Birth pangs of a new nation

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 2003), Volume 11

Senator Thomas Westropp Bennett (left) with his brother George, TD for East Limerick, in 1932. (Irish Times)

Senator Thomas Westropp Bennett (left) with his brother George, TD for East Limerick, in 1932. (Irish Times)

Thomas Westropp Bennett is one of those largely forgotten earnest, elder statesmen who were the political and administrative midwives to the infant Irish Free State. The son of a British army captain, he was the first Catholic in an old Limerick family of Protestant gentry; an ancestor sat in Grattan’s parliament. Active in elected local government, he stood unsuccessfully for Westminster in East Limerick in the 1910 ‘peers versus the people’ election. A progressive agricultural reformer, he worked with Irish nationalist leader John Redmond, amongst others, in the executive committee of Horace Plunkett’s Irish Agricultural Organisation aiming to revolutionise the living standards of the beneficiaries of Irish land reform. Tireless in encouraging local empowerment, he was chairman of many local Agricultural Associations and a member of the governing body of University College Cork.

The Cosgrave government and the new state

Elected to the Senate for Cumann na nGaedheal in 1922, he faced a campaign of arson and intimidation. When the IRA came to burn his country house in 1922 he courageously persuaded them not to, even though he was unarmed. Passionately concerned with the survival of the new state, he was part of an ultimately unsuccessful four-man Senate effort to broker peace in the Civil War. At his first re-election his priorities were to ‘advance our country . . . to national prosperity, and secure . . . education . . . for every citizen . . . for employment at home and to prevent the sad tide of emigration which still continues’. On 9 December 1925 he unsuccessfully stood against Lord Gleneavy for the position of Cathaoirleach of the Senate but was instead elected Leas Cathaoirleach. A strong supporter of Cosgrave’s government, Westropp Bennett was nevertheless his own man. He soon developed a deserved reputation as an agricultural expert with policy interests ranging from foreign affairs to finance.
In December 1928 Westropp Bennett was elected Cathaoirleach, setting out his vision: ‘It is the duty of the second chamber to prevent violent change’. When in February 1932 Fianna Fáil came to power, he was the only senior Cumann na nGaedhael figure able to act as a moderating influence on the new government. As Tim Pat Coogan has convincingly demonstrated, de Valera did not wish to be checked. Westropp Bennett refused to be intimidated, maintaining strict impartiality, a stance that gained widespread respect.

Westropp Bennett and de Valera

De Valera wished to radically refashion the Free State, which he had consistently opposed. In March 1932 the oath of allegiance was a test case for the Senate, divided between Commonwealth loyalists and aspirant republicans. Through patient conciliation and deal-making a consensus was reached which both sides found tolerable. The Senate clerk observed ‘that this bill, which contained so much explosive material, was debated by the Senate without anything approaching disorder was due . . . to the firm, yet tactful, handling by the chairman of a difficult situation’. In July 1932 the government introduced legislation instigating the ‘economic war’. Westropp Bennett correctly recognised de Valera’s mandate and recalled the Senate. Senators demanded a Committee of Privileges to disqualify the legislation as a money bill, and therefore the sole prerogative of the Dáil. Westropp Bennett discussed the matter with Senate leaders and stated:

I knew, as they did not, that there were delicate negotiations in progress in London and that what the Senators wanted to do would tie the hands of the minister . . . it was unfair and undemocratic to deprive the government of a weapon which they regarded as of supreme importance in . . . the so-called economic war. The proposal was . . . dropped.

Westropp Bennett believed that his primary duty was to maintain the stability of the state. Bipartisan as Cathaoirleach, he worked very effectively with leading Fianna Fáil figures such as future taoiseach Seán Lemass.

