Book review: Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power

Ronan Fanning describes Éamon de Valera’s behaviour in the immediate aftermath of the Treaty as petulant, inflammatory, ill judged, and profoundly undemocratic. Ryle Dwyer says this is a fair and balanced assessment.

UNLIKE some of the earlier biographies of Éamon de Valera, Ronan Fanning seeks neither to deify nor demonise his subject. Instead he provides a lively account recognising his subject’s accomplishments and failures. 

de Valera came to the fore during the Easter Rebellion. The author notes that he surrendered with his men, but he overlooks an important sequence. Before surrendering de Valera took a young British cadet to Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital and handed him over before surrendering himself to Captain Edo Hinzen of the British Army.

Was de Valera trying to ingratiate himself with the British with this gesture? That must remain a matter for speculation. Maybe he did not wish to die for Ireland at this stage, but surely nobody should have thought any the worse of him for that, because he had a pregnant wife and three young children at the time.

Dr Fanning attributes de Valera’s survival as one of the commandants of the rebellion to luck and to the fact that “he was unknown”. He was one of 90 people sentenced to death and one of the 75 whose sentences were commuted to penal servitude.

Following his release from prison in 1917 de Valera quickly established himself as the republican leader by winning the East Clare by-election. He then followed this up by playing a magnificent role in enlisting the support of the Catholic Hierarchy in staving off British efforts to introduce conscription in Ireland in April 1918.

In the wake of his success in blocking conscription, he recognised the political importance of allowing himself to be arrested and rounded up with other prominent republicans in the midst of the so-called German Plot. This was widely recognised as a trumped up charge in retaliation for the anti-partition campaign. Sinn Féin had recently lost three successive by-elections, but after the German Plot round-up the party moved on relentlessly.

The relationship between de Valera and Michael Collins figures prominently in the book. Collins helped to spring de Valera from Lincoln Jail in February 1918 in the hope that the Long Fellow would lead the struggle against the British in Ireland, but de Valera had other ideas. He felt the best chance of success lay in going to the United States and enlisting American help.

While in the United States de Valera angered the Irish-American leadership by playing the role of a moderate. He insisted that Britain had nothing to fear from Irish independence. He re-emphasised this approach following his return to Ireland at the end of 1920.

“Ireland is quite ready by treaty to ensure England’s safety and legitimate security against the danger of foreign powers seeking to use Ireland as a basis of attack against her,” he declared publicly.

While de Valera was in America, Collins had come to the fore in Ireland.

Dr Fanning agrees with the conclusion that “de Valera simply could not cope with Collins’s decisiveness, realism and ability to learn quickly.”

The Long Fellow therefore tried to send Collins to the United States, but he had to drop the idea in the face of consternation within the IRA, and Collins’s refusal to go.

Some months later, however, Collins did agree go to London, where he signed the Treaty, knowing that de Valera disapproved of it. Dr Fanning is understandably critical of de Valera’s handling of those events. He had insisted that the Dáil confer plenipotentiary powers on the delegation to negotiate and sign a treaty, but he also got the delegation to agree to consult the cabinet members in Dublin before actually signing any agreement.

“de Valera’s strategy in the treaty negotiations failed because it was based on an exaggerated perception of his own authority,” Dr Fanning contends. “The first stage was the plenipotentiaries’ rejection of his presidential veto by signing the Treaty without his prior approval.” This was not quite accurate. de Valera never argued that he had a veto over the plenipotentiaries.

He accepted that they had a right to sign, once they consulted the cabinet members at home. They did consult the cabinet on the Saturday before signing. Some changes were then made, and de Valera argued that they should have been consulted again, but none of the delegation subscribed to that view.

The author is critical of de Valera’s behaviour in the lead up to the civil war, especially his “gory litany” of threats about wading through Irish blood. Whether those were only warnings, as de Valera and his followers later contended, Dr Fanning concludes that they were “insensitive, provocative and grotesquely irresponsible.” “

His behaviour in the immediate aftermath of the Treaty, in sum, was petulant, inflammatory, ill judged, and profoundly undemocratic,” the author contends. “In the eyes of all those who, until the present day, regard him as a bitterly divisive figure, de Valera’s cardinal sin was his rejection of the Treaty and his consequent culpability for the civil war. The charge is incontrovertible. The Treaty split could have been contained and might even have been averted,” Dr Fanning adds.

“He opposed the Treaty not because it was a compromise but because it was not his compromise.” Thus the long fellow “was largely responsible for the dimensions, if not for the fact, of the civil war.” Once the civil war began, however, de Valera was anxious to stop it without delay, and he undoubtedly had a strong influence in persuading the Republicans to call off the struggle. At that juncture de Valera was at the nadir of his public career. He was widely reviled, but he began his recovery by allowing the Free State to arrest him in Ennis when he sought to defend his seat in the 1923 general election. He then headed the poll with more than twice the vote of the second candidate.

After coming to power in 1932 with a minority government, he quickly assured the civil servants “that he had no intention of changing any of them.” He upheld that commitment even after he secured an overall majority with a snap election in 1933. de Valera publicly outlined his policy, emphasising that he had not abandoned the goal of removing imperial trappings and establishing an independent republic, but he was going to do so gradually.

“Let us remove these forms one by one, so that the state we control may become a republic in fact: and that, when the time comes, the proclaiming of the Republic may involve no more than a ceremony, the formal confirmation of a status already attained.”

Between 1932 and 1948 he implemented this policy with his magnificent handing of the country’s foreign affairs. Keeping this country out of the Second World War became the proof of this country’s political independence. “The case for ascribing greatness to de Valera rests on his conduct of foreign policy, which gives him a larger claim than any other 20th-century Irish politician to the title of statesman,” Dr Fanning concludes. At that point the author feels that de Valera should have stepped down, but he hung on and became engaged in anti-partition posturing with his opponents.

This well-written and balanced biography is a lively and judicious account of the Long Fellow’s career.

Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power

Ronan Fanning Faber & Faber, €24.99; ebook, €15.98


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