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Sean Francis Lemass

(1899—1971) taoiseach


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(b. Dublin, 15 Dec. 1899; d. Dublin, 11 May 1971)

Irish; Tánaiste (deputy premier) 1945–8, 1951–4, 1957–9, Taoiseach (premier) 1959–66 The son of a Dublin hatter of Huguenot origins, Lemass joined the Irish Volunteers in 1915 and played a minor role in the Easter Rising of 1916. He was interned in the later stages of the Anglo-Irish independence conflict, and in 1922 joined the anti-treaty forces in the Irish Civil War, in which he was again interned, and in which his brother was brutally murdered. Elected to the Dáil in November 1924, it was largely on Lemass's initiative that the Fianna Fáil party was created at Easter 1926 out of the more pragmatic, pro-de Valera members of third Sinn Fein, and following its entry to the Dáil it was Lemass who coined the description of the Fianna Fáil as ‘a slightly constitutional’ party. Lemass remained a firm republican, but now pragmatically using parliamentary methods. He served as Minister for Industry and Commerce in de Valera's administrations from 1932 onwards, adding Supplies during the war, and was Tánaiste (deputy premier) in Fianna Fáil governments 1945–59. On de Valera's retirement in June 1959 Lemass was his inevitable successor, and served as Taoiseach until November 1966. He left the Dáil in 1969 and died in 1971.

His period as Taoiseach was marked by the opening up of the country to modernizations possibly delayed by de Valera's prolonged ascendancy. He was associated with the first Programme for Economic Expansion, 1958, with its espousal of tariff demolition, encouragement of inward investment, and the development of a mixed economy. Ireland formally applied unsuccessfully to join the EEC in July 1961. But the sending of an Irish UN contingent to the Congo, and the role there of Conor Cruise O'Brien as UN representative, showed Irish independence and neutrality now translating into positive international terms. In Ireland Lemass's boldest action was his visit to Terence O'Neill at Stormont in January 1965, one of whose results was Lemass's encouragement to the Nationalists to take up the role of official opposition in the Northern Ireland parliament.

Lemass's business-like pragmatism and his new approach to the North appeared at odds with his origins as a revolutionary republican but were not, to him, incompatible with them, being rather logical adaptations of old principles to new times.

Subjects: European History.


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