When Dev stood for Stormont

Ireland's founding father and the bastion of orange rule would seem to make strange bedfellows. But 'The Long Fella' was twice elected a Member of Parliament in the Belfast executive. Historian Nollaig O'Gadhra takes up the story

POLITICAL realists in Fianna Fáil down the years have always shied away from the idea of direct Northern involvement, realising as de Valera realised from the outset, that any “Northern block” of MPs or “dissident TDs” from the six counties could complicate the mathematical balance in Leinster to use all sorts of ways.

Thus it seems the idea of elected members from the North participating in Leinster House is not an option until Ireland is “free” or “united” or both.

Anything that upsets the apple cart, the Leinster House status quo in the meantime is not on - no mater how many favourable articles or idealistic speeches are made from time to time. “Observer status” is another matter I suppose, but it is interesting to note that most of these suggestions want such “observers” from the North to visit the Seanad, not the directly elected House of Deputies where the real power players are!

Even the current review of the Seanad, which is reviewing the question of university representation in the second chamber hasn't the guts to extend the graduate franchise to Queen's University, Belfast and the New University of Ulster.

So much for”joint sovereignty” or eve “cross border co-operation” in the limited area of “rotten borough” special votes for university graduates. It is a situation where the South would be making a small gesture of power-sharing by offering some input into National life to certain people in Coleraine and Belfast who have no such power or privilege in the UK.

But for those of you think the idea of Fianna Fáil putting forward even strategic candidates in Northern Ireland is a new idea, they might like to try and answer the following question from a recent “up-market” pub quiz. Who was the only Fianna Fáil candidate to stand in the 1933 General Election for Stormont? He was elected for South Down and remained an MP at Stormont up to 1938, but refused to take his seat in that “oathbound partitionist parliament”.

The answer is Eamon de Valera, then head of the Irish Free State Government, founder and leader of Fianna Fáil, the Republican Party, which in 1927 had “subscribed” to another “oath” and had entered that other partitionist chamber, Leinster House, which they came to dominate five years later.
This famous de Valera Fianna Fáil Republican victory took place in the Northern Ireland General Elections held on November 30, 1933 - 70 years ago. The circumstances of this triumph for the anti-Unionist people of South Down should perhaps, be recalled in the light of the latest poll.

In 1918, Eamon de Valera already an M.P. for the East Clare following the historical by-election in June 1917, was returned unopposed for the same area. But the new President of Sinn Féin, also ran against the old Home Rule veteran John Dillon who had taken over leadership of the party in Westminster on the death of John Redmond in March 1918, in East Mayo.

De Valera was also nominated for the Fall's area of West Belfast, which even then had an anti-Unionist majority, but he was defeated by the better established Irish Nationalist and Home Ruler, “wee” Joe Devlin.

After the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, when P.R. was introduced, North and South, in electoral arrangements for two partitionist assembles, de Valera, now president of Dáil Eireann and the Irish Republic as declared by that Dáil in 1919 and also president of Sinn Féin was nominated as a “big name” in the new eight-seat County Down constituency. He was duly returned in May 1927 along with Nationalist Patrick O'Neill and six Unionists - Sir James Craig, J. Miller Andrews, Hon. H. Mulholland, R.M. McBridge, T.W.McMullan and Thomas R. Leavery.

This entitled him to sit in the new Stormont Parliament in Belfast which was being set up as part of the partition arrangement. But Dev continued to head up the second Dáil Éireann in Dublin and was entitled, in theory, to two votes on the Treaty when it came to be voted on in January 1922 - on behalf of his electorate in Clare and Co. Down. Similarly Michael Collins who had been put up as a Sinn Féin “big name” in Co. Armagh and duly returned for the four-seater (along with the Nationalist J.D. Nugent and Unionists Richard Best an D.Graham Shillington) was entitled to two votes - one for county Armagh and the other for his West Cork constituency. But both voted once only on the basis of their personal convictions, thus leading to the rather ironic situation that Armagh was pro-Treaty in that crucial vote while County Down voted anti-Treaty.

After the dust of civil war and partition had settled, in the 1925 General Election for Stormont no contest was held in County Down or in the Queen's University four-seat constituency. And so Eamon de Valera, still President of Sinn Féin and anti-Treaty political outcast in the south was returned again to Stormont, automatically, for another term.

By the time the next Stormont poll was held in May 1929, the Unionist government had abolished P.R. and de Valera - by now the leader of Fianna Fáil and leader of the opposition in the Free State Dáil which he had entered in 1927 did not contest South Down, his power base around Newry.

The seat was taken by Nationalist John Henry Collins who gained 5,637 votes against 1,626 for his only challenger, Independent Labour candidate William F. Cunningham. There were no Unionist or Republican/Sinn Féin candidates in this constituency.

But many in the hugely anti-Unionist population of South Down were unhappy with this, and resolved that next time out they would run de Valera, the old Republican veteran who had represented them so well from 1921 to 1929, again at the next General Election.

By the time this poll was held in November 1933, de Valera had won majority backing for his constitutional Republican/Fianna Fáil programme in the South and had been elected as head of the Irish Free State Government in 1932,with the support of the Labour Party. This he consolidated in February 1933 in another General Election where he won an overall Fianna Fáil majority with a firm Republican programme pledged to dismantling the old Free State constitution and the other trappings of British domination in the South - including the Oath test for Dáil membership - so that the Irish people could adopt, enact and given unto themselves their own Constitution - written by Dev of course! - in a referendum.

In that context, de Valera could not refuse the invitation of his South Down followers - and there were many - to stand in that constituency. Nor could Fianna Fáil refuse to endorse their chief as a Stormont candidate, whatever the complications or precedents. They were sure of course that Dev would never darken Stormont's door.

Nor would he participate in any way in what still a very young partitionist parliament, pledged to upholding Orange supremacy (and inevitably persecution of Northern Irish Catholics and Nationalists like the people of South Down) while insisting on an oath for those who might even aspire to act as a loyal opposition.

The head of the Irish Government, Eamon de Valera, was elected in South Down as a Fianna Fáil member of the Stormont Parliament with 7,404 votes to 622 votes for Thomas G. McGrath, a Republican candidate.

There were no Unionist or Nationalist candidates in this contest. Four other Down seats, East, Mid, North and West were all filled by Unionists with no opposition or contest, except in West Down where Unionist Samuel Fryar was opposed by Independent Unionist James Finnery.

Following some hectic celebrations in Newry and South Down, the new Stormont M.P. de Valera ignored the symbolic significance of his victory. He also ignored Stormont and while he recognised the symbolic significance of the “majority protest vote” which made partition an issue again nothing was done about it or about the plight of the people who had voted for him. Even when anti-Catholic riots broke out again in Belfast in 1934 but the R.U.C. came down heavy on the Catholic/Nationalists, not on the loyalists burning out - as usual.

Plus ca change? Seventy years on, we hope not. But....

Courtesy of the Clare Champion
December 2003