Saturday 23 September 2017

A new constitution provides proper safguards - for men

The 1937 constitution was derided as threatening liberty and as a death knell for working women, with many abstaining from the vote

Taoiseach Eamon de Valera takes the salute on the steps of the government buildings in Dublin, after finalising the new Irish constitution. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Taoiseach Eamon de Valera takes the salute on the steps of the government buildings in Dublin, after finalising the new Irish constitution. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Irish republican leader, president of Dail Eireann and first Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland Eamon de Valera (1882 - 1975) in his office at Government Buildings. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

Peter Geoghegan

'New Constitution Curtails Women's Rights' was the full-page headline in the Irish Independent on May 6, 1937. It accompanied a lengthy article by John A Costello, the Fine Gael politician and barrister, who attacked the proposed new constitution for its "threats to liberty" and "autocratic provisions". The 1922 Constitution offered full equality "without distinction of sex" but a similar commitment was not contained in its proposed replacement, leading Costello to dismiss it as a 'burnt offering to feminists and feminist associations'. Also of concern was the creation of a new office of president, an 'entirely unjustifiable' novelty according to Costello. He warned that the president would be 'above and beyond the law' and 'the seed of conflict' would be sown between the president and prime minister. These arguments would be expanded upon by many people in the weeks ahead, as a heated debate took place over the proposed new constitution in the summer of 1937.

The edition reproduced today - July 7, 1937 - details the final results of the historic double vote which took place in Ireland on July 1, 1937. On that date there was a plebiscite to decide on the new constitution as well as a general election to choose the members of the 9th Dáil.

The plebiscite was essentially a referendum on the question put before the people: 'Do you approve of the draft constitution which is the subject of this plebiscite?' By July 7, all the results were in and the Irish Independent reported 'Majority for Constitution', as well as providing the final figures in the plebiscite.

Focus was also on the results of the general election, where Fianna Fáil's support had dropped from 49pc to 45pc. Nonetheless, this was a major victory for Éamon de Valera. He had managed to persuade the country, despite some considerable opposition, to support his constitution, and he would continue in power, becoming the first taoiseach.

The issue of women's rights was an important one during the campaign. Then as now, article 41.2 referring to a woman's role within the home provoked much anger, as well as article 40.1 and parts of article 45. The remarkable Gertrude Gaffney, a columnist and foreign correspondent with the Irish Independent, published a series of attacks on the proposed constitution, suggesting that de Valera "has always been a reactionary where women are concerned. He dislikes and distrusts us as a sex". Her article on 7 May called it "the death knell of the working woman", and suggested that women would be sent back to the Middle Ages. Even more controversially, she compared the policies to "Herr Hitler, of whom he [De Valera] appears to be so ardent a disciple".

Given what was happening in Europe at the time, with the rise of fascism and the fear of communism, it was understandable that some people would be suspicious of the proposed changes. When De Valera published his draft constitution in May 1937, promising stability and making much use of the fact that the 1922 Constitution had already been amended 27 times, there was much attention given to the article on the new office of president.

In an editorial on May 5 entitled, "On the Peacock Throne", the Irish Independent warned of a fear that de Valera would seek the role for himself, and would assume "powers far in excess of those exercised by the ruler of the British Empire". These powers, it believed, "flavour more of Fascism or Hitlerism than of a 'democratic state' for which Éire is declared to be". In a particularly cutting line, it even suggested this was part of the doctrine of de Valera infallibility!

As Dermot Keogh and Andrew McCarthy show in their authoritative study, The Making of the Irish Constitution 1937, this theme was taken up by some of the leading Fine Gael politicians, in particular Costello. He warned in the Dáil that this was "a tyranny which masquerades under the cloak of democracy". Much of the concern centred on suspicion of de Valera himself, going back to the split over the Treaty and the Civil War. As one Fine Gael TD put it:

"We can expect nothing else from a man who has always shown supreme contempt, not merely for parliamentary institutions, but for the Dáil itself". In response, Fianna Fáil argued that the existing constitution was "a tattered and torn affair" which allowed within its powers the creation of a dictatorship, and noted with some justification that only a new constitution would provide proper safeguards.

De Valera spent much of the campaign trying to reassure people that the new office of president would not allow a dictator to seize power, insisting that even people opposed to Fianna Fáil policy could vote for the constitution with a clear conscience.

Opening the campaign at a rally in O'Connell Street in Dublin on June 16, he spent much of time criticising the Irish Independent, and he was clearly irked by much of its coverage.

In response, in an editorial on 18 June the paper recommended a 'No' vote, and described the draft constitution as "a dangerous instrument begotten in vanity and spleen".

Conscious of the need to appeal to its readership, Fianna Fáil took out a full page ad in the Irish Independent on June 26, the final Saturday before the vote, and it took up the whole front page in place of the usual advertisements.

It proved a highly effective way of reaching the electorate. Afterwards de Valera accused the Irish Independent of being biased towards Fine Gael. However, the paper's brilliant and combative editor, Frank Geary, took out his measuring tape and showed that he had given Fianna Fáil 56 column inches compared to Fine Gael's 57. The Irish Press, in contrast had given Fianna Fáil 92 inches against only 18 for Fine Gael.

