How has Fianna Fail adapted to changes in Irish society since 1945?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001

34 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Changes in Irish society
2.1. Economy
2.2. Political culture
2.3. The influence of the Catholic Church

3. Party system and Parties in the Republic of Ireland
3.1. Fianna Fail
3.2. Fianna Fail since Lemass
3.3. Fianna Fail and the electorate

4. The Role of the Women
4.1. In Society
4.2. In Parliament and Parties
4.3. In the Fianna Fail party

5. The Issue of Northern Ireland
5.1. Irish society and Northern Ireland
5.2. Fianna Fail and Northern Ireland

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

8. Statistics

“The 1937 Constitution of the Republic of Ireland, it did give the people of the twenty-six counties the basis for a very peaceful and stable society. This is something which the people of the North never had.”

(John Hume – Personal Views, 1996)

1. Introduction

Irish society has changed more in the last three decades leading up to the 21st century than in the whole of the previous one hundred years, going back to the mid nineteenth century. A poor and rural, deeply conservative and Roman Catholic country has become urbanised, industrialised, and one of the leading economies in Europe. This process of economic growth and social transformation, together with the establish-ment of a free republican and democratic order, has made a much more modern nation out of a country where the “primitive hatred of government” had a very long tradition.[1]

The rapid expansion of educational opportunities in Ireland has produced a large middle class, the opportunities for women have increased and political and social changes have led to a more open, pluralistic nation. The acceptance of views and behaviour patterns, which are often not in line with the dominant religious orthodoxy or political objective are another great achievement of this society. Still this country went through serious economic difficulties, high rates of unemployment and inflation. Poverty has been produced by economic change and the gap between the younger, better educated, who benefit directly from economic modernisation and those with unequal access to quality education is visible in some areas.[2]

The changes in Irish society in the last half-century will be discussed with a main focus relaying on the influence of the Catholic church, the Northern Ireland Issue in the Republic and the role of the women in society and politics. The recognition of prejudice and the under-representation of women in electoral politics is suppose to offer an understanding of the “nature of power and how it is distributed in a society”.[3]

Finally the question of how Fianna Fail, Irelands most successful political party, which influenced Irish history like no other party since the country’s foundation, adapted to these changes. A regular comparison with the social development in Northern Ireland will complete the topic.

2. Changes in Irish society

2.1. Economy

Ireland could have been described as an agrarian society for the first several decades in this century. The population was mostly agrarian, with predominantly rural settlement patterns. Education was poor and the Irish people were mainly illiterate, with an oral tradition dominated by village-based or regional dialects. The transport network was restricted and the communication media hardly developed. In this kind of society the individual is usually born into a particular rank in their village and faces a fixed set of occupational options. Not only the society restricts any mobility prospects, but also the individual itself seems to accept its role in this existing order.[4]

The economic development in this country was relatively slow and when de Valera came to power in 1932, Fianna Fail stood for pre-war protectionism, economic interventionism, state-led industrialisation and the discouragement of foreign investment. The Irish were slow to react to the economical upturn in Europe two decades later and jumped very late onto the “developmental bandwagon”.[5]

But even so economic development was slow, remaining rural and agrarian for a long time, other aspects of social change improved relatively rapidly. Educational development in Ireland proceeded more quickly than the modest economic development would have suggested. The society seemed to be prepared for the “boom of the sixties”, if not making it possible. The pressure of the working class and the economic crisis of the mid-1950s made major change in economic policy almost inevitable. The Irish demanded more imported goods, consumer spending increased dramatically and the urban population expanded. Small family farms were replaced by a larger agribusiness, which seemed to transform farming from “a way of life into just another enterprise”. New jobs started to change the whole character of the non-agricultural workforce.[6]

More foreigners came to Ireland as tourists or investors. The Irish started going abroad on holiday and even migrants were coming home. Many of the foreign industries employed women, which gave them the possibility to achieve a little independence inside their traditional structures. The increased availability of cars gave people access to places far beyond their parish and especially the powerful medium of television finally helped to step beyond the “traditionally unquestioning journalism” and leave the “cramped society” of the ‘fifties’ behind to “give way to a more open life”.[7] But even in the 1970s it was still possible to describe Ireland as an agricultural country of small, scattered family farms. Irish people were strongly attached to the Catholic Church and adhered to a religion of an “austere and puritanical variety that is somewhat cold and authoritarian”.[8]

