Ireland in the Twentieth Century

Diarmaid Ferriter

In 1913, Constance Markievicz, a member of an Anglo-Irish aristocratic family, identified three “great movements” in Ireland: the nationalist, women’s and labour movements. She was just one example of an individual, whose background would suggest little sympathy for Irish separatism, caught up in the intense political awakening and excitement of the early twentieth century. Markievicz identified three strands of the newly politicised Ireland, but there were others, including the intense Ulster unionist resistance movement to home rule, the secret revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and the proponents of a distinctly Irish culture, history and education system.

Nonetheless, it did not seem that a pre-revolutionary situation existed in Ireland in the decade before the 1916 Rising. Ireland had 103 constituency seats at Westminster, 75 of which were held by the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party, (IPP) led by John Redmond. The early twentieth century witnessed the party recovering from the political demise and death of Charles Stewart Parnell in 1891. Re-unified in 1900, it was dedicated to achieving home rule for Ireland through constitutional means, a commitment it succeeded in extracting from the British government in 1912. When the First World War broke out, the implementation of home rule was postponed until the conflict was over, and the nationalists hoped unionist opposition would be overruled.

Irish people generally enjoyed the right to free speech, free assembly, free organisation, and a varied and (mostly) uncensored media. Many initiatives had been taken by the British government to satisfy different sections of the population; old age pensions gave a weekly payment to those aged over 70, and the National University of Ireland Act of 1908 seemed to reflect an increasingly confident Catholic church that had succeeded in achieving its demands in the area of education. Most Irish farmers owned their own land, some 11 million acres having been purchased as a result of the Land Acts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. After the First World War commenced, Irish agriculturalists benefited from the extra demand in Britain for Irish foodstuffs. Conscription to the armed forces was not imposed in Ireland, but many Irish men volunteered for service in the British army, with over 200,000 serving during World War One. The Royal Irish Constabulary, mostly Catholic, and a respected force, was policing an island relatively free of serious crime.

On the surface therefore, the years before the Rising seemed some of the more peaceful and prosperous in Ireland’s history. In many respects, it is necessary to look below the surface in order to locate “the legion of the excluded”, represented in the movements identified by Markievicz, which declared war on the British Empire in April 1916. Although the rebellion was crushed and its leaders executed, it led to a change in public opinion that saw Sinn Féin (‘We Ourselves’- a political movement that had emerged in 1905 under the leadership of Arthur Griffith) triumph in the general election of 1918, with Eamon de Valera as its president, and the commencement of a war of Independence in 1919. The military conflict between British armed forces and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) consisted of sporadic guerrilla fighting overseen by the IRA’s director of organisation and intelligence Michael Collins, and was paralleled by the efforts of the self-proclaimed government of the Irish republic -the first Dáil (Irish parliament) assembled in January 1919- to achieve an independent Irish Republic. In the midst of this, the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 created a separate parliament for the six counties of Northern Ireland, partitioning the island.

The cease-fire between the IRA and the British forces of July 1921 led to negotiations that culminated in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6 December by delegates from the British and Irish governments. The bitter and divisive debates that followed the signing of the Treaty began on 14 December 1921 and ended in January 1922 when the Dáil ratified the Treaty by 64 votes to 57, after which a civil war began in June 1922. This ended with a cease-fire in May 1923 with the anti-Treaty republicans decisively beaten by the new Free State Army .The Irish civil war was a conflict that the republicans had neither the resources, soldiers nor popular support to win, but the fighting led to the death of Michael Collins, by that stage Commander-in-chief of government forces.

The pro-Treaty establishment that presided over the Free State in the 1920s was represented by a new party, Cumann na nGaedheal (‘Association of Irish People’), which was faced with the task of securing popular legitimacy. There was little scope or appetite for economic radicalism in the 1920s. Cumann na nGaedheal’s economic policies concentrated on maximising agricultural trade at a time when 53% of the working population was employed in the agricultural sector. There was a high degree of poverty; the census of 1926 revealed that 800,000 people in the Free State were living in overcrowded conditions. Politically, the ultimate testament to its achievement was the relative marginalisation of violent republicanism, the assertion of the primacy of parliament, democracy and the Free State Army, the creation of an unarmed Irish police force, the Garda Síochana, (‘Guardians of the Peace’) and a depoliticised and effective civil service.

