Ireland and Northern Ireland had emerged from the Second World War years with their established territory and sovereignty intact, but from there they were going to take very different paths. Today, we focus on the south, where having dealt with one of the most significant periods of crisis of the post-revolutionary period, the government of Eamon de Valera now faced a very different but no less critical test: steering a country increasingly exhausted of Fianna Fail government through a period of economic uncertainty and diplomatic isolation.
The war in Europe had ended in May 1945, but it would be a long time before things could be said to have gotten back to normal for Ireland. Government mandated rationing continued for years for example, as supply chains struggled to revert back to a pre-war state. The tenets of the Emergency Powers Act did not officially expire until September 1946, and though some of its make-up had been repealed beforehand, others remained in effect afterwards. There were scores of issues to settle, such as the gradual, but perhaps never complete, revocation of government censorship over the press, a drawdown of the war-era military and the release of the many internees, whether they had been members of the belligerent powers’ militaries or those suspected of being dissident republicans, from camps such as those constructed in the Curragh: with the lapse of the emergency powers, de Valera’s government no longer had the legal right to hold such people without trial. Among the more controversial elements of this post-war period were the punitive steps taken in regards those members of the Irish Defence Forces who had deserted their service to instead sign-up with the Allies: it was barely two weeks after the end of the war in Europe that Minister for Defence Frank Aiken introduced legislation banning such personnel, who numbered about 4’000, from holding public sector jobs and stripping them of pension rights. It would not be until 2013 that the state would acknowledge such acts were unjustified.
There were other reforms on the way for the Irish military in the aftermath of the Second World War. The “Marine and Coastwatching Service”, later the “Irish Marine Service”, had been formally constituted in 1939, to act as a naval force to guard Irish seas. Following on the heels of the loosely arranged navy employed during the Irish Civil War and a small number of vessels used in the interim, this new organisation consisted of a handful of motor torpedo boats, and could only really serve as reconnaissance and for rescue efforts. In September 1946, with the dreadful experience of the Long Watch probably on many minds, the Marine Force was placed within the Irish Defence Forces, and soon re-named the Naval Service. Three Flower-class corvettes – the Cliona, Maev and Macha – were purchased from a downsizing Royal Navy in the following years, with cadets for the new service getting training in UK ports. The Air Corps, at that time still a sub-section of the Army, was also now supplemented by purchased British aircraft. There was also a new Commander-in-Chief, with revolutionary period veteran and Fianna Fail stalwart Sean T. O’Kelly elected to the Presidency in 1945.
On an international level, Ireland now found itself very much on the outs. The new United Nations, the successor to the League of Nations, was operating out of New York in 1946, and for ten years Ireland’s application was denied. At the time the exact member of the ruling Security Council blocking the application was not known but was later revealed to be the Soviet Union: they vetoed Ireland’s membership on the grounds that Ireland lacked a diplomatic presence in Moscow, and because of their lack of involvement on the Allies’ side during the Second World War. Many speculated that Ireland’s exclusion was an agreed position among the victorious powers, and had been made policy before the Second World War even ended: the Soviet veto simply added a criticism of Ireland’s anti-communist feelings to the mix. Ireland remained isolated internationally in other ways, with trade between Ireland and Britain not bouncing back to pre-war levels for some time, and with relations somewhat strained with Washington D.C. Ireland did receive a portion of the American Marshall Plan funds, but largely on the back of its participation in the cross-European organisations dedicated to receiving such funds, as opposed to because it was specifically allowed to do so by the United States. The end result was that Ireland began to lag behind its neighbours, many of whom were starting to enjoy a post-war boom: in contrast, Ireland’s economy was only shrinking more, as poverty and emigration rose. A lengthy teachers strike, poor weather that exacerbated the growing crisis in agriculture and a sense that the Fianna Fail party, now over 15 years in government, had grown stale and uninspiring, all lead up to the 1948 election.
