One hundred years ago today the Irish Free State came into formal existence exactly a year after the Treaty was signed. A constitution was approved and WT Cosgrave was elected president of Dáil Éireann and head of the Executive Council. It was a huge milestone in the history of the island but one which generated a muted public response. Overshadowed by the tragedy of Civil War, the popular mood was a mixture of relief and resignation rather than celebration.
The days following that historic meeting of the Dáil were marred by violence and tragedy. Two government TDs on their way to Leinster House the next day were gunned down by anti-Treaty rebels and, the following morning, four republican leaders were executed as a reprisal.
Despite the trauma of its birth – most importantly experienced in the partition of the island – the new State and its institutions survived and we can now look back a century later and ask whether Irish independence has been a success or a failure. At its most fundamental level, the answer is yes. Democracy survived the trauma of the Civil War and put down such strong roots that it was able to withstand the peaceful transfer of power a decade later from the winners to the losers of that conflict. Ireland was one of the very few newly independent states established after the first World War to remain an unbroken democracy. Its key institutions, including An Garda Síochána and the courts system, proved resilient. None of that could be taken for granted given the violence of the State’s birth.
A century on, what was one of the poorest countries in Europe, scarred by poverty and emigration, is one of the wealthiest on the planet. Ireland is now a country of net immigration and the population is at its highest level since the Famine.
But its success remains qualified. Misguided policies in the early decades resulted in economic stagnation and such massive emigration that by the late 1950s many wondered if independence had been a mistake. It was an inward-looking society dominated by the Catholic Church, in which women were treated as second-class citizens and at times it appeared as if the unionist prediction that Home Rule would result in Rome Rule had come true.
In the 1960s, thanks partly to leaders such as Seán Lemass, that began to change. The economy and society opened to the world. Joining the then EEC in 1973 was a transformative event, creating the conditions for the wealthy, open and more inclusive society we have today. There are still very many serious problems. Housing is the most consequential and far-reaching failure. A creaking health system is another. Solving them – and navigating new political and economic uncertainties – is the big challenge facing the State on its centenary.