From the early 1990s, de Valera’s reputation began to take such a relentless battering that it seemed as if a complete downgrading of his status in Irish history had taken place. This process began with Tim Pat Coogan’s 1993 biography and was followed up with his villainous portrayal in the Michael Collins movie. A subsequent prevailing narrative has attempted to reduce his legacy to that visit to Eduoard Hempel, a fact even Robert Conquest noted in his wonderful “The Dragons Of Expectation”, and also painted him as a Nazi sympathising, God-fearing, bespectacled theocrat. Earlier this year some thugs even went as far as to desecrate the man’s grave. This 2007 biography gives a broad and fair assessment to one of the founding fathers of the modern Irish State. His legacy is so large and complex that it is virtually impossible to capture it in one book. Ferriter makes a good fist of it and it will be interesting to contrast it with McCullagh’s biography which is due later this year.
Ferriter cites lots of sources and biographies of de Valera when evaluating him including Peter Mair who believed that de Valera’s “greatest achievement” was when he “ensured that democracy survived in the new Irish state”. Specifically, he referred to the peaceful transfer of power in 1932 and 1933 against the backdrop of the insidious rise of fascism in Europe. It is all too facile to analyse Ireland from a modern liberal democratic perspective so it is essential to contextualise how easy it would have been for the country to slide into a dictatorship in the 1930s. Ireland was that rare example of a country that underwent a rising in the early twentieth-century that became a democratic state. Similar revolutions had ended in the countries becoming communist or fascist regimes. de Valera played a key role in ensuring that we went down the only legitimate route that a nation state has to organise itself. It is obvious that Dev was tempted by the benefits of autocracy from his musings to Charles De Gaulle in a letter of how it was “easier” for the more autocratically minded politicians to be decisive and cut through red tape. The temptation to push Ireland down this path was real. Thankfully, he ensured that Irish citizens retained the power.
There were widespread accusations, in 1932, that de Valera was using the army to install himself as the head of a dictatorship. Dev duly de-militarised the Irish state. An achievement that cannot be understated. The separation of the state from the military was key to the evolution of a peaceful Ireland.
The book lovingly reproduced lots of original correspondences that de Valera had with a wide range of contemporary leaders, which made for some fascinating reading. There is a letter between Nixon and de Valera replicated, where the American President praised the burgeoning democracy in Ireland. Dev intrinsically knew that it was critical for Ireland to gain legitimacy as a sovereign State by sending leaders abroad and speaking on behalf of the country so the world would view us as a sovereign and independent nation in our own right.
In the 1923 election there was a turnout of 23%. Fast forward to 1938 and this had increased to 75%. The Irish people embraced democracy as soon as they were given a chance to do so. de Valera loved the cut and thrust of electioneering and the “canvassing and ferrying (of) passengers on polling day”.
When de Valera created the role of President of Ireland, he was careful to ensure that the role had no executive powers and was independent from the political process. Again, people thought that De Valera might use this as a position for life and a way to continue ruling once he had stepped down as Taoiseach.
In one of his later letters, de Valera wrote that “if people begin to go outside the constitution in terms of political objectives, then we are moving towards the end of the rule of law in Ireland. And what rule do we have then? We shall be at the mercy of the man with a gun in his hand; and so much for the Irish history in democracy”. Indeed.
It is interesting that Dev tried and failed to abolish proportional representation in 1959. Traditionally this helps the smaller parties gain more traction in a democracy. Was he trying to ensure Fianna Fail kept their commanding position in the long term, thereby subverting democracy? Thankfully, the will of the Irish people ensured this did not happen.
Whilst I disagree with how Catholicism shaped parts of our constitution, many of which are causing us to ignore basic human rights of Irish citizens to this very day, it must be acknowledged that de Valera had to fight to reduce the role of religion in the new Irish state. The Pope criticised him at the time for not going far enough. The modern-day image of Dev as this dyed in the wool Catholic is not entirely accurate. During the 1943 Fianna Fail Ard Fheis, he said “I think it is just as absurd to have that type of protection as to have here, where 93% population are Catholics. An organisation for the protection of their interests”. He was clear in his desire for a pluralist state. From a 2017 perspective, I can say definitively that it is wrong that religion played such a large part in the founding of our constitution. However, as with any proper analysis, it is essential to understand the context. This does not justify the outcome but, by reading Ferriter’s book, it does permit us to become more objective about the social and political situation that the emerging Irish state was in.
de Valera’s Ireland created that a state that was, and still is, hugely misogynistic. He failed to create an equal Ireland for women and this was wholly unacceptable. In 1936, Irish women were prohibited from working and our constitution did not give Irish women autonomy over their bodies either, denying them the most basic of human rights.
During the 1926 Senate race between Kathleen Clarke and Margaret Pearse, Dev famously said that “the party would not support two women”. An appallingly misogynistic statement. The 1935 act that outlawed contraception doomed Irish women into having large families, thereby putting many of their lives at risk during multiple strained childbirths. Even considering the epoch he was living in, these restrictions of the rights of Irish women were gross violations of half the population of the state.
He created one of the most successful political parties, not just in Ireland, but in any Western democracy. The key to their success was undoubtedly their broad appeal. Even during the founding of the state they were not ideologically driven. Thomas Johnston, the old Labour Party leader, claimed that Fianna Fail stole fifteen of their socialist pledges, making it difficult not to think of Bertie Ahern’s later “conversion” to Joe Higgin’s style of socialism! This theme of being a party that captured all parts of society was well known. In Richard Dunphy’s book, he wrote about the “growth of (the) protected national bourgeoisie and the working class, as well as an increase in trade union membership”. This has been a key element to the party’s success ever since. Ireland is a small country of four and a half million people and it stands to reason that capturing the middle ground will cast the largest net. They tried not to stray too far to the left or right.
In a 1926 interview with Free Press, Dev said, “the name Fianna Fáil (warrior destiny) has been chosen to symbolise a banding together of the people for national service, with a standard of personal honour for all who join, as high as that which characterised the ancient Fianna Eireann, and a spirit of devotion of that equal to that of the Irish volunteers”. The modern version of Fianna Fail would do well to heed de Valera’s words. The corruption of later leaders was not in keeping with his ethics.
He was generally a principled and moral man with the obvious exception of the controversy late in his life where his ownership of 90,000 shares in Irish Press stood to enrich de Valera and his grandson. This was after he had repeatedly preached the necessity that state and business should be kept separate. However, Ferriter highlighted Bryan Alton’s letter to Jack Lynch in 1973 stating that Dev was suffering from depression because he did not have enough money to look after his wife. Logically, it is fair to deduce that he did not benefit to any serious financial degree by plundering the resources of the Irish state. Certainly not on the scale that future Fianna Fail leaders would. If you take the entirety of his life, it is rational to believe that he generally put the Irish state first.
“Judging Dev” is a tough task. He bequeathed us many elements of the peaceful society that we have today. Ireland ranks sixth in world for the strength of our democracy. In fact, read any objective report on Ireland and we are always in the top ten to twenty countries globally. Dev played a significant role in creating the conditions that would allow the country to flourish in the future, chiefly through his persistence that we democratise and de-militarise the Irish state. He did allow his religious beliefs to erroneously impact the constitution of Ireland, creating one which, still, treats half of our people without dignity. All of this needs to be considered when making any conclusion about the man. I find it difficult to reach a definitive outcome. Ferriter’s book is an essential read for anyone who wants to add to their understanding of Dev.