FF at 90: the party that shaped our past and covets the future
Fianna Fáil met for the first time 90 years ago this week. The brainchild of Éamon de Valera, it went on to mould Ireland in its likeness. But Dev is now a neglected figure and the movement he created is just another political party
Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30
Ninety years ago this week, Éamon de Valera launched Fianna Fáil. He was then the best-known Irish republican in the world. Much of his fame was related to his role as Commandant of the 4th Battalion of the Volunteers in Dublin during Easter Week and the fact that alone of the commanders, he escaped a British bullet.
His status also reflected how he had been elected as a Sinn Féin MP in July 1917 and became president of that party and the Irish Volunteers just a few months later. Yet de Valera has been strangely absent from this year's Centenary events. His image is nowhere to be found among the multitudes of 1916 souvenirs offered for sale in Dublin city centre.
In contrast, Michael Collins, a junior officer in the GPO during the Rising, has become almost an honorary signatory of the Proclamation. Partly this is because of the huge success of Neil Jordan's movie Michael Collins, which skilfully, if unhistorically, demonised de Valera at the expense of his rival. The popular association of "de Valera's Ireland" with backwardness has meant he is not even given credit for what could be regarded as the most heroic part of his career.
One of de Valera's greatest successes was the creation of the Fianna Fáil party. Yet his cause is not exactly helped by the tendency of that organisation to accept much of the popular mythology about him. Just after the 2011 general election, the much-depleted cohort of Fianna Fáil TDs were asked to contribute to a survey which involved naming their political heroes. None of the party's TDs chose de Valera. But not only had he founded their party, he brought Fianna Fáil to power just nine years after the Civil War, in which he and his comrades had not only been on the losing side but widely reviled as having caused that conflict.
The party stayed in power until 1948, increasing their majority throughout the 1930s. During that time, de Valera dismantled much of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, ensured that the state maintained its neutrality during World War Two and introduced a new constitution. He was a strong performer on the international stage and was regarded by many of the leaders of independence movements in India and Africa as an inspiration.
Indeed, when many of his pro-Treaty opponents embraced fascism, de Valera led condemnation of Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia and warned of the deadly consequences of great power rivalry. When de Valera moved to found Fianna Fáil in 1926, he was aware of the necessity of moving fast. In August 1923, a defeated and demoralised Sinn Féin had won 44 seats; support for the Anti-Treaty position had arguably increased despite the Civil War. But de Valera knew that even much of this support would not tolerate disengagement from day-to-day politics and that newer layers of support would be needed in order to challenge for power.
To win that support, Fianna Fáil emphasised its social policies. It talked about putting into practice the "ideas embodied in the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil' while de Valera claimed James Connolly as his major inspiration and promised to make "the resources and wealth of Ireland … subservient to the needs and welfare of the people".
Furthermore, there would be more than simply political independence; Ireland would be "self-supporting economically". Much mocked now, Fianna Fáil's commitment to protectionism and native industrial development was fresh and radical in a state whose government seemed content to maintain itself as a giant beef ranch for the British market.
That the Cumann na nGaedheal government's response to complaints about hardship was often of the variety that "people may have to die in this country and die of starvation" meant there was a fertile ground for Fianna Fáil's critique. But de Valera also realised that if his party did not collect this discontent, then someone else might.
In 1926, he had warned a confidant that "it is vital that the Free State be shaken at the next general election... if the present Free State members are replaced by Farmers and Labourers... the national interest as a whole will be submerged in the clashing of rival economic groups".
Fianna Fáil would soon be accused of stealing the Labour Party's clothes but their ambition went further than that. In the party's first decade it won votes from former Home Rulers (de Valera's Irish Party opponent in Clare, Patrick Lynch, joined Fianna Fáil), disillusioned pro-Treatyites (who thought Fianna Fáil's economic policies more faithful to the ideals of Arthur Griffith), Dublin workers and young first-time voters.
For the first seven years of its existence, it maintained an ambiguous relationship with the IRA, the 'slightly constitutional' image also useful for party morale. But despite Cumman na nGaedheal's cry in 1932 that "the gunmen and the communists are voting for Fianna Fáil", the party's support already went far beyond those limited constituencies.
As it progressed, it would become aware that reiteration of republican stances was not enough; as a party strategist suggested in the 1940s, there were now '200,000 people… on the register who never saw a Tan, never lived under the Cosgrave regime and who don't care one damn about where anyone was in '16 (or) '22". Support was not maintained by standing still.
Once in power, Fianna Fáil consolidated support among urban and rural workers, carrying through a major housebuilding programme, improving social welfare and setting up semi-state companies.
There was a record of real achievement. Co-operation rather than confrontation was sought with the trade unions. But in doing this, Fianna Fáil eschewed the language of class conflict as 'foreign.'
The party stood for the "man of no property" but also the "man of some property" and by the 1960s "the man of lots of property".
That man could be a merchant or builder, a shopkeeper or a small farmer. Fianna Fáil, in their minds, were not a sectional party representing particular class interests; they were the "Republican party", a national movement rather than a mere political organisation.