De Valera called that vote in a bid to get a jump on Sean MacBride’s new entity, Clann na Poblachta (“Family/Children of the Nation”). Coming at a time when the British welfare state was being firmly established, this was a social democratic party that aimed to prize voters away from the increasingly tired Fianna Fail and an increasingly side-lined Sinn Fein, in favour of something separated from the old Civil War politics. Winning two bye-elections in 1947, MacBride seemed well placed to take advantage of the electorate’s apathy with Fianna Fail, and the apparent dysfunction of Fine Gael and Labour, the latter suffering a serious split at the time, as the main opposition parties. The snap election of February 1948 was thus designed as a means for Fianna Fail to circumvent what seemed to them to be a serious danger to their hegemony. In line with some re-drawing of electoral boundaries in 1947, and an increase in the number of seats available de Valera hoped to mitigate the damage his party could expect.
It almost worked out for him. Fianna Fail would lose eight seats to end up with 68, six short of an overall majority. Richard Mulcahy’s Fine Gael was a trailing second place with 31 seats, Labour gained six for 14 in total, MacBride had to make do with only 10, the agrarian-focused Clann na Talmhan had seven and the split formation of the National Labour Party had five. Fianna Fail rightfully expected that they should be able to form a minority government with the support of one of the smaller parties. But such an agreement was not forthcoming, when the National Labour Party’s insistence on a formal coalition was rejected. The alternative seemed likely to be another election, until a different prospect opened up.
Such was the desire by the various opposition groups to see Fianna Fail out of office, that the most varied coalition in the history of an independent Ireland – comprising Fine Gael, Labour, Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan, the National Labour Party and several Independents – was able to be formed. It was a remarkable grouping in retrospect, a mixture of the right and the left, older politicians and newly elected TD’s, “Free Staters” and republicans.
The one major sticking point was who would head such a coalition., Naturally, it was expected to be Mulcahy as the leader of the largest party, and he certainly played a key role in the formation of the groping. But his Civil War service, specifically how he oversaw a military and political regime that had undertaken the many executions of captured anti-Treaty Volunteers during that war, had never been forgotten. MacBride refused to countenance Mulcahy as leader of the government because of this, and insisted that the support of his party was predicated on someone else holding the top seat. Mulcahy stepped aside, and encouraged his party colleague John A. Costello to take the post instead, while Mulcahy remained the leader of Fine Gael.
Costello seemed an unlikely person to be Taoiseach, but it was perhaps that very unlikeliness that left the path open to him. He was to be first leader of an independent Ireland to have no record of military service during the revolutionary period, something that placed him above the spectre of the Civil War, even if he had served as the Attorney General under Cumann na Gaedhael in the 1920s. A TD since 1933, he had actually lost his seat in the 1943 vote, only to win it back the following year. Costello had had a quiet career in the Dail, his most well-noted contribution being a controversial inference that he believed the Blueshirts would one day prove “victorious” in Ireland as other fascist organisations had elsewhere. Now, when pressed by Mulcahy and advised by many of his non-political friends, Costello reluctantly acquiesced to the suggestion that he become Taoiseach. On the 18th February, the coalition went into power with 75 votes to de Valera’s 68. Alongside Costello as Taoiseach were Mulcahy as Minister of Education, MacBride as Minister of External Affairs, Sean Mac Eoin as Minister of Justice and Thomas F. O’Higgins, older brother of Kevin, as Minister of Defence. Many, not least the leaders of Fianna Fail, had little doubt that the coalition would be unable to last very long.
Costello’s government would face the numerous problems left over from the de Valera regime as well as it could in the scant few years it was able to maintain its fraught existence. A record was set in the number of homes built, electricity supply was advanced to every corner of the country, a major effort was made to tackle tuberculosis and, under the leadership of MacBride in External Affairs, Ireland signed up to things like the European Convention of Human Rights, the Organisation for European Economic Co-Operation and the Council of Europe, predecessors in some respects of the modern European Union: such things helped to reduce Ireland’s post-war diplomatic isolation. One thing that Ireland did not do, due in large parts to MacBride’s express views, was join the new North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, as doing so would require Ireland to to recognise Northern Ireland as a separate state (Ireland could hardly join an alliance of self-defence while claiming territory of one of said alliances’ key members). MacBride was happy to issue statements related to Irish opposition to communism however, and had a proposal for a bi-lateral alliance with the United States to solidify this position rejected.
