into Politics (Hodder Headline Ireland)

Once upon a time, in a land of dole queues, moving statues and rotten coffee, when he was Minister for Labour and I was a duffle-coated member of Galway West Labour Youth, hating Ruairí Quinn was one of my favourite pastimes. During the miserable years of the 1982-7 Fine Gael-Labour coalition, he seemed to epitomise every­thing that was wrong with the Irish Labour Party. He was the ‘socialist’ who could (and did) quote Marx out of one side of his mouth, while out of the other justifying the use of the army to break the 1986 Dublin Corporation refuse workers’ strike. If the revolution the teenage me believed was on its way had come to pass, it would have been very bad news indeed for Ruairí Quinn. A friend of mine, also then a member of Galway West Labour Youth, once told me that he thought that, come the revolution, we should start Ruairí Quinn’s re-education by making him clean the late lamented Eyre Square public toilets without the aid of a mop, bucket or pair of rubber gloves. I remember thinking that this was perhaps a bit soft. All that said, it’s been years now since I’ve given Ruairí Quinn much thought. The therapy is working nicely. And with Pat ‘work permit’ Rabbitte opening his mouth as he has been lately, there are clearly other more immediately deserving cases crying out to be dealt with.

I opened this book determined to give Ruairí Quinn a chance, to let him state his case. I was determined that, however difficult it might be, I would listen to what he had to say. Also, it is absolutely possible to profoundly disagree with what someone is saying and at the same time admire the way they say it. To pretend otherwise is to take the first step down the sad path of literary Stalinism. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Adolf Hitler (to name just three) all sometimes had an undeniable way with words. It was one of the things that made each of them, in their different ways, so disas­trously effective. This is definitely not the case with Ruairí Quinn. As a writer, he is dull beyond belief. The entire book is written in a passionless, pedantic style. The chapter on the aforementioned 1982‑7 coalition government limps to a conclusion with the sentence: “We were out of government and a general election was not far away.” In terms of literary style, that’s about as thrilling as it gets. Gore Vidal he is definitely not.

The practical achievement Quinn gets most excited about is the creation of the FÁS Community Employment scheme in January 1993 when he was Minister for Enterprise and Employment in the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition: “Since its launch 250,000 people have participated in the scheme.” There is no doubt that CE schemes are the backbone of many important social and community services around the country; but the only people who actually get full-time (and well-paid) jobs from these schemes are the managers. There are no real trade union rights, because if scheme participants complain, they won’t be kept on for the second year. Surely those who do essential work in Community Resource Centres and Citizen’s Infor­mation Centres (to name just two) deserve better than this? As it is, CE schemes are often the place where failed trade union bureaucrats and retired party hatchetwomen go to administrate. But then, it’s hardly surprising that Ruairí Quinn would be proud of a scheme whose ultimate beneficiaries are a few hundred professional form-fillers. It’s the sort of thing every podgy social democrat’s dreams are made of.

The worst thing about this book, though, is its shaky relation­ship with the basic facts of Quinn’s own political career. In his account of the 1982-7 period, the 1986 divorce referendum is not mentioned. This omission is striking because Quinn was a member of the coalition which proposed it. And the introduction of divorce was meant to be the sort of progressive reform which justified Labour’s participation in what turned out to be an extremely un­popular government. It was a crucial part of their strategy. Presumably, it isn’t mentioned because its huge defeat (by 65 to 35 per cent) makes it an unpleasant fact, and Ruairí Quinn doesn’t like unpleasant facts. He far prefers to spend page after page waxing unlyrical about what a great thing FÁS is. Also not mentioned is the same government’s decision in August 1984 to half the subsidies on essential food items such as milk and bread. This was announced on the August bank holiday weekend, at the height of the holiday season, and the coalition hoped no-one would notice. In reality, there was uproar, and from that day they faced certain electoral doom, though they managed to cling to office for another ghastly two and a half years.     

Such obfuscation aside, even when it comes to basic retellings of events he was involved in, Quinn often gets it wrong. On page 181 he says that, when Michael O’Leary resigned as Labour leader and joined Fine Gael in late 1982, the voting in the leadership contest which followed was “two for Barry [Desmond] and thirteen for Dick [Spring]”. This isn’t true. The candidate opposing Dick Spring wasn’t Barry Desmond but Michael D Higgins, and the result was twelve for Spring and two for Michael D. On page 175 he has the 1982 Dublin West by-election (a disaster for Labour) take place on the same day as the Galway East by-election in which they did reasonably well. This isn’t true either. The said Dublin West by-election took place on 11 May 1982, while the Galway East by-election took place two months later in July. I remember this because the Sunday before the Galway East by-election, the Connaught football final took place in Tuam. I was there with my dad, and all the three main political leaders—Haughey, Fitzgerald and O’Leary —turned up to canvas the crowd afterwards. It was a beautiful day spoiled only by the sight of a small plane dragging a ‘Vote Fine Gael’ banner across the sky.

Ruairí Quinn is so in love with being able to say whatever he wants, his relationship with fact has been distorted to such an extent that he is probably incapable of telling you the time without factoring in some sort of lie. The more ‘successful’ Labour leaders, such as Dick Spring, Tony Blair and (perhaps) Pat Rabbitte, are usually part con-man, part believer in their own propaganda. Ruairí Quinn’s ultimate weakness was that, when it came to it, even he couldn’t believe a word he said. As a political charlatan, he was just a little too obvious for his own good.