A political revolution? 2016 doesn't quite measure up to the remarkable election of 1948

1948 saw a dramatic end to 16 years of Fianna Fáil leadership


A portrait of Eamon de Valera, circa 1922-'30

18:16 28 Feb 2016 Eoin Brennan 18:16 Sunday 28 February 2016

This weekend in 2016 might feel like the most momentous realignment of politics in the history of the State, but we’ve been here before – with a ruling tradition shattered by a disparate group of newly formed parties and outlying candidates.

In 1948, with a strong desire among the electorate for change, Eamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil lost power in the face of a major challenge from a number of smaller parties who rallied behind the slogan: “Put them out”.

The ruling Fianna Fáil had been in power for 16 years straight, but de Valera’s government had grown stale, as three years after the end of World War 2 rationing remained and economic progress was almost non-existent, while strikes and poor productivity in farming had led to frustration among voters.

As the voters went to the ballot box Fianna Fáil faced one of their biggest challenges from the Sean MacBride founded Clann na Poblachta – with many recently released IRA prisoners among its ranks. In 1947 the party had won two of three by-elections, including MacBride taking his seat in the Dáil.

With Clann na Poblachta popularity growing, de Valera called a snap election in February of 48.

Clann na Poblachta put up 93 candidates, including MacBride and Dr Noel Browne.

After the election Fianna Fáil had 68 TDs – still 10 away from a majority.

Fine Gael had 31, while Labour had 14 – nowhere close to a government. The rest was a colourful mix – five from National Labour and seven from Clann na Talmhan. MacBride’s Clann na Poblachta, despite their early promise, had won just 10 seats.

Aside from this there were 12 independents – ranging across the political spectrum.

In what would be the first coalition or inter-party government, the non-Fianna Fáil parties found common ground, and power.

Fine Gael’s John Costello was named Taoisech, leading a broadly non-Fianna Fáíl government formed, with the independents aligning into one loose group and joining with the other parties.

Costello was picked as he was seen to be more distant from the violence the State had grown in recent years and would be a more palatable leader for all parties.

Clann na Poblachta played a crucial role in the new Cabinet, with MacBride Minister for External Affairs and Browne Minister for Health – a role in which he would go on to almost eradicate tuberculosis, the disease which had killed both his parents, his sister and his brother.

Browne also achieved reforms of mental healthcare, and reinvigorated the health service.

MacBride for his part enacted major changes – pushing for repeal of the external relations act of 1936, removing Ireland from the British Commonwealth and establishing the Republic.

Costello announced this bold step during a State visit to Canada, much to the surprise of English and some Irish ministers.

On April 19, 1949, Ireland formally left the British empire.

Despite his success with TB, it was Browne’s Mother and Child scheme taht would lead to the collapse of the government.

Looking to bring in free health care for mothers and children under 16, Browne faced huge opposition from doctors, who feared loss of income, and Catholic bishops, who worried there may be a rise in contraception and abortions.

With the Cabinet divided by the bill, Costello refused to support it. Browne resigned and a division grew within the government that would prove to be irreparable. With the economy failing, Costello called an election in 1951, where Fianna Fáil returned to power.