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Friday, 1 May 2015

Lemass: the workhorse behind Fianna Fáil’s power

In 1954, Fianna Fáil suffered one of the biggest election defeats since 1932, the first time they had ever gained control of the Dáil. Seán Lemass had been appointed Director of Elections in 1954, but was unable to stem the tide of resentment towards Fianna Fáil that had grown during the Emergency and the aftermath of WWII. Lemass was determined that defeat would not reoccur at the next general election.

Seán Lemass, rebel, leader and Humphrey Bogart lookalike,
21 September 1960
Lemass knew that Ireland had to revitalize its economy in order to improve the quality of life for its citizens, and that he and Fianna Fáil had to lead the way. He had said before 1954 that “the outstanding problem still is unemployment”, but no major improvements had taken place in trying to create jobs. For more information on the extent of the problem, see our earlier post on John Murphy and the Unemployment Protest Committee. Lemass resented the conservative economic policies of Seán McEntee, the Minister for Finance, who had opposed many of his plans.

Lemass was appointed as Fianna Fáil’s national director of organization in July 1954. De Valera had always had a lot of respect for Lemass’ dynamism ever since 1916, and was prepared to trust him with positions of responsibility. Lemass used the opportunity presented to him to present his ‘Proposal for a Full-Employment Policy’ at the party’s Árd Fheis in 1955. His plan proposed increasing public investment, which would in turn generate 100,000 jobs.

Lemass then took this plan to the public, relentlessly driving around the country and drumming up support at grassroots level, as he had done in the early years of Fianna Fáil. He also ensured he brought new, young party members with a forward-thinking attitude onto his organization committee, including men such as Charles Haughey and Brian Lenihan – destined to become the leaders of the future.

Lenihan and Haughey at the Wolfe Tone commemorations at Bodenstown,
11 October 1987

Lemass’ ambitious plan would become Fianna Fáil’s election manifesto, and swept them back into power in 1957 – negating the massive defeat they had suffered in 1954 with an overall majority in this election. However, Lemass himself would have to wait another couple of years before De Valera finally handed over the leadership of his party to his successor. By then, Lemass had proved himself a loyal and trustworthy heir.

De Valera arriving at the Dáil as its new Taoiseach
10 March 1957
The new government presented with their Seals of Office by the President, Seán T. O'Kelly
20 March 1957
All images available @ Irish Photo Archive