Modern Ireland

Chapter Eight

Modern Ireland

The Civil War

Ireland drifted steadily towards civil war. The political split over the treaty was paralleled in the IRA, and in March 1922 a convention of dissidents repudiated the Dail and pledged allegiance to the republic of 1916. In April the ‘Irregulars’ occupied the four Courts, the Dublin headquarters of the Irish judiciary, and some other buildings and turned them into fortified points. Collins hoped that a general election might produce a solution, and took no action. It was held on 16th June, and out of 128 seats 58 went to pro-treaty candidates, 36 to anti-treaty republicans led by de Valera, 17 to Labour, and 17 to various other interests. Only the republicans were still unwilling to accept the treaty, and when a party from the Four Courts kidnapped a pro-treaty general later in the month, collins ordered an attack on the building.

On 28th June Free State troops opened fire with artillery borrowed from the remnant of the British army still in Dublin, and two days later the garrison surrendered. the Civil War had begun, and it was fought with increasing bitterness as the irregulars employed guerilla tactics among a population on whose support they could no longer rely. An exhausted Griffith died on 12th August and Collins was killed in an ambush ten days later. When the new Dail met in September, William T. Cosgrave was elected president, and Kevin O’Higgins took the important post of minister of home affairs. The republicans refused to recognise the Dail, and in October set up a rival government under de Valera. A new constitution was approved both by the Dail and by the Westminster parliament, and on 6th December 1922 the Irish Free State formally came into existence. The government took exceptionally severe steps to deal with the Irregulars, and army courts were empowered to execute anyone found in unauthorised possession of arms or ammunition. When a member of the Dail was shot dead on 7th December the government ordered four leading republican prisoners to be executed in reprisal the following morning. In April 1923 the Irregulars’ chief of staff, Liam Lynch, was killed in action. his successor, Frank Aiken, agreed with de Valera they could not hope to win the war, and a negotiated truce led to a ceasefire on 24th May.


The Free State government’s most pressing task was to restore respect for law and order. Violence had become a way of life with many people and, although the Civil War was over, the republicans still looked on the government as illegitimate. Increasingly the political stage was dominated by the young Kevin O’Higgins. He modelled himself on Michael Collins, the ‘Big Fellow’, and while he did not shrink from harsh measures, he never lost sight of the normality which was his objective. One of the most farsighted moves was to set up an unarmed police force, the Garda Siochana or Civic Guard, which replaced the para-military Royal Irish Constabulary. A new and more decentralised judicial system was established. At the same time O’Higgin’s used his powers of internment under the Public Safety Act of 1923, and held many of the republicans taken prisoner during and after the Civil War.

In March 1924 an army mutiny was threatened when a group of ‘old IRA’ veterans (those who had supported the treaty) called for the removal of the Military Council, in which the Irish Republican Brotherhood had become entrenched, and for a suspension of demobilisation. Cosgrove was ill; O’Higgins took control, and quickly appointed the chief of police to command the defence forces. Two members of the government resigned during the crisis, but O’Higgins made the point to the Dail that ‘Those who take pay and wear the uniform of the state, be they soldiers or police, must be non-political servants of the state’, and an inquiry provided an opportunity to put the army on a sounder footing.

The 1920s were constructive years, though marred by the assassination of O’Higgins in July 1927. A new civil service replaced the British administration, and a strong new system of local government was created, with city and county managers on American lines. The Electicity Supply board, the first of many state-sponsored bodies, was set up in 1927 and undertook an ambitious hydro-electricity scheme on the river Shannon which became a source of national pride, Ireland was quick to join the League of Nations, and within the British Commonwealth asserted the Independence of dominions with considerable success at imperial conferences. Cosgrave’s party was known as Cumann na nGaelheal, becoming Fine Gael (Tribe of Gaels) in 1933. In 1926 de Valera broke with the rump of the IRA, resigned from Sinn Fein, and formed a new party called Fianna Fail (Warriors of Destiny). which contested the 1927 election. It became the largest opposition party of the Dail as de Valera and others reluctantly took the oath of allegiance, making it clear that they considered it an empty formula.

Meanwhile the existing border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State had been confirmed. The three-man boundary commission had interpreted its terms of reference very narrowly, and in November 1925 a report in the London MorningPost indicated that only minor changes would be recommended, and that these would include transferring part of Donegal to Northern Ireland. Eoin MacNeill, the Irish member, resigned from the commission and later from the cabinet. There was a hasty meeting of representatives of the British, Irish and Northern Irish governments, and a tripartite agreement was signed in London on 3rd December 1925. The powers of the boundary commission were revoked, and Northern Ireland remained the six counties of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. Not surprisingly de Valera criticised this acceptance of partition as a consequence of the 1921 treat, and he embarked on the course which was to bring him to power through the ballot-box.

