Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Eamon de Valera

 | 
Paul Brennan

De Valera: did he entrench the partition of Ireland?

J. Bowman

Résumé

De Valera réfutait le titre de révolutionnaire lui préférant celui de conservateur. Que voulait-il conserver ? Essentiellement les valeurs d'une Irlande catholique et gaélique mais aussi une auto-suffisance sur le plan économique. L'auteur démontre que le leader nationaliste, tout en étant anti-partitioniste, a, de fait, mené une politique qui a renforcé la division de l'île.

De Valera disliked the term revolutionary being in favour of that of conservative. What did he want to conserve? He believed in a Catholic, Gaelic and economically self sufficient Ireland. This amounts to saying that while he was anti-partitionist by principle he nevertheless elaborated and applied partitionist policies.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Frank Gallagher, note, 20 December 1939, Gallagher papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 18, 375 (...)

1Eamon de Valera's press secretary and confident, Frank Gallagher, has recorded de Valera's private view of the problem which Irish unity posed for nationalist politicians. De Valera believed that the Ulster Unionists perceived themselves as a governing group who feared that they would become a minority inside a temperamentally different State. This according to de Valera was 'the essence of the persistence of Partition' and the question should, 'be approached from that point of view'1.

2This however was advice which de Valera himself fundamentally declined to take. Mis entire career seems to have been devoted to establishing a society every aspect of which would have proved even more inimical to Ulster unionists than the society de Valera inherited when he came to power in the 1932 election.

  • 2 Anglo-Celt, 4 May 1918.

3Although often cast by his political opponents as a revolutionary, de Valera disliked the term and was anxious to emphasise his moderation: to offset the effects of those of his critics in 1917-18 who likened his followers to the Bolsheviks, de Valera stated that 'they were called by certain people the Revolutionary Party. Were they called the Conservative Party they would be more correctly named. They would conserve the spirit of true Irish nationality'2.

  • 3 Quoted, John Bowman, De Valera and the Ulster Question: 1917-1973. Oxford University Press, p. 19. (...)
  • 4 Irish Press, 29 October 1931; De Valera and Ulster, pp. 277-9.
  • 5 De Valera and Ulster, pp. 151-4.

4What was de Valera anxious to conserve? What were the fundamental values which he espoused? He believed as he said himself that Ireland was a Catholic country and had been so since the coming of St. Patrick3. He often told public audiences that his baseline position on critical moral questions was his Catholicism4. His 1937 Constitution which was framed by him as a blueprint for Irish unity was so worded that not a coma would need to be changed in a united Ireland. His inclusion of the phrase 'the special position' of the Catholic church was criticised at the time as being without substantive meaning, yet ripe for misunderstanding north ot the border5.

  • 6 Dail Eireann, parliamentary debates, vol. 56, cols.2112-6, 29 May 1935.

5De Valera rejected the argument that the south should shape its policies bearing Ulster unionist sensitivities in mind. If they were to pursue such a course, the unity of Ireland would not follow. So when the public south of the border heard the argument that unity depended on Southern attitudes, they had 'sufficient sense… not to bother their heads about it'. There was no obvious policy which would bring unity about, argued de Valera: the question to be asked was how far they should in the south deny their own preferred policies. His government's policy was 'to go ahead in our own way'6.

  • 7 Ibid., vol. 67, col. 1890, 4 June 1937.
  • 8 Ibid., vol. 68, cols. 392-3, 14 June 1937.

6De Valera's 'own way' was in practice partitionist: in the sense that it dug deeper the gulf between north and south. His 'own way' was to develop a society on Catholic rather than pluralist principles. In defending his constitution for instance he is quite explicit about this. 'If we are going to have a democratic State, if we are going to be ruled by the representatives of the people, it is clear their whole philosophy of life is going to affect that, and that has to be borne in mind and the recognition of it is important in that sense'7. De Valera's minister for education, Thomas Derrig, was even more explicit on this point during the course of the Dail debate on the Constitution. He insisted that his government had made every endeavour to ensure that the document 'would suit and be appropriate to any development that might take place towards a united Ireland'. Derrig showed impatience with those critics who suggested that the south's policy was inimical to unity. Specifically he cited divorce and the attitude to the Irish language. 'Are we then to assume', asked Derrig, 'or can it be claimed to be the local outcome of these arguments, that we are simply to refuse to put our own ideas into law and refuse to put before the Irish people the instrument which we, as responsible for the government of the country, regard as being suitable to the country's requirements?' Derrig also admitted in this debate that if the alternative to Fianna Fail's approach was to wait until 'we are appreciably nearer to a united Ireland, we will have to wait a very long time'8.

