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  • Forums, Courts, Cabinets, and Tribunals:The Governing of Ireland since the 1960s
  • Richard B. Finnegan (bio)

The First Four Decades

Following the acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 and the electorate's endorsement of the Treaty in June 1922, the provisional Irish government staggered into a civil war that lasted until May 1923. The shattering of the consensus that had fueled the Sinn Féin movement during the War of Independence period, the hardening of positions, and the disillusionment with the dream of an independent Ireland had the effect of creating after 1922 a particular kind of Irish government, aptly described by Tom Garvin as "a democratic crypto-republican and markedly centralized state, rather authoritarian and secretive in style and skeptical of the public spiritedness of the population it was to rule."1

The competing visions of the Irish state, society, and government that contributed to the outbreak of the civil war did not disappear in Ireland, though they were submerged from the 1920s to the 1960s in the uniformity of the Catholic political culture and the centralized rule of successive governments. Cumann na Gaedheal's commitment to democracy from 1922 to 1932 facilitated Fianna Fáil's opportunistic entry to parliament in 1926 and its electoral victory in 1932.2 [End Page 126]

The established set of values and the ethos of the Catholic Church were placed at the center of the political culture of the nascent political system. These values provided a ready-made value system integral to the definition of the Irish nation.3 Those values were enlisted to define Irish public policy and public life. The examples are familiar and numerous—censorship legislation, the absence of divorce and birth control, public manifestations of Catholic triumphalism as witnessed during the centenary of Catholic Emancipation in 1929, the Eucharistic Congress in 1932, and the text of the 1937 constitution. Insofar as the society was in accord with these values, and the church was capable of enforcing them, any tension between individualist and pluralist impulses in Ireland and the uniformity of politico-religious values was masked (and left to be cultivated by writers and intellectuals, such as Seán O'Faoláin, who had little traction with the established elites.) Clashing visions of the nature of Irish political values and Irish society emerged again in the 1970s and 1980s with a liberal vision on issues such as censorship, birth control, divorce, feminism, and gay rights, challenging the prevailing social, cultural, and religious conservatism.

The Catholic political culture and Catholic social values were not only part of the identity of the Irish people but were defined, protected, advanced, and reinforced by the Catholic Church, the most powerful and socially encompassing institutional player in Irish political life. The church saw itself as holding a set of moral values and religious truths that were beyond the writ of the state; thus the validity of public policy was measured by doctrinal fidelity rather [End Page 127] than individual rights claims. Until Vatican II and the publication of Dignitatis Humanae in 1965, the church was insensitive to individual rights. Political leaders, sharing these values, were deferential to church leaders on matters of public life.4

The rule of Fianna Fáil from 1932 to 1948 and again from 1957 to 1973 exemplifies the absence of effective two-party oscillations in power, or the creation of coalitions, for thirty-two of the first fifty years of the state's existence. De Valera's extended leadership of Fianna Fáil (from 1926 to 1959) reinforced the party's self-perception that it was the natural governing party of Ireland. Prior to 1960, secrecy, patronage, and a lack of accountability was a hallmark of Fianna Fáil rule and reinforced the uniformity of the political culture and the authoritarian character of the state. But Fianna Fáil has had to accommodate itself to new electoral pressures since the 1960s, and the party system and governing coalitions became much more fluid, in contrast to the first four decades of the state.

A badly divided community and a crisis of legitimacy marked the post-civil-war Free State. Fianna Fáil, brandishing the somewhat illiberal notion...


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