Fianna Fail

One of the last achievements of the Cosgrave administration was the 1931 Statute of Westminster, by which Britain agreed that a dominion parliament could repeal or amend any British Act ‘ in so far as the same is part of the law of the Dominion’. By this time the government had lost popularity as a result of the economic decline, and it had been forced to introduce repressive measures in response to increasing crimes of violence and the intimidation of juries. The Public Safety Act of 1931 extended police powers of arrest and detention, and set up a military tribunal to try crimes of a political nature. Under the act a dozen organizations were immediately declared illegal, including the IRA and a breakaway socialist movement, Saor Eire (Free Ireland). In the election of 1932 Fianna Fail won 72 out of 153 seats, becoming the largest party, and with Labour support de Valera formed a government. During the next forty years Fianna Fail was out of office only for two short periods: 1948-51 and 1954-7.

Among Fianna Fail supporters there were some fears that Cumann na nGaedheal might resist a change in government, and at first the Fianna Fail members entered the Dail with revolvers in their pockets. However, the handover was accomplished peacefully, and de Valera in turn showed respect for those who had laboured to develop the new institutions of the Free State, He quickly abolished the oath of allegiance, and in other ways loosened the ties with the United Kingdom. Sean Lemass, the Minister for Industry and Commerce, pursued a protectionist policy which encouraged Irish industry to develop in an unprecedented way, and in key areas the government set up state-sponsored bodies such as Coras Iompair (road and rail transport), Aer Lingus (air transport), and Bord na Mona (peat production). When de Valera withheld from the United Kingdom the annuity payments which stemmed from earlier loans to tenants to buy their holdings, the British government retaliated by imposing heavy duties on Irish goods. The economic war lasted until 1938, when the Free State paid 10 million to settle the annuities dispute, and at the same time Britain handed back the treaty ports occupied by the Royal Navy under the 1921 treaty.

Within a few days of taking office in 1932 the government had released IRA prisoners convicted by the military tribunal, and the IRA ceased to be an illegal organization. The advocates of physical force immediately began military drilling, and freedom of speech was endangered as republicans began to break up meetings of Cumann na nGaedheal. When the commissioner of police, General  Eoin O’Duffy, was dismissed, he became leader of the Army Comrades Association, which was renamed the National Guard and known from its uniform as the Blueshirts.

The Blueshirts were defensive in origin, but when O’Duffy announced a mass march in August 1934 to commemorate the deaths of Griffith, Collins and O’Higgins, the government feared a coupd’ etat comparable to Mussolini’s march on Rome. The government revived the emergency powers of the Cosgrave era, and banned the march. The military tribunal was restored, and the National Guard was declared illegal. O’Duffy then became president of the newly created Fine Gael party, but his venture into party politics was a failure, and he was succeeded by Cosgrave. In 1936, when the Spanish Civil War broke out, O’Duffy formed an Irish brigade which fought for General Franco.

The IRA always presented de Valera with more serious problems than this Blueshirts flirtation with fascism, and in June 1936 it was again declared an illegal organization. Its chief of staff, Maurice Twomey, was jailed by the military tribunal soon afterwards, and the movement went underground. In 1939 the IRA launched a campaign of bombing in England, and in one incident in Coventry five people were killed. The Irish government took measures against those who still proclaimed their royalty to the republic of 1916, but the IRA was to remain a source of recurring violence.

There had been a number of changes to the 1922 constitution before Fianna Fail came to power, but these were concerned principally to make government more effective. De Valera, in contrast, concentrated on amending provisions which were offensive to his feelings as an Irishman. As well as the oath of allegiance he ended the office of governor-general and abolished the Senate, which had been designed in part as a gesture of friendship towards the unionists of the twenty-six counties. In 1937 he produced a new constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann, which was endorsed at a referendum. Fianna Fail won exactly half the Dail seats at an election held on the same day. The constitution was an unusual document, reflecting republican ideas in its reference to a ‘sovereign, independent, democratic state’ deriving all powers of government from the people, and at the same time acknowledging God as the ultimate source of all authority and basing many of its article on contemporary Catholic social theory.

The new constitution provided for a two-chamber parliament or Oireachtas, with an elected president or Uachtaran as head of state and a system of cabinet government headed by a prime minister or Taoiseach. The national territory was defined to include the thirty-two counties in Ireland, but pending ‘re-integration’ the jurisdiction of parliament was restricted to twenty-six counties. The state was named as ‘Eire, or in English language, Ireland’. The constitution recognised the special position of the Roman Catholic Church as ‘the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens’, but recognised other churches then in existence and guaranteed freedom of conscience and religion ‘subject to public order and morality’. The family was recognised as ‘the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society’ and divorce was forbidden.