7For a party avowedly anxious to undermine Ulster Unionist resistance to Partition, Fianna Fail's policy under de Valera was counterproductive. To the endemically suspicious northern Protestants, his policies represented proof that 'Home Rule was Rome Rule'. Nor was this the only aspect of his policy which elicited the siege reflex among Ulster Unionists - a reflex which helped to maintain solid voting support for the Unionists.

8De Valera's policy on the Irish language is another factor worth consideration. De Valera was a convinced revivalist, often boring his political supporters with his emphasis on the Irish language. In no other case is it more clear how committed he was to societal change. He believed in a bilingual society (some others talked of abandoning English, and replacing it with Irish). His educational priorities gave a special place to the Irish language - and whereas this policy was tolerated, rather than espoused with enthusiasm in the south, it clearly would not have been tolerable throughout the island of Ireland. Had such a policy been suggested for the entire island, there would have been language riots in the north east.

  • 9 Seanad Eireann, parliamentary debates, vol. 22, cols. 988-9, 7 February 1939.
  • 10 Irish Press, 9 November 1933.

9De Valera himself foresaw the language being restored in the south, and then Crossing the border. He also spoke for himself - not for his cabinet colleagues in a parliamentary debate in 1939 - and argued that if he had to choose between a united Ireland which had lost the Irish language or a partioned Ireland with the language saved, he would prefer the latter9. He defended the policy of giving even highly technical jobs to less qualified applicants, if they had the 'essential national qualification of the language'10. This was another aspect of the south's policy which was anathema to Ulster unionists.

  • 11 For de Valera and his theory of external association see De Valera and Ulster, pp. 86-7, 139-45.

10Concerning Ireland's relationship with Britain, de Valera believed he had made a significant gesture to the Ulster unionists. His theory of 'external association' was specifically designed to facilitate some relationship with the British Commonwealth, the better to entice the Ulster unionists into a united Ireland11. In this sphere too, de Valera managed to further alienate the north. Although he agonised over the gesture he had made towards them, it met with no response. This might be considered an argument against political pluralism: if the Unionists were so unresponsive, why should Fianna Fail try to appease them? Also going ahead 'in our own way' rendered policy-making easier south of the border. The Green card was the best card in the Irish pack. The only problem with it was that is was so easily trumped by the Orange card.

11Yet Fianna Fail was the party proposing Irish unity: they were the wooers, the suitors: it was for them to seduce the Unionists into some form of liaison. Their excuse that the Unionists were not interested, might suffice to satisfy their own followers but it also encouraged Fianna Fail to pursue policies which further entrenched partition, and were to that extent partitionist in effect, if not in intention.

  • 12 Lord Rugby, memo 'Repeal of the Eire External Relations Act', 3 December 1948, Public Record Offic (...)

12Another aspect of de Valera's policy which dug deeper the gulf between north and south was the degree to which he pursued economic self-sufficiency in the 1930s. In contrast to the Cosgrave government, de Valera's Fianna Fail championed a high tariff protectionism which was one of the economic orthodoxies of the period but which again had as a by-product the further alienation of the north and the entrenchment of the border. This was accelerated during the course of the second World War when Irish neutrality in the British diplomat Sir John Maffey's words turned partition into 'a stiff ditch'12.

13Here it would be appropriate to emphasise that all of these policies of de Valera's won considerable support throughout the south. The paucity of contemporary criticism is some indication of this as is the fact that on many of these policies the opposition parties in the Dail and the vast majority of the voters would have been in considerable agreement.

14To sum up a distinction needs to be drawn. The question needs to be fine-tuned. If we ask: was de Valera a partitionist - in the sense of advocating partition, the answer is: no. But we should ask whether de Valera was partitionist in another sense: did his policies entrench partition? When he was faced with a choice between pursing some preferred political value - whether in the field of religion/morality, language/nationality, Anglo-Ireland relations, or the economy - did he on such occasions opt consistently for the value which excluded the Ulster unionists? If we pose the question in this fashion, de Valera clearly entrenched partition. And although this was Partly inevitable, if he was to achieve his other goal of stabilising and rendering constitutional the ranks of the defeated in the Irish Civil War, much of it was also his own personal doing.

15He gave greater weight to the Catholic influence on legislation than was required by his political base; likewise on the Irish language, he went further than was necessary if he was to keep more options open towards the North and in the area of strategic defence and in particular in the manner in which he handled policy in the closing months of the second World War, he may have succeeded in further entrenching Partition.

