The Fianna Fáil Party evolved from Ireland’s struggle for independence. Fianna Fáil was founded by Eamon de Valera on 23 March 1926. The party’s name, Fianna Fáil - the Republican Party, was adopted on 2 April 1926. The name Fianna Fáil had a double purpose: it suggested continuity with recent history (as the Irish name for the Volunteers) and also with ancient Irish history. The name Fianna Fáil means ‘soldiers of destiny’ and is taken from Old Irish. The Fianna were the warriors of Fionn Mac Cumhaill - the title emphasised the party’s deep roots over millennia in the historic Irish nation.
The first general congress (Árd Fheis) of the Fianna Fáil Party took place in November 1926. De Valera pledged the Party to pursue the ending of partition and the peaceful re-unification of the country. The Árd Fheis laid down Fianna Fáil’s constitution and aims (which were updated in 1995). These were:
Fianna Fáil entered the Dáil in 1927 describing the oath as an empty formula and quickly replaced Sinn Féin in electoral politics as the democratic republican party. De Valera established the Irish Press newpaper in 1931 to put the republican point of view across.
Less than six years after its foundation Fianna Fáil was in government in 1932. In successive general election victories the party remained in office until 1948. De Valera’s first concern as President of the Executive Council (this title was changed to that of Taoiseach in 1937) was to dismantle the imperial connection and to secure, in every way he could, the complete independence of the country. He introduced the Bill to abolish the Oath of Allegiance to the British King in April 1932. De Valera also abolished the office of Governor-General representing the British monarch in Ireland.
Under Eamon de Valera a new Constitution was created in 1937, Bunreacht na hÉireann). This was voted upon by the people in a referendum. The Constitution was the first to be given to the Irish people completely by themselves without a British overview. The Constitution has been a remarkably successful and flexible document, an adaptable instrument over the years in a changing nation. The 1937 Constitution made Ireland a republic in all but name. The office of the Presidency was established and the founder of the Gaelic League, Douglas Hyde, a member of the Church of Ireland, became the first president in 1938.
Fianna Fáil on coming to power engaged in an impressive campaign of social reconstruction. In the 1930s the Fianna Fáil government moved people out of the slums and tenements. Between 1932 and 1940, in a great housing campaign, 133,220 houses were built or reconstructed. Social services and social welfare were greatly developed. New hospitals were built. Childrens’ Allowances and Widows’ and Orphans’ Pensions were introduced for the first time.
Fianna Fáil developed Irish agriculture through founding research stations which sponsored a scientific approach to farming and encouraging maximum farm production rather than reliance on imports. The British Government refused international arbitration on the land annuities question - a payment of about five millions pounds a year to the British Treasury negotiated by the Cumann na nGaedheal government in 1926. When de Valera refused to pay the annuities, the British imposed tariffs and the Economic War broke out. It was ended in 1938, the same year that de Valera negotiated the return of the Irish ports which under the Treaty Britain could use in the event of war. Historians view de Valera’s achievement in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1938 as one of the most crucial periods of his political career.
It was the common will of the Irish people that Ireland should stay out of World War II. The return of the Treaty ports (which otherwise would have been bombed during the War) meant that de Valera was able to adopt a policy of neutrality despite great pressure from Britain, the United States of America, and Germany during the Second World War. Neutrality was also a further demonstration of independence and it led to the adoption of a political outlook which has been the State’s official position ever since. Maintaining neutrality in the face of great danger to Ireland in World War II was one of de Valera’s finest achievements. He later gave the classic reason why a small nation such as Ireland should maintain its policy of principled neutrality: A small nation has to be extremely cautious when it enters into alliances which bring it, willy-nilly, into those wars. As I said during the last war, the position was that we would not be consulted in how war would be started - the great powers would do that - and when it was ended, no matter who won, suppose the side on which we were won, we would not be consulted as to the terms on which it should end. Fianna Fáil in office has continued to pursue an independent foreign policy at the United Nations under such ministers for foreign affairs as Frank Aiken, Dr Patrick J. Hillery, Brian Lenihan, Brian Cowen and Dermot Ahern. Ireland’s independent foreign policy tradition has been recognised in European Union documents. The achievement of Irish unity by peaceful means has been Fianna Fáil’s foremost foreign policy aim.
During the bleak, depressed decade from 1948 to 1957 there were successive changes of government. Fianna Fáil returned to power from 1951-54. In 1952, the Party introduced a Mother and Child scheme which had caused the downfall of the previous inter-party government. Fianna Fáil convincingly won the 1957 General Election and remained in power until 1973. In 1959, after thirty-three years at the head of Fianna Fáil, Eamon de Valera resigned as leader and Taoiseach and was elected President of Ireland (succeeding Sean T. O’Kelly), a position he held until 1973. He had been head of the government for twenty-one years and President for fourteen years. There is no doubt that Eamon de Valera was the dominant figure in twentieth century Irish political life.