The Westropp Bennett family home at Crecora, Co. Limerick-when the IRA came to burn it down in 1922 he courageously persuaded them not to, even though he was unarmed. (Private collection)

The Westropp Bennett family home at Crecora, Co. Limerick-when the IRA came to burn it down in 1922 he courageously persuaded them not to, even though he was unarmed. (Private collection)

Following de Valera’s second general election win in January 1933, the rise of the Blueshirt movement in response to ongoing IRA activity indicated the possibility of renewed civil war. As a precaution de Valera confiscated all legally held firearms. Westropp Bennett was singled out and his personal revolver, which he had carried for protection since the Civil War, was confiscated. Whilst impartial in his primary position in the Senate, Westropp Bennett was nevertheless the catalyst in the formation of the United Ireland Party (Fine Gael) against what he feared would be a revolutionary government. Throughout 1933 he successfully chaired a succession of negotiations between the various opposition factions, whose principal leaders were W.T. Cosgrave and General Eoin O’Duffy, forging an opposition coalition to de Valera. It was recognised at the time that without his skills the coalition would not have been formed. This deft negotiating ability gave him great status in his own party but also made him an object of suspicion to many, though not all, in Fianna Fáil.

The Blueshirts

In February 1934 the Blueshirt Senator Miss Browne invited Blueshirts into the Senate visitors’ gallery. Although not a Blueshirt sympathiser, Westropp Bennett was required to grant permission since the Supreme Court had declared the Blueshirt uniform legal in the state. This ruling highlighted an illegal directive refusing Blueshirts entry to the Dáil public gallery; the issue had not yet arisen with the Senate. Westropp Bennett wrote to the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil, who replied that the Leinster House guard would refuse entry to Blueshirts on ministerial order. Since no equivalent order existed in the Senate the superintendent referred the matter to the minister, who ordered that Blueshirts be prevented from entering the parliament by soldiers.
On 21 February 1934 senators raised the actions of the military as an issue of parliamentary privilege. Westropp Bennett aimed to defuse the situation and deferred discussion until the minister had appeared before the Senate. The minister refused to appear, instead sending a written statement. The Senate Privileges Committee ruled this inadequate; Westropp Bennett summoned the minister. He appeared and incorrectly stated that he had given orders in July 1933 that Blueshirts were to be prevented from entering the Oireachteas. He accused Westropp Bennett of deliberately provoking an incident, whereas in fact he was upholding the law, minority constitutional rights and legislative privilege. The minister was held in breach of privilege, as no order had been issued in July 1933. Consequently government–Senate relations worsened significantly.

The defence forces crisis

Underlying tensions regarding the ongoing ‘republicanisation’ of the Free State army came to a head in March 1934 when the Defence Forces bill came before the Senate. This proposed recruitment of ex-IRA men from the auxiliary Volunteer Force directly into the Free State army, and also renewed the Free State army’s statutory basis. Former minister for finance Senator Ernest Blythe was seriously concerned at the ‘IRAisation’ of the army and sought an amendment requiring such personnel to have served in the Free State army for five years and to have completed a year’s course at military college. On a technicality Westropp Bennett ruled the amendment out of order. However, to reflect the genuine unease, he allowed Blythe to limit the army’s legal existence to four months, which was carried by 27 votes to 18. De Valera was incandescent. In a speech on 21 March the minister for defence stated that ‘this action . . . is part of the obstructive tactics . . . used by elements here and in England to obstruct and sabotage . . . this government [would] maintain and defend the rights of the people’.

í‰amon de Valera-personally piloted the bill to abolish the Senate in 1934. (George Morrison)

í‰amon de Valera-personally piloted the bill to abolish the Senate in 1934. (George Morrison)

