In 1923, the irregular troops laid down their arms, giving victory to the Free State forces. Eamon de Valera, as Director of Operations for the anti-treaty side, was apprehended and imprisoned. As the country settled down he was released in 1924 and decided that abstention from the Dáil was the wrong tactic to take. He and others such as Countess Markievicz and Seán Lemass decided to break from Sinn Féin, which retained an abstentionist policy, and formed a new party in 1926.
The new political party, Fianna Fáil, ran in the 1927 general election and won 44 seats, 3 less than Cumainn na nGaedheal the government party. Sinn Féin won only 5 seats but remained outside the Dáil. The government was able to stay in power only with help from smaller parties and independents. The Fianna Fáil TDs (MPs), led by De Valera signed the oath of allegiance, dismissing it as unimportant and irrelevant and took their seats in Dáil Éireann. Fianna Fáil, sub-titled The Republican Party, were now fully committed to adhering to the principle of constitutional politics.
Fianna Fáil gains political
Fianna Fáil, led by Éamon de Valera, was the opposition party in Dáil Éireann from 1927. The ruling party, Cumann na nGaedheal, held its position with help from smaller parties and independents. It was a highly conservative party and as the Great Depression of the early 1930’s took its toll, the government was unable to counter advances Fianna Fáil was making with the Irish people.
In 1932 a general election was called and Fianna Fáil won 72 seats and though still a minority, gained power. De Valera as leader of the party was installed as President of the National Executive.
Immediately de Valera set about changing the order of things and removed the oath of allegiance. He also withheld the land annuities that were being paid by Irish farmers to the British State, for loans that were made to enable the farmers to buy their holdings from landlords. These payments were part of the treaty agreements from 1921. This upset Britain and in retaliation they imposed sanctions against Irish imports into Britain. De Valera in turn levied British goods coming into Ireland. This state of affairs was to last until 1937 and is known as the Anglo- Irish Trade War.
De Valera also removed James MacNeill, ( Brother of Éoin MacNeil ) from the position of Governor-General and gave the job to a civil-war colleague Domhnall Ua Buachalla. Realising that he would have problems with this move in the Dáil, he called for a snap election in 1934. His gamble paid off and he was returned to power with an overall majority.
Besides the Presidency of the Executive de Valera also assumed the role of Minister of External Affairs, in which capacity he was to attend the League of Nations. In 1938 he was honoured by being appointed the 19th President of the Assembly of the League.
De Valera next tried to bring the IRA away from violence by encouraging them to join the Irish Defence Forces or the Garda Síochána (Irish police force). In this he was only partially successful as there were still many willing to keep on the fight for a 32 county republic. In order to bring unity to the country, de Valera retained those appointed by Cumainn na nGaedheal, in their position. However he did remove Éoin Ó Duffy as Garda Commissioner in 1933. Gradually, all through the 1930’s, de Valera removed most of the Free State Constitution.
In 1936, when Edward III abdicated the British throne, De Valera took the opportunity pass a bill in the Dáil that would remove all mention of the monarch and the Governor-General from the constitution. In 1937 he took the final step of introducing a new constitution which was titled Bunreacht na hÉireann. This symbolised the removal of the name Irish Free State or Saorstát Éireann. In this new constitution the name of the state was to be Éire (Ireland), it’s territory was to include the entire 32 counties though it recognised the de facto situation of partition, the Monarch’s Governor-General would be replaced by a an elected President known as Uactarán na hÉireann, a recognition of the special position of the Roman Catholic Church, but not as a state religion, whilst recognising other denominations and guaranteeing religious freedom. There was a recognition of the concept of Roman Catholic Marriage excluding divorce and the declaration that Irish was the official language of the state and English as a second official language. Of course this angered Protestants north and south and also the more militant republicans who wished to continue the struggle to end partition by military means. The constitution was enacted in December 1937 and de Valera became Taoiseacht. In June 1938 the new president, Douglas Hyde entered office.
In 1938 De Valera met with the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and reached agreement on ending the Anglo-Irish Trade war. De Valera also promised Chamberlain that Ireland would be a base to be used in attacks upon Britain in times of war. As a result of this he won back the treaty ports of Lough Swilly, Cobh and Berehaven that the British had retained from 1921.
A year later in 1939 De Valera declared that in the event of war Ireland would remain neutral. And would resist attack from any quarter. When war did break out between in 1939, de Valera was well aware that a German victory would imperil Irish independence and he secretly gave intelligence assistance to the British and later the Americans. Up to 70,000 Irishmen from the south and not to mention the many northern Catholics were to join the British forces without de Valera stopping them, however there was still friction with Churchill but De Valera maintained his stance. In this he had the support of the majority of Irish people.
De Valera and his Fianna Fáil party were to remain in government until the general election of 1948 when a coalition of Fíne Gael, labour, Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhainn and National Labour Parties ousted them. The new Taoiseach was John Costello and under his term of service in 1949 any remaining ties to Britain were removed and Ireland declared a Republic. However the coalition was too weak to survive and in 1951 De Valera was back in government. This time his reign lasted only until 1954. In 1957 elections Fianna Fáil was again successful. In 1959, de Valera resigned as head of Fianna Fáil and as Taoiseach in order to stand for the Presidency. He retained this position until 1973 when he was aged 91.
- A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes. By Jonathan Bardon. Gill & Macmillan. Dublin 2009.
- Modern Ireland. By R.F.Foster. Penguin Books. London 1989.
- De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow. By Tim Pat Coogan. Arrow Books. London 1993.
- Eamon De Valera. By M.J.Macmanus.
First published on May 10, 2013 and last modified on October 26, 2015.