~ Cumann na nGaedhael ~
Original Cumann na nGaedhael
The first Cumann na nGaedhael was founded by Arthur Griffith in 1900 to campaign against a visit by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra to Ireland. In 1905 it merged with a number of other parties including the Dungannon Clubs to form the original Sinn Féin.
Pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedhael
The second Cumann na nGaedhael Party was formed by pro-Treaty Sinn Féin TDs in Dáil Éireann in Dublin on 27 April 1923 and was largely centre right in outlook. The leadership of the pro-treaty Sinn Féin group included Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and W.T. Cosgrave. Cosgrave and Griffith had been part of the original dual monarchist Sinn Féin while Collins rose quickly through its ranks after 1916.
Griffith and Collins died during the early stages of the Irish Civil War, leaving Cosgrave to lead the pro-treaty faction. Cosgrave had fought in the 1916 Rising and had been prominent in the Government of the underground Irish Republic. The new Irish Free State had lost its most senior figures and the burden of responsibility, in building the state on solid foundations, was now on Cosgrave and his colleagues. Cumann na nGaedhael came into being when the pro-treaty wing of Sinn Féin decided to formally style themselves as a distinct party. The idea for the new party arose in late December 1922 but its formal launch was delayed until April 1923 as a direct consequence of the turmoil caused by the civil war. Difficult years of state building, in the face of Republican violence, would characterise the party throughout its time in Government.
The party contested its first general election in 1923 and won 63 seats (39% of the poll). Until 1932 Cumann na nGaedhael formed the Government of the Irish Free State with Cosgrave as President of the Executive Council. The fact that its leaders and members of parliament had been in Government before the party was founded would prove a major stumbling block to party unity and loyalty.
State Building and reconstruction
In Government the party established the institutions upon which the Irish state is still built. It also re-established law and order through a number of public safety acts in a country that had long been divided by war and competing ideologies. The party's Minister for Home Affairs, Kevin O'Higgins established An Garda Síochána (Eoin O'Duffy as Commissioner), an unarmed police force. The same man, as Minister for External Affairs in 1927, was successful in increasing Ireland's autonomy within the Commonwealth.
Cosgrave provided both the party and the country with steady, reliable leadership. In difficult times, his judgement was correct while he succeeded in holding a bitterly divided state intact.
In 1927 the Government, through the Shannon scheme, harnessed the massive potential for electricity generation of that river while providing jobs on a large scale. Coupled with this, repairing infrastructural damage that had been caused during the civil war proved a drain on the new State's resources. Accordingly the government was forced into many unpopular decisions, notoriously reducing the old age pension from 10 sh a week to nine in 1924, when it was increased in Northern Ireland. In general the party had to adopt a conservative fiscal policy, far removed from that promised by Sinn Féin prior to 1922.
Consolidation and Competition
In the general election in June 1927, Cumann na Gaedheal performed very poorly, winning just 47 seats with 27% of the vote, and was able to survive in office only because of Fianna Fáil's contained refusal to take up its 44 seats due to the party's rejection of the Oath of Allegiance.
The assassination of its controversial Minister Kevin O'Higgins by Republicans shortly after the election came as a bitter blow to the party. In response to this act of violence, the state introduced a second Public Safety Act, which introduced the death penalty and was widely unpopular with the public, and an Electoral Amendment Act which forced elected TDs to take the Oath of Allegiance. Thus the murder indirectly led to Fianna Fáil's forced entry to the Dáil and in August 1927 the government narrowly survived a vote of no confidence. Following victory in two by-elections, Cosgrave called a snap election in September 1927. Cumann na nGaedheal regained most of the ground lost in June, winning 62 seats and 39% of the vote, although most of these gains were from potential allies.
For the first time the party now faced vigorous parliamentary (if not entirely constitutional) opposition in the Dáil, as Fianna Fáil also made significant gains. Since the foundation of the state Dáil business had been relatively calm as the relatively small Labour party functioned as the official opposition in the absence of die-hard Republicans. The scene was now set for a volatile atmosphere in parliament as the two sides who had fought each other in the civil war now met face to face.
Electoral Decline and Merger
The party's support base gradually slipped to Éamon de Valera's new party Fianna Fáil after its inception in 1926. Cosgrave's Cumann na nGaedheal became solely identified with protecting the treaty and defending the new State while it seemed pre-occupied with public safety. Economically the party favoured balanced budgets and free trade at a time when its opponents advocated protectionism. The weak economy of the Free State suffered during the Great Depression. Nonetheless it came as a surprise when Cumann na nGaedhael was defeated by Fianna Fáil in the general election of February 1932, winning 57 seats to Fianna Fáil's 72.
Its support base contracted further in the general election of January 1933 (48 seats compared to Fianna Fáil's 77) as it failed to counter de Valera's populism and was increasingly labelled the party of the middle class. The party subsequently entered discussions with the National Centre Party and the National Guard (Blueshirts) on the possibility of a merger. This came about in September 1933 with the formation of Fine Gael - The United Ireland party from the three parties, though in reality Fine Gael was a larger version of Cumann na nGaedhael.
Achievements (Appreciation to Dr. Garret Fitzgerald)
Reflections On The Foundation of the Irish State Cumann na nGaedheal - Government And Party - Garret FitzGerald University College Cork - April 2003 - by kind permission.)
From the outset the Government, despite immense pressure from the party, set its face against political appointments, establishing forthwith an Irish Civil Service Commission to make appointments at central government level, and in 1926 it extended this system to local authorities by establishing also a Local Appointments Commission. This ended a system which sometimes involved bribes being paid for jobs - in to-day's money terms as much as €50,000 for appointment as a Dispensary Doctor!
Inefficiency and corruption in local councils was cleaned up by abolishing for various periods the worst offending bodies, and later by putting in City and County Managers to undertake much of the decision-making at local level. Fianna Fail criticised these reforms as undemocratic but continued this clean-up process vigorously when they came to power.
Meanwhile a huge body of native Irish legislation was introduced, drafted by indefatigable administrative civil servants and lawyers, and an efficient central administration was established.
Innovative initiatives included the establishment of the ESB and the building of the Shannon Scheme, the establishment of the Dairy Disposal Company to merge creameries and undertake cattle breeding, bacon curing, and broiler production; The Irish Sugar Company; the Agricultural Credit Corporation; the Medical Registration Council; Dental Board; and Veterinary Council.
In the external forum Ireland became an active and respected member of the League of Nations; registered the 1921 Treaty with the League despite British opposition; and initiated Dominion diplomatic representation abroad. And from 1926 onwards the Irish Government led successfully the revolution in the Commonwealth which by 1931 had made all the Dominions sovereign independent states. By 1932 almost nothing remained of British rule in Ireland except the nominal role of the King in accrediting diplomats to other states.
Finally, as I have earlier mentioned, that Cumann na nGaedheal Government went to great lengths from 1927 onwards to ensure that when the time came to hand over to Fianna Fail after an election, the army would accept the people's verdict, and serve loyally the new government comprised of people they had defeated in arms a mere nine years earlier.
It was all a remarkable record of achievement. But by 1932 the members of that Government were physically exhausted and drained. Reluctantly, and with many fears for the future, they handed over to Fianna Fail - for what turned out to be a long sixteen years - the end of which my father did not live to see.
The survival of a democratic Irish state through a most turbulent period is the great achievement of those who founded our state. We owe this to the selfless patriotism, and toughness, of the members of that first government.