Public Policy in an emerging state

Public Policy in an emerging state: The Irish Free State 1922-25

Donal Corcoran*

University College Cork, through the Department of History.


The first three years of the Irish Free State’s existence were among the most crucial in independent Ireland’s history. William T. Cosgrave and his Cumann na nGaedheal (Party of the Irish) governments suppressed an internal revolt, overcame an acute scarcity of money, enacted a constitution, and defined how the state would be governed. They established an Irish civil service, army, courts service, police force and diplomatic corps; passed legislation to purchase the remaining agricultural land held by landlords; commenced exploitation of the natural resources, extended the use of Irish in schools, and began the task of increasing the state’s sovereignty. The administration of the Irish Free State was quickly changed from the British system of loosely co-ordinated boards and departments to a centralised Irish system.


Britain unwillingly relinquished its hold over Ireland in 1921, partitioned the country, insisted that the Irish Free State should join the British Commonwealth and prescribed a controversial oath of allegiance to be taken by future members of the Irish parliament. It retained control over three strategic naval ports and demanded payment of a share of its national and war debts. These actions caused division and civil war in the Irish Free State between the realists who accepted the Treaty signed between Britain and Ireland on 6 December 1921 as the best deal possible – leaving outstanding matters of sovereignty to be dealt with later – and the idealists who held out for a republic.

New states emerged in the aftermath of World War I when the empires of the vanquished were dismantled. Ireland was unique as it secured its independence from Britain, one of the victors. The war of independence resulted in the breakdown of government, administration and law and order. The first government of the Irish Free State was confronted with internal revolt within months of taking office. Its ministers were young and inexperienced, were under pressure from ruthless armed opponents and public funds were extremely limited. They feared they might be unable to govern, thereby giving Britain an opportunity to resume control over Irish affairs. Consequently they made hard and pragmatic decisions, with little regard for the political, social or economic consequences as their prime objective was to restore order and quickly create a new independent state.

The creation of the Irish Free State

The Treaty ended the Irish war of independence which had begun in January 1919. Britain held Ireland primarily for strategic reasons, to prevent an enemy using it as a base to invade England or to interfere with British sea trade. By mid-1921, they had difficulty governing parts of Ireland. Faced with a war-weary public at home and a shortage of soldiers due to over-commitments in Chanak, Egypt and Iraq, Britain conceded dominion status in the hope it would appease the Irish independence movement and those in Britain and Northern Ireland who opposed the creation of an Irish republic. Dominion status (political independence within the British Commonwealth) was a compromise between home rule (devolved government within the United Kingdom) and a republic (complete independence). The provinces of Munster, Leinster and Connacht, and three counties in Ulster became Saorstát Éireann (the Irish Free State), leaving Northern Ireland (the remaining six counties in Ulster), as it had been since June 1921, a devolved government within the United Kingdom.

The Treaty delivered more than home rule, particularly with regard to political independence, finance, defence, and external affairs. Under its terms, the Irish Free State joined the British Commonwealth. The King’s functions and those of his representative, the Governor-General, which were largely symbolic, were repugnant to Irish republicans including those who accepted the Treaty. Partition was reinforced as the Treaty gave Northern Ireland the right to opt out of a united Ireland. While dominion status effectively meant political independence, it fell short of the republic for which the war of independence had been fought. The Dáil (Irish parliament) debate on the Treaty was long and acrimonious. Most of the focus was on the oath of allegiance to the Irish Free State constitution and fidelity to the King as head of the British Commonwealth. There was much less emphasis on the more substantive issue of partition.

