James Matthew Dillon, Fine Gael politician who serves as Leader of the Opposition and Leader of Fine Gael from 1959 to 1965 and Minister for Agriculture from 1948 to 1951 and 1954 to 1957, is born in Drumcondra, Dublin on September 26, 1902. He also serves as a Teachta Dála (TD) from 1932 to 1969.
Dillon is the son of John Dillon, the last leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and Elizabeth Mathew. He is educated at Mount St. Benedict’s, in Gorey, County Wexford, University College Galway and King’s Inns. He qualifies as a barrister and is called to the Bar of Ireland in 1931. He studies business methods at Selfridges in London. After some time at Marshall Field’s in Chicago he returns to Ireland where he becomes manager of the family business known as Monica Duff’s in Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon.
Between 1932 and 1937, Dillon serves as a TD for the Donegal constituency for the National Centre Party and after its merger with Cumann na nGaedheal, for the new party of Fine Gael. He plays a key role in instigating the creation of Fine Gael and becomes a key member of the party in later years. He remains as TD for Monaghan from 1937 to 1969. He becomes deputy leader of Fine Gael under W. T. Cosgrave.
Dillon temporarily resigns from Fine Gael in 1942 over its stance on Irish neutrality during World War II. While Fine Gael supports the government’s decision to stay out of the war, he urges the government to side with the Allies. A passionate anti-Nazi, he describes the Nazi creed as “the devil himself with twentieth-century efficiency.” His zeal against Adolf Hitler draws him the ire of the German Minister to Ireland Eduard Hempel, who denounces him as a “Jew” and “German-hater.” Even Éamon de Valera, then Taoiseach, is not spared the fierceness of Dillon’s rhetoric. When the Taoiseach ridicules his stark support for the Allies, noting this means he has to adopt a Pro-British stance, Dillon defiantly retorts, “My ancestors fought for Ireland down the centuries on the continent of Europe while yours were banging banjos and bartering budgies in the backstreets of Barcelona.”
In 1942, while holidaying in Carna, County Galway, Dillon meets Maura Phelan of Clonmel on a Friday. By that Monday the two are engaged and six weeks after that the pair are married. He is 40 and Maura is 22 years of age.
Dillon is one of the independents who supports the first inter-party government (1948–1951), and is appointed Minister for Agriculture. As Minister, he is responsible for huge improvements in Irish agriculture. Money is spent on land reclamation projects in the areas of less fertile land while the overall quality of Irish agricultural produce increases.
Dillon rejoins Fine Gael in 1953. He becomes Minister for Agriculture again in the second inter-party government (1954–1957). In 1959, he becomes leader of Fine Gael, succeeding Richard Mulcahy. He becomes president of the party in 1960. In 1965, Fine Gael loses the general election to Seán Lemass and Fianna Fáil. The non-Fianna Fáil parties win 69 seats to Fianna Fáil’s 72. Had the other parties won four more seats between them, they would have been able to form a government. Having narrowly failed to become Taoiseach, Dillon stands down as Fine Gael leader after the election.
On Northern Ireland, while Dillon stands against Partition, he equally opposes any “armed solution” or militant nationalist policy, stating, “We have got to win, not only the barren acres of Ulster, but the hearts of the people who live in it.”
Dillon is a colourful contributor to Dáil proceedings and is noted for his high standard of oratory. He remains a TD until 1969, when he retires from politics. He dies in Malahide, Dublin on February 10, 1986 at the age of 83.