Politics: Independent Ireland since 1922

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Politics: Independent Ireland since 1922

The cease-fire of July 1921 between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British government and the subsequent negotiation and signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6 December by delegates from the British and Irish governments brought an end to the Irish war of independence begun in 1919. The bitter and divisive debates that followed the signing of the treaty commenced on 14 December 1921 and ended in January 1922 when the Dáil Éireann ratified the treaty by 64 votes to 57, after which the country slid into a civil war that began formally in June 1922 and ended in a cease-fire in May 1923, with the antitreaty republicans decisively beaten by the new Free State army. The years between 1918 and 1923 were thus five of the most extraordinary in the development of modern Ireland. That Ireland had been partitioned by the implementation of the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 was a point scarcely alluded to during the treaty debates. Rather, what hopelessly divided Irish republicans was the constitutional status of the new southern Free State and in particular the oath of allegiance to the British Crown that had formed part of the treaty agreement.

Anglo-Irish Treaty

Modern scholarship has done much to challenge some of the myths associated with these years, in particular the idea that the only issues retarding the development of a modern, prosperous, and egalitarian independent Ireland were the contradictions, inconsistencies, and undemocratic approach of British government policy on Ireland. Although it is difficult to refute the charge of British misgovernment, it is also the case that early-twentieth-century Irish republicanism had its own fair share of contradictions and inconsistencies, perhaps the inevitable product of war and revolution.

It is perhaps unsurprising that many historians have been more sympathetic to the protreaty side, depicting them as defenders of democracy against a school of idealistic republicans who summoned up the memory of blood shed by different generations of Irish patriots in order to gain support for their antitreaty position. Many such republicans disregarded the Irish electorate's firm backing of the protreaty Sinn Féin, winning 58 seats in the general election of June 1922. The Labour Party, Ireland's oldest political party, and Independent and Farmer candidates received 17 and 10 seats respectively, leaving the antitreaty party with just 36 seats.

Civil War

The Irish Civil War was a conflict that the republicans had neither the resources, nor the soldiers, nor the popular support to win. For the first three decades of independence these differences over the treaty shaped party politics, by becoming the prism through which elections were fought and political opponents abused. In the 1920s the dominant protreaty establishment was represented by a new party, Cumann na nGaedheal, which needed to secure popular legitimacy as it attempted to rescue an economy on the verge of bankruptcy. The party's political balance sheet contained a fair share of successes and failures, but perhaps the ultimate testament of its achievement was the relative marginalization of extreme republicanism, the assertion of the primacy of the Irish parliament and the Free State army, and the creation of an unarmed Irish police force, the Garda Síochana.

After the killing of Michael Collins and the death of Arthur Griffith during the Civil War (the two leaders between them embodied the generational compromise within Irish nationalism), governments in the 1920s were led by William T. Cosgrave, a politician who under enormous pressures presided over administrations that had to deal with the continual problem of security and defense, a bloated army, and the blurring of the lines between military and civilian power as violence had not ceased with the end of the Civil War, but continued into the 1920s. Fiscal policies in the main were conservative, with those who argued for protection sidelined by the advocates of free trade and policies attractive to those with a stake in dairy farming. This situation led to the belief that the governments of the 1920s favored the more prosperous sections of the Irish agricultural economy. Whereas the Labour Party gained seats in the Irish parliament in the general election of 1922, it was unable to build on it. The left in Ireland remained weak and frequently divided, and it was 1992 before the Labour Party won more than 30 seats in a Dáil Éireann of 166 members.

Fianna FÁil Party

Eamon de Valera's antitreaty Fianna Fáil Party, which was formed in 1926 and entered Dáil Éireann in 1927, came to power after the vitriolic and tense general election of 1932. Its success was built on demeaning Cumann na nGaedheal Party for failing to use the treaty to further Irish independence, on promises to accommodate the needs of small farmers and the working classes, and on a commitment to end the partition of Ireland, which had been further cemented by the leaked report of the Boundary Commission of 1925. This body, established by Article 12 of the treaty, and expected by republicans to recommend a revision of the border favoring the Free State, made it clear that there would be little alteration of the border. The report was subsequently abandoned, with both the British and Irish governments agreeing to leave the border untouched. Opponents of Fianna Fáil attempted to depict them as communist sympathizers.

