That was a broad statement that simply does not stand the test of history.
Following the formal establishment of the Irish Free State, William T Cosgrave became the head of government in the midst of the Civil War. When Eamon de Valera succeeded him in 1932, it was a time of enormous political unrest throughout Europe.
The world was in the midst of the Great Depression, the fascists had already come to power in Italy and the Nazis were on the brink of gaining power in Germany. Within a decade democracy would be largely wiped out in Europe.
All the countries with Catholic majorities would succumb to dictatorship of one form or another, with this country standing out as a shining exception. Eamon de Valera set the foundations for magnificent achievement in his first year.
He faced much more serious challenges than the current government. The structures of the infant state were not that stable. Garda Commissioner Eoin O’Duffy, who had been chief of staff of the Free State army during the Civil War, tried to organise a coup d’etat to prevent de Valera coming to power. Many Fianna Fáil deputies were so suspicious they went into Leinster House with revolvers in their pockets for the opening of the new Dáil.
One of de Valera’s first acts following his election as head of government was to cut his own salary by 40% from £2,500 to £1,500 and the salaries of his ministers from £1,500 to £1,000. They thereby afforded real leadership, and it was in the face of massive political obstructionism.
During the election campaign de Valera had argued this country did not owe the land annuity payments being paid to Britain. Neville Chamberlain, the British chancellor of the exchequer, privately told his cabinet colleagues in March 1932 that de Valera had an arguable case “from a purely legal and technical point of view”.
De Valera offered to submit the issue to international arbitration, but Chamberlain thought “it would seem most undesirable that we should expose ourselves to such a decision” because there was “a certain risk that an arbitrator might hold that Mr de Valera is right”.
Behind the scenes, Cumann na nGaedhael representatives secretly pleaded with the British government not to give in to de Valera or they would be finished politically. The British initiated what became known as the Economic War. In recent years it has become almost fashionable for some silly commentators to ridicule de Valera as some kind of shortsighted nationalist bigot. But he actually stunned the international community with his perspicacity in September 1932.
Japan’s recent invasion of Manchuria was seen as the first real test of the League of Nations. It was the Irish Free State’s turn to provide the president of the council of the league in line with the practice of rotating the position every three months.
De Valera confounded critics by presiding at the council meeting, and he delivered the opening address to the assembly. Discarding the speech prepared for him by the league secretariat, he delivered a speech of his own instead.
“Out beyond the walls of this assembly,” he said, “there is the public opinion of the world and if the league is to prosper, or even survive, it must retain the support and confidence of that public opinion as a whole.”
The only effective way of silencing its critics was to enlist the support of millions of apathetic people by showing the league’s covenant was “a solemn pact, the obligations of which no state, great or small, will find it possible to ignore”.
“No state should be permitted to jeopardise the common interest by selfish action contrary to the covenant,” de Valera continued, “and no state is powerful enough to stand for long against the league if the governments in the league and their peoples are determined that the covenant shall be upheld.”
When he finished the assembly seemed dumbfounded. He sat down to “a stony silence unbroken by a single note of applause,” according to a news agency report. “There is a touch of rather bitter irony in the spectacle of Mr de Valera, of all people in the world, thrusting aside the conventional words prepared for him in order to tell the League of Nations those grim truths about itself which are only too apparent,” the New York Herald Tribune noted in an editorial. “It was all true enough, but the words come with a strange sound from Mr de Valera – himself the flaming embodiment of that excessive nationalism which more than any other single force has been responsible for the league’s present state.”
Most of those in the assembly were probably listening through a translator and they would not have realised de Valera had finished for some moments, which would have accounted for the silence at the end of his speech. Then there was a burst of genuine applause. “In the lobbies the speech received nothing but praise,” according to the correspondent of the News Chronicle (London). “It was the most candid piece of criticism that within my recollection any league chairman has ever dared to utter. Yet the speech was moderate in tone, entirely without bitterness and, indeed, indicative of the speaker’s sympathy with the work and aims of the league.”
The correspondent of the London Daily Herald wrote: “This morning Mr de Valera made the best speech I ever heard from a president of the league. That is not only my own judgment. It is the opinion of almost every league journalist with whom I have spoken.”
THE New York Times, in a front page report, said: “Rarely has Geneva heard such a speech. It is Mr de Valera’s personal work, and together with the way he presided over the council on Saturday, it unquestionably made him the outstanding personality of this session.”
De Valera showed leadership both domestically and in the international arena. Before the end of his first year he called a general election and led Fianna Fáil to the first overall majority in the history of the state. It will be at our own peril that we will forget both what de Valera achieved in that year and how he did it. We should not ignore the outrageous conduct of those greedy, pocket-lining individuals who have been demeaning Irish politics and true republicanism.
Under more favourable circumstances, Brian Cowen and his colleagues made a mess of the Lisbon Treaty referendum. Our European partners have agreed to alterations to the treaty that certainly favour this country, but the Government has not yet had the courage to submit the amended document to the Irish people.
The Government has talked about making hard decisions to cut public spending and raise taxes, but they have been hitting the weaker sections of society. They have essentially defecated on the concept of providing leadership by good example. Time and time again during this past year, they have given lousy example. Poor Dev must be turning in his grave at what they have done to his once proud party.