Staying neutral in WWII was de Valera’s ‘finest hour’, says Taoiseach

Leo Varadkar praises Fianna Fáil figurehead as a man of courage and vision

 Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with author and RTÉ broadcaster David McCullagh at the National Library of Ireland for the launch of De Valera: Rise 1882–1932. Photograph: Photocall Ireland

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with author and RTÉ broadcaster David McCullagh at the National Library of Ireland for the launch of De Valera: Rise 1882–1932. Photograph: Photocall Ireland

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he has no problem acknowledging the greatness of Éamon de Valera even if his predecessor was not always right.

Mr Varadkar described De Valera’s achievement in keeping Ireland neutral in the Second World War as “probably his finest hour” but said the same stubbornness behind this diplomatic policy was apparent in 1921 and 1922 in events which led to the Civil War.

“Ireland benefitted from this single-minded determination during the Second World War, as de Valera affirmed our independence, and pursued a neutral course even in the face of considerable hardships and threats. That was probably his finest hour, building on some of his political successes in the 1930s,” Mr Varadkar said.

The Taoiseach invoked the Churchillian phrase, although Winston Churchill himself was one of the biggest critics of Irish neutrality in the war.

Mr Varadkar was speaking at the launch of David McCullagh’s book De Valera: Rise 1882-1932, the first in a two volume biography, Mr Varadkar said there ought to be more occasions “removed from the point-scoring of daily politics, where we have an opportunity to reflect on people who devoted their lives to the service of the country”.

He instanced the “eloquent tribute” paid by Fianna Fáil leader Michéal Martin to the former Fine Gael taoiseach Liam Cosgrave as a case in point.

Similarly, the late Brian Lenihan had spoken warmly about Michael Collins at the annual commemoration in Béal na Bláth seven years ago.

Centenary of elevation

The book was launched in the National Library of Ireland on the exact centenary of the date when De Valera became Sinn Féin president, the start of his long political career.

Mr Varadkar described Mr Martin as a “published and talented historian in his own right” and referenced his review of Rise in Saturday’s The Irish Times.

The Taoiseach praised de Valera for bringing his party into the Dáil in 1927 even if he disproved of the oath of allegiance to the British monarchy.

In doing so, de Valera “confirmed the legitimacy of the institutions of the State despite his reservations about the way they were treated. This was an important service to Irish democracy and should not be underestimated”.

He also praised de Valera for the peaceful transition of power in 1932. Mr Varadkar added: “At a time when the new democracies of Europe, created after the first World War, were falling victim to disorder and dictatorship, Ireland provided a unique example of how old disagreements could be put aside.

“This could have been the story of the fall of Ireland into dictatorship. Instead it tells the story of the rise of the modern free, Irish democratic state.”

Dr McCullagh, the well-known RTÉ broadcaster, suggested that we live in “an age of new politics” where a Fine Gael Taoiseach can launch a book on de Valera.

He added: “ I was struck at the time of Liam Cosgrave’s death that one of the most generous and obviously heartfelt tributes came from the leader of Fianna Fáil - so perhaps we are mature enough to see a book about the founder of Fianna Fáil launched by a Fine Gael Taoiseach.”