The State’s worst-ever crisis was handled successfully by 10 men

AT the end of June 1938 the world was moving inexorably towards war.

But in Ireland, life was going on much as normal. Throughout that month a general election had taken place and it was won by Fianna Fáil under Eamon de Valera. On the last day of the month, the Dáil met to elect him as Taoiseach.

A little over a year after that government was formed, the world was indeed at war. In the middle of the night on September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland with a mighty show of force in the air and on the ground. The British government, which up to then had thought it could prevent war by negotiation, issued an ultimatum that German forces must be withdrawn by 11am. The Irish government, through President Douglas Hyde, announced that Ireland would remain neutral through any war (so did Benito Mussolini).

The day after war was declared, the Dáil met to declare a state of emergency and to grant emergency powers to de Valera’s government.

Throughout that very long day, the Dáil debated all the powers needed (and they were extensive), and adjourned at 2.30 the following morning to allow the Seanad to consider the legislation.

The Seanad sat until 5am when the Dáil reconvened to be told the Emergency Powers Bill had now been passed in all its stages. In a remarkable show of unity, and despite immensely serious debate, there were no votes on one of the Dáil’s longest ever days.

For most of the remainder of that war (there was a further election in 1943), Ireland was run as a country in a state of real emergency and the powers granted to the government underpinned most of its actions.

But here’s the really remarkable thing. That government consisted of 10 ministers and a Taoiseach. In the most violently turbulent times Ireland had ever seen, with its tiny economy at risk, with a world war raging around it, with life-and-death decisions being made every day, with hunger and deprivation a real feature of Irish life, 10 men ran the country.

Yes, they were all men. Most had had experience of the War of Independence and the Civil War — the majority of them had fought in the Easter Rising 22 years earlier. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste were the oldest members of the government, at 56.

Throughout the war, a number of them carried several portfolios.

De Valera himself was both Taoiseach and Minister for External Affairs, his Tánaiste, Sean T O’Kelly, was also Minister for Local Government and for Public Health. Over the lifetime of the Dáil, if a minister was sick or otherwise unavailable, de Valera either acted in the post himself (he was acting Minister for Education for nearly nine months shortly after the war began, in addition to his other jobs) or appointed one of the other 10 to act.

In all of this time, they were supported by a number of parliamentary secretaries (what we would now call ministers for state). Do you want to guess how many there were? Was it 15,17, 20? Actually, there were six. Again, they were all men. All except two of them were veterans of the war of independence.

It’s hard to imagine now the workload and the responsibilities carried by these men, 17 in all. They ran the country with a tiny civil service. They lived in a world that was being torn apart. Ever since then there has been argument about whether that government made the right decisions at the outset of the war.

But whatever the rights or wrongs of that, there can be no denying the fact that they kept the country fed and supplied, that hospitals and schools were maintained, and that Ireland survived a war that left much of Europe in ruins.

Were these men of extraordinary capacity? Some, no doubt, were. Their politics were conservative and their ideology blinkered in all sorts of ways, but they believed passionately in public service as something that was fundamental.

And they demonstrated that commitment in all sorts of different ways, from lifestyle to a towering commitment to politics. When you compare them and the political environment in which they worked to the present day, they seem like giants among pygmies. In those days there was no reward for chairing a Dáil committee and ministers were paid around £32 a week.

Now we have a Taoiseach and 14 ministers. And they are supported by 20 ministers of state. Most of them you wouldn’t recognise if you met them in the street and I doubt if there’s a political expert in the entire country who could remember what it is they all do.

One of them has responsibility for road safety, as if there wasn’t a Road Safety Authority already in place. As far as I can see this particular minister of state has issued three press releases since his appointment and none of them has anything to do with road safety, unless you included one particularly helpful press release he issued last December warning people they could be blown off if they walked on a cliff in a high wind.

Another of them is responsible for food safety. Perhaps because we also have a Food Safety Authority (which must limit her sense of having something to do), she has now declared a keen interest in helping us to tackle obesity.

In a recent earth-shattering speech, she said “we eat far too many foods which are high in fat, sugar and salt. We all need to make a conscious effort to reduce our intake of these foods”.

We also have a minister of state with responsibility for forestry. He told us recently that “Ireland has a real competitive advantage in growing trees”. Thank goodness we have a competitive advantage in something.

THAT overworked minister for state also combined with his minister recently in a dramatic announcement that saw the appointment of a new chairperson for the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board, and took time out to deliver €23,000 worth of support for animal welfare bodies in his own constituency.

One could go on and on. Everyone in Ireland knows the huge growth of meaningless political offices — full of people with little or nothing to do except draw substantial salaries and expenses — has had nothing to do with the increasing complexity of government.

It is instead a symptom of a system that has become so dependent on political patronage that it is almost a classically corrupt system.

I’m not saying the people within the system are corrupt, and I don’t want to be interpreted that way. But any system where so many meaningless jobs have been created, for no possible reason other than to inflate the available perks, is corrosive of democracy. And it’s an insult to the commitment to service of those who have gone before.

Reform of this system won’t solve our financial problems. But it might be a step, long overdue, back towards a politics that’s based on values and work. A politics that’s real, in other words, rather than a politics of patronage.

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