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Governing in Hard Times

John Bruton

Freedom to Achieve Freedom: The Irish Free State 1922-1932, by Donal P Corcoran, Gill & Macmillan, 288 pp, €40, ISBN: 978-0717157754

One of the many strengths of this book, a political and administrative history of the Irish Free State from its inception in 1922 to 1932, is that its author, as an accountant, is able and interested enough to explore the day to day executive challenges that faced the young Irish ministers who took over the state from the British administration in April 1922. This is refreshing, because many historians and polemicists, dealing with this period, tend to focus on the high politics of constitutional status and sovereignty, to the neglect of the practical matters that affect people’s daily lives.

Corcoran takes each area of government in turn ‑ military security, law and order, the civil service, finance, agriculture, fisheries, trade, education and health ‑ and enlivens what might otherwise be a dry account with biographies of the various ministers, and, equally importantly, of the varied group of senior civil servants who took charge of setting up a state in the midst of civil war and global economic recession.

Many new states came into being throughout Europe at this time. In the aftermath of the First World War, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and the Irish Free State all emerged as separate states. All started out, like the Irish Free State, as democracies. But, by the 1930s, most of them except Czechoslovakia had become authoritarian states of one kind or another. By 1940, none of them had the luxury, which the Irish Free state enjoyed, of being able to decide for itself whether it wished to remain neutral or not.

If the state had not remained a democracy, and had become instead, as some wished in 1922 and again in 1931, a nationalistic military dictatorship, it is doubtful if Britain and America would have respected its neutrality. That the Irish Free State would survive to become one of the oldest continuing democracies in Europe, was not inevitable. Three examples illustrate what could have gone wrong.

The early versions of the Collins/de Valera pact of mid-1922, negotiated just before the Civil War finally broke out, would have excluded all but Sinn Féin candidates from standing in the election to the new Dáil. This Dáil was to draft the Free State constitution in accordance with the treaty. That version of the pact did not go ahead. Labour and Farmers Party candidates stood, and did unexpectedly well, notwithstanding some intimidation.

It is interesting to speculate as to why de Valera or Collins could have even contemplated such an undemocratic proposal, but both were anxious to avoid a Civil War. As Corcoran puts it, Liam Mellowes, Rory O’Connor and others who occupied the Four Courts in April 1922 “had no time for politicians” and obviously not for majority parliamentary decisions. They were defying a clear Dáil vote in favour of the treaty. They did not prevail. Had they done so, the country would have been governed by an army executive rather than by Dáil Éireann. Undemocratic urges were not confined to the anti-treaty side. In 1931, disgruntled army officers, led by Eoin O’Duffy and Hugo McNeill, wanted to stage a coup to prevent de Valera taking office. This was squashed by General Mulcahy and by the chief of staff, Michael Brennan.

Maintaining a democracy in a deeply divided, disappointed, and impoverished society was the signal achievement of the Free State governments. Disappointment was, in a sense, inevitable. All the effort of the years prior to independence had been devoted to ending the connection with Britain, which was represented as being the source of all ills. As Corcoran points out, “there had been no national debate on the implications of independence” within Sinn Féin prior to 1918. The party had, he says, “few ideas on public administration other than to replace Dublin Castle”.

Sinn Féin had fought the December 1918 election on a platform of separation from Britain. It defeated the Irish Parliamentary Party, led by John Dillon, who had campaigned for dominion status (as then enjoyed by Canada, Australia, Newfoundland, and New Zealand). Yet following the trauma of the war of 1919 to 1921 and the treaty, this was exactly what the new state found itself with, dominion status. After all the bloodshed, Sinn Féin now had to prove that the policy of its defeated parliamentary party opponents could be made to work after all.

Few realised at the time how much potential for peaceful evolution Dominion status actually involved, and successive Free State governments were to exploit that potential skilfully, and to the full, in conjunction with the other Dominions.

The economic conditions with which the new Government had to cope were far from ideal. The extra cost of the Civil War, the author calculates, was two full years’ normal government spending. At one point, 55,000 soldiers were on the state payroll, 12,000 anti-Treaty forces were being maintained in prison, and 485 police stations, numerous bridges and other infrastructure had been destroyed. All this had to be paid for.

Old age pensions, introduced by the British in 1908, also had to be paid, and Ireland had a per capita tax base only half that of Britain, and – because of emigration ‑ proportionately more pensioners to earners. Forty-three per cent of people born in Ireland were living and paying taxes abroad, as emigrants, as against only 14 per cent of Scots. Without emigrants’ remittances the situation would have been much worse.

Levels of educational attainment were poor. Forty-nine per cent of students failed to pass a single subject in the recently introduced Leaving Certificate in 1919. Illiteracy stood at around 10 per cent, as against 2 per cent in Britain, and half of the schools had only one teacher. Agricultural output had fallen in value from £108 million in 1918/9 to only £69 million in 1924/5. Ireland had only one market for its produce, Britain, and, with the end of the war and the opening up of sea routes, that market became much more competitive. Irish Free State manufacturing industry was confined to brewing, distilling, bacon curing and the Ford Motor plant in Cork.

Apart from the physical damage caused by the use of violence from 1916 to 1923, the new government had to cope with the resultant damage to the country’s human and psychological resources. A recent history of violence is not attractive to potential overseas investors. It also encourages domestic savers to put their money safely overseas. By the mid-1920s, residents of the Irish Free State had almost three times as much invested abroad as people from abroad had invested in the state. Many former Southern unionists, some of whose homes had been burned during the “truce”, left, and took their money with them. When one considers that these were among the people with resources and networks which could have been used to set up new businesses in Ireland, their going was a real loss.

