The distinction between power and authority is an important one. Power is what you are entitled to do. For a duly elected leader, power means passing laws, signing treaties and promulgating policies. Authority is the degree to which others comply with your directions.
Getting the degree of compliance with authority right is a tricky business for any society because it involves balancing freedom against effectiveness. Too much in either direction can threaten a society’s future.
For newly emergent states that have struggled for independence it is a particularly challenging issue because heightened expectations about imminent economic or social transformation sit uneasily with countervailing expectations of personal and corporate autonomy.
This is a narrative in Ireland’s post-independent history but it’s a ghostly one, lost behind sacred assumptions, jealously guarded fiefdoms, blatant corporate territoriality, monopolistic defence of professions and their inflated incomes, social conservatism, and ultimately a failure to define the issue and discuss it.
De Valera seemed to grasp the issue, indeed struggle with it; but ultimately in frustration he retreated from it, keeping a strange and ultimately tragic silence from his simulacrum of power, the Áras.
We can with some accuracy identify the moment when de Valera realised that he had achieved power but not authority. It was Easter 1940.
With the challenges of war facing Ireland on his mind, de Valera took to the airwaves and used the anniversary of the Easter Rising to lecture his people on the virtues and purpose of authority.
“Authority can, and does, restrict us, but it is a restriction of guidance productive of innumerable blessings for the community so guided. The sole purpose of public authority is the welfare of those who are governed. Man, by his nature, is meant to live in society.” De Valera argued that Irish people had to adjust “our individual wills to the decisions of those whom we have chosen to lead. Without such discipline we must inevitably degenerate into a rabble. That is true of all peoples, and we cannot hope to be an exception.” He went on:
The social group of [man’s] family begets and nurtures, and, to a certain extent, educates him. But it is obvious that he cannot find within himself nor within his family the means adequate to develop fully his powers as a person, or, normally, even to support his physical life. A wider organisation is necessary, a durable grouping of others with him, where each collaborates with all his fellows to provide those general conditions wherein it may be possible to live a fully human life. Among those conditions are the reign of peace and order, the provision of sufficient economic or material goods, and the fostering of the higher spiritual or cultural qualities by which human life is made truly human. This permanent union of men united for the general good is what we know as ‘society’.
Reading it now, it is an awkward sermonising address, a strange mixture of de Valera’s typical pedantic style but heavily reliant on an oddly ecclesiastical note. “It would, indeed, help much to intelligent obedience if we reflected more often on the helpfulness of the sovereign public authority. We should see in it a blessing, truly a gift of God, an instrument of His willing, whereby our lives are protected and developed. Obedience then would not prove a grudging submission, but a willing acceptance, of the Creator’s Sovereignty, as it is exercised by men. There would be less reason for the State to use force, which it has, undoubtedly, the right and duty to use for the maintenance of the essential peace and order of the community.” (Quotes from The Irish Times, 25 March 1940)
Certainly de Valera invoked the challenges of war as a rationale for authority but his concerns about the lack of central authority in Ireland were, I believe, much deeper than the exigencies of the immediate crisis.
Actually from the outset of taking office in 1932 de Valera had been on the receiving end of quite a few lessons in the limitations to the authority of central government, even to the authority of his own office within government.
The first lesson was not long in coming and involved a standoff between his own executive office of the President and the Department of Finance. De Valera devoted his primary attention for his first seven years in office to unpicking the 1921 Treaty and replacing it with his own vision of Anglo-Irish relations and a constitution. In this the Land Annuities loomed large. It was an arena in which one would have thought he reigned supreme. J.J. McElligott, Secretary of the Department of Finance, had other ideas.
In an exchange of letters with J.H. Thomas, the Secretary of the Dominions Office, de Valera set out his three chief grievances, namely the Treaty, the ports and the ‘financial tribute’ arising from the Land Annuities i.e. payments of £3m per annum collected by the Irish Government from Irish farmers and paid to Britain against loans used to purchase and distribute land under the 1891 and 1909 Land Acts.
As McMahon recounts in Republicans and Imperialists, Anglo-Irish Relations in the 1930s, Thomas reminded de Valera of the obligation to pay the annuities under the financial agreements of 1923 and 1926: “When de Valera received Thomas’s despatch he ordered a search for the 1923 agreement, but his assistant secretary noted on 11 April that the Department of Finance were refusing to hand it over to the President’s Department, despite a ruling from the Attorney General.” J.J. McElligott was obdurate and the matter continued to be pursued up to 1937, notes McMahon.
