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Undoing 1950s Ireland in 2013


Austerity is a bit like opening the curtains to let more light into a room you see more often in the cosy dim than the stark bright. Since 2008 we as a people have had to look at things that are familiar in our national sitting room and wonder when and why did we get them and are they still of any use. In the last three years in particular as the cutbacks have gotten closer to the bone some of the things we always had but never thought too much about are having to be re-examined. Such things are our health service and it’s inherent design flaws, our private health insurance market, our state broadcaster, industrial policy and corporation tax, membership of the European Union, our water supply, the structure and intent of our social welfare system and the states current relationship with the Catholic Church. All are being looked at with fresh eyes, all have their inception in Ireland’s most neglected decade, the 1950s.

It only struck me the other morning while reading in the Limerick Leader about the expansion of Shannon-Foynes Port Company and a minor reference to the winding down of Shannon Development how so much of today’s Ireland is a direct product of the 1950s, also that the VHI and the private health insurance market in general is beginning to come apart at the seams prodded me to write this blog.

‘Irish History’ has thought us that the 1960s were king, we got rich, we got cars and we got telly’s, all making us happier, mobile and liberal. The thing is though that the more one examines the 1960s it harder it is to find what great changes occurred to make modern Ireland possible (excluding free secondary education which had its impact from the 1970s onwards), instead of making modern Ireland, the 1960s were the first decade of modern Ireland. Economically we recorded what for Ireland went as an economic miracle, which for Europe of the time was just business as usual.

Rather than wax lyrical below is a synopsis of developments from the 1950s that I believe made modern Ireland and that we may have to radically reform or dump to make a new Ireland for this century.

Social Welfare: The roll-out of the modern social welfare service can be trace back to the Social Welfare Act 1952, it saw the introduction of the Social Insurance Fund, presently insolvent, the future funding model as set up by the Act is under major re-examination at present and recent reports claim it is not fit for purpose for the future. The current Labour Minister Joan Burton could radically overhaul the system with a Labour Ethos much like the Labour Minister Willie Norton who influenced much of the 1952 Act.

RTÉ: A baby of the 1960s it’s design was one of the 1950s, a state unwilling and unable to fully fund it, a consumer economy too small and poor to support it, with the direction of the some very wise officials in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, the television and radio broadcaster became a semi-state body with licence fee income. In the last year the Department of Communications has begun considering a radical reform of the funding model and the private sector broadcaster, TV3, is now also seeking state support via the licenece fee. This public broadcaster conceived in the 1950s is due a major reform in funding to support it into the next decades of major platform change and a rapidly expanding diversification of offerings all seeking the attention of the same audience.

Church – State Relations: It was the scheme and a controversey that got its name when the Chief Medical Officer while walking to Bewley’s for a bun thought that no one could object to a service called the Mother & Child Scheme; the Mother & Child Scheme and the ensuing controversy and myths went from there, slowly but surely the state has taken claim of many areas of responsibility that the church held upon independence and others that were ceded to it. Most people are vaguely familiar about the controversy and since then there have been many more, the Magdalen Laundries report by Senator McAlesse being a recent chapter in the sorry tale of a state in the ideological capture of the Catholic Church. So while the 1950s may be viewed as the zenith of Catholic Church dominance in Irish state affairs it was also the point of origin in its decline.

The Health Service: In essence it all began with the Public Health Bill 1945, came to fruition with the Public Health Act 1947 and with the controversy of the Mother & Child Scheme and the creation of the VHI the foundations and basic structure of our health service have changed very slightly. while the creation of the Health Boards may have altered the direction and services the key elements remain from the 1950s. Swingeing cuts and the proposed move to a free GP service and Universal Health Insurance may see the aims of the 1947 Act fulfilled but utilising a private health insurance model, time will tell if this will come to pass, history has shown that the troubled health service is much like MRSA very resistant to treatment.

Private Health Insurance: the Second Inter Party Government established the VHI, mainly Fine Gael utilising the controversies surrounding health service reform in the 1940s and early 1950s to facilitate interest groups demands; since then a small and until recently slightly poor western state has been stuck with an unworkable and costly two-tier health system. With the current economic depression and ensuing job losses the private insurance model has proved to be unsustainable. Current Government plans to provide for Universal Private Health Insurance may be the saving of the companies, mainly the VHI still hooked to state support, and end the two-tier model in the private sectors favour.