But by far the most notable event of Costello’s tenure was the declaration of the Republic in 1949, something that, while not being very military in many ways, is still worthy of discussion within the remit off this series. The well-told story of the affair goes that Costello was attending a state dinner during a visit to Canada where insults were aimed towards him and Ireland by Harold Alexander, the Governor-General, by breaking an agreement to raise a separate toast to the British King and Ireland, and by placing a replica of “Roaring Meg”, a cannon used by by the defenders during the Siege of Derry in 1689 in front of him at the dinner. Costello, suitably piqued, got his own back by suddenly announcing to a journalist later in his tour of his intention to eliminate the last vestiges of British control in Ireland and declare a Republic. The story satisfies both sides of the ideological divide when you think about: republicans might have cause to be impressed by a Collins-esque expression of defiance in the face of British insults, while others could categorise the move to declare a republic as something akin to a petulant tantrum.
The truth of the matter may be a fair bit different. While the issue of the toast did rankle the Irish delegation, Costello himself would insist later that Alexander’s behaviour towards him that night was perfectly civil. Most of Costello’s cabinet would later insist the plan had been well discussed before hand, with repeal of the External Relations Act a platform of Clann na Pobhlachta in the 1948 election; this take goes that Costello only revealed the intention to declare a republic when he did as a journalist had gotten wind of the announcement, and the government wanted to pre-empt an imminent newspaper report. All the same, one minister, Noel Browne, would claim the announcement was off the cuff, and that Costello had privately offered to resign to the cabinet when he came home because of it, with the insistence that it was a pre-agreed policy concocted to spare Costello and his government embarrassment. We shall never know for sure I suppose, but for myself I find it hard to believe that someone like Costello would undertake such a course purely of his own volition, and purely because of a perceived diplomatic faux pas at a state dinner.
Regardless of how it happened, once Costello returned home he pressed ahead with his declared intentions. The result was the Republic of Ireland Act, which negated the External Relations Act. By that time Ireland’s status as a dominion of the British Empire and a member of the British Commonwealth was tenuous at best: both Costello and de Valera would maintain the view that Ireland was essentially already a republic, with the act just formalising it. The last vestiges of the British Crown’s authority and role in Irish affairs were swept away by the act, which passed with opposition support and came into effect in April 1949. The only criticism de Valera, presumably irked that it was not he introducing such an act, could level was that the declaration should have waited until national unity was achieved. Nothing really changed all that much for Ireland with the passing of the act and the acknowledgement of Britain, but it was only then that the political entity known as “Ireland”, often dubbed the “Republic of Ireland” since (though this remains a description, not the actual name of the state) could reasonably say it was fully independent. For many, it was the culmination of the process set in motion by the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and a fulfilment of Collins’ “freedom to achieve our freedom” insistence.
Costello’s Inter-Party government lasted until 1951 when internal instability – much of it related to the Mother and Child Scheme crisis – inflation and a growing discontent from rural-based TD’s led the Taoiseach to call an election. Fine Gael were the big winners, gaining nine seats, while Clann na Pobhlachta lost out, reduced to just two. Nobody won a majority, but when the dust cleared it was Fianna Fail and de Valera who were able to form a minority government, returned to power as a result of Independent support.
The post-war years were difficult for Ireland, an expected consequence of the governments course during the war both diplomatically and economically. Ireland found itself isolated, with a discontented population and a deep struggle ahead in terms of getting the country back into a fit financial state. The unrest is seen most potently in the fall of Fianna Fail’s long-running tenure at the top of Irish politics, replaced by a rainbow that is remarkable in its political poles. That rainbow brought the Republic back into formal being, though plenty within Ireland would insist that a different Republic had never stopped existing since 1916. It is to some of those that we turn to next, as we take a look at how the Irish Republican Army was struggling to survive in the years after the Second World War.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.
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