The Foundation of the Irish State
Reflections On The Foundation of the Irish State
Cumann na nGaedheal – Government And Party
University College Cork – April 2003
The Foundation of the Irish State is a vast subject.
I have already written at some length in my recent book, Reflections On the Irish State, on what seems to me to have been the reasons why it was necessary in the interest of a majority of the Irish people for such a state to have come into existence.
In this talk I shall concentrate, on the quite extraordinary difficulties that the first Government faced in the post-Civil War period – the story of the Civil War itself is by now fairly well known. And I shall concentrate mainly on three aspects of this subject:
First, our state found its origins in what might be described as an anti-colonial war fought within part of a well-established but culturally diverse parliamentary democratic system. Perhaps because of this, the State’s founders included some very different kinds of people. In the first part of my remarks, therefore, I shall try to disentangle the tensions that divided the leadership of the first government during its early years, about which until quite recently we have known very little.
These tensions and divisions led the leadership to a grave crisis within two years of the foundation of the state, but the intense patriotism and commitment to the common good of these leaders, and their sublimation of personal ambition, led them ultimately to overcome these tensions, with the result that our state was built on foundations that proved capable of surviving many severe tests in the remaining decades of the twentieth century.
Second, I shall discuss the Cumann na nGaedheal Party and the separate, but in certain respects similar, set of tensions that existed between it and the Government it was established to support. An understanding of this is necessary in order to explain why the circumstances of that party’s origins condemned it, and its successor party, Fine Gael, to a less successful political role than Fianna Fail for much of the 20th century.
Third, I shall briefly remind you of some of the achievements of that first government but, because these are fairly well-known, even if not universally recognised or adequately appreciated, I shall treat them more briefly than they deserve – more briefly indeed than you might, perhaps, expect me to do.
Finally I shall reflect briefly on some of the problems that this early period of the history of the state left for subsequent generations to overcome – in some respects very successfully – in the second half of the twentieth century.
In all of this I have to acknowledge a debt to John Regan’s “The Irish Counter-Revolution”, a book which, although seriously marred by interpretative defects which make it an irritating book to read – his attempt to prove a somewhat strained thesis about counter-revolution – has revealed for the first time the full details of the dramatic events of those early years. As someone whose father was deeply involved in these events, of which however he never spoke, and someone who subsequently led the successor party to Cumannn na nGaedeal, this book has relieved the frustration I felt when in that position because of my enforced ignorance of the early history of the party and state.
Let me start at the beginning. At the end of the Treaty Debate in early January 1922 de Valera resigned as President of the Dail Cabinet and Arthur Griffith was elected in his place by the Second Dail, which comprised the Sinn Fein majority of those who had been elected in June 1921 to the Southern Parliament established under the Government of Ireland Act 1920 (1).
Five days later the Southern Parliament itself (comprising the pro-Treaty Southern Ireland Dail members and the Dublin University members) met and elected a parallel Provisional Government under Michael Collins’s chairmanship, as provided by the Treaty. Thenceforward, until 6th December 1922, these two Governments ran in parallel.
That Dail Government, and subsequent ones till 1927, had only seven members as in the pre-Treaty Government, but there were a number of non-Cabinet Ministers or Directors of various subsidiary bodies. Ernest Blythe and my father, Desmond FitzGerald, had held office in this form since 1919. As it happens, together with Cosgrave, Blythe and my father served longest – whether you do or don’t count non-Cabinet offices held between 1919 and 1921.
THE PERSONNEL OF THE GOVERNMENT:
TENSIONS AMONGST THE PRO-TREATY LEADERS
Cosgrave As President
Let me jump ahead from January to the death of Michael Collins on 22 August 1922. When the news of Collins death reached Dublin at 3 AM on 23 August Cosgrave was chosen as President of the Executive Council by consensus at a 4 AM to 7.30 AM meeting of members of the Cabinet, Law Officers, Army leaders, and Dick Hayes TD
Kevin O’Higgins was unhappy at this choice, he told Mulcahy. He had worked under Cosgrave in the very successful underground Dept. of Local Government, and thus knew Cosgrave well, and for some reason had formed a negative view of him. Whether, if there had been a vote, O’Higgins would actually have supported Mulcahy instead of Cosgrave, as Mulcahy believed, is less certain.
