Interview

PART TWO | Seamus Kirk interview: A political dynasty grew from domestic role within Louth

Interview

Caoimhín Reilly

Reporter:

Caoimhín Reilly

Email:

caoimhin.reilly@dundalkdemocrat.ie

PART TWO | Seamus Kirk interview: A political dynasty grew from domestic role within Louth

Seamus Kirk entered Dáil Eireann at the beginning of a depressing period financially, leaving it 34 years later as the economy was beginning to pick up after another major collapse. (Pic: A Kinahan)

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Seamus Kirk entered Dáil Eireann at the beginning of a depressing period financially, leaving it 34 years later as the economy was beginning to pick up after another major collapse.

Fine Gael took power after the general election of November 1982, in which the Knockbridge man assumed the Louth ticket vacated by the retiring Eddie Filgate, and they again held the reins for the final five years of his career, up to his 2016 retirement.

In between, however, Fianna Fáil dominated, as they had done for decades prior to Kirk’s entrance to the sphere of public representation.

Like with the Conservatives and Labour in Britain, and the Democrats and Republicans across the Atlantic Ocean, Irish politics has been ruled by either of the two civil war parties since the state’s formation. That’s how it’s always been, with Labour and others offering their services on occasions in which they were required to fulfil a government quota.

But, post the banking subsidence of a decade ago, the pendulum no longer swings along a forward and back motion. The landscape has widened. Fianna Fáil’s landslide election victory of 1977 will never again be replicated, nor is it ever likely that a single party will gain the traction required to rule domineeringly.

Kirk has strong views on the course Irish politics is being steered upon.

“Once you have fiscal retrenchment in any economy, it immediately creates difficulties for the political representatives and whoever is in government,” he says, forthrightly.  

“There is an expectation that there should be steady growth at all times, but it doesn’t always work like that. We have a vulnerable, open economy in this county which is dependent on growth and good economic activity in other regions.

“As a consequence there will be inevitable political instability and the fragmentation of the political system, as in more recent years, with smaller parties coming to the fore, more extreme parties.

“We didn’t have any growth in extreme right parties, but there’s been a significant growth in extreme left-wing parties and they’re advocating policies that seem attractive to a significant block of the electorate, but when you get down and examine their potential you find that it doesn’t have what it says on the tin, so to speak.

“If you look at the political trends in Europe, there is a fragmentation of the political blocks and we seem to be going in that direction. There’s smaller groupings and as a consequence government formation is more challenging.

“Since the election, and we’re now in the middle of a crisis, government formation seems to be a problem because if Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael come together to form a government, they’ll need at least 10 or 12 others to do it.”

He adds of the present situation: “Emigration in the past has always been a safety valve for Irish people. They would have gone to the United States, but it’s now a closed door. We’re very much dependent on Britain and other places now, but if we have an ensuing recession from this the UK might just be a difficult place to be seeking employment.”

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There was an inner-desire for political mobility long before Kirk’s fateful Gaelic football injury of 1972, which ended his opportunities on the field of play and led to physical trouble which still niggles him today.

Born within the confines of a rural, farming background, education at Dundalk CBS aided his wider social awareness and so he developed a cognisance of community and the power of unity within the term.

“You’ll always have a sense of idealism and a feeling that if you were in the political arena that you could affect pretty dramatic change in the lives of others, the less fortunate in society - that’s the principal motivation,” Kirk adds.

“I always had an interest in community development. I’m a great believer in the potential for communities to help themselves and a great advocate for that concept.

“I tried to practice it the best I could over my time in politics, through the organisation of group works and schemes with local tidy towns and helping GAA clubs.

“It became my political agenda over my time as a representative and I found it to be rewarding because I think the potential is obvious.

“It’s heartening to see Meitheal spirit, as it were, being reactivated in the context of the coronavirus crisis at this moment in time. It feeds into the whole unique Irish culture in this regard.”

It may have been the effective promotion of these principles, along with his canvassing on crutches, that saw his local election campaign of 1974 return a successful outcome. He would remain on the Dundalk authority until 1985, a public ballot later, in which time his stock had risen.

He attempted to get the support required to run in the ’77 general election, only to lose out to Filgate when it came down to the nitty gritty at Fianna Fáil’s convention, before filling the Louth Villager’s berth when he stood down ahead of the third Dáil assembly of the tumultuous early 1980s.

But Kirk got a valuable grounding at domestic level, he reckons, learning from experienced colleagues and taking on board the lessons of operating within the constraints of a body whose control and power are limited.