The Treaty was accepted by a narrow majority, 64 votes to 57. It provided for a three stage transition from British to Irish rule: 1) an interim provisional government, 2) a single chamber constituent assembly which would enact a constitution, and 3) the election of the first parliament of the Irish Free State. After the Treaty was approved by the second Dáil on 7 January 1922, Arthur Griffith was elected Dáil President following which the anti-Treaty TDs (Dáil Deputies) absented themselves from the Dáil. The first provisional government was elected on 16 January 1922 and, under the chairmanship of Michael Collins, it exceeded its brief and became the de facto government. Dublin Castle, the centre of British administration in Ireland, was handed over, and administrative control was transferred on 1 April, the first day of the next financial year. Those who accepted the Treaty were in the majority after the constituent assembly (third Dáil) was elected in June 1922. It enacted the Constitution of the Irish Free State in October, and political control was assumed by the first Irish Free State government under President of the Executive (Prime Minister) William T. Cosgrave on 6 December, 1922, the first anniversary of the Treaty. On 7 December, the Northern Ireland government exercised its option not to unite with the Irish Free State under the terms of the Treaty, leaving the border to be decided by a boundary commission.

The Constitution was drafted by a committee chaired by Collins. In the course of their deliberations they reviewed nineteen constitutions from four continents (Select Constitutions of the World, 1922). Art.2 declares: “All powers of government and all authority, legislative, executive and judicial…are derived from the people of Ireland”. The Constitution provided for:

a legislature to be known as the Oireachtas, consisting of the King and two Houses, Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann, an oath of allegiance to be taken by each member and the exclusive right of the Oireachtas to control the armed forces; provisions for the election of members of the Oireachtas, popular participation in legislation by way of referendum on bills passed and the initiation by the people of legislative proposals, executive authority to be vested in the King aided by the Executive Council, judicial power to be exercised by the Courts, guarantees on personal liberty, free profession and practise of religion, right to free expression and peaceful assembly and a right to free elementary education.

The first parliament of the Irish Free State (fourth Dáil) was convened on 19 September 1923. Those who accepted the Treaty remained in power. They had organized as Cumann na nGaedheal (the Party of the Irish), and governed without the support of other parties as the anti-Treaty TDs remained absent from the Dáil.

External affairs and the Boundary Commission

After independence, a large part of Irish foreign policy was concerned with the readjustment of relations with Britain. As the Irish wished to demonstrate their sovereignty, they had to build relationships with other states. At the same time, the British Commonwealth was evolving as the Dominions sought more independence from the mother country. Consequently, the Irish Free State’s readjustment of its relationship with Britain took place in the context of the Commonwealth rather than in a bilateral sense (Keatinge, 1973).

Between 1922 and 1925 the main diplomatic focus was on Britain because of necessity, on the League of Nations as a means of demonstrating sovereignty and international status, on the US in order to gain recognition from the most powerful state in the world, and on the Vatican to legitimize the state and counter anti-Treaty and British influence in Rome. Sovereignty and partition were the key foreign policy issues.

The Government was soon recognized internationally. Diplomatic representatives were appointed to major capitals and the state was unanimously admitted to the League of Nations on 10 September 1923. Cosgrave’s Cumann na nGaedheal government made sure that the King’s authority immediately disappeared in the courts, the army and civil administration by removing all symbols of royalty and references to the monarch, and it quietly used any opportunity which arose to increase the sovereignty of the state (O’Sullivan, 1940).

The Irish, preoccupied with the civil war, made little impact at the 1923 Imperial Conference, which granted the Dominions autonomy in external affairs, ending the common imperial foreign policy. External affairs Minister Desmond FitzGerald took advantage of this to expand the Irish diplomatic service.

The Irish Free State expected to gain significant territory from the Boundary Commission set up to decide on the border between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. However, its Chairman, Mr Justice Richard Feetham, recommended minimal adjustments on both sides of the border in a report leaked in November 1925. This was a shock to the Irish government as its representative Eoin MacNeill had failed to keep it informed on the Commission’s deliberations. Cosgrave was faced with the alternative of accepting the Commission’s recommendations or keeping the existing border. As the former would have been political suicide, he reluctantly accepted the latter.

Public policy 1922-1925

Pre-independence ideas on public policy were mainly developed by Griffith whose arguments in favour of protection, economic self-sufficiency and reduced dependence on trade with Britain gained widespread support. Other policies advocated included the revival of Irish, greater access to education, a separate currency, more equitable taxation, reform of the Unionist-dominated banks and stock exchange, arbitration courts and the reform of local government. But pre-Treaty Sinn Féin public policy was more a ‘national philosophy’ (O’Hegarty, 1919). It was long on aspiration, short on detail, and contained little to indicate that any serious thought had been given to how changes would be planned, funded and implemented.