It was recognised at the time that Cosgrave would make a non-charismatic leader, but he was seen as preferable to the two alternatives – Mulcahy and O’Higgins. Mulcahy was seen as indecisive and pedantic – and too close to the Army. O’Higgins was viewed then as something of a “wild card”, and not republican enough.
Cosgrave, by contrast, offered continuity and stability, and had an excellent administrative record and longer political experience than anyone else – and he had already been chairing the Govt since Collins had become C in C in July, although Collins had continued to exercise authority from a distance.
Collins himself had opposed a meeting of the Dail whilst the fighting continued, but after his death Cosgrave, chosen informally as President at that early morning crisis meeting, immediately called the Third Dail into session for the first time. The Labour Party had been threatening to withdraw from the Dail otherwise. The IRB was also dissolved immediately – with Collins gone it was seen as having no role, although unhappily, as we shall see, it was informally re-established three months later by some of the Army chiefs.
Cosgrave was formally elected President of the Executive Council by the Dail on 9 September.
The Other Cabinet Members
O’Higgins came back from the Army to Home Affairs, and was made Vice-President in December. He saw the revolution primarily as Ireland getting its own Parliament – and was seen by the other wing of the pro-Treaty movement as being out of sympathy with the Irish language, autarky, republicanism, and militarism.
Mulcahy saw himself as something of an outsider – remaining with the Army in Portobello, not in Govt. Buildings, during the early stages of the civil war in Dublin. He was seen as primarily loyal to the army.
There were tensions amongst the Ministers from the start. O’Higgins, FitzGerald and Hogan (outside Cabinet till 1927, but very close to the others) were a group of civilian-oriented Ministers, concerned about parliamentary democracy and the need to establish a democratic system within which the Army would be under firm control. All three were French-oriented. They were joined later by McGilligan and these four became known to some as the “Donnybrook set”. All but FitzGerald of this group were UCD graduates; FitzGerald, born and brought up in London, who had come to live in Kerry in 1913 to participate in what he hoped would become a national movement for independence, had no third level education but was a poet, and had lived for several years in France. Mulcahy, who had studied as night student at Bolton Street is said to have disliked Desmond FitzGerald. I find that credible.
Blythe, was a Protestant from Armagh who at the age of 24 had gone to Kerry to learn Irish, where he had met Desmond FitzGerald. After the September 1923 Election Cosgrave delegated the Finance portfolio to him, and he was probably closest to Cosgrave, who, however, kept himself somewhat apart from his Ministers, as the leader of a Government has to do. Eventually, however, over the Army Mutiny, Blythe sided with the civilian Ministers.
MacNeill was by far the most senior; he “towered over all” intellectually, but was not effective as a Minister. During the early months of the Civil War he worked on a translation of the Four Masters!
Finally McGrath, an activist during the War of Independence, had been appointed by Collins as Director of Intelligence in 1922, in charge of Oriel House, which had a bad reputation, and had been appointed to the Government later that year when, he failed in an attempt to persuade Labour to nominate a Minister.
In the different backgrounds of these men one can find the seeds of the Army Mutiny of 1924.
O’Higgins was to describe the Civil War Government as “Eight young men in the City Hall (later Government Buildings) standing in the ruins of one administration, with the foundations of another not yet laid, and with wild men screaming through the keyholes”. Effectively besieged in Government Buildings, the members of the Government slept mostly on the floor. Some were accompanied by their wives (not my mother?) and some civil servants were living with them there.
In late September 1922 the Govt. introduced in the Dail an Army Emergency Powers Resolution, setting up military courts with power to sentence to death, and after the rejection by Republicans of an amnesty in mid-October, the first four executions occurred, followed shortly afterwards by that of Erskine Childers. The Government argued that having executed four Republicans for armed robbery, they could not exempt from execution one of the Irregular leaders like Childers, who was guilty of what had been made a capital offence – having been found in possession of a gun, a small revolver that had been given to him by Collins long before. But it is difficult to acquit the Government of prejudice against Childers as an Englishman, who had, absurdly, been suspected by Griffith of being a British agent, fomenting a civil war in order to give the British a chance to bring their troops back to restore peace in Ireland.
Immediately after those executions the Republican military leader, Liam Lynch, issued an order for the killing of fourteen categories of people – including Dail deputies, Senators, newspaper executives, hostile journalists, and other “aggressive Treaty supporters”. It was after the implementation of this order by the killing of Deputy Sean Hales, that the Govt., under pressure from the Army, ordered the execution without trial of four IRA republican prisoners.