The reason why the new constitution passed had much to do with the fact that while certain groups were unambiguously opposed (for example, Fine Gael) there was no great union of all the forces against it.

It is also significant that many people who voted in the general election chose to spoil their vote or abstain in the plebiscite. Rather than being confused, it is more likely that a significant number were not convinced either way, but were unwilling to block it. It is remarkable to look at the figures on page 12. A figure of 116,196 spoilt or blank ballots was reported on the previous night's count, a substantial number, given that the total vote for ratification was at this time estimated to be 686,042 and the vote against at 528,296.

These figures were the provisional returns from the constituencies and it was only on June 17 that Iris Oifigiúil published the official results, which were reported in the Irish Independent and the other newspapers a day later. In the end the official vote was 685,105 for and 526,945 against.

This edition of the Irish Independent provides a complete breakdown of the results by constituency. Even more helpfully, it carries a breakdown of the votes for each party in the general election on the same page to allow for a comparison.

Only five constituencies voted against the new constitution: Cork West, Dublin County, Dublin Townships (a newly created constituency which returned Costello), Sligo, and Wicklow. In some of these constituencies the vote for Fine Gael in the general election was higher than for Fianna Fáil (significantly so in Cork West), but in others Fianna Fáil was the dominant party. It becomes clear that the vote for the constitution required much greater support, and in most areas it received it.

Fianna Fáil won 69 seats in the general election, down eight, but the revision of constituencies (discussed on page 9 of the edition) reduced the number of seats in the Dáil and meant that despite the drop Fianna Fáil was still able to form a minority government. However, this was the first election in five that its popular vote had fallen. In a revealing commentary on the social class of candidates at the time, there is a box on page 12 which analyses the numbers of lawyers and doctors who ran for election: 19 barristers, ten solicitors, and 12 doctors. Twenty-five won seats, with ten of the 13 successful barristers elected for Fine Gael.

As Gerard Hogan shows in his superb work on the constitution, everything fell into place after the plebiscite. Under Article 62 the constitution came into effect 180 days after the vote, in other words Wednesday, December 29, 1937. Douglas Hyde was nominated to become the first president, and was duly elected unopposed on May 4, 1938, and the choice of such a dignified and respected person in the office helped reassure people that this was a democratic role and not a hidden dictatorship. As time went on, and Ireland remained a democratic state, judicial review helped develop the constitution, and the worst fears of its critics were not realised. To quote Brian Farrell, the constitution was 'amended, interpreted and reshaped' until it became over time, 'De Valera's constitution and ours'.

Patrick Geoghegan is a professor of history at Trinity College Dublin and presents the award-winning Talking History on Newstalk

When Jiggs and Maggie tried to stem the emigrant tide

Even the arrival of the high summer in July 1937 couldn't cheer up this bleak land. After five years of Economic War with Britain, the wheels had come off the economy. Fianna Fáil's self-sufficiency regime was focused primarily on small farming and rural living and had no answers to scandals such as hospital overcrowding and crumbling urban slums ravaged by TB.

In the run-up to polling on the Constitution, a reporter in the West, wrote: "The early train from Sligo to Claremorris yesterday might reasonably be described as an emigrant train, as it carried another large group of young men and girls from their native West to seek work across the water, following in the trail of many hundreds who have gone before them since the beginning of the year. Their last recollection of their home town as they bundled their new suitcases on the carriage racks was a farewell salute in the Nazi style.

"There is something pathetic about the manner in which the younger people, especially the girls, cling to each other's company. Many of the emigrants, ostensibly going for harvesting employment, are really determined to get any sort of a job. As one said: 'We are going for anything we can get.' Asked how he felt about losing his opportunity to cast his vote in the election, he said it did not matter much to him."

The Dublin Port & Docks Board heard of a crime spree where scores of boys would gather around docked banana boats every day in the hope of liberating fruit "on the sly".

Elsewhere, it was reported that: "Bridget Hannon and Christina Coffey, both married, were remanded in custody, for stealing babies' prams. A detective McEvoy stated that prams had been reported missing from various parts of the city. Coffey, he said, had admitted taking 19 prams which had been left by their owners outside shops, cinemas and medical dispensaries."

In a Dáil debate on De Valera's new Constitution, Frank MacDermot TD tabled an amendment requiring that all voters "can read and write". When that was shot down, he proposed that "responsible" family men should get double voting rights, leading Labour's William Norton to ask what happened when the family head was an irresponsible woman?

Besides slum dwelling, another housing crisis swept Ireland. A fine of £5 was imposed on Patrick Brunt for permitting the Leeds Social Club in central Dublin to host an unlawful game - namely 'House' (bingo by another name). The arresting officer said he found 40 or 50 men playing, with Brunt shouting out numbers.

One of the men yelled "House!" and went up to collect a three shilling prize. JA Geary of the Chief State Solicitor's Department called House a modern blight, saying the guards were being swamped with complaints from the wives of these men blowing the family budget on gambling.

Grim times indeed. One tiny reason to be cheerful was the debut of the comic strip Jiggs And Maggie which would be a reader's favourite of this paper for decades to come.

Indo Review

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News