The Irish Free State government’s main policy objectives were to defend the state against internal revolt, establish a civil service, restore law and order, maintain free trade, develop agriculture, balance the budget and revive the Irish language. Other aims included acquiring the remaining agricultural land held by landlords and redistributing it to tenants and other claimants, low cost government, development of natural resources, minimizing farm costs and reducing taxes. The Government’s task was aggravated because many people had unrealistically high expectations of prosperity once the British left.

Defence, the civil war and the army mutiny

The Government’s immediate priorities were to put down an internal rebellion, establish a civil administration and restore law and order. It began to recruit a national army in January 1922. As the British withdrew, the army and the irregulars (anti-Treaty armed forces, so called to distinguish them from the regular army) began to occupy barracks. Collins tried to prevent confrontation until the army was ready to fight but was forced by events to order an attack on insurgents occupying the Four Courts in Dublin in June 1922. The army quickly defeated the irregulars in Dublin and displaced them from urban areas. After Collins was killed in an ambush on 22 August, Richard Mulcahy combined the posts of Minister for Defence and army commander. After August the civil war became a savage and destructive guerrilla conflict during which roads, bridges, railways and telecommunications were damaged while banks, post offices, shops, farms and houses were looted and burned and many civilians killed. Both sides were poorly organized and badly disciplined, and committed atrocities in a war of attrition which ended in mid-1923 when the irregulars decided to cease fire. There was no peace settlement and sporadic acts of violence continued.

After the civil war, the Government drastically reduced the size of the army and created a small, professionally-trained force which would be loyal to future democratically-elected governments. The demobilization was opposed by a small group of officers in 1924. The Government appointed Police Commissioner Eoin O’Duffy as Inspector-General of the army and gave him direct access to the cabinet thus undermining Mulcahy who resigned shortly afterwards. O’Duffy was appointed army commander and Peter Hughes as minister. The importance of the army mutiny was not so much the mutiny as such but that the supremacy of civilian authority over the military was finally established for the first time since 1913 (Pender, 1988).

Adapting/creating the public administration

The government quickly moved to re-organize the public service in line with the Constitution, and the Dáil passed the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924, one of the most critical pieces of legislation enacted in the state and one which remains the bedrock of the status of ministers and the distribution of government functions. The Act provided for eleven government departments to replace the existing Dáil ministries and clearly set out their authority and responsibility. Under it each minister is described as a corporation sole, the personification of the department, and all orders and instructions issued by government departments are given in the name of the minister.

After the Treaty Minister for Finance Collins immediately set about establishing an Irish civil service. The pre-Treaty Dáil civil service was small, inexperienced and, in the aftermath of the Treaty, the loyalty of some of its members was questionable. The Treaty transferred most civil servants to the new state. They had the option of retiring but the majority wished to continue working provided that their pay and conditions were not worsened. They knew that the Government had received many job applications and that experienced administrative staff could be recruited from the local authorities. The Government pragmatically decided to take over the existing civil service, supplementing it with 131 pre-Treaty Dáil civil servants together with 88 ex-officials dismissed by the British (Brennan Commission, 1936). Thus the state acquired a new public service with minimum effort, and the civil servants were dispersed across the existing Dáil ministries (Maguire, 2005). During the civil war the Government set up the Civil Service Commission to ensure that appointments would be made fairly without political influence.

The Government opted for a centralized state, in the belief that local authorities were corrupt and inefficient and to prevent those opposed to the Treaty using them as bases for opposition. The Local Government (Temporary Provisions) Act 1923 and the Local Government Act 1925 gave the necessary powers to dissolve the smaller local bodies and extend the same central control to all local authorities as applied to Poor Law Guardians since 1838. County boards of public health and new enlarged sanitary districts were created and workhouses were closed. Roads were improved and support provided for private and public housing.