It is very hard for us to-day to accept or to justify these acts. But that was a very different world, where the death penalty was universally accepted – although the four executions without trial were in fact widely condemned.
The Government firmly believed that only by these executions could the State be saved from anarchy, and at least some modern historians are inclined to feel that by thus halting the campaign to murder deputies etc. the republicans were in fact deprived of the only means by which they might have defeated the Govt.
As far as I am aware none of the Ministers who took these decisions ever expressed any doubts or regrets about them, and of course executions of convicted IRA-men, after trial and conviction continued under de Valera up to the end of the Second World War.
The Army Mutiny
The origins of the Army Mutiny seem to have lain in the fact that Collins appointed to the leadership of the Army in the Civil War fellow-members of the IRB – but not members of his loyal followers, the Active Service Unit, or Squad, who owed a special loyalty to him, but whom he seems to have seen in a different light from those he put in charge of the Army. If Collins had survived, that might not have mattered, but after his death it proved immensely divisive.
Under Collins, the Army leaders had built up a force of 55,000 men, many of them, including half the officers, having served in British forces. As was the case in respect of the civil administration, Collins’s concern was always efficiency. But after his death members of his Squad, and others who were not promoted to high positions in the Army, became disgruntled with being sidelined, as they saw it. Although at war with the Republicans, they were themselves more republican than most of the Cabinet, and seeing former Irish officers of the British Army made senior to them, they became deeply resentful of what they saw as a “pro-British” trend in the Army command and the Cabinet.
In December 1922 Liam Tobin called some like-minded officers together, who formed the IRAO – the Irish Republican Army Organisation. From then on that body put the Army Command and the Cabinet under pressure and Cosgrave met them several times in 1923 and tried to humour them. The Cabinet could not afford to allow this dissent to emerge publicly prior to the September 1923 Election, upon which might depend the willingness not merely of part of the electorate but also of the largely Unionist banks to support the Government. Meanwhile for their part the Generals had responded by reviving the IRB – thus dividing the Army between two secret bodies. Mulcahy, supportive of the Army chiefs, (he himself seems to have been an IRB member, although fairly junior in that organisation), and resistant to the IRAO, finally agreed in July 1923 to support Cosgrave’s policy of containment. However, when de-mobilisation began months later, and with the Election over, Mulcahy ignored IRAO requests not to demobilise some of their officers, however.
When in November 60 IRA officers who had mutinied against de-mobilisation were expelled without pay, the Government moved to establish a Committee comprising MacNeill, Blythe and McGrath – the latter sympathetic to the IRAO – to supervise future demobilisation. And after a threat by McGrath to resign from the Committee, the Government eventually agreed that the Committee could act retrospectively with regard to past demobilisations.
All this undermined the authority of the Army Council, and at the same time the Government‘s confidence in the Army Council was weakened by allegations that IRB officers were being favoured by it.
Meanwhile the situation was complicated by the fact that relations between Mulcahy and O’Higgins, in charge of the police under General O’Duffy, had seriously deteriorated. O’Higgins had all along been most unhappy with Army indiscipline and with the unwillingness of the Army leaders to deal with this problem.
Moreover the situation was further complicated by the fact that Mulcahy and the Army leaders were contemplating some kind of reconciliation with the defeated IRA, behind the backs of the Government – something to which O’Higgins was totally opposed.
Late in the night of 3rd March 1924 Cosgrave was handed an ultimatum from the IRAO, demanding the dismissal of the Army Council, the suspension of demobilisation and a tougher attitude to the implementation of the Treaty provisions. Part of the Army was in revolt.
Next night Mulcahy, without Government authority, ordered McGrath ‘s house to be searched. McGrath resigned. Next day, over Mulcahy’s head, O’Duffy was appointed GOC and Inspector-General of the Army. A Cumann na nGaedheal Parliamentary party meeting sympathised with McGrath in this affair and Mulcahy found no support there. But there was a danger that McGrath would make an inflammatory speech in the Dail.
The ICAO then started to climb down and the Government, fearing the damage that a statement by McGrath might do, offered an amnesty to it, and an army inquiry.
At that point Cosgrave retired ill, leaving O’Higgins in charge. Long afterwards both General Costello and General MacEoin said that what actually happened was that Cosgrave had been hoping that O’Higgins would over-react and might leave the Government, and there is an implication that O’Higgins had charged him with such a ploy and had then required him to retire for a period with a diplomatic illness. Certainly Mrs Mulcahy later said that Mrs Cosgrave had visited her during the crisis and had told her that O’Higgins wanted Cosgrave to resign.