16Had his successor Sean Lemass been at the helm in these years, it seems likely that much less damage might have been caused to north-south relations, Lemass being no zealot on religion, nationality, the language issue and - possibly neutrality. Also Lemass was more open than de Valera to free trade although this aspect should not be exaggerated since the great contrast in their policies on this issue was mainly due to the change in the economic circumstances of the 1930s and the 1960s.

  • 13 Monteagle to Maffey, 13 December (1939), PRO, DO 130/5.

17So partitionist was de Valera in his behaviour - although not in intention - that there were even some who thought the Ulster Unionists should acknowledge their debt to him. A correspondent, a Southern Unionist, wrote to Sir John Maffey shortly after his arrival in Dublin as Britain's diplomatic representative in December 1939. Maffey's correspondent complained that the Northern Ireland Prime Minister had shown scant regard for de Valera's contribution to the cause of Ulster unionism. 'If Craigavon has an ounce of gratitude in his composition', he wrote, he would show his appreciation and erect a platinum statue to Dev in the centre of Belfast !13. This was written in response to de Valera's opening day speech on the north to his party's annual convention.

  • 14 Belfast Newsletter, 13 December 1939.
  • 15 As 13 above.

18In this speech de Valera had said that he was not a pacifist and that he would not 'shirk the sacrifice of energy, wealth, or even life' that would be necessary to enforce Irish unity; but he believed that permanent unity and stability could not come through the use of force'14. Maffey's correspondent found this 'fatuous'15.

  • 16 Irish Times, 14 December 1939.
  • 17 Dail Eireann, parliamentary debates, vol. 126, col.2027, 19 July 1951.

19But on the second day of the convention de Valera returned to the theme of northern policy and put forward a suggestion which he was also to voice privately to diplomats and to a group of Irish historians in the 1960s. Perhaps in the speech he is revealing an important aspect of his attitude to the Ulster unionists. He suggested that a transfer of populations between Irish emigrants in Britain and those in Northern Irland who described themselves as British might provide a solution to Partition16. De Valera's ambivalence and inconsistency is manifest on this, as on so many other topics. Along with stating in parliament in 1951 that 'no matter how the world goes, these people and ourselves are going to live on one island here'17, he also hankered after what had been his earliest prescription, the expulsion of the Ulster Unionist from the island of Ireland.

  • 18 De Valera and Ulster, pp. 30-37.
  • 19 De Valera has in mind the case of Greece and Turkey after World War I, David Gray, memo, August 19 (...)
  • 20 Gray, 'The United States and Irish Parition', (Junuary 1946), NA, RG 59, 841D.00/2-1446.
  • 21 Speech to Massachusetts State Legislature,’With de Valera in American and Australia: world appeal (...)

20He had first advocated this in 1917-1818. In 1943, he confided to the American minister in Dublin David Gray that a statesmanlike settlement was available 'especially since the precedent for the exchange of populations has been established'19. Gray was not impressed: the idea was 'about as practicable as expelling the New Englanders from Massachusetts'20. After the war, de Valera spoke in a similar sense both in Ireland and on his American tour in 194821. He was also questioned specifically on this point by a group of historians in 1964.

  • 22 David Harkness, 'Unionist reaction: bitterness and hostility', Irish Times, 19 May 1976.

21De Valera told them that a comparison with Cyprus - as it then was - would be instructive. The minority citizen be he Turk or Ulster Unionist 'must decide his priority: land or allegiance. If the former was more important, then he must accept subjection to the political will of the majority of the island; if being Turkish or British was the more important, then he sould return forthwith to the favoured country, Turkey or Britain'22.

22That the proposal to expel the Ulster unionists with compensation should recur in de Valera's thinking between 1917 and 1964 may help in answering the question raised in this article. Is this not an indication that essentially de Valera hankered after an Irish-Ireland State based on so narrow a concept of Irishness that the Ulster Unionists should be either expelled, absorbed or merely tolerated as an un-Irish minority? In fairness to de Valera we should emphasise that he was working in an Anglophobic political culture and in a period when political or religious ecumenism were not only not espoused but were not even discussed.

  • 23 New Ireland Forum Report, Dublin 1984.

23Yet, that said, there remains a considerable contrast with today's broad consensus in the south on the need for a self-critical approach to the south's policy on unity, epitomised - despite many interparty differences - in the Report of the New Ireland Forum23. Although appropriate genuflections are made in his direction, de Valera's successors as leader of Fianna Fail have all rejected his concept of a narrow Irish-Ireland State.

  • 24 Report of the Committee on the Constitution, December 1967, Dublin, 1967; De Valera and Ulster, pp. (...)

