30 December, 2012

Seán Lemass



Seán Francis Lemass was one of the most prominent Irish politicians of the 20th century. He served as Taoiseach from 1959 until 1966.

A veteran of the 1916 Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War, Lemass was first elected as a Sinn Féin Teachta Dála (TD) for the Dublin South constituency in a by-election on 18 November 1924 and was returned at each election until the constituency was abolished in 1948, when he was re-elected for Dublin South-Central until his retirement in 1969. He was a founder-member of Fianna Fáil in 1926, and served as Minister for Industry and Commerce, Minister for Supplies and Tánaiste in successive Fianna Fáil governments.

Lemass is widely regarded as the father of modern Ireland, primarily due to his efforts in facilitating industrial growth, bringing foreign direct investment into the country, and forging permanent links between Ireland and the European community.

John Francis Lemass was born in Ballybrack, County Dublin before his family moved to Capel Street in Dublin city center. He was the second of seven children born to John and Frances Lemass. Within the family his name soon changed to Jack and eventually, after 1916, he himself preferred to be called Seán. He was educated at O'Connell School where he was described as studious.

One of Lemass's classmates was the popular Irish comedian Jimmy O'Dea. Another friend during his youth was Tom Farquharson, who went on to play as a goalkeeper for Cardiff City. In January 1915 Lemass was persuaded to join the Irish Volunteers. His mature looks ensured he would be accepted as he was only fifteen-and-a-half at the time. Lemass became a member of the A Company of the 3rd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade. The battalion adjutant was Éamon de Valera, future Taoiseach and President of Ireland. While out on a journey in the Dublin Mountains during Easter 1916 Lemass and his brother Noel met two sons of Professor Eoin MacNeill. They informed the Lemasses of the Easter Rising that was taking place in the city. On Tuesday 25 April, Seán and Noel Lemass were allowed to join the Volunteer garrison at the General Post Office. Seán Lemass was equipped with a shotgun and was positioned on the roof. He also was involved in fighting on Moore Street. However, by Friday the Rising had ended in failure and all involved were imprisoned. Lemass was held for a month in Richmond Barracks, due to his age he was released from the 1,783 that were arrested. Following this, Lemass's father wanted his son to continue with his studies and be called to the Irish Bar.

Following the Easter Rising, Lemass remained active in the Irish Volunteers, carrying out raids for arms. Until November 1920, Lemass remained a part-time member of the Volunteers. In that month, during the height of the Irish War of Independence, twelve members of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA took part in an attack on British agents living in Dublin, whose names and addresses had been leaked to Collins by his network of spies.

The group was under the leadership of Michael Collins. The names of those who carried out Collins' orders on the morning of November 21, 1920 were not disclosed until author Tim Pat Coogan mentioned them in his book on the history of the IRA, published in 1970. Coogan identified Lemass as taking part in the killing of a British agent as a member of "Apostles" entourage that killed fourteen and wounded five British agents of the Cairo Gang. That day, November 21, 1920, became known as Bloody Sunday.  Lemass was arrested in December 1920 and interned at Ballykinlar Camp, County Down.

In December 1921, after the signing of Anglo-Irish Treaty, Lemass was released. He became a training officer for a period in Beggars Bush Barracks before the IRA split and was involved in the Belfast Boycott operations. During the debates of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, Lemass was one of the minority who opposed it along with de Valera. As a protest all the anti-Treaty side withdrew from the Dáil. In the Irish Civil War which followed Lemass was adjutant and second in command to Rory O'Connor when the group seized the Four Courts, the home of the High Court of Ireland. The occupation of the Four Courts eventually resulted in the outbreak of Civil War, when, under British pressure, the Free State side shelled the building on 28 June 1922. As a result, fighting broke out in Dublin between pro and anti- Treaty factions. The Four Courts surrendered after two days bombardment, however Lemass escaped with Ernie O'Malley and some others to Blessington. Their Flying Column operated in Enniscorthy, Tullow, Ferns, Baltinglass and Borris before the Column was broken up. Lemass and O'Malley returned to Dublin along with Thomas Derrig as a member of the IRA Eastern Command Headquarters but was later captured in December 1922 and interned again.