In the long term, the rural Ireland of the past, as it was traditionally conceived, seems to have disappeared. Villages in the hinterland of larger urban settlements became dormitory towns and the society already turned industrial, or in some areas, post-industrial. The part of the population involved in the industrial or service sectors is growing. The rise of real per capita GDP in the Republic of Ireland between 1960 and 1997 was greater than in any other member-state of the European Union and in the 1990s Ireland had become one of the world’s most open economies.[9] The majority of the people are literate in a modern, standardised language and the society creates a “high degree of mobility of people and goods, and of ideas”. New generations, with Ireland having one of the youngest populations in Europe, start to grow up in a more open-minded society, with liberal thoughts and the possibility to “create a capacity to envisage them occupying an unlimited range of roles”.[10]

2.2. Political culture

The dominant element in Ireland’s political experience has been the past of British rule. The language, much of its culture and many of its social practices are part of Westminster’s legacy, but also its “political vocabulary, concepts, institutions and patterns of behaviour”. A broader identification with the 26-county state and Catholic nationalism in the Republic of Ireland led to a distinctive political culture, which was characterised by such features as “nationalism, authoritarianism, anti-intellectualism and personalism”. But important changes since the 1970s have been achieved, especially in “economical transformation, cultural secularisation and geopolitical reorientation”.[11]

Still authoritarianism can be seen as one of the central characteristics of the Irish political culture. A strong pressure towards political conformity, especially in rural areas, led to an unquestioning loyalty to leaders in state and church. Anti-intellectualism on the other hand provided the ground in which a consensus on religious and political values was able for a long time to continue virtually unchallenged.[12]

Nowadays the material lives of most citizens and the educational opportunities have improved dramatically. New generations developed a greater tolerance for the range of opinions and beliefs, which seem to be so characteristic of a modern society. Unquestioning loyalty is decreasing and Irish voters start to choose whom to support on the basis of party positions on key policy issues and not because of a traditional point of view.[13]

But the whole development inside this society presents Ireland new conflicting currents, which divides the country on certain fields. There is a clear division between the interests of small subsistence farmers and large, commercially orientated ones. The tensions between secular and clerical forces, ranging Protestants, liberal Catholics and the non-religious against traditional Catholics are growing on the acceptance of church teaching. British, European and other influences tend to vary with region, class occupation and level of education and there are elements of a division between cosmopolitan and isolationist views. The former arguing for a redefinition of Ireland’s relationship with Europe, asking for a reassessment of its policy of military neutrality, instead of keeping the traditional positions.[14]

2.3. The influence of the Catholic Church

Already before the new state was founded, Ireland was noted for the remarkable loyalty of Catholics to the church. The identity of the Catholic population as an oppressed group under British rule, became an important element of the Irish national identity. The teachings of the Catholic Church possessed such authority that people saw a necessity in having it reflected in state legislation and for many decades public policy was firmly guided by Roman Catholic principles.[15] The focus on religious, rural, and family values in this society seemed to have produced an ‘ideology of cultural defence’. Political and Church leaders were suspicious of modernisation, seeing “secular individualism as a by-product of modern thinking” and the Church kept the ‘monopoly’ of setting the moral tone through its “demands for strict censor-ship and an adherence to puritanical sexual morality”.[16]

Until the 1970s the intensity of commitment in the society to traditional Irish Catholicism was extremely high. The Catholic Church had, in the minds of many, a greater moral and even political legitimacy than the elected leaders of the state.[17] This relation to political authorities has moved from being questioned in the 1960s to coming under assault during the pace of change in the 1980s and 1990s.[18] The traditional centrality of the priest, not just as a religious but also as a social leader in the communities, is decreasing. The Catholic Church has already reached a point where it is no longer able to fulfil their own expectations and educate the personnel staff for the schools and even churches. That also means on the other hand that agencies of the Catholic Church who traditionally take a strong position as advocates of the poor and the disadvantaged now have less influence than they did earlier. The change of the whole character of Irish life will be considerable.[19]

The decline in support for the Catholic Church and its teachings can probably be described as one of the most dramatic changes. But diminishing not only traditional but clerical values, especially on matters other than spiritual issues, have been uneven and incomplete, supported mainly among urban dwellers and younger, and educated people. The authority of the Catholic bishops in speaking on matters of public morality is already undermined, not only by change in liberal attitudes in the society, but also by scandals, highly publicised by modern mass media. Sexual abuse of children by a small number of religious leaders, and the Church hierarchy’s mishandling of the problem had a major effect on the Irish. Still the general support for the Church seems to be higher than for other institutions such as the Dail, the national assembly of Ireland.[20]