Corporation Tax: The brainchild of the Second Inter Party Government, the country’s most coveted tax policy is defended as the driver of economic growth on a small island at the fringe of a huge continental market. Much maligned by EU partners as possibly making the country a tax haven for industrial repatriation of profits; from the passing of the Finance Act 1956, the export profit tax relief provision introduced the concept of incentivising multi-national firms to locate to Ireland; it became the key selling point to developing the economy. The question of whether it will survive the onslaught of EU attack for further decades remains to be seen.

Industrial Policy: The Industrial Development Authority may have been delivered in the late 1940s but it was given the policy instruments it would need in the 1950s with a massive overhaul of the legislation and ideology towards industrial development. The main change came with the dumping of Protectionism with the repeal of the Control of Manufacturing Act 1932 but the change in mindset i.e. grant aided incentives was tested out in the establishment of the IDA and the placing of JP Beddy at the head of the new body, the passing of the Undeveloped Areas Act 1952 provided grant aid incentives for native industry to re-locate, a policy innovation that was transposed into the External Investment Act 1958. That Act was to give the IDA it’s momentum and it’s notable successes of the 1960s and onwards in delivering Foreign Direct Investment as an aside Shannon Development and it’s Free Zone, now to be wound down, was established in 1959, another example of 1950s legacy who’s glory days were associated with the boom of the 1960s.

European Union: A relationship that has drawn huge amount of re-examination in recent years, the first credible belief that Ireland would consider joining the then fledging EEC began with an instruction by the Government for departments to examine the implications and benefits to seeking membership in the late 1950s. From the earliest days Sean Lemass was a leading advocate for membership but never lived to see it happen. From the beginning he was clear that the country wished to join at all costs, accepted that neutrality was not a barrier for the future and that a federalist model developing was understood and accepted, his key agenda was access to the booming European markets of the EEC Since the 21st century dissatisfaction during prosperity and then austerity followed by bail-out has not yet seen a sophisticated public discussion on Ireland ambitions to remaining within the Union and selling those ambitions or a sophisticated and well considered argument for exit.

International Organisations: Post-war moves towards Internationalism came as some surprise to the Irish State and between economic ultra-conservatism by Department of Finance officials to Bretton Woods and its institutional spin-offs combined with Joseph Stalins objections to World War Two non-participants from joining the United Nations, Ireland didn’t get re-involved with the world until the mid 1950s. Joining the UN in 1955 and reluctantly getting involved with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (Ironic isn’t it!), it was with these moves that Ireland became a full participant of the international community and began to make an impact, such as the first UN peacekeeping mission to the Lebanon in 1958. Today our involvement with the IMF is hard to ignore and and may never be the same again but the country’s proud position as peacekeepers in the UN endures.

Economic Planning: While TK Whitakers Economic Development and the subsequent White Paper would be best remembered, it was Sean MacBride who in 1956 distributed two hundred copies of his proposal for the Government to begin drafting an economic development plan, at the same time Lemass was studying the Italian Vanoni Plan 1954, he had asked the Italian Embassy to translate it for him, this was later to be the background to his ‘100,000 jobs’ speech that was to place the idea that economic planning was a credible method removing the possible communist associations. Whitaker enlisted the assistance of departmental officials from across the service in their own time along with JP Beddy undertook a study of the state of the Irish economy and its outputs, these works would formed the basis of Economic Development which was presented to the James Ryan, Minister for Finance, in December 1957.

Rural Electrification: Planned for commencement in 1946 but was not embarked upon in earnest until the 1950s. It saw the division of the country into over 792 sub divisions. While most people remember the benefits being the easing of the burden placed upon women it also radically altered the country by allowing for local water schemes and the roll-out of piped water across the country. This was imperative to improving living and hygiene standards. Today, both ownership of the ESB and the creation of Irish Water all indicate a period of profound change in both areas for the decades to come, our ambitions and relationships with both commodities.

While these points are illustrative, they do demonstrate the extent that the Ireland we live in today and our current problems and strengths owe a lot to the impact of the 1950s


About Brian Stokes

Spent seven years working as a Parliamentary Assistant and Personal Assistant in Dáil Éireann and the Department of Foreign Affairs. Studying History & Economics in University College Cork. Walker of a dog called Vimes.


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