Local authorities were severely disrupted between 1919 and 1923. Many failed to hold meetings. Rates were not collected so services could not be funded, resulting in cutbacks and outsourcing. After 1922 central government grants were reduced although an additional rebate on agricultural rates was provided from central funds in 1925. The government took drastic action to gain control of local authorities, using its powers to dissolve twenty public bodies which were replaced by government-appointed commissioners (Haslam, 2003). Most of the commissioners were competent administrators, apolitical and amendable to central direction. While the displaced councillors were displeased, ratepayers welcomed the commissioners because they managed the councils economically (Maguire, 1998). Local elections were deferred during the civil war by the Local Government (Postponement of Elections) Act 1922, the first of a number of deferrals before elections were held in 1925.

Radical reform of city government based on an American model was advocated by Cork solicitor John J. Horgan (Horgan, 1920). This led to a new city management system being implemented in Cork and later extended to other cities and counties. Other reforms included the Electoral Act 1923 which provided for universal franchise for those over 21 years (30 for senate elections) while the Prevention of Electoral Abuses Act 1923 legislated against corrupt and illegal practices.

Financial administration

The Dáil Ministry of Finance (Finance) took over the functions of Treasury (Ireland) after independence. Collins was replaced as Chairman of the provisional government and Finance Minister by William T. Cosgrave in August 1922. Cosgrave retained the finance portfolio after becoming President of the Executive and was succeeded as Finance Minister by Ernest Blythe in September 1923. The Government’s fiscal policy was to balance the budget, maximize revenue collection, reduce expenditure, and minimize borrowings. Its economic policy concentrated on increasing agricultural exports. It favoured free trade and opposed tariffs, fearing British retaliation might make exports less competitive.

The role of the Comptroller and Auditor General (C & AG) and system of public accountability closely followed the Whitehall mode, adapted to fit the requirements of the new state. Former Dublin Castle civil servant and acting C & AG, Joseph Brennan, wrote to all ministries on 16 February 1922 stating clearly that Finance was in charge of the public service. The C & AG would supervise exchequer receipts and issues and audit the public accounts while Finance would determine financial regulations and manage the financial vote process.

Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise were merged to form the Revenue Commissioners in February 1923. Tax arrears were collected with difficulty as many taxpayers had not made payments for years and some tax offices had been burned down after 1919. Other functions assigned to Finance included the Office of Public Works which remained largely unchanged.

Finance’s objective was to balance the budget, and financial affairs, with the exception of army estimates, was not discussed by the Government (Regan, 1999). Brennan, a strong proponent of fiscal rectitude, was appointed permanent Secretary of Finance, and determined how much could be spent having regard to the state’s revenue and credit rating. Bonds issued to pay compensation for war damage and the potential liability for bonds issued under the Land Act 1923 reduced the state’s capacity to borrow.

Cosgrave presented the first post-independence budget (1923-24). Expenditure exceeded revenue due to the civil war. The cost of living, which had increased during World War I, fell sharply after 1921 without corresponding cuts in public service pay and state pensions. This prompted the government to reduce the pay of some public servants in 1924 and, more controversially, old age pensions, then payable to people over 70 years. At the same time tradesmen and labourers in Cork suffered wage reductions of 12.5 and 15 per cent respectively (Cork Employers Federation, 1924).

The City of London considered the Irish Free State to be a bad risk during the civil war while investors wanted to be sure that loans would be repaid on par with sterling as they feared the Irish pound might be devalued (Irish Times, 19 October 1923). American banks offered finance but Brennan preferred to borrow at home and was against borrowing to cover budget deficits. Assistant Secretary of Finance, J. J. McElligott, proposed long-term borrowing for capital projects. The 1923 funding requirement of £25 million was the equivalent of one year’s expenditure, leading to fears of inflation. The option of issuing more banknotes was rejected by Finance (Fanning, 1978). Cosgrave was reluctant to look for British backing for a national loan so Finance raised short-term bank loans, deferred compensation claims and payments to creditors, secured control of government funds in Ireland and abroad, ended building schemes, made economies in the civil service, army and police; and aggressively collected tax arrears (National Archives of Ireland [NAI] S8282-9568; Fanning 1978). After the election of the fourth Dáil in August 1923, a national loan of £10 million was successfully floated in Dublin. The loan was over-subscribed giving a vote of confidence to the Government and Finance. Thereafter, fiscal policies were dictated by the senior civil servants in Finance as Blythe had less interest than his predecessors, Collins and Cosgrave, in the details of state finance. The rate of income tax was reduced in 1925, the year a ‘no income tax’ campaign was launched by Cork business interests.

