Eamon De Valera is the towering figure of Irish history in the 20th century. A commander of the Easter Rising, the political figure at the head of the early Dail, anti-Treaty hard-liner, Fianna Fail founder, multi-term Taoiseach, leader during World War Two and, finally, head of state from 1959 to 1972.
He had won the position with ease in 1959, taking over 56% of the vote against Sean MacEoin. De Valera taking up the Presidency was not quite the retirement package that it is often portrayed to be, with internal Fianna Fail politics pushing the ageing figurehead strongly to leave “proper” Irish politics to a younger generation by taking up a nominally higher, but less politically important, office.
De Valera was, and has only become more so, a divisive figure, but was still popular in Ireland during his first term. That term was quiet and without major incident, though “Dev” maintained a surprisingly active schedule for a man of his age (77 when he took the office).
Approaching the end of his first term, De Valera agreed to seek re-election. Winning a second term would make him, at 84, the oldest elected head of state in history.
But, there were obvious disadvantages to this. De Valera was growing more infirm and was suffering from severe visual problems, that would leave him blind in his last years. But, he was still active and did not shirk the activities of the office.
Moreover, it was still believed that “Dev”, one of the last major figures of the revolutionary period who was still alive, was still immensely popular in the country. Even further, it was 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, for which immense celebrations and commemorations were planned, events that De Valera was going to be at the centre of.
It was debatable whether Fine Gael, (for the uninitiated, Ireland’s other major party) would even bother to contest the election, seeing as the result was apparently beyond doubt. But they did eventually commit to a candidate.
Their choice was Tom O’Higgins, a TD from the constituency of Laois-Offaly. Aged 50, O’Higgins was a major figure in the party, but the most that was expected of him in 1966 was to put up a respectable electoral performance. Tom was a nephew of Kevin O’Higgins, an opponent of De Valera’s during the Civil War.
With the campaign starting, Fianna Fail turned to one of its rising stars to be the manager of De Valera’s re-election bid. Charles J. Haughey would become as notable a figure in years to come as De Valera had been, but that was still all ahead of him in 1966.
Haughey believed that he had an easy task ahead of him, but still recognised the weaknesses of “Dev”. Side by side, the ageing President would look poor next to the more youthful O’Higgins, whose campaign was hitting the theme of “social justice” with some success, while O’Higgins himself was drawing comparisons to John F. Kennedy.
Haughey solution was to limit De Valera’s exposure as much as possible, declaring that campaigning was beneath the President’s dignity, a poor excuse that fooled little. But Haughey had other motives for such a decision. Knowing that the national broadcaster, RTE, was obliged to provide balanced coverage between all candidates during political reporting, he was able to limit the amount of time given to the O’Higgins campaign by Ireland’s only television station.
However, he was still able to get coverage for De Valera out of the confines of the Presidential campaign, since he was involved in all of the Easter Rising anniversary events that year, which were well covered by RTE.
But Haughey’s campaign backfired somewhat. National newspapers had no restrictions on their coverage, and the majority, some annoyed at Haughey’s tactics, began to favorably report on O’Higgins and criticise De Valera. The Irish Times in particular was fully in support of the Fine Gael campaign, pushing hard for the voters of Ireland to reject the old nation that De Valera was seen to represent.
De Valera, for his part, had a deep distrust of Haughey, made worse during the campaign. He was quoted on one occasion of stating his opinion that Haughey would “destroy” the party in future and disliked the tactics the future Taoiseach employed. On the other side, O’Higgins was running a vibrant campaign, travelling further and meeting more voters then the President.
Haughey may have seen the way things were going, as, on the day before the election, he pushed Fianna Fail to increase milk prices in order to greater secure the votes of the agricultural community, who were deeply opposed to the sitting government at the time.
De Valera won the election by the skin of his teeth. Little more than 10’000 votes separated him from O’Higgins, 1% of the tally. The Fine Gael challenger had won in 14 of 38 constituencies, including all of Dublin. From being in a position where it was seen almost as a formality, the 1966 Presidential election had been an inch away from producing the greatest shock in Irish political history, only Dev’s performance in rural areas saving him. Whether it was dissatisfaction with De Valera himself, the age difference, the tactics or just the way politics was going in Ireland, the result was almost a quasi-defeat for Fianna Fail, somewhat of a humiliation.
De Valera saw out his final term and retired, dying in 1975. Haughey went through numerous, ahem, challenges in future years, but would eventually become a multi-term Taoiseach, albeit one that has a somewhat infamous reputation in modern Ireland. O’ Higgins would become a deputy leader of Fine Gael, and run again in 1973 where, despite now being a favourite, he lost out to Erskine Childers.
Why does this episode teach us about the Presidency? Little about the office itself, though it offers a stark warning on the dangers of presumption. De Valera had weaknesses, politically, and allowed his campaign to be led in the wrong direction by Haughey. O’ Higgins was desperately unlucky at the final count. Elections are never things to take lightly, as “Dev” nearly found out to his cost.
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