It is noteworthy that one of the few civil servants of the new state who promoted the idea of attracting foreign direct investment was a 37-year-old Southern unionist, Gordon Campbell, the son of Lord Glenavy, who served as secretary of the Department of Industry and Commerce. He got nowhere, because his ministers, having got rid of the British, wanted to minimise foreign influences of all kinds, including financial ones. For similar reasons, the 1924 suggestion of Sir James Dunn to the governor general, Tim Healy, that Ireland become an international financial services centre had to wait sixty years to be realised.

The Civil War divide created a legacy of distrust that also inhibited native entrepreneurialism, and cross-party support for good ideas. Even the pioneering work of promoting the generation of renewable electricity by harnessing the Shannon at Ardnacrusha attracted criticism from the opposition. Given the scale of these problems, the government did a good job in objective terms, but a less good one politically.

For example, rather than use the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 to associate himself and his party with a high profile and popular event, WT Cosgrave called the 1932 election early, and it was Eamon de Valera who welcomed the papal legate. Just before the election he had put fourpence on the gallon of petrol, shoved up income tax by sixpence in the pound and cut guards’ and teachers’ salaries.

In a book written in 1937, the academic TK Hancock described the Cosgrave-led state as:

the objective, unemotional, scientific state. Throughout Europe, and not least in Ireland, people are beginning to tire of this kind of state. They want more emotion and more drama. The political artists are pushing aside the political scientists ... In Ireland, people were getting weary of their Governments’ very virtues.

He concluded:

This is why Cosgrave never got an overall majority in any election. He had to rely on independents, and in his last term, on a coalition with the Farmers Party. He was a non-political politician.

This may be so but when one looks at where political artistry led the country in more recent times, one can perhaps see the non-political virtues in a more sympathetic light.

Cosgrave was determined that the government would balance its budget. He did not want to give the British an excuse to come back on the grounds that the new government was not paying its debts. This was no fanciful scenario: it was exactly what happened to another dominion, Newfoundland, the year after Cosgrave left office, in 1933.

Even as the Civil War raged, the government introduced the Civil Service Commission to ensure that appointments to the service were made on merit, and it is noteworthy that de Valera had no difficulty working with most of the appointees of his predecessor’s administration. The top appointees in the new civil service were recruited from the old Dublin Castle administration and from Irish people with administrative experience abroad. Newer recruits came straight from secondary school, which meant that few of them were people with outside professional or business experience. It would appear from Donal Corcoran’s account that government policy was determined more by a small circle of senior civil servants and politicians. The former were administrators, and the latter were mostly lawyers. This could explain why there was no real development focus, of the kind observed in other small countries like Denmark at the time.

The government relied on agriculture to lift the economy. This was understandable, when one considers that for the previous fifty years so much political energy had been devoted to the goal of transferring the ownership of the agricultural land of Ireland from landlords to the people who were actually working it. By the time the state came into being, that goal had been achieved up to 70 per cent, and the Cosgrave administration completed the job. But to reach its potential, Irish land needed investment in drainage and fertilisers, for which money was not available. Farmers needed education in scientific methods, and the academically dominated schools system did not provide it. In any event, many holdings were too small to be efficient, and the trend towards mechanisation was already reducing the number of jobs a given amount of land could support, on the farm or in downstream food processing. The government did much to improve the quality of farm produce and to merge creameries, but it was not enough to meet the unreal expectations generated by the victory in the “Land War”.

There was another unreal expectation to which the government devoted huge energy, the replacement of English as the spoken language by Irish, the assumption being that a nation without its own language was not a nation. The use of state power was the preferred method. Oral tests in proficiency were required for new civil servants, turning many away from a public service career.

The number of school days, already very few, were reduced, so teachers, most of whom had no Irish, could go off and learn it. Eoin O’Duffy, the first commissioner of the Guards, even instructed his force to organise Irish classes in each locality. Meanwhile, other aspects of education suffered. Of 488 children sitting the Leaving Certificate in 1925, only 70 took mathematics.

Inevitably, once the state had taken up the task, voluntary efforts withered. Gaelic League membership, which had had a cross-sectarian character, declined. The project of restoring the language by the exercise of state power failed, but, because it had become so entangled in self-perceived national identity, it could never be abandoned or its failure even acknowledged.

By way of contrast, Corcoran argues that Irish traditional music was saved from extinction without any compulsion by the national radio service, 2RN, by the simple expedient of playing it on the airwaves and creating a wider public for it than it ever had before.

Corcoran’s excellent study also explores the early development of the health services. Improvement in this field had begun under the British administration during the Great War, partly because the state of physical health of many army recruits brought home to policy-makers the cost of neglect of chronic diseases and malnutrition among large sections of the population in both Britain and Ireland. State hospitals dealt with infectious diseases and the mentally ill, while voluntary hospitals, financed mainly by lotteries, dealt with acute illnesses and maternity services. The government facilitated the establishment of the Hospitals Sweepstakes, which provided a reliable source of funds for the voluntary hospitals, but it did not undertake a fundamental reform of a service which, then as now, was characterised by a complex web of vested and ethical interests.

Freedom to Achieve Freedom shows the value of people from other disciplines turning their hand to the writing of history. One senses Donal Corcoran’s deep interest in how things work in public administration, and his perception that time and resources can sometimes be wasted with the best of intentions.

He feels the Free State government could have been more activist in the field of economic development and he is probably right. But they had very limited human and financial resources on which to draw, and their advisors were bound by the orthodoxies of the time. As he says, they did better than any of the other states formed in the immediate aftermath of World War One.

John Bruton is a former taoiseach and European Union ambassador to the United States. He is currently chairman of IFSC Ireland, a private sector body set up to develop the financial services industry in Ireland.
27/01/2014

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