De Valera Is Elected President of the Irish Dáil Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Eamon de Valera was elected president of the Irish Dáil, he became in effect the prime minister of the Irish Free State after the Fianna Fáil established a majority in the Irish parliament.

Summary of Event

The elections of February, 1932, saw Eamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil Fianna Fáil become the majority party in the Dáil Éireann, the parliament of the Irish Free State. On March 9, de Valera, long a major figure in Irish life and lore, was chosen as president of the executive council of the Dáil, equivalent to the position of prime minister, and came to command the state he had violently opposed at the time of its birth in 1922. [kw]De Valera Is Elected President of the Irish Dáil (Mar. 9, 1932) [kw]President of the Irish Dáil, De Valera Is Elected (Mar. 9, 1932) [kw]Irish Dáil, De Valera Is Elected President of the (Mar. 9, 1932) [kw]Dáil, De Valera Is Elected President of the Irish (Mar. 9, 1932) Dáil Éireann Irish Free State;parliament [g]Ireland;Mar. 9, 1932: De Valera Is Elected President of the Irish Dáil[08000] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 9, 1932: De Valera Is Elected President of the Irish Dáil[08000] De Valera, Eamon Cosgrave, William T. Lemass, Sean McNeill, James

Eamon de Valera.

(Library of Congress)

Irish history is full of irony and paradox, much of it tragic, and de Valera’s career exhibits those qualities to the fullest. He had been at the center of the Irish consciousness since the failed Easter Easter Rebellion (1916) Monday Rising against Britain in 1916. A number of leaders were executed but de Valera was spared, possibly because of the perception that the earlier executions had created sympathy for the rebels, or perhaps because de Valera had been born in the United States.

In 1919, war broke out between Britain and the Irish rebels, who were politically organized as Sinn Féin Sinn Féin (ourselves alone) and militarily in the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Irish Republican Army De Valera, as head of Sinn Féin, and David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, agreed to a truce in the summer of 1921, but de Valera refused to participate in the subsequent negotiations, sending as head of the delegation his rival, Michael Collins. Collins, Michael An “Irish republic” was never a possibility, as de Valera undoubtedly knew, and Collins and his associates accepted dominion status within the British Empire. Designated the “Irish Free State,” the dominion would still have as its constitutional head the British monarch, who lacked substantive power but was a symbol of the British connection, represented in Ireland by a governor-general. Supported by Collins but opposed by de Valera, the treaty was narrowly adopted. The result was a new civil war in Ireland, green against green, the Free State forces against Sinn Féin and the IRA, and before it ended with a Free State victory, Collins and numerous others on both sides were killed.

De Valera survived but was imprisoned by the Free State and ignored by the military leaders of the IRA. During the years that followed, the Free State government, led by William T. Cosgrave, got the fledgling state under way. The shadow of history and Britain lay heavily over the new nation, and the partition of Ireland into the Free State and Northern Ireland generated controversy. The greatest threat, however, came not from Britain or Northern Ireland but from the losers in the treaty debate: de Valera’s Sinn Féin and the IRA.

One of the most brilliant politicians in Irish history—he was an avowed student of Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il principe (1532; The Prince, 1640)—de Valera combined idealistic nationalism with ruthless self-interest. He was never as hard-line as many republicans, being willing to settle for what he called “external association” with Britain, but like everyone involved on both sides, he held symbols to be important. For de Valera, the required oath to the British crown remained a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. De Valera decided to disengage himself from the IRA’s violence and use the mechanisms of the hated Free State to gain power, but when many of his Sinn Féin colleagues refused to follow, de Valera resigned as president of the organization and founded Fianna Fáil (warriors of destiny) in May, 1926. In the 1927 elections, Fianna Fáil became the second largest party, with Sinn Féin reduced to insignificance. To take one’s seat in the Dáil, one had to sign one’s name as evidence of subscribing to the oath. In a gesture worthy of Machiavelli, de Valera signed his name but denied he was taking the oath and entered the Dáil in 1927.

