INTERVIEW / The high summering of Spring: In an exclusive interview with Dublin's foreign minister, David McKittrick finds the model of a modern Irish politician

DICK SPRING, the new Irish foreign minister who asked the northern Unionists last week to meet him, is mildly annoyed by some of the labels attached to him. 'Some people go on about me coming from a North Kerry republican background and all that stuff,' he said.

'They shouldn't have these preconceived notions. I'm a young modern politician who accepts the realities of life on this island.'

So was he disappointed when the Rev Ian Paisley said there would be no meeting until Dublin agreed to change its constitution? 'Paisley can address his audience up in North Antrim, I can address my audience down in North Kerry. If we want to do it like that, then never the twain shall meet, but that is not the way to solve the problems. They're entitled to say no, but I'm going to ask them again. I'm going to keep reaching out to them. I don't care where I have to go, Belfast or North Antrim or wherever, I'll go.'

Mr Spring is indeed a young politician. Iveagh House, the elegant Dublin townhouse where Ireland's foreign affairs are conducted, is now run by a 42-year- old given to expressions such as 'better to be upfront', 'I have no hang-ups about that' and 'people like you to tell it as it is'. He has an American wife, three young children, a leather jacket and a collection of early Bob Dylan records. The times, clearly, are a-changing.

While the Northern Ireland log jam has resisted decades of attempts to break it, southern society is in the throes of social and political change. Mr Spring has been in the forefront of the debate on modernising Irish society, both accelerating change and drawing advantage from it.

Europe's youngest population felt that the larger parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, had lost touch. Mr Spring was handsomely rewarded in last year's general election. His Labour party doubled its representation and holds the balance of power.

Labour is the smaller partner in the coalition with Fianna Fail but it holds a number of key ministries and dictated much of the administration's programme. The theme of the government, he hopes, will be reform and modernisation.

He says: 'The institutions have become jaded. The electorate want politicians to be more responsive, more forthright and to stop pretending. We've got to open up our society - the young people want that, and we're talking about a far better educated electorate. I feel this is arising from a new age, a new generation.

'Take an obvious question like the divorce issue. We're now resolved that we're going to bring in divorce in this country. That's on the basis of getting support in a referendum which, for various technical reasons, won't happen until 1994.

'But while we're waiting for that the people are living their lives anyway. Marriage breakdown is a feature of life and every family in this country is affected by it.

'There are a lot of other areas of social legislation where the law is way behind. We still have difficulty discussing family planning in the Dail, but people are going to do what they want anyway. They go on living their lives and you either move with that or you become irrelevant. We've a lot of catching up to do.'

Mr Spring has had an incident- packed career. He was born in Tralee in 1950, into a highly political family. His father, Dan, was an old-time republican who won North Kerry as a Labour man and held the seat for no less than 38 years. Like many of the Labour men of his day, Dan was light on ideology and heavy on parish- pump politics. 'His main motto was 'get up early in the morning and you'll never lose the race',' his son recalls. 'He was a very practical politician, modest, middle of the road, never in a rush to express hard opinions; he was of the old style.'

Dick was both academic and athletic. He went to the local Christian Brothers school, on to Trinity College, Dublin, and qualified as a barrister. He played Gaelic sports and won three international rugby caps, though his rugby career is now remembered only for when he dropped the ball under his own posts, helping Wales to beat Ireland. In 1981 he inherited his father's seat in the time-honoured Irish way, but was almost immediately swept off his feet by an extraordinary rush of events.

On his first day in the Dail, he became a junior minister in the then coalition government. The following year, Labour's leader defected to another party and Mr Spring was elected in his place. Shortly afterwards he became deputy prime minister. Then he was involved in a car crash which nearly killed him and left him with a chronic back pain.

The coalition collapsed in 1987, after four years in which Spring often looked out of his depth, particularly in comparison with senior colleagues such as Garret FitzGerald. Was he too young? 'Well, I feel a lot more comfortable doing it the second time, to put it mildly. It was a baptism of fire, in a context of very difficult politics.

'One of the biggest difficulties was that over a third of the Labour party voted against going into coalition in the first place. Then there was obviously the whole factor of taking on serious burdens at a time when I was only finding my feet in the Dail.'

Labour's performance in coalition was punished by the electorate in the 1987 election, when its vote plummeted. Mr Spring held on to his seat by only four votes. Labour's future looked bleak.

'After the '87 election, we were at a low. There were serious internal party difficulties. We nearly caved in because of the tiredness factor after being in government for four years, but we survived that first year. We were in awful shape, but there's resilience and there's strength in hitting the bottom. If you are alive you're going to do something about it.'

Mr Spring has made one of the great come-backs of Irish politics. Derided at the start as 'a sheep in sheep's clothing', he took only five years to transform his party's fortunes, seeing off his opponents on the left and parking the party firmly on the middle ground.

In the Dail, he outshone the other opposition parties with his flaying of the then prime minister, Charles Haughey. The newspapers started calling him the real leader of the opposition and the tone changed from condescension to admiration. His opponents, including waverers inside his own party, were all but silenced as his stock soared.

When television cameras were allowed into the chamber, Mr Spring stole the show. He said: 'The radio and television changed the presentation of politics. It opened up to a lot of people an area of politics that they'd had no idea about. We worked hard at that.'

He laments the fact that politics keeps him away from his family - 'I'm losing out in a big way on watching my kids grow up.' He reads history, biography and travel, and has a golf handicap of 19. He swims regularly, more for his back than for pleasure.

'The back will be great for two or three months but then the system will say - you're doing too much, slow down, get some physiotherapy. It's a problem, but it's also a reminder of how good it is to be alive.'

In 1990 came inspiration. Mr Spring took everyone by surprise by nominating Mary Robinson, a feminist constitutional lawyer with a record of working for the disadvantaged and underprivileged, as his candidate for president of Ireland. The office had always been a sinecure for elderly semi-retired Fianna Fail gentlemen, but after an eventful campaign Mrs Robinson won.

The campaign and the victory were a historic breakthrough for women, the left and youth. According to Mr Spring: 'I don't think anybody could have forecast that result, even six months prior to the election. Some people thought it was a fluke, but I felt very strongly at the time that Irish politics would never be the same again because of what the Robinson campaign was all about - it was actually challenging the old parties, the old institutions.

'After the presidential election we didn't sit back. It had set the tone. We set about capitalising on that. The theme of change stayed up there.

'In many constituencies people involved in the Robinson campaign had never before had a victory in an election. The win gave them confidence - all of a sudden they realised that with the right candidate and a good campaign, which needn't cost much money, they could actually win.'

The arithmetic of the general election result meant that Labour had to join with one of its opponents. After many weeks of manoeuvring, it chose Fianna Fail, the party Mr Spring had denounced so many times over the years. Did he have to take a deep breath before doing the deal?

'Yes, I've no hesitation in saying that. The others were setting very serious preconditions. Fianna Fail responded to our document, and they were the only party to do so. There is an acceptance that our agreement was reached in partnership.'

In the North, the Unionists are watching Mr Spring closely to see whether his agenda for change could encompass their pressure for changes in the Irish constitution's claim over the North. How will he respond to their demands?

'Please let them come and talk to me about that. If there are new arrangements for this island, then there is going to be constitutional change. I have no hang-ups about the constitution.

'If we're talking about new relationships, let's put institutions and constitutions in place that reflect the realities of the complexities of the peoples on this island. But we've got to start working on that, and stop the megaphone diplomacy.'

(Photograph omitted)

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