Whatever the truth of all that, O’Higgins took over de facto control of the Government. An Army raid on Devlin’s Hotel, where Tobin and his allies were located, in defiance of the Government amnesty, (a raid which, however, had in the end of the day been authorised by the Secretary to the Government), gave him a somewhat dubious excuse to sack Mulcahy – consent having first been secured from Cosgrave at home for this action – and with him to sack also the Army Council.
O’Higgins then went to the Dail and made the speech that it had been feared earlier McGrath would make, announcing that Tobin and his allies would not be returning to the Army, as had of course been expected in the light of the earlier amnesty. The boil had been lanced successfully.
Some days later Cosgrave returned, and retained the Defence portfolio during the following eight months. O’Higgins’s former secretary, Paddy McGilligan was appointed to succeed Joe McGrath, thus strengthening the civilian ministers group and the position of O’Higgins’s in the Cabinet.
Nevertheless in October, faced with pressure from the 9-strong group of TDs that McGrath had brought together after his resignation, and fearing their opposition in the Dail, Cosgrave was prepared to accept conditions for their support, including party control of policy; removal of “anti-Irish elements in positions”; resistance to the advice of permanent officials; and the return of Tobin supporters to the Army. McNeill as well as all the civilian Ministers rejected this, however, leaving Cosgrave a minority of one in his Cabinet.
The National Group then resigned their seats but in circumstances I will describe in a few minutes, Cumann n nGaedheal won seven of these back in early 1925.
What was significant about all this is that it ended so peacefully. The Generals accepted their relegation without demur. So did Tobin, who later was appointed to a position in the civil service. McGrath went into business and he and his family were later very supportive of Fine Gael. And in June 1927 Mulcahy was re-appointed to the Government as Minister for Local Government and Public Health – and went on twenty years later to become Leader of the Party for sixteen years.
For his part O’Higgins continued to work loyally under Cosgrave as Vice-President, being appointed Minister for External Affairs in June 1927, in recognition of his remarkable performance at the 1926 Imperial Conference. My father was moved from External Affairs to Defence where, reportedly following a difficult encounter between Cosgrave and the new Army chiefs over their attitude to the feared emergence of a minority Labour/National League Government with support from Fianna Fail, he was given the difficult – and most unpopular – task of completing the process of bringing the Army fully under civilian control. The result was, that despite what seems to have been some ineffective plotting in 1931, when Fianna Fail secured a mandate in 1932 to form a Government with Labour backing, the Army at once accepted the authority of the new Government and served it loyally thereafter.
In the end of the day simple patriotism triumphed over deep personal divisions and personal ambition. Thus was parliamentary democracy firmly established in our State.
Let me now turn back to the parallel development of the Cumann na nGaedeal political party during this early period.
THE ROLE OF THE CUMANN NA NGAEDHEAL PARTY
The pro-Treaty Government lost the support of Sinn Fein early in 1922 but a political party supporting the Government did not come into existence until more than a year later, on 27 April 1923. This sequence of events proved crucial. The party was a kind of after-thought, in which the Government were never very interested. From the start the Party had a very limited role, and its efforts to influence the Government were almost wholly unsuccessful, leading on the part of the party to frustration, a measure of alienation, and ineffectiveness.
From January 1922 the pro-Treaty leadership had been governing without a political party behind them. They had naively envisaged a political system without parties, with small groups perhaps coming together for particular purposes but they did not envisage Sinn Fein developing into two or more parties with different objectives.
It should perhaps be explained that five Sinn Fein leaders elected to the Northern Ireland House of Commons – Collins, Griffith, de Valera, McNeilll, and Sean Milroy – had also been elected to the Southern Parliament. The sixth, John O’Mahoney, was admitted to the Second Dail, but apparently did not attend.
Moreover, faced with the Civil War the Government under Griffith and Collins saw themselves as leaders of the nation rather than of a party. An attempt was made in Autumn 1922 to get people from Labour to join what they saw as a national government, but Labour, unhappy with aspects of the War refused to do so. Cosgrave saw himself as above politics and did not want to be a party leader. At that stage there was no recognition of the fact that they would need a party organisation to win elections. Elections were simply not high in their list of concerns!