Eamon de Valera parted company with the anti-Treaty Sinn Féin party to create a new party, Fianna Fáil (‘Warriors of Destiny’) which was formed in 1926 and entered the Dáil in 1927. It came to power after the general election of 1932. Its success was built on promises to use the Treaty to further Irish independence, to cater for the needs of the small farmer and working classes and a commitment to end the partition of Ireland. While many republican prisoners were released, de Valera was keen in the 1930s to place distance between himself and the IRA and was quick to use emergency legislation that had been introduced in the 1920s in order to marginalise militant republicans. This was another confirmation that democracy in Ireland had stabilised, as 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, in honour of the Blessed Sacrament, seemed to confirm that whatever divided Irish people politically, they were firmly united when it came to their Catholic faith, with a million devotees thronging the centre of Dublin. 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 the banning of the sale and importation of contraceptives.

Fianna Fáil’s economic policies did not succeed in achieving the self-sufficiency that was promised in the agricultural and industrial sectors due to their reliance on imports for industrial raw materials and the dependence on Britain to export its agricultural produce. An active housing programme resulted in approximately 80,000 houses (rural and urban) being built between 1932 and 1942, but disease and poverty remained rife; the overall infant mortality rate in Ireland in the 1930s was almost 7% of births, which was very high by European standards, and poor living conditions meant that Tuberculosis remained a serious problem until the 1950s.

The economic war was eventually settled in 1938 with the Anglo-Irish Trade agreement, which safeguarded and regularised the export trade between the two countries. Aside from other initiatives in Anglo-Irish relations and dismantling the Treaty, most notably the abolition of the oath of allegiance and the External Relations Act in 1936, which removed the role of the crown from Irish affairs, de Valera, like his successors, was also capable of pursuing independent lines in foreign policy. Governments of the 1920s and 1930s used the League of Nations, which the Free State joined in 1923, to define its international standing, and the Free State was a member of the League Council from 1930-33.

The Irish constitution of 1937 was another significant legacy of Fianna Fáil’s tenure in office. The constitution attempted to combine the essence of a liberal secular democracy with an emphasis on family values and a sense of community. In articles 2 and 3, the constitution maintained that the island of Ireland was a 32 county one, rather than the 26 counties of the Free State. These articles were not deleted until the electorate voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The constitution was a document that endured partly because it contained scope for review and change through referendum and its commitment to human rights.

While de Valera’s upholding of the principle of neutrality during the second world war commanded him respect and widespread support at home, neutrality was conveniently ambiguous to allow a great deal of co-operation with Britain. But ultimately the end of de Valera’s first phase of power was decided by social and economic issues, and the continuing poverty of much of the country, and it was significant that the new party that challenged Fianna Fáils’ record in 1948 and won 10 seats, Clann na Poblachta (‘Family of the Republic’) tended to mirror Fianna Fails’ election promises from the early 1930s. Its emergence enabled the formation of the first inter-party (coalition) government.

That government lasted until 1951 and helped Fine Gael ( ‘Clan of Irish people’- the new name for Cumann na nGaedheal after 1934) and the Labour Party demonstrate the importance of offering an alternative government to Fianna Fáil, as well as highlighting the continuing relevance to the Irish political scene of independent and farmers’ party candidates. This coalition, under the leadership of John A Costello of Fine Gael, made important strides in developing the idea of capital budgets and declared an Irish republic in 1949, but was ultimately undermined by the absence of collective responsibility.

This was a factor in the defeat of Minister for Health Noel Browne’s Mother and Child scheme, an effort to introduce free medical health care, which illustrated that there was concerted opposition in Ireland to the concept of the welfare state from many quarters. Disagreements over the price of milk ultimately brought this government down, an indication that issues of sovereignty and Anglo-Irish relations no longer dominated Irish politics.

Economic depression, emigration and unemployment blighted the 1950s. A Fianna Fáil government returned to power in 1951, replaced by a coalition government that was in power from 1954-57, after which Fianna Fáil had an unbroken spell in government until 1973. Ireland during these years was not a cultural wasteland; there were many achievements in arts and creative writing, thriving theatres, the inauguration of many enduring festivals including the Cork Opera and the Dublin Theatre festivals, and Irish short story writers, novelists and poets continued to produce exceptional work. There also emerged a critical questioning of the persistence of underdevelopment, as the 1950s was the decade in which emigration damaged the national psyche and the rural hinterland and placed under strain much of the rhetoric concerning the ideal rural life and the merits of self-sufficiency. In the post-war period, until 1981,over 500,000 people emigrated from the Irish Republic. In 1958 alone almost 60,000 emigrated at a time when the population of the Republic was under 4 million people.

