Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

31 March 2005 Edition

Resize: A A A Print

DeLorean and Callaghan - Heroes and villains?


Comparing the lives of Jim Callaghan and John DeLorean might seem strange; that they both died within a week of each other is merely coincidence, but in the context of Irish politics, their lives are very definitely interwined in life and death.

In death, DeLorean is the villain and Callaghan the stalwart trusty hero, or to quote Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern, Callaghan was "a well intentioned decent man", or as the English Times would have us believe, "a decent Prime Minister in difficult times". No such flattering portraits of DeLorean are on offer.

Obituaries in the media are painting a contrasting picture of the two. DeLorean was the dazzling, flamboyant conman, embezzler and cocaine dealer.

"Sunny Jim" Callaghan is being given much kinder eulogies but even that cannot gloss over his many shortcomings. Callaghan is the ordinary working class man who, despite holding the four highest cabinet posts in British politics, ending in the office of Prime Minister, has left no great political legacy except failure and chaos behind him. This culminated in a five-year Labour term of government between 1974 and '79 that paved the way for 18 years of Tory rule.


However, we are told that Callaghan is not to blame for the failures of his decisions or policies. He was uniquely and consistently a victim of events, cast into the maelstrom of political or economic hurricanes and forced to act.

So it comes to pass that we cannot fault Callaghan for the economic crises that led to the 1967 Sterling devaluation, or the inflation and spending crises of the late 1970s that led him to call in the IMF to bail out the British economy. Nor was he to blame for the 1978-'79 'winter of discontent', when trade unions across a range of public services took industrial action that ground Britain to a halt after promised cost of living wage increases were not delivered on.

This was just the collateral damage of the Callaghan years, but what of Ireland? It was as Home Secretary that Callaghan decided to respond to pleas from the Stormont Government and send British troops to Ireland. His promises of equality and fair treatment for all from an upstairs window in Derry were never delivered on and the soldiers he brought to Ireland became another weapon for prolonging unionist hegemony, as loyalist gangs, aided by the B-Specials, burnt nationalists from their homes.


This is the type of history that the media this week have forgotten. Callaghan's 1969 expedition to Ireland is merely a footnote in a rewritten history where all the North's calamities and misery are laid at the door of republicans.

Also glossed over is the fact that Callaghan became the Prime Minister who, six years later, and with time and opportunity to realise the mess his 1969 decision had led to, did nothing to deal with his previous failures.

He was happy to endorse the securocrat policy of "Criminalisation, Ulsterisation and Normalisation". He was the Prime Minister who stood over the decision to withdraw political status from Irish POWs, who let the H-Blocks and Armagh Jail fill up with blanket men and women. New interrogation centres were opened in Gough and Castlereagh barracks and it is unconceivable that Callaghan did not approve of these strategies.

It was Callaghan who sat back and let his Northern Secretary Roy Mason declare that the IRA was "reeling" or being "squeezed like toothpaste". Callaghan didn't see in the late 1970s that the promises he made in 1969 on policing, housing and equality clearly weren't being delivered and that he had not just been an important factor in bringing war to Ireland but had spent his last years in political office actually perpetuating it.


It seems fitting that it was shabby deals with the Ulster Unionists for more Westminster seats, upon which they reneged on by voting against him in a confidence vote, which precipitated a general election and Callaghan's exit from office.

With hindsight it seems that Callaghan's political career was one of ill judged short cuts. As Chancellor of the Exchequer in the late 1960s he inherited a British economy inefficient and delusional about its place, not just in the global economy, but also in Europe. In Japan, Asia and Europe, investments in new technologies, matched with more efficient management of infrastructure, meant that these economies would continue to grow. Meanwhile, the British were doomed to prolonged periods of boom and bust, leaving millions unemployed.

In the 1970s, these weaknesses came home to roost. The 1974 oil price hikes were a shock too far for the British economy and Callaghan ended up bringing in the International Monetary Fund, but doing nothing to address the underlying inefficiencies in his economic policies, creating in part the policy vacuum that Thatcher's monetarism filled.


It seems that Callaghan's political career was only one of hollow gestures and holding onto high office. And it was in this vein that his government approved the initial £54 million grant deal to DeLorean.

Callaghan and his government could not act to end decades of economic discrimination and underdevelopment in Ireland. They could not find the means to invest fairly in indigenous Six-County business. They could not help nationalist entrepreneurs but they could help DeLorean build cars, even though the maths never added up on his project, and would finally cost them £84 million, after Thatcher bailed him out before his final ignominious exit from Irish public life.

While it is easy to cast DeLorean now as the villain, Callaghan is ill-deserving of heroic eulogies; the reality of his tenure in political office was failure and misery for the Irish people.

Finally, if there is anyone in the current British cabinet who could learn from Callaghan's failures it is John Prescott, for it is he who is the current inheritor of the working man "cloth cap" outspoken labour leader persona. He shares a similar background of rising from humble origins to high office and in office he too has shown the same lack of results to match his outspoken convictions. The British people don't deserve another Callaghan; the Irish clearly don't need it.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1