Nevertheless in September 1922 more realistic supporters of the Treaty started the process of establishing a pro-Treaty Party. However at the first meeting called, only two of the five nominated to undertake this task turned up!
At first it was proposed that each constituency would be autonomous, as is still the case with UUP in Northern Ireland. But a second draft provided that selected candidates would need to be ratified by a 24-member National Executive. But constituency representation at central level was not to come from the branch structure. Instead each constituency was to be represented at the centre in proportion to the number if TDs it elected – a kind of merit system!
A preliminary conference of Deputies and 58 invitees from around the country – it was remarkable that so many were able to get there – was held on 7 December 1922, which decided to revive the other name of Grifftih’s original party, Cumann na nGaedheal. However 2 TDs, Sean Hales and Padraic O’Maille, who went by trap to the Ormonde Hotel for lunch, were shot and Hayes was killed. It was that event that led to the execution without trial of four Republicans that night.
The party was finally established on 27 April 1923 in the Mansion House at a meeting attended by 150 people. But after its establishment the only member of the Government who kept in regular touch with it was Mulcahy. Blythe, who had played a leading role in founding it, later described it as “a snarling organisation”, and O’Higgins, FitzGerald and McGilligan, who joined the Cabinet in 1924 had no time for it
(Forty years later W.T. Cosgrave told me that Government contained “a half-statesman, Kevin O’Higgins, but no politicians – specifically mentioning in this latter connection Desmond FitzGerald – “too busy arguing about theology with Fr. Cahill”, and Paddy MacGilligan “wouldn’t go to Cork for a meeting”)
The Secretary of the Standing Committee of the Party, James Dolan, demanded that Ministers attend Party meetings, which they were very reluctant do. When he asked Cosgrave to make a policy statement to the party, Cosgrave turned up but spoke in generalities.
Thus the Party, formed top-down, never developed strong popular roots as FF later did, having been built bottom-up. This remained a problem for over 50 years, until the late 1970’s.
The party soon proved not merely a source of many tensions, but also an inefficient instrument. It failed to raise funds – in to-day’s money terms its 1924 receipts from its members were about £14,000, (€18,000)! And within two years of its foundation it was in debt to the tune of well over €200,000 in to-day’s terms.
There was from the start a conflict between the Cabinet and the Party over jobs. The party reflected the views of those who expected the whole public administration to change hands with the Revolution, expecting the rewards of public office to accrue to those who had fought for independence. From Collins down the Cabinet, recognising the huge task ahead of them of founding a State in the midst of civil war and virtual anarchy, were concerned to draw in talent from wherever they could find it – including from the former administration, which particularly annoyed the party members. One of the first steps Collins took was to get British assistance with the establishment of an Irish version of the British Civil Service Commission.
Collins brought agents of his in from the former police force to organise the new Garda Siochana, theVolunteer members of which mutinied in March 1922 against these leaders at the Curragh where they were being trained, and had to be stood down (Michael Staines TD resigned as Commissioner). A fresh start had to be made in Dublin several months later when Eoin O’Duffy was appointed Commissioner.
And the Army itself had to be swollen eventually to 55,000 men, most of them, including many officers, drawn necessarily from outside Volunteer ranks. All this caused great dissatisfaction amongst the ranks of supporters when the party was formed.
Land reform was another huge issue of contention. At the time independence was won, only a handful of estates remained to be divided, but there were tens of thousands of restless landless men, ready and anxious to start a fresh land war.
A third source of tension within the ranks of Government supporters was the North. Many supporters of Cumann na Gaedheal continued to hanker after a continuation or revival of Collins’s interventionist policy there, which the Cabinet had in fact decided to terminate even before Collins’s death – although they had not yet had an opportunity to tell him of this decision.
Finally, in the face of advice from a Fiscal Enquiry Committee of economic experts on industrial protection, strongly backed by the Secretary of Finance, J. J. McElligott, the Government decided to limit industrial protection to half-a-dozen products: footwear, soap and candles, sugar confectionary and cocoa preparation, table waters and glass bottles. This substantial dilution of Griffith’s protection policy was also a source of tension between government and party.
In fairness it has to be said that from the point of view of the Party, its relationship with the Government was most unsatisfactory. Its members saw Ministers as being remote from and hostile to their concerns, slow to appear at its meetings, and dismissive of its role. By the standards of parties elsewhere, they had a point.