An unquestioning acceptance of clerical domination was also under some strain, as the unifying thread it provided after the political divisions of the earlier part of the twentieth century became less relevant. Towards the end of the decade, Ireland was also increasingly exposed to outside influence and the development of Keynesian economics, exemplified by the Programmes for Economic Expansion, begun in 1958, that finally put paid to any lingering attachment to the virtues of economic and cultural isolationism.

The prosperity that accrued in the 1960s and the decline in unemployment and development of a robust export trade indicated the merits of a more open economy. With de Valera’s retirement in 1959, Seán Lemass began to implement change and Ireland engaged in a successful game of catch-up with many of the economies of Western Europe .The introduction of free secondary education in 1967, by linking greater access to further education with future economic and social development, demonstrated a commitment to change Ireland’s education system that had been dominated by an unsuccessful mission to restore the Irish language. The 1960s and 1970s were also notable for the emergence of a women’s liberation movement which successfully challenged some of the laws that discriminated against women and ensured the formation of a Council for the Status of Women.

Lemass, by meeting the Northern Irish Prime Minister Terence O’Neill in January 1965, also began to recognise the reality of the Northern Irish State. Abroad, Ireland’s participation in the UN was inspired by national interest but also influenced UN policy. Initially, a pro- Western, pro-Christian anti-Communist stance was adopted, but this evolved into a more independent approach in the context of reducing internal tensions, opposing apartheid and mediating in disputes. There was an eventual return to a pro-western bias in an effort to harmonise relations between Ireland and the US and EEC members, mainly for economic reasons.

Largely as a result of the initiative of Frank Aiken, Minister for External Affairs, Ireland was an important contributor to what became the nuclear non-proliferation Treaty in 1968. This was the same period that saw the emergence of Ireland’s contribution to peacekeeping (the Irish army participated in the UN’s peace-keeping mission in the Congo from 1960-64) and there was 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.

Fine Gael and Labour managed to oust Fianna Fáil from power in 1973, and that coalition government was often preoccupied with security concerns as a result of the escalation of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Despite Fianna Fáil winning a large parliamentary majority under the populist Jack Lynch in 1977, coalitions were the hallmark of the last 25 years of the century and included those of Fine Gael and Labour, (1982-7) and Fianna Fáil and Labour (1992-95). A small new party, the Progressive Democrats, composed of Fianna Fáil dissidents opposed to the leadership of Charles Haughey, leader of Fianna Fáil from 1979-91, and committed to liberal economic and social policies, was able to take great advantage of the Dáil’s arithmetic after its foundation in 1985.

The economic fortunes of the country had continued to fluctuate after Ireland joined the EEC in 1972 with a vote in favour of 83%, and it was significant that Ireland was forced to develop policies on international issues that it 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 an equal pay directive adopted in 1975 and the Employment Equality Act of 1977. Ireland also benefited considerably from structural and regional funds.

By the late 1980s, very little divided the main political parties when it came to economic and social policy, and the election of Mary Robinson, a feminist politician and lawyer, as president in 1990 was regarded as part of a wider liberalisation of Irish society. The visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979 had, on the surface, illustrated the continued strength of the Catholic Church in Ireland, though its ability to dictate the moral and sexual lives of the population was slowly dissipating, and by the end of the century contraceptives, divorce and homosexual acts had been decriminalised, fulfilling what was termed the ‘liberal agenda’, though abortion remained a divisive issue.

In stark contrast to the relative underdevelopment of the economy since independence, the emergence of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ in the 1990s witnessed Ireland as one of the fastest growing economies in the world. From 1987 until the end of the century economic growth (GNP) averaged over 5%, while in some years, growth was over 10%. In a single decade the growth in employment stood at 20%, and between 1987 and 2003 unemployment fell from 17 to 4%. The boom was a result of a switch to a directed approach on economic policy on the part of government, competitive corporation taxes, greater access to third level education, more participation by married women in the workforce (53% of married women were working by 2006 compared to 8% in 1971) and social partnerships between governments and trade unions. By 1997, nearly half of all manufacturing jobs were in foreign-owned companies, illustrating the importance of a growth-orientated approach, helped by EU funding, but also the significance of the education initiatives of the 1960s.

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