The pub crawl that kept de Valera out of government in 1927
A group of Independent TDs and the Irish Times editor took steps to keep WT Cosgrave in office
The Sinn Féin leadership at the First Dáil Eireann in 1919, including Eamon de Valera and William Cosgrave (front row, fifth and seventh left. Photograph: Hulton Archive
Although there is much talk of a new politics and of a changed political landscape in Ireland, a comparison with the 1920s reveals that it is more a case of plus ca change.
As now, Fine Gael (in the form of its parent party, Cumann na nGaedheal) was larger than Fianna Fáil, but both sides were a long way off a Dáil majority.
William T Cosgrave led a minority Cumann na nGaedheal government for almost 10 years from 1922 to 1932. But, similar to the current period, there was a considerable number of independents in the Dáil, who held the balance of power.
They were able to wield considerable influence, with perhaps the most infamous example of this being the events surrounding the Jinks affair.
This was a sometimes forgotten moment of political farce, centred on John Jinks, a National League TD from Sligo, who went missing during a crucial vote of no confidence in the Cosgrave government in August 1927.
It was a critical time for Irish democracy. Kevin O’Higgins, the Minister for Home Affairs, had been assassinated a month previously, and Fianna Fáil had just entered the Dáil for the first time, some of its TDs with guns in their pockets.
Determined to oust the conservative Cumann na nGaedheal from office, Fianna Fáil engineered a plan with Labour to seize power by legal means via a motion of no confidence in Cosgrave.
This was called by Tom Johnson, the leader of the Labour party, within days of de Valera leading his troops into the Dáil. With the external support of Fianna Fáil, Johnson hoped to form a minority coalition with the National League, a party of primarily ex-Home Rulers.
The three parties between them had a bare majority of one to get the motion passed, and had it done so, Ireland could have had a very different political history. There would have been a Labour President of the Executive Council (the then equivalent of Taoiseach), propped up by a revolutionary party, and this only four years after the ending of the civil war.
De Valera wanted to dismantle much of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, and if given a free rein by Johnson who knows what reaction this would have provoked from the British government.
When the motion of no confidence was discussed on August 16th, so sure did the outcome seem that the Ceann Comhairle Michael Hayes deemed it carried, before the Minister for External Affairs Patrick McGilligan called for a formal division.
As the TDs passed through the Tá and Níl lobbies, it suddenly dawned on those present that John Jinks, who had been in the Dáil chamber earlier that day, was missing.
A frantic search failed to reveal Jinks’ whereabouts and the motion was tied. In accordance with parliamentary tradition, the Ceann Comhairle cast his vote for the government and the motion was defeated.
The story of Jinks’ absence attracted global headlines, with the Sydney Morning Herald claiming that Jinks was “receiving more publicity than any man or any happening in the British Isles today”.
Initially Jinks took all the credit for saving the Cosgrave government. Two days after the vote, on August 18th, he resigned from the National League party, claiming that, as a constitutional nationalist, he had always been opposed to an alliance with de Valera’s Fianna Fáil.
However, it later transpired that Jinks was not quite the self-proclaimed martyr, and that several independents had a significant role to play in the affair, not to mention The Irish Times.
Two independent protestant TDs, Jasper Travers Wolfe from Skibbereen and Major Bryan Ricco Cooper from Sligo, had taken it on themselves to persuade Jinks of the folly of supporting de Valera.
On the afternoon of the vote, Cooper and Bertie Smyllie, the Editor of The Irish Times, brought Jinks on a tour of Dublin pubs to convince him of the merits of their case. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, they apparently put an inebriated Jinks on the train to Sligo.
And so it was that independent TDs decided the fate of the government. This was the first instance of their exerting such leverage in the new Irish state, albeit in an unconventional fashion.
Since then, most taoisigh have likewise had to look to independents to stay in power at some stage in their political careers.
John A Costello turned to James Dillon, Oliver J Flanagan and others in the 1940s; Seán Lemass to Joe Sheridan and Joe Leneghan in the 1960s; Garrett FitzGerald to Jim Kemmy and Seán Dublin Bay Loftus in the 1980s; likewise Charlie Haughey to Tony Gregory and Tom Foxe in the same decade; Bertie Ahern to Jackie Healy-Rae, Mildred Fox, Tom Gildea and Harry Blaney in the 1990s; and Brian Cowen to Healy-Rae, Michael Lowry and Finian McGrath for a while in the 2000s.
Ninety years after the Jinks episode, Cosgrave’s successor as leader of the country and of Fine Gael is facing a similar situation.
There is no John Jinks, but there are a number of independents, including the Independent Alliance, akin to Cooper and Wolfe, on whom the Taoiseach’s political fate rests.
It will be an experience unlike that of any his global compatriots in prime ministerial office, as independents are a rarity in most national parliaments.
It remains to be seen whether the new Taoiseach can inspire from the independents the kind of commitment shown by Bryan Cooper, Jasper Wolfe and The Irish Times in the 1920s to keep WT Cosgrave in power.
When the role of Wolfe in the Jinks affair was revealed, one contemporary quipped that ‘Twas Jasper, and not Jinks, saved the Irish nation’. One can only wonder if future generations will be coining such phrases about Minister Shane Ross et al.
Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the Department of Government, University College Cork and author of Independents in Irish party democracy (Manchester University Press, 2017)