Diarmaid Ferriter: Seventy-five years on, another emergency to exit
Rationing, restrictions persisted after second World War but hope, politics were mutating
Taoiseach Éamon de Valera inspecting troops during the Emergency: Ireland is now hoping to look beyond a different emergency, Covid-19, but with similar questions. Photograph: Military Archives
Don’t change horses while crossing the stream. This was the slogan used by Fianna Fáil in 1943 to urge the electorate to stick with it in the midst of the Emergency of the second World War.
The electorate was convinced; those in government at the beginning of the war were still there at the end of the war, exactly 75 years ago today.
Neutral Ireland had found itself in the curious position of hovering above the war, but also being of it. As historian Clair Wills described it, “For most Irish people the question of whether neutrality had been right or wrong, moral or not, had always been the wrong one . . . Their concerns had been about how to be neutral, how to keep themselves apart from the war without denying that, inevitably, the war was also a part of them.”
We have solved nothing. We are no nearer the Golden Age. But at least we have stopped the onrush of evil. We have won the right to hope
The uncertainty bred a political caution, but what would come afterwards? Fianna Fáil had little appetite for a radical transition to a new post-war Ireland. The first time the Dáil met after VE Day, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera was asked when the Emergency Powers Act would be rescinded.
He replied “So long as the position regarding essential supplies remains as it is at present, the Government will continue to require the powers in regard to production, rationing, price control, etc, which have been exercisable since 1939 . . . While the Government has no desire to retain the Emergency Powers Acts in operation for a moment longer than the public interest requires, it is necessary to say that, so far as conditions can be foreseen at this moment, it is not likely that all the powers conferred by the Acts can be dispensed with in the near future.”
The Act remained in place until September 1946, but some of the controls it covered remained for longer and rationing lasted until 1948. There were other questions that day in the Dáil about tea rationing, school buses, trade with Britain, housing schemes and the price of vegetables; while the country might have looked forward to emerging from its war-time cocoon, it was hardly a time of unbridled optimism.
That was true in other parts of Europe also; despite the joy and celebrations, the Guardian editorialised, “We have solved nothing. We are no nearer the Golden Age. But at least we have stopped the onrush of evil. We have won the right to hope.”
Some of those hopes lay in the idea of a new social contract in relation to education, health and housing; others sought to develop the idea of European economic co-operation underpinned by practical organisations to assist integration.
What dispensation Ireland would be part of remained to be seen. While the Emergency had seen an increase in poverty, Ireland was of course in a much more stable financial and political position than countries that had been ravaged.
Starvation and distress
Speaking in the Seanad just after the war ended, Senator James Green Douglas, with a long-standing interest in international relations and refugees, and William Fearon, the biochemist who represented TCD, urged Ireland to turn its gaze outward at the starvation and distress in parts of Europe and send aid.
Douglas insisted, “I cannot think of any better way of expressing our sympathy with those who have suffered and our profound thankfulness that our own country has been preserved than by trying to do something to relieve the acute distress now existing in many parts of the world . . . We may have no say in the political plans for world co-operation which are being made, but, like every other nation, we will have to pay our share of the price if these plans are a failure.”
Fearon agreed and pointed out it was 100 years since the horrors of the Irish Famine: “If any nation knows what starvation is, and what its consequences are, it is this nation. I think we have learned our history lesson. I respectfully suggest that we should learn a geography lesson also; learn that we are not an island outpost in the Atlantic, but part of the great family of nations. Justice, our geographical position and commonsense should make us appreciate that our partnership is linked up with other nations, that we are linked up with their welfare.”
Seventy-five years on, we are hoping to look beyond a different Emergency, but with some similar questions. How long will emergency powers last? What impact will this crisis have on health and housing? How will our recovery or lack of it be linked up with the welfare of the EU? Will we change horses politically? Whether or not there is permanent change in post-Covid-19 Ireland will tell us much about our appetite for political experimentation.
By 1948, Fianna Fáil tried to use a new version of an old slogan: “The Dev you know is better than the devil you don’t.”
It didn’t work.