In Search of the Promised Land: The Politics of Post-War Ireland by Gary Murphy, Cork: Mercier Press, 2009, hb. 352 pp, €31.80, ISBN: 9781856356381
The central argument of this book is that much of the perceived wisdom about Irish isolationism in the post World War II period is misplaced. Murphy argues that, within the political and administrative elites, as well as some of the larger interest groups such as the trade unions, and later the farming and business representative bodies, there was a cohort that was outward looking, willing to move beyond the constraints of ‘self-sufficiency’ and change the state to an export focussed, developmental state. As the ruling elites viewed with some degree of perplexity and envy the resurgence of countries devastated by war, they faced the growing realisation that, for Ireland, political independence had failed to deliver economic independence. As chapter one puts it, the war was over but the emergency was not! In the period 1945-1960 there was, at first, a tentative reaching out to Europe and the possibilities of economic salvation in some form of European alliance. Implicit in that recognition was the acknowledgment that economic independence would also entail political interdependence and indeed the ceding of a degree of neutrality.
How Ireland moved from protectionism to free trade is explored in detail as is Irish dependency on British markets (to which it had privileged access) and the link to sterling and its consequences. Irish isolationism, sometimes dressed up as neutrality, had prevented Ireland from joining NATO and GATT. Murphy teases out very well putative attempts to join EFTA which entailed a combination of the béal bocht and naivety, with Ireland finding itself, willingly, grouped with Greece and Turkey in a working party of underdeveloped countries. The Secretary General of the OEEC is quoted chiding the Irish for their pessimistic mindset and pointing out that the country was ‘less developed’ rather than ‘underdeveloped’. Just in case the Irish should get any ideas above their station, perfidious Albion, in the person of a Treasury official, maintained that including underdeveloped countries in EFTA would be ‘more trouble than they were worth’ (p. 255).
In the event Ireland decided not to join EFTA, pinning its hopes instead on membership of the EEC with its application contingent on Britain also joining and continuing access for Irish agricultural produce to the British market. The story of that decision, and indeed how Ireland tried to ‘dress up’ its application as a sovereign state totally independent of Britain, contains some very useful insights, especially from interviews conducted with some of the participants. It is that decision to apply for full membership which shows more than anything else the changing nature of Irish political life, and the confidence and belief of Lemass and Whitaker in particular that Ireland could not only survive but prosper in Europe. Murphy draws heavily on published work by, and related to, these two men and also contributes some new material and insightful analysis on their contribution to the transformation of the state.
Those familiar with Murphy’s previously published work will be aware of his writing on interest groups. The chapter on the interest group experience is one of the most impressive in the book. There is a wealth of information on the trade union and farming groupings in particular, drawn from the archives of these bodies and interviews by the author. One is reminded of how much agriculture dominated the debate and the economy prior to and post joining the EEC and how the economic profile of the country has changed since then. Murphy posits that Lemass, in his pursuit of a neo-corporatist agenda, realised that the government, in its political form, would have to be the hegemonic player in an administrative system incorporating the major interest groups, and that this would enable the state to develop and expand. With this in mind he instigated, or readily agreed to, a number of neo-corporatist measures that were to enable/force change and improve efficiency in the short term, Such measures were also deemed to have long term effects by involving unions and industry in the development of the economy ‘through a system of representation and co-operative mutual interaction at leadership level, and social control at the mass level’ (p.193). (The true origins of Social Partnership?)
Despite all the criticism which is now retrospectively heaped on those deemed to have held the country back for so long - the political and administrative elites in particular – what comes across in the book is that Ireland was served by some incredibly able and dedicated public servants, both political and administrative. In the ‘Acknowledgments’ section there is a delightful vignette of the author helping Paddy Lynch, distinguished academic and public servant, to move furniture around his house on Wellington Road and describing it as ‘one of the most memorable experiences of my academic life’. Many of those interviewed have gone on slí na fírinne but their personal reminiscences of the events covered are one of the strengths of this book.
Any writer on modern Irish politics and history faces the challenge of trying to find something to say that has not already been said by Lee, Garvin, Keogh, Ferriter or Foster. In this respect Murphy can be said to have succeeded as he successfully debunks some of the myths of Ireland in the post-war period, particularly the myth of being totally divorced from, and uninterested in, developments in Europe. Did Ireland find ‘the promised land’? A criticism is that the question is not really answered as the book in effect ends with the decision to join the EEC. It would benefit from an additional chapter on the major changes which ensued from membership of the then EEC. Overall, the book is well researched, offers scholars some important new archival material and the writing style remains easy and immensely readable throughout.
University College Cork.