Although many republican prisoners were released, de Valera, eager in the 1930s to place distance between himself and the IRA, was quick to use the same emergency legislation that had been used in the 1920s. By the time of Irish neutrality during World War II he was prepared to see IRA men die on hunger strikes rather than tolerate threats to the security of the state. This strategy confirmed democracy's hold in Ireland; further proof was the effective resistance offered to the Blueshirts, a proto-fascist group of disgruntled Cumann na nGaedheal supporters, who were the main victims of de Valera's "economic war" with Britain over the refusal to continue paying land annuities to the British government.

The Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932 seemed to confirm that whatever divided Irish people politically, they were firmly united when it came to their Catholic faith, with a million devotees in attendance. The dominant themes proclaimed on this occasion were the unswerving devotion and institutional loyalty of Irish Catholics amid centuries of suffering and their eventual triumph. Fianna Fáil also built on the legislation that had emerged in the 1920s to safeguard Irish Catholic morality through censorship, discouraging the importation of foreign literature and culture as well as banning the importation and sale of contraceptives. The church, through its largest lay organization, the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, succeeded in getting many Irish Catholics to abstain from alcohol, but alcoholism remained a huge problem throughout the century.

Fianna Fáil's economic policies did not succeed in achieving self-sufficiency in the agricultural and industrial sectors owing to Ireland's reliance on imports for industrial raw materials and dependence on Britain to take its agricultural produce. The economic war was eventually settled in 1938 with the Anglo-Irish Trade Agreement, which safeguarded and regularized the export trade between the two countries. Aside from de Valera's other initiatives in Anglo-Irish relations and his dismantling of the treaty—most notably the abolition of the oath of allegiance and the External Relations Act of 1936, which removed the role of the Crown from Irish affairs—he was also capable of pursuing independent lines in foreign policy. The government supported sanctions against Italy in 1935 following the invasion of Abyssinia, and urged nonintervention in the Spanish Civil War, indicating that de Valera was not going to allow foreign policy to be dictated by the Catholic bishops.

The Irish constitution of 1937 was another significant legacy of de Valera's tenure in government. Although de Valera consulted widely in preparing the constitution, it was too liberal for some of the more extremist clerics in Ireland, who wanted Catholicism to be recognized as "the one true church," rather than having the "special position" afforded it by de Valera. The constitution attempted to combine the essence of a liberal secular democracy with an emphasis on family values and a sense of community. It created a largely ceremonial office of president and a new senate, and contained controversial articles stipulating the importance of a woman's place in the home. In Articles 2 and 3, the constitution maintained that the de jure government of Ireland was a 32-county one, not just the 26 counties of the Free State, while conceding that the de facto government extended only to 26 counties. These latter articles, which infuriated Ulster unionists, were not deleted until the electorate voted overwhelmingly in 1998 in favor of the Good Friday Agreement (which also created a power-sharing executive and assembly and cross-border bodies). The Irish constitution was a document that endured partly because it contained scope for review through referendum and a commitment to human rights, though its repeated use of the word sovereignty would lead to much future debate.

In terms of a wider foreign policy the governments of the 1920s and 1930s used the League of Nations (which the Free State had joined in 1923) to define its international standing; the Free State was a member of the League Council from 1930 to 1933. Ireland's concerns were largely centered on league policy, commonwealth policy, as well as Anglo-Irish affairs, indicating that Ireland's foreign policy during this period did not only concern Anglo-Irish relations. De Valera's support of the League was a sign that Ireland would use it as a forum for international groupings of small and weaker states. Foreign policy was more eurocentric in the 1930s, though the failure of economic sanctions against Italy after the invasion of Abyssinia illustrated its limitations, and neutrality became more significant than the belief in the primacy of collective security under the League's covenant.

De Valera showed himself more adept than any other party leader of his era in knowing when to draw a line between church and state. Although he cultivated close relations with the most powerful man in independent Ireland's Catholic Church, John Charles McQuaid, archbishop of Dublin from 1940 to 1972, he also viewed with distaste the idea that Ireland needed to "reconstruct" itself as a Catholic power, given that by 1946, 94 percent of the population was Catholic. Though the Irish state became extremely confessional, it was not a clerical state or theocracy.

