UCD Press (2005), 288 pages
Cabra Library, Dublin
Irish History & Politics
Seán Lemass was arguably Ireland’s greatest Taoiseach. He was the right man at the right time. Éamon de Valera‘s leadership had become ossified, wedded to economic protectionism, and wary of new ideas. Irish government policies since independence had been a failure on the most basic level: Ireland had massive rates of emigration and a seemingly unstoppable decline in population. Lemass, although a nationalist veteran of the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, didn’t see the point about getting hung up on the finer points of partition, what mattered was ensuring that Irish people could build their lives in Ireland without the risk of destitution.
Lemass became Taoiseach in 1959 and decided to follow the advice in T.K. Whitaker’s Economic Development paper. This meant a gradual end to protectionism (achieved through tariffs on imported goods) and ultimately the desire to enter the European Economic Community (EEC). By the time time Lemass became Taoiseach it was clear that protectionist economic policies had failed. The average British worker earned 40% more than the average Irish worker in 1960. In Ireland, even at this low wage rate, there simply weren’t enough jobs available for workers. It was hoped that ending protectionist policies would expand the economy so that there would be an increase in jobs and wages.
The move to end protective tariffs had the potential to stir up opposition from farmers and workers. The government’s discussions with the National Farmers’ Association (NFA) and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) were fruitful. The NFA realised that, if Ireland gained membership of the EEC, they would gain by being part of the EEC’s Common Agricultural Policy. ICTU were willing to forgo a certain level of job security for its members based on the potential increase in employment that could be achieved if the Irish economy expanded. Nonetheless it took skill and determination to gain the support of the various interested parties.
Apart from Lemass’ economic policies his most significant achievement was his gradual engagement with the Northern Ireland government. Lemass’ meeting with his Northern Irish counterpart, Terence O’Neill, in 1965 was the first meeting of Irish and Northern Irish leaders since 1925. Lemass, unlike de Valera, took mutually beneficial practical steps to lessen the impact of partition on the island. These steps included unilaterally reducing tariffs on certain goods that were produced in Northern Ireland. Of course this was before the start of the ultra violent years of The Troubles. It could be argued that the thaw in relations between North and South led to an increased sense of insecurity among unionists and increased political and social aspirations among nationalists, and that these feelings were a factor in the increased violence. However this view would be far too simplistic. The Troubles were caused by a growing sense of injustice amongst nationalists, the inspiration nationalists took from the civil rights movement in the United States, the radicalisation of the loyalist working class, and the failure of the Unionist Party to offer any imaginative solutions to defusing the powder keg they had helped construct over the previous 40 years.
The Lemass era was not without its downsides. Catholic morality still played an important part in Irish society. There was an active Censorship Board that banned over 1,000 books in 1954. There was an undercurrent of casual anti-Protestantism and occasional anti-Semitism (by casual I mean that there was virtually no physical violence but it was generally accepted that Catholicism was the superior moral and social code). It is of course far too easy to blame the Catholic Church for all of its flaws as Irish society, by and large, agreed with or at least didn’t oppose the Church’s grip on social mores. The Church also provided educational and health care through its schools and hospitals (as well as providing many services to the Irish in Britain). The Catholic Church was an important voice in public debates on certain issues but Ireland was not Fascist Spain. Ireland was a healthy democracy and the government did, at times, ignore church advice on certain issues.
The policies pursued by Lemass were vital in bringing Ireland up to the economic and social level of its European partners. As well as economic reform and rapprochement with Northern Ireland Lemass’ educational policies, such as the introduction of free secondary education, built a foundation for future sustainable economic growth. The establishment of RTÉ television during his leadership was also an important milestone in Irish history. Lemass, despite his impeccable republican credentials, favoured action over theory, “Lemass, in sharp contrast to de Valera, ‘set out to achieve his ideal instead of simply proclaiming it’. (p.61) Ireland is currently emerging from a recession but, even in recession, the average Irish person is far better off than they were 50 years ago. It is interesting to speculate that if Ireland was led by a person of Lemass’ calibre during the last Fianna Fáil government whether we would have avoided the ruinous economic polices pursued by Ahern and McCreevy.