The Béal na Bláth event, which marked a symbolic reconciliation of the civil war opponents, attracted a lot of attention last week. But that wasn’t the whole story.
es, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil represent former adversaries in the Civil War; but since De Valera led Fianna Fáil into government in 1932 (and arguably since he led her into the Dáil five years earlier), the party had effectively accepted the line taken by Michael Collins in 1921: that the treaty be a springboard to fuller independence could .
When de Valera dismissed the oath of allegiance as an “empty formula,” he repeated arguments made five years earlier in favor of signing the treaty. “I will not agree that the Irish people should be sacrificed to a formula,” Arthur Griffith had said.
Collins said: “We can lead the Irish nation to success. It is not through words and formulas; it is with heart and soul.”
This is not to dismiss the very real historical antagonism between the two traditions, fueled by civil war atrocities on both sides; but although Fianna Fáil traditionally does not like to admit it, this antagonism was personal rather than philosophical.
Fianna Fáil was the great prover (and beneficiary) of the accuracy of Collins’ argument that the treaty could offer freedom to attain freedom. There was no fundamental dispute between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil over the issue over which the Civil War was fought. Where this dispute has remained alive – at least until the end of the 20th century, if not today – is between these parties and Sinn Féin.
When de Valera led the majority of anti-Treaty Sinn Féin TDs into his new party, Fianna Fáil, and later into the Dáil, in 1926, what was left was a remnant who believed themselves to be the Republic’s only legitimate government. In 1938 the IRA Army Council approached this rump to increase its authority for a bombing campaign in Britain. The group, which billed itself as the Executive Council of the Second Dáil, was made up of seven former TDs who had last been elected to the Dáil 15 years ago. nevertheless, they believed they had more democratic legitimacy than a parliamentary tradition that had now held seven elections with more than a million eligible voters. The Executive Council duly delegated its powers as government of the republic to the Army Council.
This was as described by historian Richard English in Armed struggle: the history of the IRA“the make-believe of Irish republicanism after the Civil War”.
The IRA retained this belief into the 1960s. When the Provisionals seceded from the IRA in 1969, the sole surviving member of the 1938 group, Tom Maguire, delegated governance of the Second Dáil to the Provisional IRA Army Council.
The IRA’s so-called Green Book (its training manual for new members) confirmed this succession. “The Army is the direct representative of the Dáil Éireann Parliament of 1918 … as such they are the legal and legitimate government of the Irish Republic,” it says (according to the text maintained by Ulster University’s CAIN online archive). The IRA’s “moral position” and “right to wage war” are based on “the direct line of succession with the Provisional Government of 1916, the first Dáil of 1919 and the second Dáil of 1921”.
This is the tradition from which contemporary Sinn Féin emerges, and which it implicitly recognizes in its constitution, which states two of the party’s “fundamental principles”: “That the allegiance of the Irish owes to the sovereign Republic of Ireland proclaimed in 1916. “ ; and “That the sovereignty and unity of the Republic are inalienable and inalienable”. It is practical for Sinn Féin that this neither contradicts nor makes explicit the purist-republican position.
More significant than the ‘reconciliation’ of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, therefore, is the continuing rift between these parties and Sinn Féin; and that was the most interesting reaction to the 100th anniversary of Collins’ death, not the reaction of Micheál Martin or Leo Varadkar in their speeches in Béal na Bláth, but that of Mary Lou McDonald in an article she wrote for The diary. The article was elegantly written and generous in tone. For some, McDonald said, Collins was “a patriot, a noble soldier, and a counterintelligence mastermind … and a strategic realist”; to others “it represents the great betrayal of the national aspiration for full liberty for Ireland”. These “Others” are their Republican ancestors, and this was their nod to their tradition. But instead of attacking the state that Collins bequeathed to us in accordance with this tradition, McDonald attacked him by pointing out the illegitimacy of his birth and his practical failure.
In post-1922 Ireland, she wrote, “power was seldom exercised in the interests of the common people… For decades power rested with the financiers, landowners and golden circles”.
There’s a playbook at work here, but it’s not Republican — it’s populist. Eoin Ó Broin explained it in a 2020 podcast interview with Aidan Regan. “When Mary Lou McDonald or Gerry Adams rail against ‘the elites’, which we regularly and rightly do, it is a populist strategic manoeuvre,” said Ó Broin. Populism is “a way of doing politics” that “plays the people off against an elite,” he has previously written. Ó Broin posits this as a progressive strategy aimed at empowering ordinary people and creating policies more responsive to their needs.
The problem is that the complex modern state needs “elites” – better known as experts. Cancer services need doctors and managers; a rental sector needs large and small landlords; Pension funds, property developers and the treasury all depend on financiers. With its scattergun attacks on “elites”, Sinn Féin threatens the ordinary expertise and investments on which the efficient functioning of government and business depend, and risks creating a demand for change it cannot satisfy.
This determination to push the populist case against Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil leads McDonald into a paradox in which the Sinn Féin leader celebrates the achievements of politics in Northern Ireland – “Fortunately the North is a different place today as people from all communities contract” – while in the next sentence they dismiss those of the Republic where “generations to this day have failed of governments led by the civil war factions”.
In one essential point, however, she is firmly in the tradition of Michael Collins. Although Collins accepted the partition as an inescapable part of the treaty settlement, he believed it would be temporary and immediately sought to undermine it. He would have agreed with McDonald when she wrote: “The act of partition was an attack on the very essence of Irish nationality, an attempt to break the ties that bind us together as a people, despite all our differences and diversity.” For at least a century has been This is the great blind spot of Irish republicanism: the idea that the indigenous people of this island are united into one nation.
The idea involves a double-edged rejection of unionist identity: that unionism is a kind of false consciousness whereby unionists are unaware of their natural place in this nation and ‘people’; and this unionism will thus disappear when the nation is reunited.
“The destiny of the Irish nation,” writes McDonald, “is to be a living republic, a home for all.” But in making this argument she makes the idea of a united Ireland even more alienating for trade unionists. A polity which by definition coincides with the ‘Irish nation’ cannot offer a true home to those who consider themselves aliens to that nation.
Those who attack Sinn Féin in the Dublin media usually focus on the question of who controls it – a question that harks back to Republican theology, which posits that authority rests with the Army Council or a successor appointed by it.
But these other two questions worry me more: could Sinn Féin, with its ceaseless populist attacks on the Irish state machinery, cause irreparable harm to the polity it seeks to govern? And since this strategy appears to propel them to power in the South, could their revanchist rhetoric about a border election irreparably damage our relations with the unionized peoples of the North?
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/why-sinn-fein-might-do-irreparable-damage-to-the-polity-it-seeks-to-govern-41941757.html Why Sinn Féin could do irreparable harm to the communities it seeks to govern