The political atmosphere worsened when the government attempted to destroy the Blueshirts by banning political uniforms. The minister for defence introduced the bill into the Senate in March 1934; de Valera came to listen. Though not a Blueshirt sympathiser, Westropp Bennett shared a widespread concern that IRA numbers were increasing in the face of government inaction. After prolonged debate it became obvious that the bill would fail. At ten o’clock that night de Valera rose to speak, his voice described as ‘vibrant with anger’ as he ‘thumped the table to emphasise his points’. He stated that he would ‘get ten shirts to your one’ and introduce ‘a special force to protect public order under the control of the elected government of the Irish people . . . [to protect] the country and preserve order’. When challenged to submit himself for re-election (since the bill breached both articles 9 and 64 of the constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech and freedom of association), de Valera retorted that he could not, because he was unable to guarantee to maintain public order during a ballot: ‘We put on you definitely the responsibility for depriving us, the elected representatives of the people, of the powers which we deem necessary to preserve public order and public safety’. The bill was rejected by 30 votes to 18 and de Valera left the chamber. The following day he introduced a bill into the Dáil to abolish the Senate.

Senate abolition

The Senate abolition was Westropp Bennett’s most significant test. De Valera piloted the entire bill himself, personally entering the Senate to lead it on 30 May 1934. An atmosphere of tense expectancy pervaded both the chamber and the packed galleries as de Valera spoke. Anticipating the Senate’s opposition, he proposed constitutional safeguards following its abolition. To universal surprise Westropp Bennett addressed the house, arguing that he could not, even as Cathaoirleach, be expected to be impartial on the question of the Senate’s abolition. He attacked de Valera for persistently misrepresenting the Senate with claims that it had attempted to ‘mutilate government measures or wilfully delay them’. The Senate had actually reviewed 22 bills since de Valera came to power, of which sixteen had passed unamended. In total, 94 amendments had been proposed, 88 of which the Dáil supported. He stated:

Of what value is a mandate given as a result of such false statements as these? . . . it has no moral value at all . . . over a long period the poison gas of calumny has been . . . directed against this House . . . by Mr de Valera and his followers. There is too much talk about liberty in this country, and too little attention paid to the things that ensure it. It is the truth that makes men free, and it is its opposite that binds them. There can be no liberty without liberty of the mind, and there can be no liberty of the mind without the truth.

He argued forcefully for the constitutional checks and balances that resulted from bi-cameral government, stating that single-chamber government produced institutional instability and led to a risk of dictatorship. The Civil War proved that the seeds of such instability were already present in Ireland. He robustly defended the Senate’s record of fairness to the government, stating:

Every weapon forged by this government for the prosecution of the so-called economic war with Great Britain has been left in their hands. Bills which effect a violent change in the country’s economy, incidentally ruining the agricultural classes, a community from which many of our Senators are drawn, have even been improved . . . the improvements accepted by the government and the other house . . . bills which alter the constitution . . . that . . . if they do not . . . break the letter of the Treaty . . . they certainly violate its spirit, have been passed . . . almost without debate. Only has the Senate interfered when it was either a matter of conscience or else because . . . interference was necessary to protect the people from tyranny or to prevent the government doing something cynically wrong to serve purely political ends. When Senators survey their work    . . . they may, like Clive, be astonished at their own moderation.

He argued that de Valera’s real aim was dictatorship and vigorously defended the independent senators whom de Valera condemned as Ascendancy stooges. As a democrat, Westropp Bennett passionately believed that elected minority representatives had an absolute right to a national platform:

[we] have learned to know and respect the qualities of intellect of these men, their high mindedness, their inborn love of liberty, their genuine devotion to Ireland  . . .  Unobtrusively and without advertisement, we have been realising in our persons and in our work the ideals preached by Tone, Davis and every man who has had a true conception of Irish nationality.

He concluded with a rhetorical flourish:

It is impossible, men of Athens, impossible, for one who commits injustice, breaks oaths and indulges in falsehood to acquire lasting power. Once in a way, and for a brief season, such a course of action may succeed, and fed with hopes, make, it may be, a brave show of blossom. But time finds it out, and it falls to pieces of itself. For a house . . . must have its main strength in its substructure; in affairs of state, the principles and foundations must be truth and justice. The gage has been thrown down by Mr de Valera and I formally pick it up on behalf of this house.