It was really an astonishing episode. De Valera, as President of the Executive Council, was looking a key document in a dispute with the British Government that threatened and in fact delivered an economic war highly damaging to the Irish economy. Yet an official refused him sight of it. De Valera manifestly didn’t push the point and just got on with the negotiations. After the damaging economic war, negotiations resumed to a successful conclusion in 1938. With the promulgation of the 1937 Constitution, the ending of the economic war, and the handover of the Treaty ports, Anglo-Irish relations were satisfactorily reset to de Valera’s dictates.
De Valera’s opportunity to realise his vision of Ireland in economic and social terms however had to be done in the radically new and challenging context of growing global conflict and very real fears that Britain was about to be overrun by Germany. The Germans in blockading Britain were blockading Ireland. The Cabinet greatly feared that mass unemployment, even starvation, would bring social upheaval. Great social discipline would be required, de Valera repeatedly warned in speeches and radio addresses, if Ireland were to survive.
Yet a whole series of incidents demonstrated painfully the absence of social discipline, that inclination to abide by the Government’s directions and accept its authority. The following instances illustrate just how fragile was the government’s hold.
De Valera’s Minister for Finance, Seán MacEntee, got a sharp lesson himself in the limits to his authority. As war threatened in late 1938 and early 1939, he was deeply concerned that Britain would not convert Ireland’s sterling assets into US dollars for essential imports like oil, coal, grains, and tea. He approached the Irish Banks Standing Committee – the nearest thing we had to a Central Bank – to ask them to start building up reserves of dollars. They refused him point blank. They were not going to upset the perfectly established relationship with London. As a concession they had acquire “a moderate amount of gold”. They went on to advise MacEntee, with some condescension it must be said and rather beside the point, that a few well edited and inspired articles in the press could help allay public anxiety.
This rejection would spur the Government to create the Central Bank a few years later but not to take any immediate actions to force the point. And, of course, during the war Britain highly constrained Ireland’s access to dollars, partly to punish it for neutrality (like cutting Ireland’s tea ration below even that in Britain) and partly because it was short of them itself in the opening years.
In the autumn of 1939, just as the U-boat menace began sinking merchant ships around the archipelago, the Country Dublin Farmers Association went about blockading Dublin. It set pickets on the approach roads to intercept lorries carrying pigs to let the pigs loose, trailers full of turnips to send them rolling down the road, and cart loads of milk to overturn them. They wanted higher prices to compensate for the rise in the price of inputs. Some eighty farmers were arrested and convicted in November. It was not the kind of civil action that inspired confidence that the country was coming together in solidarity against a hostile external environment.
The outbreak of foot and mouth disease was another example of government’s lack of authority. Despite intensive efforts by the Department of Agriculture and its inspectors to contain the outbreak, the disease spread alarmingly as regulations were ignored and cattle moved about regardless. Aside from the restriction on Ireland’s most important export commodity, The Irish Times reported in October 1941, when the outbreak was finally contained, that the 556 outbreaks across thirteen counties had cost the government £451,021 in compensation and involved the slaughter of 27,895 cattle, 9,797 sheep, 708 goats and 3,201 swine.
In his new role as Minister for Industry and Commerce in the reshuffle of 1939, MacEntee was a central figure in trying to resolve a strike by Dublin’s municipal workers. This had brought services to a standstill and generated very heated public opposition because it seemed as if the unions went on strike annually and the latest wage demands – which would push up the rates significantly – were unjustified. MacEntee did much scampering around trying to end the strike, calling for a summit in Dublin Castle, all to no avail. Yet all it took was a word from the auxiliary Bishop of Dublin and the strike was called off, to much public relief and no little embarrassment to MacEntee. If ever there was an example of who, between church and state, spoke with greater authority, it was this episode.
Perhaps most alarmingly of all, the National Arsenal, the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix, was raided in December 1939 in a well-executed operation and a million rounds of ammunition stolen, just as the Christmas period was beginning no less. Most of the ammunition was recovered but it was a sharp reminder to the Government of republican elements at large determined to use the emergency of international conflict for their own ends and the subversion of the state.
Small wonder then if de Valera began to contemplate this anarchic state of affairs as Ireland faced its toughest challenge since the foundation of the state a mere seventeen years earlier. It appeared that authority was diffused among a whole range of sectors and special interests, leaving little if any to central Government. Institutions, associations, unions, sectoral interests, subversive elements, even Government Departments all cherished their claims to unique autonomy and authority.
It was as if when the British left in 1922, Irish society decided it had had enough of central authority, even if it was a central authority of their own making after 1921; even if that central authority was composed of men like de Valera, MacEntee, Lemass and Aiken, all of whom were members of the “revolutionary elite”.
World War seemed an irrelevance compared to special interests, even as Ireland sough to preserve its neurality while being highly dependent for essential supplies on a neighbour that was a prime target.
How had this come about? We’ll look at that in Part II.