Martin O Donoghue - Will it be roses all the way?

The career of one who left school at the age of 14 to work as a waiter and who later became Professor of Economics at Trinity College, exemplifies all the traditional virtues Fianna Fail likes to extol and defend.'

A profile of Martin O'Donoghue, by Joseph O'Malley, political correspondent of the Sunday Independent.


INTELLECTUALS IN politics, as the June election returns show, get varying mandates from a highly disscriminating electorate.

Conor Cruise  O'Brien, wisely, interpreted his defeat as a mandate to carry on writing; David Thornley, necessarily to get back to teaching and Martin O'Donoghue, inevitably, to practise in the Dail and government what he has been preaching in Fianna Fail backrooms as the party's grey eminence.

For 0'Donoghue, as the main archiitect of the party's largely economic manifesto and through his role in govvernment as Minister for Economic Plannning and Development, has now prime responsibility for implementation of that election winning design.

Success here, while it will also reflect to the overall credit of the other econnomic Ministers concerned - Colley, O'Malley, Fitzgerald, will be largely O'Donoghue entitlement, as the man who inspired the election winning maniifesto and then delivered on it in office.

But few appreciate better than o 'Donoghue, the pragmatic economist, just how many political hostages to forrtune have been surrendered in that elecction manifesto and just how high the stakes now are in personal, party and national terms.

Personally, his own political future will be nil if that gamble comes unstuck. Besides this the leadership ambition of his closest political ally, George Colley, will be irreparably damaged in the process.

And with Jack Lynch expected to opt out of the leadership after two more years as Taoiseach, the state of the economy as it then reflects the impact of Fianna Fail's manifesto measures will have a crucial bearing on just who succceeds.

At its simplest, adverse economic cirrcumstances would leave George Colley under a very large political cloud while clearing the way for Charles Haughey, by then the only leadership contender with clean hands on the economy. At least in party terms.

But to see Martin 0 'Donoghue simmply as little more than a vehicle for George Colley's political advancement would be to underestimate the man and his ambitions.

As a pointer to the kind of future he envisages for himself, ask among the close circle of 0 'Donoghues friends whether Martin might be interested in succeeding Dick Burke as Ireland's EEC Commissioner in three years time. Innvariably the reply is: 'Oh no, he's too keen to become Taoiseach'.

It is this lack of due discretion or self abasement which so irritates those in Fianna Fail who rightly feel threatened by his intelligence and leadership nootions. But for the bulk of Fianna Fail the presence of 0 'Donoghue in the party and in the Cabinet does much to alleviate the massive intellectual inferiiority complex that had developed during its years in opposition, as it failed to throw up effective counterrweights to the 0'Briens and the Fitzgeralds.

Leaving aside the intellectual asset of the 0 'Donoghue economic brain to the party, the career of one who left school at 14 and who later became .an econoomics professor at Trinity College, exemmplifies all the traditional virtues Fianna Fail likes to extol and defend, private enterprise, educational oppor.tunity, self reliance, hard work and initiative etc.

Born in Dublin's South Circular, O'Donoghue, the son of a coach builder, left school with just a primary educaation and worked as a waiter in J ammets, before joining Dunlops at 18. While working there, .he went to Trinity and rapidly emerged with a first class honnours degree iV economics - and first place.

On graduatiorr rhe spent one year as a teacher at Magee College, Derry, where he was among the very first Catholics to be employed and where he developed a friendship with John Hume.

On returning to Trinity to a lectureeship, he soon became involved, via Paddy Lynch, in the massive O.E.C.D. study on Irish education 'Investment in Education' which was to provide the groundwork for the later political deciisions implementing free post-primary education and other reforms.

This experience gave him an invaluuable insight into the operations of the educational system here and provided him with a specialist interest in the eco nomics of education; this, and public expenditure control, represent the two aspects of economics that have most innterested him as an academic economist.

By early 1970, Jack Lynch as Taoiseach had decided to use his leaddership pOSItIOn to play a more assertive role in the economic sphere, but found that there was no one with economic experience within his Deepartment.

On advice, he turned to 0 'Donoghue and invited him to become his economic advisor. At this time the Trinity Ecoonomics Professor had no interest in party politics, being a long time lapscd Fianna Fail party member.

He accepted just weeks before the traumatic arms crisis events unfolded. Here for the next three years he found himself mediating between the worlds of the civil service and the Cabinet, innvolved in the background to the EEC accession negotiations, to the setting up of the National Wage Agreement and the National Prices Commission, chaired by his Trinity Colleague, Professor Louden Ryan.

