Senator Thomas Westropp Bennett

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 2004), Letters, Letters, Volume 12

35_small_1245941135Sir,

 

—In his article ‘Birth pangs of a nation: Senator Thomas Westropp Bennett and the Irish Free State’ (HI 11.4, Winter 2003), Bruce-Andrew Finch presents some interesting information but weakens its historical value by placing it in a partisan context while overlooking obvious questions.

 
An example of the latter is contained in the brief revelation that Bennett contested the Limerick East constituency in the ‘peers v. people’ general election of 1910. From this it could not be gathered that there were, in fact, two such elections that year, each fought on the same issue. Did Bennett fight both? Nor is it stated on what platform his subject stood. Presumably he did not run for the Irish Party, for in that case it is likely that he would have won, but was he a Unionist, a follower of William O’Brien’s All-For-Ireland League, or an Independent? Such information could only help the reader understand Mr Finch’s subject. This failure may be an oversight caused by the author being too close to the subject. Certainly, he goes beyond explaining Bennett’s position into accepting his prejudices. Of Fianna Fáil at that time, only de Valera and Lemass are named, though Joseph Connolly is mentioned at the end as a witness. As a partisan minister for lands, Connolly is named only ‘as minister for forestry’ (sic). Frank Aiken is given only his ministerial portfolio (defence), just as Frank Fahy is an unnamed Ceann Comharle. Even more mysterious is ‘the minister’ who barred the Blueshirts from the Dáil: not only unnamed but unportfolioed, to boot. This tends to dehumanise Bennett’s opponents.

 
On the other hand, Bennett himself is claimed to be ‘not a Blueshirt sympathiser’, despite having been ‘the catalyst’ (Mr Finch’s term) in the creation of Fine Gael, of which the said Blueshirts were then an integral part. Above all, Mr Finch does not qualify Bennett’s fear that ‘de Valera’s real aim was dictatorship’, even though this belief can be seen to be disproven. It might be added, too, that it is not as obvious as Bennett believed that a second parliamentary chamber is necessary for a democracy, particularly in a small country like Ireland. New Zealand has survived without one for many years.

 
A balanced assessment of the de Valera–Bennett clash would see it as a disagreement between constitutional democrats, each inhibited by extra-constitutional forces on his extreme wing. Sadly Mr Finch seems to be too much of a partisan to accept this. In the end this diminishes his portrait of an interesting and formidable politician.

 

—Yours etc.,
D.R. O’CONNOR LYSAGHT

Whilst I welcome constructive debate, D.R. O’Connor Lysaght’s criticisms are a mixture of irrelevant pedantry, factual inaccuracy and false parallels wholly ignoring the aim of my article—assessing Westropp Bennett’s (as opposed to de Valera’s) contribution to the Irish Free State.

 
A few facts: Westropp Bennett stood as an Independent Nationalist in the first general election of 1910. He was not elected nor did he stand again. His election to the Senate was based on his national reputation as an agricultural expert, gained both in local government and Plunkett’s co-operative movement. The omission is not, therefore, caused by being ‘too close to the subject’ but rather because his one shot at Westminster was not a critical part of his political career. Regarding the Fianna Fáil ‘omissions’: de Valera is mentioned because his clash with Westropp Bennett is the bedrock of the article; Lemass, because despite his regarding the Senate as ‘a bulwark of imperialism which . . . should be abolished at the first opportunity’, he and Westropp Bennett nevertheless forged a very effective working relationship in spite of their diametrically opposed views. A little basic research reveals that Senator Connolly (Westropp Bennett’s principal sparring partner as the sole Fianna Fáil minister in the Senate) was minister for lands and forestry—hence the shorthand. I submit that the views of two taoisigh and a senior cabinet minister, who was my subject’s main opponent, are sufficient to be representative of any government, hence their inclusion. The accusation that I ‘dehumanised’ Bennett’s opponents by not naming them is complete nonsense; their inclusion is in proportion to their importance in the narrative and to meet word limits. Consultation of the further reading references will no doubt satisfy his demand for detail.
To continue: it was Senator Connolly who saw Westropp Bennett as ‘instrumental’ (i.e. a catalyst) in the formation of Fine Gael by virtue of his chairing of the tri-partite talks in 1933; hence Fianna Fáil suspicion of him. It was not me but Westropp Bennett who on 21 February 1934, in the Senate, declared his lack of sympathy for the Blueshirts. Westropp Bennett’s record is abundantly clear about the primacy of parliamentary politics—his action regarding the Blueshirts was to ensure that the strength of feeling they represented was focused within the parliamentary process, not outside it. Regarding ‘dictatorship’, Westropp Bennett was operating in a polarised, dynamic political situation with a government showing the greatest latitude towards the (illegal) IRA, recruiting IRA men as police auxiliaries whilst suppressing its opponents. The government campaigned vigorously against the Free State institutions, such as the Senate. Senior Fianna Fáil figures such as Seán McBride stated publicly that the IRA was needed to complete the transformation of the state. De Valera made no effort to discourage this. Widespread contemporaneous records clearly demonstrate that such actions meant that potential dictatorship was a very real concern in the state; hence Bennett’s actions. Any study of de Valera demonstrates that he was a highly successful manipulator of (and not inhibited by) extremes and to suggest otherwise is staggeringly naïve.

 
The parallel with New Zealand is wholly false. Since achieving self-government New Zealand, fortunately, has neither suffered internal conflict nor a direct external threat; hence its constitutional arrangements. How different to the Free State which was the product of a bloody War of Independence and Civil War. The nation’s founders wished to ensure that all of the polarised combatants became national stakeholders. The Oireachtas was very deliberately bicameral to ingrain constitutionalism, promote stability and economic well-being and prevent violence in a war-weary nation. De Valera’s progressive acceptance of this structure (and its limitations) after 1927 demonstrates that the approach was entirely correct; in 1937 he even reinvented the (albeit weaker) Senate!
BRUCE-ANDREW FINCH

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