24For instance Lemass in his north-south rapprochement and in the overall thrust of his policies in the early sixties was a political pluralist. He first established and later served on the 1967 Committee to examine the Constitution which was the first formal acknowledgment by Fianna Fail that de Valera's blueprint for a united Ireland, his 1937 Constitution, was outdated24.

  • 25 Jack Lynch, 'The Anglo-Irish problem', Foreign Affairs, vol. 50, no4, July 1972, pp. 601-17.

25Jack Lynch Fianna Fail Leader and prime minister in 1972, admitted that de Valera's constitution was 'not suitable for a new Ireland' and suggested that those who considered it 'narrower and less generous' than should be expected from the Irish nationalist tradition were making a justified criticism25.

  • 26 It should also be recorded that whereas all parties have become more liberal on church-state relat (...)

26Although the reception given by Lynch's successor Charles Haughey to the constitutional reforms proposed by Garret FitzGerald might suggest that Fianna Fail was no longer committed to constitutional change, the party's participation in the Forum and its insistence that the Ulster unionists would not find them wanting at the conference table is an explicit acknowledgment that any form of unitary or federal State must be based on values more liberal and pluralist than were those envisaged by de Valera26.

  • 27 Malcolm MacDonald, minute, 21 August 1938, PRO DO 35/893/X.11/234.

27In 1938 the British Dominions Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald, who has done so much to facilitate de Valera's sucess in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of that year, recorded a minute in the Dominion's Office files. There were he said 'two barriers to a united Ireland at the moment': one was Northern Ireland, the other MacDonald suggested was the south under de Valera27.

281985.

Notes

1 Frank Gallagher, note, 20 December 1939, Gallagher papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 18, 375 (11).

2 Anglo-Celt, 4 May 1918.

3 Quoted, John Bowman, De Valera and the Ulster Question: 1917-1973. Oxford University Press, p. 19. Hereafter cited as De Valera and Ulster.

4 Irish Press, 29 October 1931; De Valera and Ulster, pp. 277-9.

5 De Valera and Ulster, pp. 151-4.

6 Dail Eireann, parliamentary debates, vol. 56, cols.2112-6, 29 May 1935.

7 Ibid., vol. 67, col. 1890, 4 June 1937.

8 Ibid., vol. 68, cols. 392-3, 14 June 1937.

9 Seanad Eireann, parliamentary debates, vol. 22, cols. 988-9, 7 February 1939.

10 Irish Press, 9 November 1933.

11 For de Valera and his theory of external association see De Valera and Ulster, pp. 86-7, 139-45.

12 Lord Rugby, memo 'Repeal of the Eire External Relations Act', 3 December 1948, Public Record Office, London (hereafter PRO) CAB 21/1837.

13 Monteagle to Maffey, 13 December (1939), PRO, DO 130/5.

14 Belfast Newsletter, 13 December 1939.

15 As 13 above.

16 Irish Times, 14 December 1939.

17 Dail Eireann, parliamentary debates, vol. 126, col.2027, 19 July 1951.

18 De Valera and Ulster, pp. 30-37.

19 De Valera has in mind the case of Greece and Turkey after World War I, David Gray, memo, August 1943, National Archives, Washington (hereafter NA), RG 59, 841D.00/8-1843.

20 Gray, 'The United States and Irish Parition', (Junuary 1946), NA, RG 59, 841D.00/2-1446.

21 Speech to Massachusetts State Legislature,’With de Valera in American and Australia: world appeal against Partition', Irish Press (Dublin) 1948; Irish Press, 23 dune 1948 and 19 March 1951.

22 David Harkness, 'Unionist reaction: bitterness and hostility', Irish Times, 19 May 1976.

23 New Ireland Forum Report, Dublin 1984.

24 Report of the Committee on the Constitution, December 1967, Dublin, 1967; De Valera and Ulster, pp. 323-5.

25 Jack Lynch, 'The Anglo-Irish problem', Foreign Affairs, vol. 50, no4, July 1972, pp. 601-17.

26 It should also be recorded that whereas all parties have become more liberal on church-state relations and on issues of sexual morality, Fianna Fail is now more conservative in these areas than is Fine Gael or Labour. See debate on further liberalization of laws on contraception, Irish Times, February 1985, passim; Desmond O'Malley, 'I stand by the Republic', Sunday Tribune, 24 February 1985; John Whyte, Church and State in Modern Ireland: 1923 - 1979, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1980, pp. 417-18.

27 Malcolm MacDonald, minute, 21 August 1938, PRO DO 35/893/X.11/234.

Auteur

Radio/Television of Ireland
R.T.E.
Dublin, Ireland

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1986

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540