Following this three-hour speech de Valera left the chamber immediately, only returning three days later. He viciously attacked Westropp Bennett. One political correspondent described the culmination of this:

It was on a point so trivial, as to be almost ludicrous, that Mr de Valera’s rage finally burst all restraints. The one flaw that he could seize upon in the matter of the chairman’s speech was a reference taken from himself, which he claimed had been a misquotation . . . Fianna Fáil Senators clamoured for an apology from the chairman. It was not vouchsafed. De Valera shouted: ‘I don’t want an apology from Senator Westropp Bennett. I am very glad that Senator Westropp Bennett has revealed his impartiality. It is well for this country to know that they can measure the impartiality of this Senate by the speech which its chairman has delivered’.

Unsurprisingly, the Senate rejected the bill by 33 votes to 15. Uniquely the speech was published as part of the wider public campaign to save the Senate and was hailed by the Sunday Independent as ‘remarkable’.

Holding the line

The Senate had delayed the bill for eighteen months, but despite robust rearguard action in the Dáil by Cumann na Gaedhael TDs, including Westropp Bennett’s brother George, TD for East Limerick, Fianna Fáil’s majority made abolition inevitable. De Valera was determined to undermine Westropp Bennett. For example, following a shooting by Gardai of unarmed demonstrators in Cork, a motion on 13 August 1934 condemning the shooting was brought to the Senate despite claims by the minister for forestry that the incident was sub judice. Westropp Bennett ignored him:

It is clear . . . that the motion is in order. It purports to condemn the action of the police, and not the action of the men being tried. A public tumult or affray is a matter of the gravest public importance and the Oireachtas is the proper forum in which to discuss it.

All the Fianna Fáil senators walked out and temporarily boycotted the Senate.
Nevertheless Westropp Bennett came top of the poll in his November 1934 re-election. On 12 December de Valera directed all Fianna Fáil senators to vote against his re-election as Cathaoirleach. The two candidates were Westropp Bennett and his Fianna Fáil deputy. Following a tie, acting chairman Senator Sir William Hickie gave a casting vote for Westropp Bennett. Dev was defeated; increasingly frustrated, he actively sought opportunities to remove this source of defiance.
On 11 December 1935 the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil certified a key legislative part of the ongoing ‘economic war’ as a money bill, which required ratification by 61 TDs since the Dáil had exclusive power over money bills. However, the bill arrived in the Senate before such signatures could be obtained. Westropp Bennett’s options were to allow the Senate to override the Dáil by considering the bill before certification or to allow the second stage only to be taken, allowing the bill to be rejected. This would increase the pressure on the Committee of Privilege, because if they decided that the bill was not a money bill the Senate rejection could stand and the bill would fail. The third option was to prevent the bill being read for three days to allow a Dáil committee to be assembled. Westropp Bennett chose the third course, which safeguarded the constitutional rights of the Dáil minority. De Valera accused him of naked partisanship and ordered Fianna Fáil senators to request a Committee of Procedure to examine the decision. The aim was to force Westropp Bennett to resign. De Valera asked for three TDs to be appointed to the six-strong parliamentary committee but vetoed any non-Fianna Fáil lawyers, including Cosgrave’s former attorney general.
However, the Senate rejected the hand-picked Fianna Fáil committee, instead nominating two Fine Gael members and one Independent member. A very serious constitutional tribunal, with both Dáil and Senate representatives, it was presided over by the Supreme Court chief justice and was the only such tribunal for a parliamentarian during the Free State’s existence. It met on 19 December 1935 with highly complex discussions taking place over three hours; Senator Douglas defended Westropp Bennett with great ability. The chief justice decided on a casting vote that although the bill was a money bill Westropp Bennett had acted entirely correctly. The report, approved by the thirteen non-Fianna Fáil members of the committee, completely vindicated him. It was debated on 14 January 1936 and passed without a vote. The next day the Senate met to reconsider the abolition bill. De Valera refused to attend, arguing that Westropp Bennett’s actions were ‘premeditated and vindictive’. Government ministers boycotted all future debates about abolition to demonstrate the Senate’s irrelevance.

