From the early 1990’s, De Valera’s reputation began to take such a relentless battering, it seemed that a complete downgrading of his status in Irish history had taken place. Did it begin with Tim Pat Coogan’s 1993 biography? Possibly. His villainous role in the Michael Collins movie certainly didn’t help. A subsequent prevailing narrative has attempted to reduce his legacy to that visit to Eduoard Hempel and paint 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 large and complex, making it impossible to capture in one book. Ferriter makes a great attempt.
Ferriter cites lots of sources and biographies of De Valera when evaluating him. Referring to Peter Mair, he calculates 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. As it is all too facile to analyse Ireland from a modern liberal democratic perspective, it is essential to contextualise how easy it would have been for the country to slide into a dictatorship in the 1930s. It is a little-known fact that Ireland was a rare example of a country that underwent a revolution in the early Twentieth Century and became a democratic state. Most other revolutions ended in the countries becoming communist or fascist regimes. De Valera played a key role in ensuring that we went down the right route. It is obvious that Dev was tempted by the benefits of autocracy from his musing in a letter to Charles De Gaulle of how it was “easier” for the more autocratically minded politicians to lead and be decisive. The temptation to push Ireland down this path must have been great. Thankfully, we gave power to the Irish citizens.
There were widespread accusations in 1932 that De Valera was using the army to install himself as the head of a dictatorship. Dev moved quickly to de militarise the Irish state. This achievement cannot be understated. The separation of state and military was key to the evolution of the peaceful state.
The book lovingly reproduces lots of original correspondences De Valera had with a wide range of leaders and contemporaries. It makes 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 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. The fact is that De Valera loved the cut and thrust of electioneering and the “canvassing and ferrying passengers on polling day”.
When De Valera created the role of President in Ireland, he was careful to ensure it 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 leader of Fianna Fail.
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 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 Twenty First Century 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 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. The 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, 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 appeal as a broad church. Even during the founding of the state, they were not ideologically driven. Thomas Johnston, the old Labour Party leader, claimed that Fianna Fail stole 15 of their socialist pledges, making it difficult not to think of Bertie’s conversion to Joe Higgins style socialism! This theme of being a party to capture 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 4.5 million people. It stands to reason that capturing that middle ground will cast the largest net. They tried not to stray too far to the left or right; always coming back to the centre.
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 ethical 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 after he had repeatedly preached the necessity that state and business should be kept separate. However, Ferriter highlights Bryan Alton’s letter to Jack Lynch in 1973 stating that Dev was suffering from depression since he didn’t have money to look after his wife. Logically, it is fair to conclude that he did not benefit to any serious financial degree by plundering the resources of the Irish state, like future Fianna Fail leaders would. If you take the entirety of his life, it is rational to deduce he generally put the Irish state first and did the right thing.
“Judging Dev” is a tough task. He bequeathed us many elements of the peaceful society that we have today. Ireland ranks 6th in world for the strength of our democracy. In fact, read any objective report on Ireland – the world happiness report or the press freedoms report for example – and Ireland is always in the top 10-20. Dev played a significant role in creating the conditions that would allow the country to flourish in the future. Most importantly through his persistence that we democratise and de-militarise. He did allow his religious beliefs to erroneously affect the constitution of Ireland and created a Constitution which treats 50% of 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 a fair and accurate portrayal of De Valera.