Thus, with Dail opposition limited by Republican abstention to the small Labour Party and Farmers, the Cumann na nGaedheal Party, instead of being a support of the Government, became in effect an informal Opposition!
The truth is that these Government/Party tensions were unavoidable in the circumstances in which it came into being. But the consequence was that the Party, thus formed top-down, did not develop strong popular roots as Fianna Fail, building from the bottom-up, was able to do most successfully four or five years later. This remained a problem for Cumann na nGaeheal and its successor, Fine Gaal, for over 50 years, until the late 1970’s.
To add to the Government’s difficulties, whilst public opinion was heavily pro-Treaty, its supporters were mainly passive, with little enthusiasm for the task to be undertaken by the new Government. Physical and moral courage were at a discount – and with the Republicans in the Civil War committed to assassinating fourteen categories of people, including the category “aggressive supporters of the Government”, there was little enthusiasm to defend publicly the new administration.
As it happened, for a variety of reasons, in the eighteen months after the September 1923 General Election the Government had to contest 19 seats in by-elections. Only three were due to the deaths of Deputies. Two were due to the curious practice, which continued through the 1920’s, of key figures contesting several seats at a General Election and then standing down from the one that could most easily be won in a by-election. One was because of the appointment of Deputy Hugh Kennedy, Attorney General, (himself elected at a by-election a year earlier), as Chief Justice. One was because of a disqualification. And 12 were because of resignations.
Five of these by-elections were held in November 1923 and seven, involving nine seats, which were due to resignations over the Army Mutiny, were held on 11th March 1925.
In the event the Government won all but four of these 19 seats – and topped the poll in 17 of the 19. Two of the four Republican gains were unavoidable, because in the case of the Army Mutiny resignation by-elections there were two vacancies in two constituencies, and the Republicans had to win a seat in each of these. In a third case the Cumann na nGaedheal candidate, Professor Michael Tierney, later President of UCD, was nominated only at the last minute – and the fourth, in Dublin South, was won by Sean Lemass.
The Cumann na nGaedheal Party and its Standing Committee had their HQ in Parnell. Square. But because of what the Government saw as its inadequacies, the Government, faced in late 1924 with the last seven of these 19 by-elections, established a new temporary Organising Committee in December 1924, with premises in Dawson St. near the Dail. This Committee, effectively without the party organisation, succeeded in topping the poll in all 7 constituencies. And Dawson St. was sold at a profit after the by-elections!
RECORD OF THE GOVERNMENT
All that having been said the record of achievement of the Cumann na nGaedheal Government in the face of all these difficulties by any standards remarkable.
Having ended the Civil War and having within a year released all the internees, its new unarmed Garda Siochana maintained order, whilst the Government set about the huge task of physical reconstruction. In addition to the destruction of parts of O’Connell Street in 1916, and of the Custom House in 1921, other parts of the street and the Four Courts had been destroyed in 1922, and all through the country bridges had been blown up and railways and railway rolling stock destroyed.
Independence had ended the transfers from Britain for pensions and unemployment assistance, leaving the Irish Exchequer severely depleted, but whilst having to carry for a period the cost of an army of 55,000 men. Civil servants’ pay had to be cut. A new and untried Government in the midst of a Civil War and its aftermath was not well-placed to borrow, and so had to pay for almost everything out of current revenue. In those conditions, to have succeeded in completing the huge task of physical reconstruction by 1931 was an extraordinary achievement.
Criticism of the temporary reduction of the Old Age Pension by one shilling (10%) in 1924 ignores the fact that the Pension, which had been doubled in 1920, had increased in value by 6% between the foundation of the state and April 1924, because of a fall in the cost of living. Moreover, during the remainder of the Government’s term of office a combination of a further 10% drop in the cost of living and the early restoration in 1927 of the temporary cut in the pension raised pensioner’ purchasing power by 20%.
From the outset the Government, despite immense pressure from the party, set its face against political appointments, establishing forthwith an Irish Civil Service Commission to make appointments at central government level, and in 1926 it extended this system to local authorities by establishing also a Local Appointments Commission. This ended a system which sometimes involved bribes being paid for jobs – in to-day’s money terms as much as £50,000 for appointment as a Dispensary Doctor!
Inefficiency and corruption in local councils was cleaned up by abolishing for various periods the worst offending bodies, and later by putting in City and County Managers to undertake much of the decision-making at local level. Fianna Fail criticised these reforms as “undemocratic” but continued this clean-up process vigorously when they came to power.