Article 5 of the Treaty required the Irish to pay a fair and equitable share of the UK public debt and cost of war pensions. An interim arrangement, the Hills/Cosgrave pact, which included British funding of and guarantees for land purchase, was reached in February 1923. Cosgrave had a very poor bargaining position as he desperately needed to fund land purchase to end widespread agitation. The deal was done in secret at the request of the Irish and was never ratified by the Dáil. A more favourable financial settlement was negotiated in 1926 after the Boundary Commission report.

Justice and policing

Existing laws were carried forward under the Adaptation of Enactments and Expiring Laws Continuance Acts 1922. As law and order had broken down in parts of the country there was an urgent need for a new courts service and police force. The first Dáil had set up arbitration courts to undermine British authority and to deliver justice in areas where the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) lost control. Following the July 1921 truce these courts replaced many of the existing courts. The Government retained the old courts and closed down the Dáil courts, being apprehensive that the anti-Treaty side might use them to subvert its rule. The Courts of Justice Act 1924 re-organized the courts and they quickly gained public acceptance.

The RIC was due to be disbanded in February 1922 while the small, unarmed Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) remained in place. The Government began to recruit a police force (Civic Guard) from the IRA and a few ex-RIC policemen. After resistance by some Guards to the number of ex-RIC appointed to senior ranks, the Government set up a commission of enquiry which proposed that the force be technically disbanded but not dispersed, and selectively re-enrolled with every man put on probation. It also recommended that the Guards be unarmed, and carry out administrative functions to bring them into a close relationship with the people (Allen, 1999). Major General Eoin O’Duffy was appointed Commissioner.

Throughout the winter of 1922/23 irregulars destroyed 485 police stations. Some 400 Guards were physically beaten, stripped of their uniforms and had their personal possessions stolen. One was killed (Brady, 1974; NAI, H 99-109). Police morale deteriorated but Minister for Home Affairs O’Higgins and O’Duffy refused to arm the Guards. A Civic Guard Bill introduced in July 1923 gave legal effect to the force and its name was changed to An Gárda Síochána. The DMP was amalgamated with it in 1924.

The Government enacted temporary security legislation during the civil war which provided for trial by military tribunal and death sentences. On the expiry of the laws, crime and violence increased, witnesses and judges were intimidated, and the Government introduced new measures to improve security. These included the Public Safety Act 1923, the Punishment of Offenders Act 1924, the Firearms Act 1924 and the Treasonable and Seditious Offences Act 1925. The emphasis on law and order eroded support for the government which made little effort to improve its public relations or to convince its opponents that continuing resistance was detrimental to the development of the state and the prosperity of its people.

Social problems were contained rather than resolved in an era when the Catholic Church had considerable influence. The Censorship of Films and Gaming Acts were passed in 1923. O’Higgins set up the Intoxicating Liquor Commission and the Committee of Evil Literature in 1925 to reduce the number of public houses and meet demands for print censorship. Brothels were closed in a drive led by feminists and religious groups against prostitution and venereal disease. While the granting of full divorce had never resided with the Irish courts, it was effectively ended after 1922 as private divorce bills were unlikely to secure approval in the Dáil and Senate with their Catholic majorities. Contraceptives could still be sold legally and the levels of illegal abortions and infanticide remained high.

