From Oonagh Timson in Dublin
The background of Erskine Childers, fourth President of the Irish Republic, would seem incredible if it were written as a film script completely unbelievable in fact, particularly to someone like myself brought up in the tidy orderliness of English suburban life.
He received me at Arus an ilachtarain, the Presidential Residence in Dublin's Phoenix Park (formerly the Viceregal Lodge). He is a qqietly-spoken Irish Protestant with a slight English accent.
His father. also Erskine Childers, author of —lihe Riddle of the Sands," died — like so many others in the pages of Irish history — before a firing squad. To ensure that no bitterness towards his fellow Irishmen remained in his son, the executed politician / soldier asked his son to shake hands after the execution with those responsible.
The promise was carried out, and how successful an act it was can he judged from the record of 15 years in the Dail. Twenty-two of those years have been spent as a Minister of State in four separate departments. And now the finest accolade of all, proof of a nation's respect and love for a man choosing him to be President of Ireland.
He is seen to be scrupulously honest and to have a deep love of people: but he has other distincitons. He has managed to lift peoples' eyes from the muddle around them, and to give them a vision of the future. Put another way he has contrived to show them that the years ahead are theirs' to shape how they will, to plan in order to ensure that the Ireland of the future is the Ireland that Irish people want.
He reminded me that during his Presidential campaign, in nearly all of his 250 speeches around the country, this idea had been emphasised again and again.
"I said that the Presidential office must be extended,' he said, "and that it was very essential for the people of this country to think long-term about the environment for the younger generation growing up.
"The most important single statement 'made in regard to the moral and social upbringing of children can be found in the Vatican Council II document, the section relating to the duties of the laity. Any Christian can believe in the proposals and the directives from the Vatican Council. "We are going to become a very rich and prosperous civilisation in some 15 years time. We will find that we are facing all the appalling social and moral problems of countries which have grown rich and which have solved all or part of their social welfare problems.
"There are countries in Europe where virtually no social problems are left, where everybody is protected from cradle to grave by social wel fare and health services, where opportunities for education are absolutely equal for the whole of the community, and where the social and moral problems which have arisen are, if any thing, more terrible to contemplate than the social and moral problems preivously existing in a world where there was an underprivileged society,
trnovernments are too much impressed with the need to deal with short-term problems. How few people ever sit around the fire and say to themselves: 'What will Ireland be like in 1990? It is essential to do longterm thinking, particularly in an age where there is so much leisure.
"The young people growing up have 161 days of leisure out of 365, including holiday time, the weekends and exclud ing sleeping time. The character of a society is largely created by what people do in their spare time. and in all the advanced democracies of the world there is far too little examination of how to help the growing generation of people snend their snare time, what games they should play, what hobbies they should have. what they should do with their better educated minds in their snare time: in their snare time, the create the character of modern society."
On the question of the degree of influence a Government can have on the actual character of a society, he said : "I know of no government in Northern Europe that has had the slightest effect on the characteristics of the society over which it holds dominion.
"The voluntary organisations, the thinkers, the philosophers, the sociologists, the schools of study in the universities, together with their operations and their plans. arc just as important as the work of any government. They receive far too little recognition for what they are doing.
"Cities are becoming more evil than good in almost every civilised democracy. Unless the duties of the laity directives in Vatican H are followed by the people, and unless you can create a sense of community consciousness in every town and in every city in an area of the right size so that people in the area feel totally and mutually involved in each other's welfare, in welfare for the sick and deprived and the aged, in the welfare of the young — we will lose the whole pattern of Christian society." The result
would be the growth of cornmunity consciousness in cities through the formation of
national social service councils in which all the voluntary organisations worked together, not
losing their identity. in order to preserve the very finest social and moral atmosphere in that community. Unless they succeeded in their efforts, we would become a decadent civili sation.
I wondered how, or, if, he
identified completely as an Irishman. We hear so much these days about Catholic and. Protestant it would seem that everywhere in Ireland there is disharmony between us. Mr. Childers' Irish blood is derived from the Barton family who settled in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, in the sixteenth century but who later moved South into various parts of the country.
His mother was American (born in Boston); his father, who was orphaned at the age of 11, was brought up by his grandmother in Annamoe, Co. Wicklow. So Mr. Childers says he is "half American, quarter Irish, one-eighth English, oneeighth Scottish." He was educated at Gresham School, Norfolk, and at Trinity College, Cambridge.
After a pause he said: "Do you know, a great'many of the people who worked for Irish independence were not Celtic Irish in origin, and they include such great nationalists as Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Thomas Davis, John Mitchell and Charles Stewart Parnell.
"And I think people who have foreign blood very often have perhaps a greater love for Ireland that sometimes do the native, purely Celtic Irish themselves. At least I have it, a tremendous almost adoration for this country, and always have had so."
I asked him what his attitude
was towards Britain and British people. He said : "The Irish people and the British people have been very friendly together, and we receive millions of British tourists.
"And I do believe that at the moment the proposals for the Assembly in Northern Ireland form a constructive effort on the part of the British Government to bring about a situation where there will be the right kind of approach to government in the North, where the nationalists and the unionists can work together co-operatively for a better administration."
And what about the North struggling, surviving, killing, praying and hoping?
"I would hope to invite representatives of the two communities in the North to meet me and to meet representatives of the community in the South, with the idea that by social discussion we could get to know the others' mutual problems, and bring about a greater spirit of reconciliation.
"I would require consent of the Government, because the situation is so tense in the North that it would be wrong for me to take any step that would be political in character, without their consent."
I asked how he saw Ireland in a European context.
He said : "Well, I'm hoping that Ireland will play a full part in the European Ecoribmic Community, and I have a feeling that by the end of the ,century there may be some kind of Federation of European States,
"But I do believe in diversity of character and personality, and I hope the Irish people will retain their national identity, even though they form part of a great European society "