Meanwhile a huge body of native Irish legislation was introduced, drafted by indefatigable administrative civil servants and lawyers, and an efficient central administration was established.
Innovative initiatives included the establishment of the ESB and the building of the Shannon Scheme, the establishment of the Dairy Disposal Company to merge creameries and undertake cattle breeding, bacon curing, and broiler production; the Agricultural Credit Corporation; the Medical Registration Council; Dental Board; and Veterinary Council.
In the external forum Ireland became an active and respected member of the League of Nations; registered the 1921 Treaty with the League despite British opposition; and initiated Dominion diplomatic representation abroad. And from 1926 onwards the Irish Government led successfully the revolution in the Commonwealth which by 1931 had made all the Dominions sovereign independent states. By 1932 almost nothing remained of British rule in Ireland except the nominal role of the King in accrediting diplomats to other states.
Finally, as I have earlier mentioned, that Cumann na nGaedheal Government went to great lengths from 1927 onwards to ensure that when the time came to hand over to Fianna Fail after an election, the army would accept the people’s verdict, and serve loyally the new government comprised of people they had defeated in arms a mere nine years earlier.
It was all a remarkable record of achievement. But by 1932 the members of that Government were physically exhausted and drained. Reluctantly, and with many fears for the future, they handed over to Fianna Fail – for what turned out to be a long sixteen years – the end of which my father did not live to see
Deep though the political divisions were between pro- and anti-Treatyites, and, as I have shown, amongst the pro Treatyites, and then later, with the foundation of Fianna Fail, also amongst the anti-Treatyites, they all had in common a vision of an Irish-Ireland that would re-create a past culture, Gaelic and Catholic. They felt the need to be faithful to the indigenous Irish tradition, and gave little enough thought to how to incorporate other Irish traditions, Anglo-Irish or Ulster Scots into their scheme of things.
They all felt that they owed a great debt to the Irish language, which had brought so many of them together in the Gaelic League in the years before the First World War. Cumann na nGaedheal sought to repay this debt somewhat simplistically by making the Irish language an essential subject for the Intermediate Certificate by 1928 – Fianna Fail followed through with the Leaving Certificate in 1934 – and by making it an essential subject for entry to and promotion within public service. The fact this de facto excluded the two other non-Gaelic Irish traditions from much of the life of the new state does not seem to have struck either of the two political groups at the time.
The members of both of the first two Governments – Ernest Blythe apart – were strongly, many of them deeply, Catholic. They did not think in terms of creating a Catholic State – three centuries of official religion had made both Irish clergy and laity sceptical of officially-established religion – but they passed laws, and later a Constitution, deeply influenced by Catholic teaching.
Responsibility for creating a non-pluralist state rests almost equally with both sets of politicians – although eventually Fianna Fail went further than Cumann na nGaedheal in this respect.
Looking back eighty years later, there is not much point in criticising either the first or the second government for having failed to create a pluralist Ireland – that would have been quite outside their frame of reference. They were men of their time, as we are of ours. Our state simply had to go through several generations of almost exclusive emphasis on the indigenous culture of the majority of the Irish people before coming terms with the complexity of our cultural inheritance.
The two first governments differed in some measure on protection for infant industry – Cumann na nGaeheal being more influenced by the free trade ideas of their time, Fianna Fail by the autarkic ideas of the 1930’s. The absurd idea of self-sufficiency was, however a specifically de Valera idea, which was abandoned only at the very end of his era, after it had done a lot of harm. The truth is that neither side had politicians with much grasp of economics – although in the 1950’s Lemass finally came to grips with the issue of economic development through re-orienting the economy outwards. But years had been wasted. In the 1950’s in particular Ireland had unnecessarily stagnated at a time when the rest of Europe and the world had been forging ahead.
The members of both the first two governments remained loyal to their revolutionary commitment to the public good: they were all men of probity, seeking nothing for themselves beyond salaries as Ministers that were modest by international standards. However Fianna Fail, inheriting a state from whose public life they had initially excluded themselves, were less committed to meritocratic as against political appointments, and they undid some – but only some – of what the first government had fought for so determinedly against their own supporters.
But the survival of a democratic Irish state through a most turbulent period is the great achievement of those who founded our state. We owe this to the selfless patriotism, and toughness, of the members of that first government.
I am proud to have been the son of one of one of those men.
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