When World War II broke out in September 1939 the Free State remained neutral. The British government considered pressing for naval facilities at the former treaty ports, and possibly occupying them by force if necessary, but the existence  of an important naval base at Londonderry allowed Britain to safeguard its western approaches without infringing Free State territory. Later the Americans considered the seizure of bases in southern Ireland, in part because they were concerned that information about the coming invasion of Europe might be passed to Germany, which had an ambassador in Dublin. however, Ireland never became of sufficient strategic importance that an invasion was attempted by any of the combatants, and the IRA’s contacts with Germany had little practical effect on the war or the Irish situation. De Valera for his part refused to act on an ill defined suggestion from the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, that if the Free State joined the Allies in the war against Germany, it could lead to a united Ireland.


The Republic of Ireland

With the ending of the ’emergency’. as the war was called, the public was ready for a change in government. A radical republican party called Clann na Poblachta (Republican Family) emerged under Sean MacBride, and had some success at by-elections. De Velare called a general election in February 1948, and although Fianna Fail remained easily the largest party, a variety of other parties united to form an uneasy coalition with Fine Gael’s John A. Costello as Taoiseach. Before the year ended, the Republic of Ireland Act had been passed, declaring Ireland a republic and taking it out of the British Commonwealth. The republic was formally inaugurated on Easter Monday, 1949. In the same year Westminister passed the Ireland Act, which affirmed that ‘in no event will Northern Ireland or any part thereof cease to be part of His Majesty’s dominions and of the United Kingdom without consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland’. Traditionally Fine Gael had been more sympathetic than Fianna Fail to retaining links with Britain, but Costello was under pressure from MacBride, and also hoped to take the gun out of Irish politics. In fact the act made little practical differences to relations with Britain, for the Republic continued to enjoy imperial preference in trading, and Irish citizens living and working in Britain were treated as if they were British citizens. Nor did it make much difference within the twenty-six counties for, although Fianna Fail supported the legislation, de Valera pointed out that in 1916 he had been fighting for an all-Ireland republic, and he pointedly took no part in the inaugural ceremony.

The inter-party government broke up in 1951, following a controversy over the so-called ‘mother and Child Scheme’ proposed by the Minister for Health, Dr Noel Browne, who was a member of Clann no Poblachta. Browne wanted free medical treatment for expectant mothers and for children up to the age of sixteen, but the Catholic hierarchy objected to the scheme as interfering with the rights of the family and the individual, and MacBride called on Browne to resign. The second inter-party government lasted from 1951 to 1957, and ended when Clann na Poblachta withdrew its support because of the government’s ineffective economic policies and because it had no positive policy for the unification of Ireland. By the time the IRA was active again, raiding targets in Northern Ireland, and the government had begun to take legal action on a modest scale. In the election of 1957 de Valera gained an overall majority and began to intern IRA suspect, while Clan na Poblachta was almost wiped out. In 1959 de Valera was elected to the presidency, and Sean Lemass became Taoiseach.

Lemass had fought in the GPO building in 1916 and was almost sixty, but he had done much to foster industry and he proved a forward-looking leader more concerned with economic growth than with old mythologies. The IRA campaign ended in 1962, and in 1965 Lemass travelled to Belfast to meet the Northern prime minister, Capt Terence O’Neill, awakening hopes of a better relationship between the two parts of Ireland. It was the first time two Irish prime ministers had met since the 1920s. A new trade agreement with the United Kingdom was concluded in 1965. The country became more outward-looking as Irish soldiers served abroad for the first time with United Nations forces. In 1966 Jack Lynch succeeded Lemass, and pursued similar politics, although his task was made more difficult by the outbreak of sectarian violence between the Protestant and Catholic populations of Northern Ireland and by the resurgence of the IRA. In 1972 Ireland’s application for membership of the European Economic Community was accepted with effect from 1st January 1973, and in a referendum the electorate endorsed the move by a five-to-one majority. In 1973 a Fine Geal-Labour coalition took office, with Liam Cosgrave as Taoiseach.


Northern Ireland

When George V opened the first Northern Ireland parliament June 1921 he appealed ‘to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget, and to join in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment and conciliation’. It was a vain hope, and the years of ‘home rule’ in Northern Ireland were marked by recurring violence and a failure to dispel the tensions and differences between the Protestant two-thirds of the population and the Catholic one-third. With slogans like ‘Not an inch’ and ‘No surrender’ the Protestants were defensive in outlook, and used the local parliament they had not sought to buttress their ascendancy. The Catholics for their part resented what they considered to be an unnatural and immoral partition of the island, and were reluctant to participate in the public institutions of a regime which they hoped would not survive.