Members of the Fianna Fáil Party, in tandem with many Catholic social theorists, indulged in much rhetoric concerning the idea of a rural and self-sufficient utopia, but despite some success in creating indigenous employment, the notion was dramatically falsified by the continued depopulation of rural Ireland through emigration. Fianna Fáil also maintained the relentless crusade to centralize state power, begun by Cumann na nGaedheal, and it continued to strip away the powers of local government.

Although de Valera's steadfast course of neutrality for Ireland during World War II earned him huge respect at home, as did his verbal battles with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (one indication of his considerable media skills), his concept of neutrality was conveniently ambiguous enough to allow a great deal of cooperation with Britain. At times Irish neutrality greatly annoyed the U.S. government, particularly after de Valera offered his sympathies to the German ambassador in Dublin following the death of Hitler—a move that he was almost forced to make in view of his principles. Nor did Ireland show itself to be generous on the issue of taking in Jewish refugees; the friendship between de Valera and the Jewish community was over-shadowed by the paranoia and parsimony of the Department of Justice. But the end of de Valera's first phase of power was ultimately decided by economic issues and by the continuing poverty of much of the country, and it was significant that the new party that challenged Fianna Fáil's record in 1948 and won ten seats, Clann na Poblachta, tended to mirror Fianna Fail's election promises from the early 1930s. Its success enabled the formation of the first interparty government.

That government lasted until 1951 and helped to reaffirm support for Fine Gael (the new name for Cumann na nGaedheal after 1934) and the Labour Party as well as the continuing relevance to the Irish political scene of Independent and Farmers' Party candidates. A government once seen as a shaky hybrid administration whose importance lay only in its breaking Fianna Fáil's dominance is now recognized by historians as having been significant for developing important fiscal policy. The coalition, under the leadership of John A. Costello of Fine Gael, comprised five different parties, not to mention independents, but it was ultimately undermined by the absence of collective responsibility.

The Irish Republic

While the circumstances surrounding the declaration of the Irish republic in 1949 remain unclear, particularly the issue as to whether or not it had been agreed by the Irish cabinet, it was a move which Fianna Fáil representatives did not oppose, despite suggestions that the reason they had not done it when in office was that they feared that it would prevent the ending of partition.

The absence of collective cabinet harmony was also a factor in the defeat of Health Minister Noël Browne's Mother and Child scheme, an effort to introduce free medical health care. The scheme was defeated by the determination of the Irish Medical Association to safeguard their members' private income and their ability to gain Catholic Church's support. What has often been presented as a church-state clash was in fact a much more stratified conflict that had strong class undertones, and there was concerted opposition in Ireland to the concept of the welfare state from many quarters. In any case, disagreements over the price of milk brought this government down—an indication that Irish elections were no longer being fought on issues of sovereignty or Anglo-Irish relations.

Economic depression, emigration, and unemployment dominated the records of the other governments of the 1950s. The Fianna Fáil government returned to power in 1951 and again in 1957, and the coalition government was again in power from 1954 to 1957. Some cultural historians have rightly criticized the view of Ireland in the 1950s as a cultural wasteland and have pointed to the achievements in the arts, creative writing, and the critical questioning of Irish nationalism. This is a significant revision in that it suggests that the prosperity of the 1960s was propelled by not only questioning and frustration but also by an enlightenment that belongs to the 1950s and not just the 1960s.

Still, the 1950s was the decade in which emigration devastated the national psyche and the rural hinterland and made a mockery of much of the rhetoric concerning the ideal rural life and the merits of self-sufficiency. In the postwar period down to 1981 over 500,000 people emigrated from the Irish Republic. In 1958 alone almost 60,000 left the country. During the 1950s the power of the Catholic Church peaked in terms of the influence of individual bishops, and the force of collective institutional adherence—though it was also the case that an unquestioning acceptance of clerical domination was under some strain—as the unifying thread that it had provided after the political divisions of the earlier part of the twentieth century became less relevant. Ireland was also increasingly exposed to outside influence, and the adoption of the Programmes for Economic Expansion (1958–1963) finally ended any lingering attachment to the virtues of economic and cultural isolationism.

