Ireland’s democratic legacy is taken for granted, academic suggests

Cosgrave and de Valera deserve credit for preserving democracy in the new State

Éamon de Valera on the steps of 10 Downing Street, London in 1932. Photograph: PA

Éamon de Valera on the steps of 10 Downing Street, London in 1932. Photograph: PA


Political rivals Éamon de Valera and WT Cosgrave are jointly responsible for preserving democracy in the Irish State when so many other European countries succumbed to dictatorship, it has been claimed.

Democracy was preserved in Ireland after the foundation of the State in 1922 when other more established states such as Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain became dictatorships, Dr Mel Farrell told the Parnell Summer School.

The school is marking 100 years since the pivotal British general election of 1918 and has had as its theme this year “Democracy Triumphant?”

Dr Farrell, the author of the book Party Politics in a New Democracy: The Irish Free State, 1922-37, stated that the Irish State had made mistakes in socio-economic policy, the relationship with the Catholic Church and the marginalisation of women.

But it was important to acknowledge also that Ireland was one of “Europe’s most stable democracies” and that democracy has always triumphed.

Taken for granted

Whatever the Irish public think about the two main political parties, they deserved credit for their commitment to democracy, he suggested and we take that aspect of our history for granted.

“Parties that respect parliamentary procedures and, more importantly, accept the verdict of the people at the ballot box, are of fundamental importance to the functioning of democracy. Democracy cannot work without democratic political parties,” he told the summer school.

Dr Farrell said there was several stages at which the nascent Irish State could have lapsed into dictatorship. Just two days after its formal establishment on December 6th, 1922, pro-Treaty TD Seán Hales was shot dead by the anti-Treaty IRA. The Free State Government responded by executing four IRA prisoners – Joe McKelvey, Liam Mellowes, Rory O’Connor and Dick Barrett without due process.

The general election of August 1923 was held just 12 weeks after the end of the Civil War and it passed off peacefully.

Similarly, the peaceful transfer of power from Cumann na nGaedheal to Fianna Fáil in 1932, despite the bitterness engendered by the Civil War, showed the ballot box was sacrosant, Dr Farrell stated.

“While it may seem odd to ‘congratulate’ democrats for accepting the result of an election, in the context of 1930s Europe – the decade of Salazar, Franco, Mussolini and Hitler – and given the unique circumstances of the state’s foundation, the peaceful transfer of power in 1932 paved the way for all subsequent changes of government.” he said.

Eoin O’Duffy

There were further threats to the State in February 1933 when Fianna Fáil sacked the then Garda commssioner Eoin O’Duffy.

He went on to become the president of the newly formed Fine Gael, but proved to be a disaster and Cosgrave was restored as party leader a year later. Fine Gael severed its connections with the Blueshirt movement in November 1936.

In that period too Fianna Fáil cut all ties with the IRA and reinstated the ban on it in June 1936.

Dr Farrell observed: “As Europe braced itself for a war between democracy and totalitarianism those who had threatened to derail Irish democracy were marginalised.”

He suggested that the Irish Parliamentary Party of Parnell and Redmond was “woven into the DNA” of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and that the pre-independence legacy of parliamentary democracy was passed on to the new State.

He quoted Ernest Blythe, a revolutionary and former finance minister, who said in 1930 that Home Rulers had been preparing the British public to accept some form of Irish self-government.