Economic development

The Government did not implement the pre-independence policies of protection and self-sufficiency. It set up the Fiscal Inquiry Committee in 1923, a committee comprised of civil servants and academics who were biased in favour of free trade. Its report opposed tariffs and met with opposition. McElligott argued that protection once granted could never be reversed and would inevitably entail further tariffs. The 1924 budget imposed duties on a range of goods but pressure mounted for more tariffs from the Labour Party, business interests and Postmaster-General J. J. Walsh, who openly criticized government trade policy. Minister for Trade and Commerce Joe McGrath resigned over the army mutiny in 1924 and was replaced by Patrick McGilligan. Gordon Campbell, Secretary of Industry and Commerce, argued for a more balanced approach combining free trade with selective tariffs.

Minister for Agriculture Patrick Hogan set up the Commission on Agriculture in 1924. Its report covered tillage, marketing, transport, off-farm employment, education and credit. It recommended individual and collective voluntary effort rather than grants, subsidies and guaranteed prices. Hogan dismissed the argument that money would solve all the farmers’ problems, arguing that they had to find their own salvation. The commission report provided a blueprint for 1920s agricultural policy.

The Irish Free State achieved political, financial and military independence in 1922 but economic independence did not follow as the British and Irish economies remained interdependent. Ireland was Britain’s fifth biggest customer while the UK was in effect Ireland’s only customer and the world’s largest food importer. The Irish needed new duty-free outlets but European countries, hit hard by the post World War I economic depression, protected their home markets by raising tariffs (Lynch, 1959).

There was considerable internal trade between the north and south before 1922 but the Belfast boycott began the destruction of the commercial unity of the country as northern firms transferred their business to Britain. The erection of customs posts by the Irish Free State imposed another barrier, and trade between the two parts of the country declined and has never recovered (Kennedy, 1998).

After independence the pre-Treaty Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction remained almost unchanged. The government focused on the development of agriculture as Ireland had a comparative advantage in that sector and over half the population made its living from the land. The post-war economic depression resulted in the agricultural price index falling from 288 in 1920 to 160 in 1922 (Meenan, 1971). Many working on the land were subsistence farmers and landless labourers. As there were few industrial jobs, the level of emigration remained high, particularly to the US.

Around 30 per cent of agricultural land, formerly owned by landlords, remained to be transferred to Irish owners by 1922. There was considerable land hunger as evicted tenants, smallholders and farm labourers realized it was their last chance to get land. Widespread agrarian violence, cattle-seizures, house-burnings and shootings occurred during the civil war. Agriculture Minister Hogan promoted the Land Act 1923, which introduced compulsory purchase and automatic price fixing. The Act’s objective was to establish viable farmers rather than to address the grievances of the many claimants for land. Hogan also initiated action to improve quality and raise the output of agricultural products, beginning with the Dairy Produce Act 1924, the Agricultural Produce (Eggs) Act 1924 and the Livestock and Breeding Act 1925.

The state lacked industrial strength and entrepreneurs, few in number, were looked upon with suspicion by politicians as profiteers. Monopolists, although willing to invest, were distrusted. The Government wished to retain ownership in Irish hands. Any business investing in the Irish Free State needed assurance that it could make profits or get state aid but the Government sought to limit the former and rarely provided the latter. Consequently the Irish state was not an attractive location to foreign investors.

Finance and Agriculture, the dominant economic departments, favoured free trade and made it difficult for the Department of Industry and Commerce to protect the industrial base from foreign competition, encourage import substitution, and promote new industries. The Government was committed to free trade while the opposition, inside and outside the Dáil, supported tariffs. Business and farming interests were divided between protectionists and free traders.

The post-World War I economic downturn, and war damage between 1919 and 1923, reduced the capacity of agriculture and industry to increase employment. The government began reconstruction by paying compensation and making infrastructural investments in drainage, roads and housing. It made several significant economic interventions including the Railways Act 1924 (the amalgamation of 26 railway companies to form Great Southern Railways), the Trade Loans (Guarantee) Act 1924, the investment in the Shannon hydro-electric scheme (1925), and the Sugar Beet (Subsidy) Act 1925 which led to Lippens, a Belgian firm, establishing the first sugar factory at Carlow.