3. Party system and Parties in the Republic of Ireland

Ireland is a parliamentary democracy with power concentrated in the office of the Taoiseach, the Irish Prime Minister, and his cabinet, which interact closely with the government administrators in developing policy. Irelands local governments are relatively weak, which places even further power in the hands of the country’s politi-cal and administrative leadership. Political parties dominate the parliament, like most other aspects of modern political life and when Dail deputies vote on issues, they vote in accordance with the party line. Parliamentary party cohesion seems to be even higher in Ireland than in other European countries.[21]

Comparing European party systems by classifying the respective parties into sets of ‘party families’ is the most common way. But to group Irish parties into socialists, conservatives, christian democrats or liberals, like their European counterparts, do not seem to be very applicable.[22]

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, the two major parties, which identify themselves as parties of the right on a European level, are relatively conservative in orientation, which means they support traditional values and the existing social and political order. Still the two parties span a wide range of ideological positions, and neither can be seen as a ‘typical’ Conservative Party.[23] Emphasising the centre-right parties of Ireland, their origins have almost no relation to those elsewhere in Western Europe, where parties mainly grew out of class struggles and social groups which were fighting for political and later social rights. The Irish parties in fact emerged from a unique experience in the period 1916-23. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael originated from a split in the original Sinn Fein party, whose success in the 1918 Westminster election led to Irish independence in 1922. Both started to fight as fully legitimate parties on an electoral level, shortly after being originally at war with one another. But as far as Fianna Fail is concerned, even so they did not grow out of a social conflict, they seem to have embodied the “radical, popular and anti-establishment” image for a very long time. No other party in the Republic of Ireland has enjoyed such close links with the organised trade union movement, and none could even come near Fianna Fail in its traditional claims to represent the interests of the poor and the underprivileged.[24]


[1] Garvin, T., Democratic politics in independent Ireland in: Coakley, J., Gallagher, M. (eds), Politics in the Republic of Ireland, London, 2000, pp. 361-2.

[2] Crotty, W., Democratisation and political development in Ireland in: Crotty, W., Schmitt, D. (eds), Ireland and the Politics of Change, London, 1998, pp. 5-8.

[3] Galligan, Y., Women in politics in: Coakley, J., Gallagher, M. (eds), Politics in the Republic of Ireland, London, 2000, p. 294.

[4] Coakley, J., Society and political culture in: Coakley, J., Gallagher, M. (eds), Politics in the Republic of Ireland, London, 2000, pp. 36-7.

[5] Garvin, T., op. cit., p. 360.

[6] Coakley, J., loc. cit., p. 37-8.

[7] Walsh, D., The party: inside Fianna Fail, Dublin, 1986, pp. 79-80.

[8] Coakley, J., op. cit., p. 35.

[9] Schmitt, D., Conclusion: continuity, change and challenge in: Crotty, W., Schmitt, D. (eds), Ireland and the Politics of Change, London, 1998, p. 213

[10] Coakley, J., op. cit., pp. 36-39.

[11] Coakley, J., op. cit., pp. 36-45.

[12] Coakley, J., op. cit., p. 53.

[13] Laver, M., Marsh, M., Parties and voters in: Coakley, J., Gallagher, M. (eds), Politics in the Republic of Ireland, London, 2000, p. 166.

[14] Coakley, J., op. cit., pp. 65-7.

[15] Coakley, J., op. cit., p. 61.

[16] Schmitt, D., op. cit., pp. 211-212.

[17] Garvin, T., op. cit., p. 360.

[18] Crotty, W., op. cit., p. 12.

[19] Coakley, J., op. cit., p. 42.

[20] Schmitt, D., op. cit., p. 214.

[21] Ibid, p. 216.

[22] Mair, P., Party competition and the changing party system in: Coakley, J., Gallagher, M. (eds), Politics in the Republic of Ireland, London, 2000, pp. 128-9.

[23] Coakley, J., op. cit., p. 60.

[24] Mair, P., op. cit., pp. 130-132.

Excerpt out of 34 pages


How has Fianna Fail adapted to changes in Irish society since 1945?
Queen's University Belfast  (School of Politics)
HS: Irish Politics
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
547 KB
Irish society has changed more in the last three decades leading up to the 21st century than in the whole of the previous one hundred years - focussing on the influence of the Catholic church, the Northern Ireland Issue in the Republic and the role of the women in society and politics. How Fianna Fail, Irelands most successful political party adapted to these changes, will be discussed. A regular comparison with the social development in Northern Ireland will complete the topic.
Fianna, Fail, Irish, Politics
Quote paper
Thorsten Volberg (Author), 2001, How has Fianna Fail adapted to changes in Irish society since 1945?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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