The Long Fella re-imagined

History: This is a beautifully produced book. The Royal Irish Academy has certainly delivered for Dr Ferriter

History:This is a beautifully produced book. The Royal Irish Academy has certainly delivered for Dr Ferriter. His elegantly written text is interspersed with many key letters, some of them previously unpublished, documents and photographs - all laid out in a way that is very attractive to the eye.

In the short term, the book will intrigue and fascinate many Irish families over the Christmas period. In the longer term, it will be an absolutely invaluable teaching device.

Dr Ferriter has got his timing right as well. In recent times, the Celtic Tiger has provoked a certain amount of buyers' remove. Eamon Delaney's editorial in the latest issue of Magill signalled that, for some at least, the days of uncritical boosterism are over. A sense of spiritual and ideological loss is palpable. In similar vein, Dr Ferriter recalls the more ascetic style of Fianna Fáil leadership in the era of de Valera, Lemass, Lynch and George Colley. He presents the documentary evidence contained in his book as "a reminder of how debased Irish politics has become over the years with personal enrichment". As the controversy over ministerial salaries and tribunals rumbles on, some readers, at least, will think that this hits the right note. For some it will make it easier to swallow the book's final claim that de Valera was not "a unique politician" - little argument there, but "a noble one".

At this point, the question must arise - is all this not a little too comfortable? Eamon de Valera, despite some walks on the wild side, was a massive figure in the story of Irish democracy, and its survival must, therefore be in part his achievement. But the same might be said of Ian Paisley's role in the history of Northern Ireland.


Both de Valera and Dr Paisley were hugely successful at the polls. Both were adept at appealing to their rather different varieties of the plain people of Ireland. But the question which haunts any serious study of both careers is the same: how far were their achievements merely the resolution of problems they themselves had done a great deal to create by their own earlier inflexibility?

As Dr Paisley took over and marginally adapted David Trimble's negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement, so Eamon de Valera took over and marginally adapted Michael Collins's negotiation of the Treaty: Dr Paisley's adaptation was called the St Andrews Agreement (2006) and Eamon de Valera's was called Bunreacht naÉireann, the Irish Constitution of 1937. Once installed in office, both men found it possible to live comfortably with many things they had both found intolerable in opposition; indeed, they revelled in their new-found respectability. The price for their earlier intransigence was paid by others.

Dev's critics say he bears the lion's share of responsibility for the civil war which cost so many Irish lives in 1922-3. This is, as Diarmaid Ferriter shows, the easiest charge to deal with. The Civil War is implicit in the War of Independence; given the inevitable failure to achieve by violence a united Irish republic, it is clear a split was inevitable; especially so when we make the effort to hear, across the decades, the voice of every Redmondite local newspaper editor in the country asking in 1921 when the Treaty was signed, "was it for this, that Sinn Féin abandoned peaceful methods and took up the gun?" Was the whole resort to force, as Robert Barton, one of Dev's plenipotentiaries, came to believe, a mistake? Diarmaid Ferriter does, however, worry about the application of a "twenty-first century view of democracy to the 1920s in Ireland". He is reluctant to cast de Valera as anti-democratic. Nonetheless, when de Valera ended the conflict, he himself accepted that he had to do so by espousing unambiguously and in novel terms that the "ultimate court of appeal for deciding disputed questions of national expediency and policy is the people of Ireland, its judgement made by the majority vote of the adult citizenry; and the decision to be submitted to, and resistance by violence excluded, not because the decision is necessarily right . . . but because acceptance of the rule makes for peace, order and unity in national actions, and it is the democratic alternative to arbitrarment by force". It is impossible to read this statement as anything other than a public self-criticism, which is enormously to de Valera's credit.

BUT IT IS less easy to acquit de Valera of a certain moral and political insensibility in the face of world war. Was the British offer of Irish unity spurious because the Ulster unionists were not signed up? But the man (Sir Basil Brooke) who was, after all, to be the prime minister of Northern Ireland from 1943 to 1963, was explicitly prepared to accept Irish unity as the price of defeating Hitler.

Where is there any evidence of Irish government exploration of this possibility? The position of those opposed to such a deal within unionism was based, above all, on the idea that de Valera was not up for it. Only when this proved to be the case were they vindicated. The British assumed that Dublin had rejected the idea simply because they felt sure the Germans would win. The American Ambassador, David Gray, went further: he later claimed that de Valera sought to achieve Irish unity via a German-sponsored population expulsion of 800,500 Ulstermen. Population transfer was certainly one of de Valera's publicly avowed themes. Nonetheless, Dr Ferriter, like many Irish historians, is not impressed by David Gray, and he may well be right. The dodging and weaving of Ireland in the summer of 1940 - the sending of different messages to Berlin and London - may be best seen as the inevitable manoeuvres of a small country trying to survive in a hostile world.

One way to deepen this debate would be to publish Gray's manuscript book, Behind the Green Door. Tim Pat Coogan has said the text is as infuriating to Irish nationalists as Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses was to Muslims. But the truth is, a mature Irish intellectual and public opinion is perfectly capable of absorbing it and debating it merely rationally.

Dr Ferriter is to be congratulated on his book. One might quibble about the selection of the odd document. Some of British ambassador Sir John Maffey's less flattering (to de Valera) texts should have been included for the sake of balance. If we are to have letters to Joe McGarrity, then the 1926 letter explaining the foundation of Fianna Fáil in terms of the need to avert a class-based political system is worthy of inclusion. Dr Ferriter's valuable discussion of anti-Semitism is weakened by a failure to discuss de Valera's amazingly parochial and hostile response to the Sunday Independent's publication of a report with photos of the horror of Belsen. There is a case, too, for some more use of the 1940-8 cabinet papers which show how difficult was the path of a moderniser on economic and social policy like Séan Lemass within the de Valera cabinet. Nevertheless, this is a book of considerable intellectual force and widespread appeal.

Paul Bew is professor of Irish politics at Queen's University Belfast. His last book, Ireland: The Politics of Enmity, 1789-2006, was published by Oxford University Press earlier this year

Judging Dev: A Reassessment of the Life and Legacy of Eamon de Valera By Diarmaid Ferriter RTÉ/Royal Irish Academy, 396pp. €30