In June 1923, after the end of the civil war, Seán Lemass's brother Noel Lemass, an anti-Treaty IRA officer, was abducted in Dublin by a number of men, believed to be connected to the National Army or the Police CID unit. He was held in secret until October when his mutilated body was found in the Dublin Mountains. Seán Lemass was released from prison on compassionate following his brother’s death. On November 18, 1924 Lemass was elected for the first time as a Sinn Féin TD.

On August 24, 1924, Lemass married Kathleen Hughes. The wedding took place in the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Name, Ranelagh, Dublin. Jimmy O'Dea, acted as Lemass's best man.

Together Seán and Kathleen had four children – Maureen (1925–2017), Peggy (1927–2004), Noel (1929–1976) and Sheila (1932–1997). Maureen Lemass would later go on to marry a successor of Lemass as Fianna Fáil leader and a future Taoiseach, Charles Haughey.

In 1926, de Valera, supported by Lemass, sought to convince Sinn Féin to abandon its refusal to accept the existence of the Irish Free State, the legitimacy of the Dáil, and its abstentionist policy of refusing to sit in the Dáil, if elected. However, the effort was unsuccessful and in March 1926 de Valera, along with Lemass, resigned from the party.

At this point, de Valera contemplated leaving public life, a decision that would have changed the course of Irish history. It was Lemass who encouraged him to stay and form a political party. In May, de Valera, assisted by Gerald Boland and Lemass, began to plan a new party. This became known as Fianna Fáil – The Republican Party. Lemass travelled around the country trying to raise support for Fianna Fáil. The vast majority of Sinn Féin TDs were persuaded to join. The new party was strongly opposed to partition but accepted the de facto existence of the Irish Free State. It opposed the controversial Oath of Allegiance and campaigned for its removal.

Due in large part to Lemass' organizational skill, most of Sinn Féin's branches defected to Fianna Fáil. This enabled the new party to make a strong showing at the June 1927 election, taking 44 seats while reducing its parent party to only five. More importantly, this was only three seats behind the governing party, Cumann naGadheal. Pending the removal of the Oath of Allegiance, the party announced that it would not take up its Dáil seats. A court case was begun in the name of Lemass and others. However, the assassination by the IRA of Kevin O'Higgins, the Vice-President of the Executive Council (deputy prime minister), led to the passing of a new Act requiring all prospective Dáil candidates to take an oath that, if elected, they would swear the Oath of Allegiance; a refusal to do so would prohibit anyone from candidacy in a general or by-election.

Faced with the threat of legal disqualification from politics, de Valera eventually took the Oath of Allegiance while claiming that he was simply signing a slip of paper to gain a right of participation in the Dáil, not actually taking an Oath. On August 11, 1927, having signed the Oath of Allegiance in front of a representative of the Governor-General of the Irish Free State, the TDs from what Lemass described as "a slightly constitutional party" entered the Dáil. The party had another strong showing at a fresh election in September, taking 57 seats.

Lemass was one of the party's stronger performers in opposition, attacking Cumann naGadheal as being too pro-British. He also attacked the government's stewardship of the economy, and was largely responsible for drafting Fianna Fáil's economic programme.

In 1932, Fianna Fáil won power in the Free State, remaining in government for 16 uninterrupted years. The party which Lemass had described as only a "slightly constitutional party" in 1929 was now leading the Irish Free State, a state that de Valera and Lemass had fought a civil war to destroy a decade earlier. De Valera appointed Lemass as Minister for Industry and Commerce, one of the most powerful offices in the Executive Council (cabinet), and a position he would occupy, with only one short break, in all three of de Valera's governments.