But the purely economic role en visa- . ged in that appointment merged increaasingly with an informal political role that developcd as the relationship beetween the Taoiseach and his advisor maatured, and each gained the other's trust and confidence. That relationship was hastened almost certainly by the excepptional governing circumstances Jack Lynch found himself in, in. the afterrmath of the arms crisis, with a purged Cabinet and new and inexperienced Ministers.

By 1973 and Fianna Fail's election defeat, O'Donoghue had become very much the grey eminence figure of the Taoiseach, supplying among other things the proposal to abolish rates on private dwellings which almost won the party that election.

During Fianna Fail's opposition perriod he was anxious to retain his independence as an academic economist and publicly, at least, not to be seen to have any formal political links that could compromise that independence. But that did not preclude participation, on a backroom basis, in Fianna Fail's newly established think tankor back-up research service, for an opposition party struggling to recover its composure after 16 years in government.

The first public sign that 0 'Donooghue seemed prepared to forsake the university world of speculative thought for that of political passion came i~ September 1976 with the appearance of Fianna Fail's economic policy docuument (the fore-runner of the election manifesto) which betrayed all the signs of his authorship.

Acceptance by the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis earlier this year of the effective right of the party leader to add one name to the list of party candidates where appropriate (to encourage the emergence of both talented and national figures essential to the party) indicated Fianna Fail's seriousness in this respect and unquestionably helped Martin O'Donoghue make up his mind about standing for the Dail.

AS matters developed he became an agreed, rather than an imposed, candiidate and in the June election greatly helped by thc failure of Fine Gael to nominate a woman candidate (Monica Barnes) and by his own and the party's vigorous campaign, he won the fourth seat in Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown.

The party manifesto for the election was really a matter of filling in the conncrete details 0 'Donoghue had developed in the party's earlier economic policy document. And with the exception of rural Fianna Fail deputies pressing for the inclusion of the abolition of car tax proposal, there in fact were few changes in its essentials.

O'Donoghue's political reward for his unique rolc in the success of the elecction campaign was his appointment to a new Department (Economic Planning) which wouid give him a challenge commensurate with his specialist abiliities in the economic sphere and overall responsibility for the implementation of the manifesto measures.

So FAR so good. Everything is going according to plan in the manifesto schedule.

The 20,000 jobs look like being creaated by mid summer next year, domestic inflation is coming down thanks to fallling commodity prices and potato and petrol surplus, and, with sterling streengthening, interest rates are dropping, stock exchange prices are rising, morttgage rates are corning down. And unemmployment is beginning to fall.

But much of this reflects external factors, while the job creation is initially financed by higher spending and borrrowing, a painless exercise in the short term.

The difficult part of the m~nifesto has yet to be broached, and while the external conditions and Fianna Fail's manifesto decisions have all helped generate a climate of moderate expecctations' on the wages and inflation front, securing agreement is another matter.

The dangers are obvious and if Conngress bucks the proposals either by holdding out for what amounts to a free for all level of settlement, or acteptsand affiliated unions ratify an agreement which is then reneged on through a serries of unofficiaJdisputes (and that looks very possible), then the consequent reviision of the Fianna Fail stance could see a dismantling of those contingent parts of its economic package.

If the private sector (eithcr through a lack of confidence or in reaction to a higher than expected level of wage setttlement) fails to match the~government spending on public sector jobs,by failing to invest, then thc Fianna Fail stimulus could end up compounding theprobblems they inherited from the Coalition.

At that stage we would have a bloated public sector requiring higher taxations or borrowings or both to finance. These are the nightmare scenarios, the darker side of 0 'Donoghue's benign economic model that Coalition spokesmen stresssed before the election, and are now ralsmg again. Dr. Fitzgerald thinks Fianna Fail's manifesto crisis will emerge within 18 months, with Fianna Fail belatedly discovering it has sacriificed medium term national economic gains to short term party advantage.

The seeds of that success or failure could well be sown early in the new year, with the wage negotiations and the government seeking acceptance of its 5 per cent pay norm.

However, if the scenario unfolds as .0 'Donoghue has written it, he will have achieved the 20th. century industrial equivalent of making two ears of corn grow where only one grew bef'ore. And in such circumstances arid in Swift's own words he would then 'deserve better of mankind and do more essential service to his country than the whoie race of politicians put together'.

Joseph 0 'Malley is political corresponddent with the Sunday Independent.