The prosperity that accrued in the 1960s, marked by the decline in unemployment and the development of a robust export trade, indicated the merits of a more open economy. With de Valera's retirement in 1959, his successor as taoiseach, Seán Lemass, began to implement change that was long overdue, and Ireland successfully caught up with many of the economies of western Europe that had boomed under postwar reconstruction plans. The introduction of free secondary education in 1966 demonstrated a commitment to change Ireland's exceptionally narrow and class-based educational system that had been dominated by an unsuccessful mission to restore the Irish language.

Prosperity in turn exposed many of the class divisions and gaps in income that continued to operate in Irish life. Particularly disturbing was the practice of church and state in showing scant regard for Ireland's most vulnerable populations, particularly in its sometimes savage treatment of children in institutions such as the industrial schools, in which over 150,000 children were housed from their foundation in 1868 to their closure in the early 1970s. Memoirs of Irish childhood became something of a publishing phenomenon in the 1990s and exposed the poverty, hardship, and illtreatment that many endured, though these accounts were balanced by other memoirs of childhood marked by relative security and comfort.

Lemass, by meeting the Northern Irish prime minister Terence O'Neill in January 1965, also began to recognize the reality of the Northern Irish State. One of the reasons that Ireland had refused to join NATO in 1949 was because of fears that it would prevent the eventual reunification of Ireland, but Ireland became a full participant in the United Nations in 1955. Ireland's participation in the UN was inspired by national interests but it also influenced foreign policy, developing from an initial pro-Western, pro-Christian, anticommunist stance to a more independent line in the context of reducing internal tensions, opposing apartheid, and mediating international disputes. There was an eventual return to a pro-Western bias in an effort to harmonize relations between Ireland and the United States and European Economic Community (EEC) members, mostly for economic reasons. Nonetheless, given its small size, Ireland's proposals could be successful only if they managed to secure the support of the great powers. Largely as a result of the initiative of Frank Aiken, minister for external affairs, Ireland was an important contributor to what became the nuclear nonproliferation treaty in 1968. This was the same period that saw the emergence of Ireland's contribution to peacekeeping, and there was a recognition that Ireland's economic and political future also rested in the emerging power of the EEC, particularly after Britain's decision to apply for membership in 1961.

Domestically, the 1960s also witnessed the emergence of a small group of politicians who began to abuse politics to create personal wealth, though most of their endeavors and unhealthy links with prominent business people were exposed only at the very end of the twentieth century by various tribunals of inquiry, which focused on corruption and the links between politicians, businessmen, and land speculators.

Whereas the Civil War divisions in Irish politics and Irish life were becoming less relevant by the 1960s, and Ireland was approaching both Northern Ireland and the rest of the world with greater maturity, many Irish were still ready to indulge in unbridled triumphalism about the bloody birth of the state, as witnessed by the fiftieth-anniversary commemorations of the 1916 Rising. These were sentiments that the outbreak of the modern "Troubles" in Northern Ireland tempered, as did the crisis in the Fianna Fáil Party and questions about the essential security of the state as revealed in the arms trial of 1970, when senior Fianna Fáil ministers were accused (and acquitted) of assisting in the importation of arms to aid northern republicans. The impact of the northern crisis was also reflected in draconian emergency legislation passed by the Dáil Éireann during the 1970s, increased monitoring of paramilitaries, and accusations of the operation of a "heavy gang" in the police force that ignored the due process of law. The increased level of violence impinged more directly on the south, particularly in May 1974 when loyalist bombs caused carnage on the streets of Dublin and Monaghan, killing thirty-one people and helping to swing public opinion against violence. Despite limited electoral success in the south at the time of the IRA hunger strikes in the Maze prison, extreme republicans did not fare well in southern elections, and there were increasing divisions between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on the issue, particularly after Garret FitzGerald took over leadership of Fine Gael in 1977 and advocated a more conciliatory approach to northern unionists.

