In volume two of his biography of Éamon de Valera, covering 1932-1975, the RTÉ journalist David McCullough paints a complex picture, writes
Today’s presidential election coincides with the publication of the second and concluding volume of David McCullagh’s biography of Éamon de Valera.
This timely volume — which begins with his coming to power in 1932 — concludes with the Long Fellow’s role in the presidency and his involvement in purely political affairs.
On coming to power in March 1932, de Valera insisted on cabinet consensus on all issues. If anyone disagreed with what he desired, he would simply prolong the debate.
As he possessed enormous patience, he almost always got his own way by exhausting any dissenters. Desmond Ryan, therefore, entitled his early biography Unique Dictator. “De Valera was always at pains to deny that he had dictatorial tendencies,” according to McCullagh.
Although he preserved cabinet consensus with great determination in the 1930s and 1940s, the dictatorial allegation was understandable against the backdrop of his earlier career.
“In the wake of the Treaty split,” notes McCullagh, de Valera “specifically denied the right of a majority of voters to accept a settlement of which he disapproved.”
In the 1930s, he notes that de Valera “established an impeccably democratic constitution in marked contrast with most of the newly established states in Europe, particularly the Catholic ones.”
He went on to provide inspired leadership in keeping Ireland out of the Second World War, even though he initially warned that it would be impossible to remain neutral. People were “living in a fool’s paradise” if they thought they could escape attack while exporting food to Britain, warned de Valera.
“In modern warfare, there is not any neutrality.” Yet, he went on to achieve the seemingly impossible by feigning neutrality, while secretly siding with the Allies.
"The Irish coast watching service reported simultaneously to Dublin and the British. In addition, British aircraft were secretly authorised to fly over Donegal, and the British Navy was allowed to station armed tugs at Killybegs, Cobh, and Berehaven for air-sea rescue purposes.
Nevertheless, the notion was assiduously developed by Winston Churchill and the Americans that Ireland pursued an indifferent neutrality.
This was a gross distortion, but it was largely prompted by de Valera’s own earlier exploitation of the partition issue. For years he contended that his main objection to the 1921 Treaty “was that it was likely to confirm Partition”.
This was a blatant distortion.
If the Dáil did not recognise the rights of Northern Unionists, de Valera warned the Dáil in August 1921, it would make the same mistake with them that the British made with the rest of the island.
When Michael Collins challenged him to present an alternative to the Treaty at the outset of the Dáil debate that December, de Valera produced Document No 2, which contained the Treaty’s partition clauses verbatim. There was no difference between them over partition.
The real issue revolved around the question of Irish sovereignty. While Collins admitted that the Treaty did not provide full national freedom, he insisted it contained the freedom to achieve it. de Valera disputed this at the time, but later proved during the Second World War that the Big Fellow had been right.
“The driving force” of de Valera’s policy during the world war, “was his assertion of the sovereignty of the 26 counties”, argues McCullagh, convincingly. “Neutrality has given the people more faith in what the government has achieved for the independence of this country than any other act.”
But de Valera had so shamelessly exploited the partition issue over the years that the British and Americans feared he would use it to cause post-war problems between Britain and the US.
To prevent this, David Gray, the American minister to Ireland, advocated undermining de Valera in British and American eyes with a series of public requests — for Irish bases, for the expulsion of Axis diplomats, and for permission to seize the German Legation in Dublin.
Although Gray was confident de Valera would reject such requests, American and British military leaders balked at asking for Irish bases. They argued that the Irish leader had been so helpful that he might hand over the bases, which would only be a liability to the Allied war effort.
“There were no security grounds for demanding the closure of the Axis missions,” Churchill admitted, but he backed an American request for de Valera to expel the German and Japanese representatives as a supposed threat to the Allied invasion of Europe.
The real aim was to inflame US public opinion against de Valera. “Gray’s plan worked perfectly,” according to McCullagh. American public opinion was inflamed by de Valera’s refusal.
Incensed by Gray’s scheming, de Valera retaliated by proffering condolence to the German minister Edouard Hempel following the death of Hitler.
“During the whole of the war,” the Taoiseach explained privately, “Dr Hempel’s conduct was irreproachable. He was always and invariably correct — in marked contrast with Gray. I certainly was not going to add to his humiliation in the hour of defeat.”
The gesture was a serious political blunder, because it reinforced Gray’s distortions. But this should certainly not detract from the magnificent way in which de Valera kept this country out of the war.
Of course, McCullagh goes on to conclude that de Valera made a further mistake in not knowing when to quit: “Unfortunately for his reputation — and for the country— he stayed on too long.
“The Fianna Fáil government that came to power in June 1951 was undoubtedly the worst led by de Valera,” contends McCullagh.
It was arguably the worst in the history of the State.
He goes on to note that as president, de Valera flouted the convention of staying out of political affairs.
In 1969, when a delegation from Northern Ireland sought to discuss the northern troubles with de Valera, he refused to meet them.
“This was entirely in line with the convention that the president is above politics,” notes the author.
Around the same time, de Valera clearly flouted this convention by getting Kevin Boland to backdown after telling colleagues in a huff that he was resigning from cabinet over policy differences.
Boland was reluctant to change his mind, until de Valera warned that the resignation would not only threaten government stability but could even lead to Fine Gael gaining power.
“This was an internal party matter in which he had absolutely no business,” argues McCullagh.
But it was not the last involvement de Valera would have in the coming months.
Peter Berry, secretary of the Department of Justice, contacted the president, supposedly for advice, in April 1970. Justice minister Mícheál Ó Moráin had developed a serious drink problem, and Berry said he could not be sure that the taoiseach, Jack Lynch, had been informed about a matter of grave national concern.
He did not explain that two government ministers — Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney — were involved in importing arms for the IRA in Northern Ireland.
Berry was not really looking for advice; he was just using the President in order to put pressure on Lynch. He knew de Valera would advise him to tell Lynch directly.
“By consulting the president, and telling the taoiseach that I had consulted the president,” explained Berry. “I would be pushing the Taoiseach towards the enforcement of the rule of law.”
After the arms trial debacle, de Valera encouraged Lynch to resist an obvious leadership bid by Haughey, and he also privately advised Paddy Hillery and Des O’Malley to support the taoiseach.
“As the president had no business in involving himself in internal Fianna Fáil affairs,” contends McCullagh, “his conversations with Hillery and O’Malley, and his private message to Lynch, are more like those of a party chieftain than an impartial head of state.”
De Valera’s subsequent political intervention, in February 1973 — when Frank Aiken decided not to stand for re-election in the general election after party headquarters ratified Haughey as a Fianna Fáil candidate — was even more significant.
Aiken intended to publicise his reasons for withdrawing, but de Valera persuaded him not to make any announcement.
Lynch then lied publicly by announcing that Aiken had stepped down for medical reasons. It was a sad end for Aiken, but ultimately even worse for Lynch, who was essentially pushed out as taoiseach by Haughey, who went on to replace him.
"For better or worse, Éamon de Valera did more than any other individual to shape the Ireland over which he ruled,” concludes the author in his fair and thoroughly balanced biography.
It is not a book for someone looking for a concise overview of de Valera’s life, but those interested in an in-depth assessment, or those wishing to evaluate specific aspects of his career, such as his presidency, will find the biography invaluable.