Sectarian violence continued until the end of 1922, and the government took coercive measures, most notably the Special Powers Act of 1922-33. The new Royal Ulster Constabulary was supplemented by the auxiliary Ulster Special Constabulary, entirely or almost entirely Protestant, which Catholics learned to hate. In 1922 the Unionists abolished proportional representation in local government, and re-drew boundaries so as to gain control of a number of councils, including the city of Londonderry, which the Nationalists had formerly held. Proportional representation was abolished in parliamentary elections in 1929, and single-member constituencies replaced multi-member constituencies, but the political balance in parliament was little affected except that both the Unionists and the Nationalists became less vulnerable to splinter groups. Rioting occurred more than once in the 1930s and in 1935 was particularly serious after the government had banned parades but then withdrew to allow the traditional Orange celebrations in July.

The original intention of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act had been that Northern Ireland would be self-financing, but this soon proved impractical in a period of depression, and ways were found to subsidise government expenditure from the British exchequer so that ‘parity’ of social standards and service should be maintained between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland contributed significantly to the British war effort, although it was not thought advisable to introduce conscription, and afterwards so benefitted from the development of Britain’s welfare state that living standards were patently higher in the Republic. The Unionists had no difficulty in maintaining a handsome majority in the parliament at Stormont, on the outskirts of Belfast, and Protestant unity was fostered by such events as the anti-partition campaign launched when the Republic of Ireland was declared and the IRA campaign of 1956-62. The premiership of Sir James Craig, later Lord Craigavon, lasted until his death in 1940. He was succeeded by J. M. Andrews, a member of his first cabinet, but there was dissatisfaction with his organisation of the war effort, and in 1943 Sr Basil Brooke, later Lord Brookeborough, took over and held office until 1963.

He was succeeded by Capt Terence O’Neill, a man untrammelled by memories of the 1920s, and the new prime minister began to draw the Catholic population more into the mainstream of Ulster life. His efforts to ‘build bridges’ drew criticism from those Protestants who distrusted the Catholic community and feared that a rising Catholic population would eventually vote Northern Ireland into the Republic. O’Neill’s most outspoken opponent was Rev Ian Paisley, moderator of the small Free Presbyterian church, but within his own party there was much opposition to the 1965 meeting with Sean Lemass. The emergence of a predominantly Catholic civil rights movement in the late 1960s left O’Neill trying to hold a precarious middle position, and after the banning of a civil rights march in Londonderry led to violence in the city on 5th October 1968, he was faced with increasing disorder which led to his resignation in April 1969.

O’Neill’s successor, Major James Chichester-Clark, was no more successful in curbing violence. A Protestant march commemorating the siege of Londonderry was attacked in the city in August 1969, and a virtual siege of the nearby Bogside area was followed by violence in other parts of Northern Ireland. In Belfast Protestants invaded Catholic areas, and the British army was eventually called in to prevent further sectarian conflict. Discussions between the British and Northern Ireland governments led t  a series of reforms aimed at tackling the underlying causes of religious conflict in Northern Ireland, but the situation worsened as the IRA – split between the so-called ‘Officials’ influenced by Marxist ideas and the breakaway ‘Provisionals’, who were more traditional advocates of violence – saw as opportunity of bringing down the Stormont regime.

The IRA established themselves as ‘defenders’ of the Catholic districts of Belfast and Londonderry, and these districts became steadily more hostile to the army. A substantial ‘no go’ area was created in Londonderry, where police and army could not enter, and in parts of Belfast law enforcement was at a mininum. Chichester-Clarke resigned in March 1971, dissatisfied with the British government’s unwillingness to intensify the battle against the IRA, and was succeeded by Brian Faulkner, who attempted to involve the Opposition parties in the process of government. however, they largely withdrew from Stormont after the death of two Londonderry youths shot by the army during rioting in July. The decision to withdraw was reinforced when, in August, the British government agreed to Faulkner’s proposal to introduce internment. The operation was far from succeessful, for the level of violence immediately rose as the IRA intensified a bombing campaign directed mainly at commercial premises, and the Catholic population as a whole was alienated. Eventually, in March 1972, the British government decided to suspend the Stormont parliament and government for a year, and a Conservative minister, William Whitelaw, was apppointed Secretary for Northern Ireland. The hope  was that, with the Unionists out of power, conciliatory policies would persuade battle-weary Catholics to reject the IRA and that the threatened ‘backlash’ of disgruntled Protestants could be avoided.

However, IRA violence continued, and although the British army and the police eventually re-entered the ‘no go’ areas, there was an upsurge of militancy among Protestants who distrusted the British government. The government produced proposals for a new Northern Ireland Assembly, in which Protestants and Catholics would share more limited powers than the Stormont parliament had possessed. An election was held on 28th June 1973, using proportional representation. The government warned that, if it proved impossible to appoint an executive whose members could command wide support, the assembly would be dissolved in March 1974.