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The Free State

As a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, the remaining twenty-six counties formed the Irish Free State, which had dominion status within the British Empire. A significant Irish minority repudiated the treaty settlement because of the continuance of subordinate ties to the British monarch and the partition of the island. The establishment of the Free State was followed by a short civil war between those who accepted the Treaty as offering effective self-government and those who held out for a full republic. Despite its brevity (from June 1922 - May 1923), the Civil War, which was won by the pro-treaty forces, was to color attitudes and determine political allegiances for decades.

The first government of the new State was headed by W.T. Cosgrave of Cumann na nGaedheal, later the Fine Gael party. From the 1930s onwards the Fianna Fáil party, founded by Eamon de Valera, dominated Irish politics. In the first two decades after Ireland achieved independence in 1922, the institutions of the State were consolidated and a tradition of political stability was established. In 1932, Eamon de Valera, the political leader of the forces initially opposed to the treaty, became Prime Minister, and a new Irish constitution was enacted in 1937, which severed Ireland's formal links with Britain. The last British military bases were soon withdrawn, and the ports were returned to Irish control.

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 honor 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 center 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.

The "Celtic Tiger" period of the mid- to late 1990s saw several years of double-digit GDP growth, driven by a progressive industrial policy that boosted large-scale foreign direct investment and exports. GDP growth dipped during the immediate post-September 11, 2001 global economic slowdown, but averaged roughly 5% yearly between 2004 and 2007, the best performance for this period among the original EU 15 member states.

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Page last modified: 16-06-2017 19:28:03 ZULU