The beginnings of the peace process can be traced to the after-effects of the Hunger Strikes of 1981 and the winning of seats by Sinn Féin in the south that deprived Fianna Fáil of a majority in the same year. Whereas Fianna Fáil under Charles Haughey attempted to adopt a more pro-republican stance in relation to the north, the report of the New Ireland Forum in 1984, established under pressure from John Hume and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), sought to give credence to the legitimacy of unionist identity and acknowledged the necessity of a new agreed constitution in the event of Irish unity. Unionists emphatically rejected the report, as they did the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 that sought to give the Republic a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland through an intergovernmental conference. But many of the most important government moves in relation to the North, particularly in terms of engaging with republicans in an attempt to end the IRA campaign, were done in secret. Albert Reynolds, who succeeded Haughey as leader of Fianna Fáil in 1992, sought to pursue the issue more energetically and was less concerned with the ideology of Irish unity than with the pressing need for an IRA cease-fire and a guarantee that both the Irish and British governments would respond positively. The reality was that most of the Republic's electorate by the end of the twentieth century had little practical interest in a united Ireland. By the time of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, they were ready to vote overwhelmingly to delete Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution.

An Age of Coalitions

Although comparatively little has been written by historians on Ireland in the post-1970 period, partly because under Ireland's National Archives Act of 1986 state files can be released only under a thirty-year rule, certain themes are discernible. Fine Gael and Labour managed to oust Fianna Fáil from power in 1973, and despite Fianna Fáil winning a huge majority under the populist Jack Lynch in 1977 coalitions were to be the hallmark of the last twenty-five years of the twentieth century and included those of Fine Gael and Labour (1982–1987) and Fianna Fáil and Labour (1992–1995). A small new party, the Progressive Democrats, composed of Fianna Fáil dissidents who were unhappy with the leadership of Haughey and were committed to liberal economic and social policies, was established in 1985. The party was able to take advantage of Fianna Fáil's failure to form a single-party government and to present itself as an important and modernizing coalition partner. Fine Gael's move to the left and support for greater social liberalization under Garret FitzGerald from 1977 onwards expanded its appeal to the urban middle classes, while by the early 1990s, the Labour Party under the leadership of Dick Spring moved toward the center, presenting itself as a modernizing party of government rather than a force of social opposition. These general moves toward the center ground in Irish politics prevented Fianna Fáil from achieving an overall majority in successive elections, though it continued to command the allegiance of at least 40 percent of the electorate. The absence of serious ideological divisions in Irish politics also facilitated the formation of the first Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition in 1992 and allowed a broad consensus on economic policy to emerge.

Joining the European Economic Community/European Union

The economic fortunes of the country had continued to fluctuate after Ireland joined the EEC in 1972 with a vote of 83 percent in favor, and it was significant that debates about politics were not to figure largely in discussions about the European Union (EU) in Ireland. Most Irish people continued to believe that the most important aspect of the EEC/EU was not political but economic, particularly access to assistance for farmers and to the social and regional funds, which at least partly justified the image of Ireland in Europe as the country with the begging bowl. Issues of sovereignty were not widely debated until the very end of the century, though governments were forced to develop policies on international issues that they had not done prior to joining the EEC. Membership had serious and positive consequences for the status of women in Irish society in the area of equal rights, with the adoption of an equal-pay directive adopted in 1975 and the passage of the Employment Equality Act of 1977.

The decade of the 1980s was disastrous for the economy, with huge unemployment (close to 300,000 by the early 1990s) and mass emigration, as Ireland felt the effects of the global oil crisis and the failure of traditional industry to retain competitiveness. The national debt rose inexorably as governments in the pursuit of electoral victory resorted to borrowing for current expenditure and to disastrous give-away economic manifestoes that paid scant regard to long-term planning. The huge increase in the size of the public sector and spiraling wage inflation also contributed to the problem, as did the increase in the number of young job seekers who were entering a shrinking labor market. There were three general elections between 1981 and 1982 that were fought primarily on the basis of the economic crisis and the need to keep government spending and borrowing under control.