Lemass had the two difficult tasks of developing Irish industry behind his new tariff walls, and convincing the conservative Department of Finance to promote state involvement in industry. Against the background of the Great Depression, he and de Valera engaged in the Anglo-Irish Trade War which lasted from 1933 until 1938, causing severe damage and hardship to the Irish economy and the cattle industry. In 1933, Lemass set up the Industrial Credit Corporation to facilitate investment for industrial development; in the climate of the depression investment had dried up. A number of semi-state companies, modelled on the success of the ESB, were also set up. These included the Irish Sugar Company, to develop the sugar-beet industry, Turf Development Board for turf development, and an Irish airline, Aer Lingus. Years later Lemass described Aer Lingus as his "proudest achievement". These helped create management skills within Ireland, as most people of ability preferred to emigrate.

The Irish market was still too small for multiple companies to exist, so practically all the semi-states had a monopoly on the Irish market. While Lemass concentrated on economic matters, de Valera focused primarily on constitutional affairs, leading to the passage of the new Constitution of Ireland in 1937. De Valera became Taoiseach, while Lemass served in the new Government again as Minister for Industry and Commerce.

Subsequently, Irish economic historians have found that many of his decisions on tariffs and licenses were made on an ad-hoc basis, with little coherent policy and forward planning.

Lemass became Minister for Supplies in 1939 following the outbreak of World War II. It was a crucial role for Ireland, which maintained an official neutrality.  The state had to achieve an unprecedented degree of self-sufficiency and it was Lemass's role to ensure this; he had the difficult task of organizing what little resources existed. In 1941, the Irish Shipping Company was set up to keep a vital trickle of supplies coming into the country. However, petrol, gas, and some foodstuffs remained in short supply. De Valera chose Lemass over older cabinet colleagues to become Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) when Seán T. O'Kelly was elected President of Ireland in 1945.

After the Second World War Lemass sought help from the Marshall Aid Plan, securing $100m that was mainly spent on the road network. Emigration continued, particularly to Britain. Despite a high birth rate, the Republic's population continued to fall until the 1960s.

In 1948, partly due to its own increasing isolation and also due to a republican backlash against its anti-IRA policies, which had produced a rival republican party, Clann na Poblachta, Fianna Fáil lost power.

The First Inter-Party Government, made up of Fine Gael, the Labour Party, National Labour Party, Clann na Talmhan, Clann na Poblachta and others, was formed under Fine Gael TD John A. Costello. In opposition, Lemass played a crucial role in re-organizing and streamlining Fianna Fáil. As a result of this, and also due to crises within the Inter-Party government over the controversial Mother and Child Scheme, Fianna Fáil were not long out of government.

In 1951 Fianna Fáil returned as a minority government. Lemass again returned as Minister for Industry and Commerce. Seán MacEntee, the Minister for Finance, tried to deal with the crisis in the balance of payments. He was also unsympathetic to a new economic outlook. In 1954 the government fell and was replaced by the Second Inter-Party Government.

Lemass was confined to the Opposition benches for another three years. In 1957 de Valera, at the age of seventy-five, announced to Fianna Fáil that he planned to retire. He was persuaded however to become Taoiseach one more time until 1959, when the office of President of Ireland would become vacant. Lemass returned as Tánaiste and Minister for Industry and Commerce. In 1958 the first Programme for Economic Development was launched. De Valera was elected President of Ireland in 1959 and retired as Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach.

On June 23, 1959, Seán Lemass was appointed Taoiseach on the nomination of Dáil Éireann. Many had wondered if Fianna Fáil could survive without de Valera as leader. However, Lemass quickly established his control on the party. Although he was one of the founding members of Fianna Fáil he was still only fifty-nine years old, seventeen years younger than the nearly blind de Valera.

The failure of the IRA border campaign in the 1950s and the accession of Lemass as Taoiseach heralded a new policy towards Northern Ireland. Although he was of the staunch republican tradition that rejected partition, he saw clearly that it was unlikely to end in the foreseeable future and that consequently the Republic was better served by disposing of the matter. The new Taoiseach played down the nationalist and anti-partition rhetoric that had done little to further the situation over the previous forty years. Still, as long as the hardline Basil Brooke was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland there was little hope of a rapprochement.