Cosgrave’s Cumann na nGaedheal Cumann na nGaedheal (League of the Gaels), as the largest party in the multiparty Dáil, dominated the political arena throughout the 1920’s. Like its British and American counterparts, the government’s economic philosophy tended toward classic liberalism: The less government involvement, the better. The coming of the Great Depression, however, made such attitudes less tenable. In addition, Cosgrave attempted to enlist the Catholic Church’s support for his regime. The Catholic Church in Ireland was, if anything, more conservative than the Vatican in political and social matters. The Free State outlawed divorce and established a censorship board to search out any obscenities, including any reference to birth control. Suspicious of socialism and adamantly against the IRA’s violence, the bishops were a political prize worth having. De Valera also needed the Church, or at least its neutrality. Sincere in his own Catholicism, de Valera had the barrier of his Sinn Féin connections to overcome, but he and Fianna Fáil did so by complaining that Cosgrave had not taken a firm enough approach to entrenching the Catholic Church into Irish life. Also, as the established newspapers largely supported Cosgrave, in 1931 de Valera founded his own daily newspaper, the Irish Press, Irish Press (newspaper) which became and remained de Valera’s political mouthpiece: He owned it, and he controlled it.

Cosgrave called an election for February 16, 1932, several months earlier than constitutionally required—with the economy worsening, early elections seemed the lesser evil. Predictably, the government said little about economic policy, relying in its platform on being the party of religion, law and order, and accusing Fianna Fáil of being crypto-communists with ties to the IRA. De Valera committed himself to abolishing the oath but stressed his economic programs that would increase welfare and reduce unemployment through public housing and other social programs. The Machiavellian de Valera’s chief adviser, Sean Lemass, reassured the IRA of Fianna Fáil’s friendship, Cosgrave’s party was accused of being Masons and British unionists, and de Valera used every opportunity to identify himself with the Church.

The election results saw Fianna Fáil become the largest party in the Dáil with seventy-two seats, up fifteen from 1927. Cosgrave’s party won only fifty-seven seats. Although his party lacked an absolute majority—Labour and other minor parties held the balance of power—it was understood that de Valera would head the new government. During the campaign he had assured the voters that in the event of a Fianna Fáil victory there would be no untoward measures taken against the party’s political opponents. There were rumors that elements of the army would resort to a military coup in order to nullify Fianna Fáil’s victory, but Cosgrave, committed to democracy, had consistently reduced the influence of the military throughout his long tenure.

On March 9, 1932, de Valera entered the Dáil, with his son Vivion at his side, armed with a revolver because of assassination rumors. There was no violence, however. Cosgrave did not even offer himself as a candidate, and thus de Valera, long a legend, as hero or villain, was elected president of the executive council by a vote of eighty-one to sixty-eight and came to preside over the state he had disowned at its birth.

Significance

In a gesture of conciliation, Governor-General James McNeill took the initiative and went to the Dáil to confirm de Valera’s election instead of requiring that de Valera travel to the Viceregal Lodge. McNeill was soon replaced, however, by a de Valera sycophant, much reducing the governor-general’s position as an imperial symbol. De Valera also suspended land annuity payments that were owed to the British government, beginning an economic war that lasted until the eve of World War II.

Once in power, de Valera proved to be no friend to the IRA, cracking down on its activities as Cosgrave had before him. In 1937, a new constitution was promulgated that further weakened Free State ties with Britain, but it was not until 1947, ironically with de Valera briefly out of power, that the Irish Republic was established.

The election of 1932 was a crucial event in Irish history. It brought de Valera into office as head of the government, and through the peaceful transition of power between two groups that had been shooting at each other only a few years earlier, it proved to many that Irish democracy could be a reality. Dáil Éireann Irish Free State;parliament

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coogan, Tim Pat. Eamon de Valera: The Man Who Was Ireland. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Comprehensive biography places de Valera in the context of his times. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Ireland in the Twentieth Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. History of twentieth century Ireland by a respected historian and biographer examines events, attitudes, and cultures. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edwards, Owen Dudley. Eamon de Valera. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1987. Interpretive biography discusses de Valera’s character and motives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foley, Conor. Legion of the Rearguard: The IRA and the Modern Irish State. London: Pluto Press, 1992. History of the IRA includes discussion of the 1932 election.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, J. J. Ireland, 1912-1985: Politics and Society. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Comprehensive account of economic, cultural, social, and political events in Ireland during the period examined. Includes maps, tables, selected bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Longford, Frank Pakenham, and Thomas P. O’Neill. Eamon de Valera. London: Hutchinson, 1970. Authorized biography published before de Valera’s death presents a sympathetic portrait.

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