Liberalization of Irish Society

By the late 1980s, however, very little divided the main political parties when it came to economic and social policy, and the election of Mary Robinson as president in 1990 was regarded as a huge breakthrough for the left in Ireland and part of a wider liberalization in Irish society. The visit of the pope in 1979 had on the surface illustrated the continued appeal of the Catholic Church in Ireland, but it masked a steep fall in religious vocations and a decline in Marian devotion; the church's ability to dictate the moral and sexual lives of the population was slowly dissipating. While the church helped to secure an ultimately disastrous prolife amendment to the constitution in 1983 and successfully resisted the introduction of divorce in 1986, by the end of the twentieth century contraceptives, divorce, and homosexuality had been decriminalized, thus fulfilling what was termed the "liberal agenda," though both legislators and voters failed to solve the abortion issue, seeking instead to export this problem rather than solve it in a domestic context.

The end of the twentieth century was also marked by accusations of clerical child abuse, regular sex scandals in the church, and the exposing of political corruption, particularly in relation to one of the most divisive but talented of twentieth-century leaders, Fianna Fáil's Charles Haughey, who amassed a fortune through his links with business leaders. The twentieth century ended with Ireland enjoying the phenomenal success of what was dubbed its "Celtic Tiger" economy. In stark contrast to its general record since independence, Ireland became one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Yet the extent to which it succeeded in combating poverty and the class inequities in Irish society is seriously open to the question, as tax cuts favored the already wealthy, and despite a fall in unemployment from 16 to 4 percent and rises in real wages after 1993, Ireland's healthcare, childcare, housing, and transport problems were not solved.

From 1987 until the end of the century economic growth (GNP) averaged over 5 percent annually, while in some years growth was over 10 percent. In a dozen years the growth in employment amounted to almost 60 percent. The boom was a result of a switch to a directed approach to economic policy on the part of government, extremely low corporation taxes, and a series of social-partnership agreements between governments and trade unions. By 1997 nearly half of all manufacturing jobs were in foreign-owned companies, illustrating the importance of an export-oriented approach (helped by EU funding), investments by multinational corporations, and the revolution in communications and the information technology sector. Monopolies faced competition through commercialization rather than privatization. The impact of EU competition and state aids was also important, as were decisions to invest in education and to encourage foreign investment and a healthy demographic structure, though there was little radicalism in undertaking redistributive taxation or in tackling long-term unemployment.

While the conflict in the north had a notable impact on the writing of Irish history in the form of a growing revisionism that critically questioned the merits of the violent tradition of Irish republicanism, or else chose to ignore it, this thinking had rectified itself by the end of the twentieth century. Scholars showed themselves capable of depicting both the noble and uglier sides of the Irish struggle for independence, as well as the neglected aspects of social history, and the experiences of women and minorities. They sought to cultivate a more detached perspective on Ireland's full range of snobberies, hypocrisies, and class divisions as well as the nobility and dignity of aspiration that had colored both politics and society in the twentieth century.

SEE ALSO Boundary Commission; Civil War; Clarke, Kathleen; Constitution; Cosgrave, W. T.; Declaration of a Republic and the 1949 Ireland Act; de Valera, Eamon; Eucharistic Congress; European Union; Gaelic Catholic State, Making of; Jewish Community; Kennedy, John F., Visit of; Lemass, Seán; McQuaid, John Charles; Mother and Child Crisis; Neutrality; Political Parties in Independent Ireland; Politics: Impact of the Northern Ireland Crisis on Southern Politics; Presidency; Proportional Representation; Robinson, Mary; United Nations; Primary Documents: Speech in Favor of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 (7 January 1922); Provisional Government Proclamation at the Beginning of the Civil War (29 June 1922); Speech at the Opening of the Free State Parliament (11 September 1922); Constitution of the Irish Free State (5 December 1922); Republican Cease-Fire Order (28 April 1923); Speech on Ireland's Admission to the League of Nations (10 September 1923); "Aims of Fianna Fáil in Office" (17 March 1932); "Failure of the League of Nations" (18 June 1936); "German Attack on Neutral States" (12 May 1940); From the 1937 Constitution; On the Republic of Ireland Bill (24 November 1948); Letter to John A. Costello, the Taoiseach (5 April 1951); Speech to Ministers of the Governments of the Member States of the European Economic Community (18 January 1962)

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Diarmaid Ferriter