The final curtain

At the Senate’s formal abolition on 19 May 1936 its senior member, Senator Macloughlin, paid tribute to Westropp Bennett’s ‘dignified, courteous and impartial conduct’. The clerk assessed his contribution as ‘fair almost to the point of scrupulosity . . . whose only crime had been that when his house of parliament had stood in need of defence he had had the courage to defend it’. Westropp Bennett’s final address reiterated his philosophy:

The Blueshirt-theory and practice. Advertisement for girls' parade dress, United Ireland, 21 October 1933.

The Blueshirt-theory and practice. Advertisement for girls’ parade dress, United Ireland, 21 October 1933.

Blueshirt ‘girls' at the funeral of Patrick Lynch in Cork City, 16 August 1934 (Cork Examiner). At the time the Supreme Court had declared the Blueshirt uniform legal in the state.

Blueshirt ‘girls’ at the funeral of Patrick Lynch in Cork City, 16 August 1934 (Cork Examiner). At the time the Supreme Court had declared the Blueshirt uniform legal in the state.

No recriminations may or should be allowed. I hope that we who have striven for the upbuilding of this state will continue to uphold this state. I . . . appeal for respect for the law. The law is being made by our representatives for all of us. There is no safeguard in democracy but in the keeping of the law . . . I hope we shall say, ‘work for the law, by the law and with the law’. Thus only will democracy be preserved and strengthened. We shall remember our friends of different creeds, of different politics, of different ideals, animated by one desire—the advancement of this state. So far as God gave us light, we fulfilled our duty.

Westropp Bennett's speech was published in 1934 as part of the wider public campaign to save the Senate.

Westropp Bennett’s speech was published in 1934 as part of the wider public campaign to save the Senate.

During Westropp Bennett’s time the Senate had received 489 bills and amended 182. Eight bills were suspended; in six the Dáil overrode the Senate’s veto. The reinstatement of the Senate in 1937, albeit in amended form, demonstrated the public validity of his stance—that balanced institutions were vital for effective democracy.


His political career over, in 1945 Westropp Bennett became chairman of the Irish Agricultural Wholesale Society, which described him as having ‘an impressive record in political and rural life’. He was also a vice-president of the Royal Dublin Society. He died in 1962 at the age of 95 after a lifetime of public service and understated achievement.
What is Westropp Bennett’s legacy? Senator Joseph Connolly, de Valera’s forestry minister in 1934 and a political enemy, assessed him as ‘considerate, polite, well meaning and honest’ but ‘foggy’ in his methods. Connolly reflected that until the abolition bill Bennett was consistently supported by Fianna Fáil as Cathaoirleach and genuinely regretted the vitriol that came afterwards. The record indicates that Westropp Bennett was a natural chairman; despite a ‘bufferish’ image, his innate ability to forge consensus made him a highly effective political operator both within Fine Gael and in the Senate. His actions bequeathed an ethos of constitutionalism and respect for the rule of law at a time of national instability; both were essential for the long-term survival of the Irish state.

Bruce-Andrew Finch is a leisure historian, born in Dublin, brought up in England, and educated at the Universities of Durham, Vienna and Cranfield.

Further reading:
T.P. Coogan, De Valera: Long Fellow, long shadow (London, 1993).
J.A. Gaughan (ed.), The memoirs of Senator Joseph Connolly: a founder of modern Ireland (Dublin, 1996).
J.A. Gaughan (ed.), The memoirs of Senator James G. Douglas, concerned citizen (Dublin, 1998).
D. O’Sullivan, The Irish Free State and its Senate: a study in contemporary politics (London, 1940 and 1972).


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