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Gerard Sweetman

In office
2 June 1954 – 12 February 1957
Preceded by Seán MacEntee
Succeeded by James Ryan

In office
February 1948 – January 1970
Preceded by Newly created constituency
Succeeded by Patrick Malone
Constituency Kildare

In office
September 1943 – February 1948

Born 10 June 1908(1908-06-10)
Dublin, Ireland
Died 28 January 1970 (aged 61)
Monasterevin, Ireland
Nationality Irish
Political party Fine Gael

Gerard Sweetman (10 June 1908 – 28 January 1970), was an Irish Fine Gael politician and solicitor.

Contents

Family and childhood

Hugh Gerard Sweetman was born on June 10, 1908 to a comfortably well-off Dublin family. His father James Sweetman was a practicing barrister, and the family's return for the 1911 census[1] shows that they enjoyed the presence of three servants at their Lower Baggot Street home.

The Sweetmans were no strangers to Irish politics. A relative of James, Roger Sweetman was elected to the First Dáil representing Wexford North, and was one of the first TDs to publicly call for a negotiated settlement to the Irish War of Independence[2].

Gerard was educated at the Beaumont School in Britain, which may go some way towards describing his particularly un-Kildare accent. He completed his studies at Trinity College Dublin and went on to qualify as a solicitor in 1930.

Early Political Career

The 1930s were a time of great change in Irish politics. The State had been firmly established during the tumult of the 1920s, and the decade that followed saw the peaceful change of power to FF, and the latter half brought forward a new constitution for our young democracy.

Three weeks after his 29th birthday, Gerard Sweetman contested his first General Election on July 1, 1937[3]. His target was the old four-seater Carlow-Kildare constituency. At the time, the constituency was represented by Labour leader William Norton, two Fianna Fáil deputies Harris and Humphreys, and outgoing Fine Gael TD Captain Sydney Minch of the famous Athy family.

Out of a field of 7 candidates, Sweetman came sixth with 8.5% of the vote.

This would not be his only electoral disappointment. Having skipped the June 1938 election, Sweetman ran again in 1943, and once again failed to secure election. He secured a Seanad seat in weeks that followed, and remained in the upper house through the 1944 election, until finally, with the creation of a separate Kildare constituency, he won a Dáil seat in 1948.

The 1948 election returned the first inter-party government under Taoiseach John A. Costello. This coalition represented an 'anybody-but-Fianna-Fáil' gathering from across the political spectrum, and the newest Kildare TD sat on the backbenches until the government fell in 1951.

After a brief FF return to power, a second inter-party government took office in June 1954 with Sweetman promoted to Minister for Finance.

Sweetman also served as a member of Kildare County Council, including a term as chairman of the Council in the late 1940s.

Ministerial career

He was now 45 years old, and he inherited a national economy that was in crisis. Unemployment was at 421,000[4]; over 100,000 people had left agriculture during the previous 8 years[5]; the country was seeing a level of emigration unknown since the famine; and the very viability of an economically independent Ireland was at stake.

Sweetman differed in his thinking from the staid protectionist policies espoused by De Valera since the 1930s. Rather than focussing on a self-sufficient Ireland, Sweetman enacted policies that would make Ireland a net exporter.

In his first budget in 1955, he introduced a thoroughly modern scheme whereby a tax exemption was provided for exported goods. He also established the prize bonds programme as a means of covering the national debt.

This debt was every bit as worrying in the mid-50s as it is for our leaders today. Two major bond issues were placed during Sweetman's tenure for £20 million and £12 million. These were huge sums at a time when an average worker entered the tax net with an annual salary of just £533[6].

However, Sweetman's greatest initiative as Minister was the appointment of another young man of talent and vision. On May 30, 1956 he elevated a 39 year old civil servant named Ken Whitaker to the position of Secretary General of the Department of Finance. This was a revolutionary step, as it did not follow the convention of promotion based on time served.

Whittaker's time at the Department has been seen as absolutely instrumental in the economic development of the country, indeed a 2001 RTÉ contest named him 'Irishman of the 20th Century'.

Whittaker was inherited by the new FF government elected in 1957, and his seminal “First Programme for Economic Expansion” published in 1958 laid the foundations for the first Celtic Tiger of the 1960s.

Later career

Sadly for Sweetman, this brief period of government was not to be repeated and he would remain in opposition for the rest of his life.

During the 1960s, Fine Gael itself witnessed a major transformation. The decade began with a new leader, James Dillon, and a renewed focus on making the party relevant.

This internal revolution culminated in the 'Just Society' document produced by Declan Costello. The distinctly social democrat flavour of the document was very much at odds with Sweetman's deeply conservative views. However, the support of future Taoisigh Liam Cosgrave and Garret FitzGerald ensured that the document was adopted as the party's manifesto for the 1965 election.

In his last election, in June 1969, Sweetman was again returned to the Dáil for a 7th successive term. His party colleagues on the ticket for that election included Nancy Moore, mother of Christy, and Kildare Town's own Michael McWey.

The election left only a handful of seats between FF and the opposition, and Fine Gael and Sweetman must have sensed a return to Government was only inches beyond their grasp. Indeed history proved them right, as the National Coalition of Labour and Fine Gael swept to power in 1973. He would surely have been at the very highest levels of cabinet, had fate not intervened in January 1970.

He was known for his high speed style of driving, and this would prove to be his undoing. January 28, 1970 was a long day, which began with a return from a business meeting on the continent. On returning to Ireland, he had travelled down to Silvermines in Tipperary for another business meeting, and it was on the return journey that he tragically lost control of his vehicle near Monasterevin in County Kildare.

Speaking at the first session of the Dáil that followed[7], Taoiseach Jack Lynch offered a sincere and moving tribute to the late Deputy. He spoke of a TD who 'commanded respect and attention', especially in matters of finance; a 'gifted parliamentarian who loved the cut-and-thrust of debate' and who was as 'fair an opponent as he was formidable'. And perhaps most tellingly, he noted a career tragically cut short.

'Through his tragic and untimely death Dáil Éireann and Irish public life have suffered a grievous loss. That loss will be felt all the more because of his great impact on, and contribution to, Irish political life'.

There is no doubt that Lynch's words ring as true today as they did in early 1970. Gerard Sweetman had a fundamental impact on modern Ireland, and he will be long remembered in County Kildare and beyond.

References

Political offices
Preceded by
Seán MacEntee
Minister for Finance
1954–1957
Succeeded by
James Ryan

This page incorporates information from the Oireachtas Members Database

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