(Hugh) Gerard Sweetman (10 June 1908 – 28 January 1970) was an Irish Fine Gael politician and solicitor.
Hugh Gerard Sweetman was born on 10 June 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 shows that they
enjoyed the presence of three servants at their Lower Baggot Street home.
The Sweetmans were no strangers to Irish politics. James' brother, 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.
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.
Three weeks after his 29th birthday, Gerard Sweetman contested the 1937 general election. His target was the four-seater Carlow–Kildare constituency. Out of a field of 7 candidates, Sweetman came sixth with 8.5% of the vote.
He did not contest the 1938 general election, but 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 at the 1948 general election.
The 1948 general 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.
A second inter-party government took office in June 1954 with Sweetman promoted to Minister for Finance.
In Professor Tom Garvin's review of the 1950s 'News from a New
Republic', he comes in for praise as a moderniser and Garvin places him
with a cross party group including Daniel Morrissey of Fine Gael and William Norton of the Labour Party as well as Sean Lemass of Fianna Fáil who were pushing a modernising agenda.
Sweetman also served as a member of Kildare County Council, including a term as chairman of the Council in the late 1940s.
He was now 45 years old, and he inherited a national economy that was in crisis. Unemployment was at 421,000; over 100,000 people had left agriculture during the previous 8 years; the country was seeing a level of emigration unknown since the famine.
Sweetman differed in his thinking from the staid protectionist policies espoused by Éamon 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
worrying in the mid-50s. 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.
However, Sweetman's greatest initiative as Minister was the
appointment of another young man of talent and vision. On 30 May 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'.
inherited by the new FF government elected in 1957, and his seminal
“First Programme for Economic Expansion” published in 1958 laid the
foundations for economic growth in the 1960s.
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
Liam Cosgrave and Garret FitzGerald ensured that the document was adopted as the party's manifesto for the 1965 general election.
In his last election, in June 1969, Sweetman was again returned to
the Dáil for a seventh successive term. His party colleagues on the
ticket for that election included Nancy Moore, mother of Christy Moore. The election left only a handful of seats between Fianna Fáil and the opposition.
He was known for his high speed style of driving. The 28 January 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 lost control of his vehicle near Monasterevin in County Kildare and died.
Speaking at the first session of the Dáil that followed, 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". He noted
a career 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".