1932 lesson: future matters most to voters

 

Fianna Fáil first came to power 75 years ago today to replace a party 'out of touch' with the people, writes Ciara Meehan

The first Fianna Fáil government was formed 75 years ago today. The party's victory had brought to an end 10 years of Cumann na nGaedheal government. It is interesting that on the 75th anniversary of one of the most momentous elections in Irish history, Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fáil will ask the electorate to return them to office for a third consecutive time.

Although not officially launched until April 1923, Cumann na nGaedheal was born from the Sinn Féin split that occurred over the Treaty of 1921. This pro-Treaty party formed successive governments during the first decade of independence. Its instincts were rarely populist and it failed to pursue votes assiduously, although as an election machine it showed itself to be inventive. A belief in what was right rather than electoral considerations usually guided the party's decisions. The government's position on the handling of the country's finances was clear; balancing the budget was a priority.

When a deficit threatened Ernest Blythe's budget, James J McElligott, secretary of the Department of Finance, ruled out increased taxation. He felt that an increase in taxation at any time would be psychologically bad and that the size of increase necessary to cover the expected deficit would be disastrous. Instead he proposed an adjustment in the pay and pensions of gardaí and teachers, of old age pensions and various other grants-in-aid.

Contrary to what McElligott suggested, Blythe introduced a supplementary budget that increased petrol by 6d a gallon and income tax by 6d in the pound on October 30th, 1931. Ultimately, however, the government only postponed rather than rejected the implementation of McElligott's proposal, thus aggravating the electorate twice.

The government subsequently prepared to reduce the wages of teachers and gardaí. A united Garda body refused to accept the cut and the government, faced with this strong and decisive opposition, was forced into retreat. Although the teachers no longer had to contribute to the pension fund, their salaries were reduced by 5 per cent.

Having already infuriated the teachers, the government took a further step to ensure their alienation. On January 1st, 1932 the secretary of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation received a communique from the Department of Education stating that those female national teachers who qualified on or after April 1st, 1932 would no longer be eligible for recognition in any capacity in the national schools once married.

The rule eventually became operative on May 27th, 1932, three months after the government defeat at the polls, and was not rescinded until July 1958. Although it was Fianna Fáil who banned married women from continuing in the teaching profession, the rule had been a Cumann na nGaedheal initiative and they suffered at the polls as a consequence.

Only weeks before the election, Cumann na nGaedheal brought Frank Gallagher, editor of the Fianna Fáil-founded Irish Press, before a military tribunal on charges of seditious libel. The offending articles appeared in the Irish Press in December 1931 and January 1932.

Gallagher explained that he had written the editorials in response to rumours that prisoners were being mistreated in certain parts of the country. The tribunal, which began on January 25th, was, for its day, one of the longest of its kind on record. The court sat for 11 days and over 55 witnesses were called. The defendant was convicted on all counts. Irish Press Ltd and Frank Gallagher were each fined £100 but costs were not allowed.

That judgment was saved until after the election meant the electorate had cast its vote before the outcome was announced. It did not matter that the articles were found to be groundless; the damage had been done.

Putting Gallagher on trial only two weeks before the general election was undoubtedly a gross error and it was seen as heavy-handed and ensured a sympathy vote for Fianna Fáil. The Cumann na nGaedheal administration was perceived as attempting to obstruct free speech. It was no longer a case of failing to court popularity. The government was now engaging in what historian Alvin Jackson has termed "electoral wrist slashing".

Despite Cumann na nGaedheal's campaign being punctuated by the alienation of various sectors of society, there was actually nothing new in the party's approach to the election. In fact it mirrored the act of passing unpopular legislation prior to the general election of June 1927. The government then had done little to win the support of the voters through its defeat of the Town Tenants Bill, the sabotaging of its own Gaeltacht Commission report, the harsh licensing laws that Kevin O'Higgins had attempted to push though the Dáil, and public criticisms made by a minister of civil servants in his own department. Nonetheless, although reduced in numbers, the government was returned. So then, why the defeat in 1932?

It was 1931 before the effects of the Wall Street Crash were really felt in the Free State. Cumann na nGaedheal's handling of the situation was not unusual when viewed in the wider European context; placing an unnecessary strain on budgets was generally avoided and so unemployment was never directly tackled. The Free State government pointed to the experience of other countries, but as Labour's William Norton dryly observed, the existence of hunger in China or America was no consolation to those who were hungry in the Free State.

Cumann na nGaedheal's election statement was preoccupied with the past. Thirty-one per cent of the party's election handbook was concerned with critiquing Fianna Fáil. The government offered no guidance or real leadership. While Cumann na nGaedheal's political epitaph should have read, "this party worked with the interests of the people at heart", it more accurately would have read "this party was out of touch with the needs of the people".

Both have an element of truth, but while de Valera's untested party could boast "Fianna Fáil has a plan", Cumann na nGaedheal was judged by the pessimism of the final administration over which it had presided. Ultimately the people voted for the future, not the past.

• Ciara Meehan is a tutor at the UCD school of history and archives and has recently completed a PhD entitled A Government not a party? Cumann na nGaedheal, 1927-1933