The focus on the development of agriculture had adverse consequences for the sea fishery sector which failed to recapture markets lost during World War I. Catches and prices fell after 1918, while civil war disruption and increased competition from foreign trawlers created further difficulties. Arthur Griffith believed the marine resources had huge potential but, after his death, Fisheries Minister Fionán Lynch failed to convince the Government to invest in sea, inshore and river fisheries.


After independence the boards of education were amalgamated under a single ministry, the intermediate and leaving-certificate examinations were introduced, and an attempt was made to revive the Irish language through the schools. Much of the resources committed at primary and secondary level were devoted to the revival of Irish and, as a consequence, the standard of other subjects fell. The first national school education conference recommended in January 1922 that Irish be taught for one hour a day and this was implemented by the provisional government under public notice number 4 on 1 February 1922 (Report of the Council of Education, 1960). While all the conference’s other recommendations were not accepted, its proposed approach set the tone for the next 50 years (Kelly, 2002).

The Catholic Church insisted that parents be responsible for their children’s education. It opposed free education and secured a dominant position in the management of schools as the Government’s primary interest was in control of the curricula rather than the schools. In 1922 national schools organised at parish level catered for primary students in a rudimentary manner. Secondary schools were either private or managed by the clergy or religious orders. In 1924-25 there were 493,382 primary school pupils and 22,897 at secondary school (Coolohan, 1980). The technical schools run by the county committees of education were not geared to industrial needs. The reformatories and industrial schools were managed mainly by religious orders and funded by the state on a capitation basis. They were transferred from the strictly-controlled local government regime to Education in 1922 after which the standard of inspection fell, worsening the conditions of the children under care. Teacher training after 1922 was mainly focused on Irish while the universities remained under-funded with low student numbers. In W. B. Yeats’s view, ‘The old regime left Ireland, perhaps, the worst educated country in northern Europe’(Irish Times, 23 August 1928). Three ministers served between 1922 and 1925, Fionán Lynch, Eoin MacNeill who resigned after the Boundary Commission report, and John Marcus O’Sullivan.

Posts, telegraphs, telephones and radio

The Post Office was the principal provider of communications services in the Irish Free State and, as it lost £1.1 million in 1920-21, the Government sought immediate cost reductions (NAI, H10269/53). Postmaster-General J. J. Walsh and Secretary P. S. O’Hegarty, who were both ex-Post Office officials, adopted a hard line, leading to industrial conflict despite similar pay cuts being implemented in Northern Ireland without a strike.

The Post Office strike began on 10 September 1922 and lasted less than three weeks. It took place during the civil war and became highly contentious after shootings and arrests occurred. The unions claimed a ‘quasi-military junta’ had taken over the Post Office (Irish Postal and Telegraph Guardian, August 1922). A skeleton service was run by armed ‘volunteers’ aided by the chambers of commerce and business interests. Unskilled labour was recruited and prisoners in Mountjoy gaol were promised early release if they helped break the strike. The Government argued that civil servants did not have the right to strike while most of the anti-Treaty side remained aloof from events (Walsh, 1944). The dispute ended with agreement that the wage cuts be made in two phases. The Post Office was reorganized and officials who had kept the system running were promoted. Despite allegations of victimisation, which were denied by Cosgrave, nobody was dismissed. The Government disregarded or materially altered most of the Postal Commission’s recommendations and unions complained about the ‘unwarrantable’ delay in implementing them (An Díon, September 1923).

The Post Office infrastructure was badly damaged during the war of independence and civil war. Afterwards reconstruction and cost reduction took precedence over expansion or upgrading of services. Major savings were achieved but telephone development was hampered by shortage of capital.

Nevertheless the Government made an initial investment in radio. Despite rapid technological advances in 1920, there was little public demand. However, once the BBC and Belfast 2BE began broadcasting, the Government felt obliged to respond. Walsh decided that radio should be operated by the private sector and issued a white paper in 1923 but a Dáil broadcasting committee recommended that the station be run by the Post Office. Irish language and education were considered more important than entertainment, and the station would be financed by licence fees and advertising.