There is a hint of frustration when the local government topic is floated. There was a time when Ardee, Drogheda and Dundalk had their own little empires and so politics was boiled down to a more minute and appreciative grade. Now, though, to Kirk’s dismay, the uniforms have been aggregated and the regional autonomy that once existed has been diluted to a less effective degree.

“The work of local authorities affects people every day of their lives. When I look back, the one regret I have is that proper, constant financing, to the level that really is needed for local authorities to be effective, it was never fully addressed.

“It was always a political challenge to convince people that good, functioning local authority was vital for the services people avail of every day. The political system has never succeeded in convincing people of that.

“In terms of my own experience, there was always a feeling at local authority that there was a huge need for public housing. It was always a challenge trying to get suitable service land in different villages. The huge expansion that came in the 2000s hadn’t kicked in at that time, but small housing schemes were built in different areas.

“There was a small housing scheme built in Knockbridge, Lisheen Park, and the houses were allocated in the ’72-’73 period. The houses could be bought at that time for £3,000; excellent houses, two-storey, three-bedroom.

“When you look at the cost of them in the 1970s and the cost of a comparable house today, it’s just a measure of the escalation of costing that’s taken place in the construction sector.”

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Successfully nominated for parliament at the tail-end of 1982, with party colleague Pádraig Faulkner, Kirk was unsure of where his political future lay. He was, though, by his own admission, not a candidate with eyes fixed on self-furtherance.

“I didn’t see myself as leadership material; my ambitions didn’t extend that far,” Kirk insists. “There was always a great sense of fulfilment at getting elected to the Dáil. After you get in, after a period of years you find yourself sometimes saying that it would be great to do this or that, but a lot unfolded without going in and setting a strategy in place.

“I was more than happy to represent the interests of the people of Louth at the time.”

Charlie Haughey, arguably the most divisive politician in the history of the Irish Republic, earned his vote in the party’s leadership battle of 1983. But his first term as a TD, which extended up until the Fine Gael and Labour coalition ended in ’87, was very much about observing and building a mental portfolio of how the system operated.

“You had ready-made experience, old-head advice available to keep young, youthful, idealistic people on track,” Kirk quips.

“The early and mid-1980s were particularly difficult for the parties or collection of parties who were in government; it was an extremely difficult period.

“The escalation in the cost of oil had a very dramatic and severe impact on the wellbeing of the economy and put a lot of industries effectively out of business.

“Charlie Haughey and Garret Fitzgerald were the big political beasts at the time and their set-tos in the chamber were always looked forward to on the order of business.

“He (Haughey) came into government for nine months in the early ’80s and then he held a minority government from ’87 to ’89. The government was held together at that point, I suppose, because Alan Dukes (Fine Gael) agreed to the Tallaght Strategy to get the public finances right.

“I often think that Alan didn’t get the credit he should have got for that; it was an important move on his part and he probably paid a heavy price for it as his leadership of Fine Gael was terminated shortly afterwards. The public appreciation of his gesture maybe wasn’t what it ought to have been.”

Kirk became Junior Minister for Agriculture under Haughey’s regime, a role in which he was well suited on foot of his upbringing.

Ireland was at the beginning of a prosperous period and Haughey was subsequently able to form a government in 1989 with Progressive Democrats including Des O’Malley, Mary Harney and Robbie Molloy.

Ultimately, though, the ex-Taoiseach’s political career would end in disgrace and right up until his death in 2006, clouds of doubt hung over his time at the coalface. There were tribunals in relation to alleged financial misdealings and much more besides. History, it seems, doesn’t reflect kindly on Haughey.

“He was very controversial, but very able, extremely able,” says Kirk. “My support for him was on foot of his huge intellectual capacity and there was a drive there at the time, I found, to get the economy right between himself, Ray McSharry, Dr Rory O’Hanlon, Mary O’Rourke; senior ministers and cabinet members.

“They set about getting the economy on to a firm footing and they succeeded. From ’87 to ’92 was extremely difficult, but the economy began to turn and the economic figures were coming right. The growth of the economy has progressed well since then.”

Albert Reynolds was the successor as Fianna Fáil leader, but scandals continued to emerge, which saw his reign finish by the winter of 1994, as John Bruton and a Fine Gael-led coalition took power until 1997.

Another change at the summit of Fianna Fáil resulted in Bertie Ahern becoming the chief and Kirk gained promotion to chairman of the party’s parliamentary delegation, a role he would fill “for some time after that”.

Ahern and Kirk would work closely as the years moved by…