However, in 1963 Terence O'Neill, a younger man with a more pragmatic outlook, succeeded as Prime Minister. He had years before told Tony Grey of The Irish Times that if he ever succeeded Brooke, he hoped to meet with Lemass. A friendship had developed between O'Neill's secretary, Jim Malley, and the Irish civil servant, T. K. Whitaker. A series of behind-the-scenes negotiations resulted in O'Neill issuing an invitation to Lemass to visit him at Stormont in Belfast.

On January 14, 1965, Lemass travelled to Belfast in the utmost secrecy. The media and even his own Cabinet had not been informed until the very last minute. The meeting got a mixed reaction in the North. In the Republic, however, it was seen as a clear indication that the "Irish Cold War" had ended, or at least that a thaw had set in. Lemass returned the invitation on 9 February of the same year by inviting O'Neill to Dublin, but he did not want to be seen to be anti-British. The Irish government encouraged overseas developments with the USA, so that they could share in the 50th Anniversary celebrations of the Easter Rising. The two leaders discussed cooperation between the two states on general economic matters; local services such as road systems and sewage facilities; agriculture, including exempting Northern Ireland from Britain's quota on butter imports from the Republic; customs; and all-Ireland representation in international sporting events. In Northern Ireland the Easter Rising was celebrated by the film the Insurrection on the BBC. The first occasion that people began to take notice of the implacable Ian Paisley demagogic speeches. O'Neill was by Ulster standards a 'liberal' (Roy Hattersley MP), Harold Wilson's government decided that there had to be radical change as a consequence of the diplomatic rapprochement with Lemass.

The meetings heralded a new (but short-lived) era of optimism, although for the most part it was manifested in the Republic. Hardline Northern unionists led by Ian Paisley continued to oppose any dealings with the Republic, and even moderate unionists felt the 50th Anniversary celebrations of Easter Rising in 1966 were insulting to them. The rise of the civil rights campaign and the unionists' refusal to acknowledge it ended the optimism with violence in 1969, after Lemass's term in office had finished.

The Lemass era saw some significant developments in Irish foreign policy. Frank Aiken served as Minister for External Affairs during the whole of Lemass's tenure as Taoiseach. At the United Nations Aiken took an independent stance and backed the admission of China to the organization, in spite of huge protests from the United States. Admitted only in 1955, Ireland played a large role at the UN, serving on the Security Council in 1962, condemning Chinese aggression in Tibet and advocating nuclear arms limitation.
Lemass was always skeptical about remaining neutral, particularly if Ireland were to join the European Economic Community. Aiken was much more in favor of a neutral, independent stance. In 1960 Irish troops embarked on their first peace-keeping mission in the First Republic of the Congo. Nine soldiers were killed during this mission.

While Aiken was at the UN, Lemass played a major role in pressing for Ireland's membership of the EEC which in many ways became the chief foreign policy consideration during the 1960s.[19] The Anglo-Irish Treaty Act 1965 emerged as a significant achievement in breaking the Cold War ice between the Republic and Britain. It had come when Lemass had discerned a modern agenda to move away from the old An Phoblacht agenda of an impoverished woman's Ireland. He recognized quite bravely the need to modernize socially and economically.

In 1966 the Republic of Ireland celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Éamon de Valera came within 1% of defeat in that year's Irish presidential election, less than two months after the celebrations in which he played such a central part. In November 1966, Lemass announced his decision to retire as Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach.

On November 10, 1966, he officially announced to the Dáil with his usual penchant for efficiency, "I have resigned." That very day Jack Lynch became the new leader. Lynch was the first Taoiseach that had not come through the Irish War of Independence. Lemass retired to the backbenches. He remained a TD until 1969.


During the last few years of his leadership Lemass's health began to deteriorate. He had been a heavy pipe smoker all his life, smoking almost a pound of tobacco a week in later life. In February 1971, while attending a rugby game at Lansdowne Road, he became unwell; he was rushed to hospital and was told by his doctor that one of his lungs was about to collapse.

On Tuesday, May 11, 1971, Seán Lemass died in the Mater Hospital in Dublin, aged 71. He was afforded a state funeral and was buried in Deansgrange Cemetery.




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