The Treaty and the Constitution defined the status of the state and the institutions of government. The Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924 determined how it would function. As the Ministers had to rapidly organize government and administration against the backdrop of a civil war, their priority public policies were to defend the state against internal revolt and secure control over the levers of power. They did so by raising a large army, transferring political and administrative power from the British, asserting control over the state’s revenues, balancing budgets and minimizing borrowings. The Government rigidly controlled expenditure as it was determined not to borrow from Britain. As the civil war drained resources; expenditure was cut without regard for the social, economic or political consequences. Cosgrave and his government ruthlessly put down internal revolt, restored law and order, and made little effort to gain popularity.

The civil war forced the government to adopt a conservative and pragmatic approach, and to minimize change which is fraught with danger in times of civil strife. The Ministers were young, inexperienced and under extreme pressure. They were not radical thinkers and were supported by the more conservative sections of society. They concentrated on defending the state and gave the senior civil servants in Finance a free hand in its administration. The civil service helped the government gain legitimacy during the civil war as it demonstrated the ability to administer the state and deliver services. For much of 1922-24 the state was governed by ministers, the army and the civil service. Each took important decisions and none was fully accountable to the Dáil. The military’s political influence waned after the army mutiny in 1924 leaving Cosgrave, and the by then strong man in the government, Vice-President Kevin O’Higgins, in charge together with the civil service.

There was much more continuity than change between 1922 and 1925 because the Government had to establish its legitimacy quickly and it urgently needed a competent public service to administer the new state. The existing administrative apparatus was adapted with minimal changes but with a greater degree of centralization (Maguire, 2005). The Commission of Inquiry into the Civil Service 1932-1935, which was chaired by Joseph Brennan, stated that ‘broadly speaking’ there was ‘no immediate disturbance of any fundamental kind in the daily work of the average Civil Servant. Under changed masters the same main tasks of administration continued to be performed by the same staffs on the same general lines of organization and procedure’.

Ministers and senior civil servants

The background of the key decision makers was significant. The Ministers who served between 1922 and 1925 included six lawyers, three ex-Post Office staff, two journalists, two university professors, a teacher, a farmer, and a publican and merchant. Some of the Ministers participated in the 1916 Easter rising and war of independence, and all had either been pre-Treaty TDs, served in the Dáil courts and civil service or been elected to local authorities. The Department Secretaries appointed were former Dublin Castle or British civil servants with the exception of Joseph Walshe in External Affairs. Brennan and McElligott had significant influence on the formation and implementation of public policy. Most of the ministers and all of the senior civil servants who served between 1922 and 1925 had experience of the law, government or public administration. This equipped them to grasp the reins of power and, as they were under extreme pressure, they continued to use the systems, processes and procedures with which they were familiar, making changes only where necessary.


The most important lesson to be learned from the first three years of the state’s existence is that violence is not the way to solve internal political problems. The civil war resolved nothing, wasted scarce resources, caused widespread destruction and loss of life, undermined civic trust and left a legacy of bitterness. The Government was in a desperate predicament and was determined that the state should live within its means. Expenditure was cut and borrowing limited to essential capital investment and exceptional current expenditure which arose due to the civil war. Hard choices were made without prevarication in the interests of fiscal rectitude. The government opted for free trade because Ireland is an open economy which must export as it has a small domestic market. The focus on agriculture as the engine of growth was unwise as a more balanced and co-ordinated economic policy was needed to exploit natural resources, maximise job creation and generate a surplus to fund economic and social development.


Despite the hostile environment, the Government succeeded in establishing a viable political and administrative system in a very short time. It did so because it offered pragmatic leadership to a people seeking peace, stability and prosperity after almost a decade of unrest. It rapidly moved ahead with building the new state. The anti-Treaty side harked back to the past and offered no practical alternative. While many people had a sense of grievance over partition and the failure to win complete independence, the majority were satisfied that the Treaty gave them the means to get on with their lives while retaining the hope that unity and greater sovereignty could be achieved in the future.


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