Their radical years behind them, Charles Haughey would denounce socialism as "an alien gospel of class warfare, envy and strife… inherently unIrish and therefore unworthy of a serious place in the language of Irish political debate". While in an earlier incarnation, Seán Lemass could contend that "the question of the political influence of the Catholic clergy… had to be faced sooner or later". Fianna Fáil soon realised that the Church would be a powerful ally in maintaining social control. Just as he had for Sinn Féin in 1917, de Valera worked hard in the early 1930s to reassure the bishops that his party did not represent Fenian anti-clericalism.
This was to prove helpful when social peace was threatened, as it was for a period in the 1940s by labour militancy or by republican rivals in the 1960s. Despite the ineffectiveness of Cumann na nGaedheal's 'red scare' in 1932, Fianna Fáil would deploy the same tactic with greater effect in 1944, 1948 and 1969.
By the Lemass era, the party was quite clearly benefiting from the largesse of the powerful in Irish business. But despite long periods in government, Fianna Fáil had the ability to maintain an 'outsider' status; to be anti-establishment while actually being THE establishment. Some of this was due to its occasional republican flourishes. Unlike its rivals, or some it claimed, Fianna Fáil was serious about unifying Ireland. That issue briefly threatened to split the party in 1969-70 when Northern Ireland exploded. But the small number of party members who really believed it was the time to fight for a united Ireland soon left disillusioned. In government, Fianna Fáil reverted to type.
After its final break with the IRA in the mid-1930s, Fianna Fáil governments had moved to ruthlessly crush the organisation. Fianna Fáil had introduced internment without trial in 1940 and 1957, military courts in 1962 and Section 31 to ban subversives from the airwaves.
In 1972, it introduced the Special Criminal Court, extended Section 31 and sacked the RTÉ Authority for objecting to censorship.
Marvelling at how Jack Lynch had convinced his party to back these tough security measures, the British ambassador thought it "demonstrated Fianna Fáil have no ideological convictions… if HQ said that the moon was made of green cheese, 70 deputies would be on their feet asserting the fact". It would be more correct to say that the party had an acute sense of loyalty to the state they had moulded and occasional lamentations about the Fourth Green Field notwithstanding, 'trouble' from 'up there' would not be exported 'down here".
Nevertheless, it took something off the romantic sheen from the party. Further fraying at the edges occurred throughout the 1980s. 'Golden Circles', Charvet shirts and tribunals had already damaged support in much of urban Ireland before 2008.
Now Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can swap voters because they are largely drawing from the same pool. Electoral opportunism aside, the fundamental policies of both parties are similar. While once there was some justice in early Fianna Fáil's claims to be a national movement, today they are just another party.
Dr Brian Hanley is a historian, lecturer and author
Dates that moulded Fianna Fáil ... and Ireland
Founded on March 23, 1926 by Éamon de Valera, Seán Lemass, Constance Markievicz and Frank Aitken.
On May 16, the inaugural meeting was held in La Scala theatre, Dublin.
In August 1927, FF deputies end the policy of abstentionism and take their seats in Dáil.
In March 1932, Fianna Fáil form its first government with de Valera as Taoiseach.
In 1932, FF initiates a disastrous trade war with Britain.
De Valera keeps Ireland neutral during WWII and antagonises British by offering condolences after Hitler's death.
In June 1959, successor Seán Lemass initiates programme for economic expansion.
On May 6, 1970, Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney are dismissed as cabinet ministers for alleged involvement in plot to smuggle arms to IRA.
On January 1, 1973, FF leader Jack Lynch leads Ireland into the EEC.
FF wins a landslide election victory with its infamous economic manifesto, which many believe contributed heavily to fiscal crisis in the 80s.
On December 11, 1979, Charles Haughey is elected leader. His legacy was tarnished by scandals such as the GUBU affair in 1982, phone-tapping, corruption, embezzlement and tax evasion.
In 1990, FF grandee Brian Lenihan Snr loses the Presidential election to Mary Robinson after a chaotic party campaign.
In 1993, Taoiseach Albert Reynolds signs the Downing Street Declaration paving the way for ceasefire.
In November 1994, Bertie Ahern is elected party leader.
Following the 1997 General Election, Ahern forms a coalition government with the PDs.
In April 1998, Ahern signs the Good Friday Agreement.
FF's Padraig Flynn, then an EU Commissioner, enrages the nation in 1999 by telling Late Late show that he has a salary of £140k, along with three houses.
Former Minister FF Ray Burke pleads guilty in July 2004 to making false tax returns. He is sentenced to six months.
Brian Cowen becomes Taoiseach in May 2008, coinciding with the economic and banking collapse.
On a Morning Ireland interview in 2010 Cowen sounds incoherent. There are allegations that he is either 'hungover or intoxicated'.
In 2011 General Election, FF are routed, losing 57 seats.
This March, Micheál Martin's FF win 44 seats and agree to support a Fine Gael-led minority government.