Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Taking the gun out of Irish politics – again

In contrast to their public reputations, both leaders were pragmatic moderates rather than intransigent radicals. Both faced the challenge of persuading their supporters to accept compromises which they had previously denounced others for accepting and which their supporters had died – and killed others – to oppose. Hence, just as treatyite nationalists [Editor’s note: Nationalists who accepted the 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty which partitioned the country] and Sinn Féin legitimists denounced de Valera in 1927 for accepting a settlement which republicans had fought a civil war to overthrow, present day constitutional nationalists and dissident republicans question the purpose of the last three decades of violence when the end result was a settlement whose broad outlines were attainable in 1973. As the sister of hunger-striker and republican martyr Bobby Sands has put it: “My brother didn't die for cross-border bodies”. In both cases, these criticisms had little impact on the popularity of both leaders whose positions were endorsed by their respective electorates. In both cases, the credibility of the leadership rested partly on selling its compromises as tactical concessions on the path to greater freedom rather than a revision of previously held principles, and partly on the generally unacknowledged pragmatism of their electorates which were more interested in material grievances than abstract republican theology.

Given that the objectives – and obstacles – facing both leaderships were so similar, it is unsurprising that both employed essentially the same means. Rather than declaring their ultimate objectives at the outset – a political impossibility – both leaderships maintained a militant façade in the face of suspicions from below while patiently removing the obstacles to political participation. Just as de Valera reassured his supporters that republicans would never enter the Dáil if it meant swearing an oath of allegiance to the British monarch, a position reiterated only weeks before republican deputies compliantly mouthed the words of the oath as an 'empty political formula', the Provisional movement was assured that republicans would never end the military struggle, enter Stormont, or decommission weapons before the principle of British withdrawal was agreed. In the meantime, both leaders guided their movements into a lengthy process in which the logical outcome would gradually become apparent to all but the most unthinking of their supporters. Brian P. Murphy's account of de Valera's machiavellian manoeuvrings in the 1920s, Patrick Pearse and the lost republican ideal, and Ed Moloney's A Secret History of the IRA (disapprovingly) outline a remarkably similar combination of strategic cunning and disingenuousness on the part of each leadership.

What does de Valera's political odyssey, which occurred in a radically different political context, tell us about the present republican peace process? It helps, for one, to explain the latter's glacial pace, some seventeen years after the Hume-Adams talks (and ten years after Irish taoiseach [Editor’s note:Irish Prime Minister] John Bruton, in a radio interview with Cork 96FM, complained that he was sick of talking about “the fucking peace process”). Adams has clearly had the far more difficult task than de Valera. Whereas the present republican leadership has had to bring with it the political and military wings of its movement, de Valera had merely to placate the most moderate section of his political followers. In 1925, when it became known that de Valera (who was not only leader of Sinn Féin but president of the Irish Republic which had remained in existence, at least in the minds of its adherents, since the Civil War) was contemplating entry into the Free State Dáil, the IRA severed its allegiance to de Valera's notional government, vesting the sovereign authority of the nation in the army leadership where it has remained until the present day. De Valera and the IRA parted company in one of the few important republican splits not marked by violence. Consequently, when de Valera declared his willingness to enter the Free State parliament, he had only to contend with political opposition within Sinn Féin. As it happened, a small majority of that party disagreed with his proposal, allowing him to lead his more pragmatic followers into Fianna Fáil.

What is also often overlooked by present day politicians who insist that the Provisional movement must commit to purely constitutional means before it can expect to exercise power is that it took Fianna Fáil a decade, half of it spent in government, before it decisively moved against the IRA. The murder of Kevin O'Higgins provides one example of the fraternal relationship between both organisations after the 1925 split. One of the three IRA murderers, Timothy Coughlan, was a prominent Fianna Fáil activist. When Coughlan died a year later – following a shoot-out with a police informant – one of the party's branches was even renamed in his honour. Between 1927 and 1932, Fianna Fáil's 'slightly constitutional' politicians consistently opposed the police's attempts to crack down on the IRA, rejected the legitimacy of the Free State 'junta', and took great pleasure in referring to the 'de facto government' and its 'so-called ministers' in Dáil debates. The party's election in 1932 was, in part, a result of the enthusiastic support it received from IRA activists, as well as public disquiet about the treatyite government's clumsy attempts to suppress physical force republicanism. De Valera's very first decision as president of the Free State government was to order the release of all IRA prisoners in the State, a move which was followed by the lifting of the ban on the IRA and attempts to persuade the organisation to fuses its forces within Fianna Fáil. It was not until 1936, after four years of IRA intransigence, that de Valera proscribed the IRA (predictably enough after a further series of pointless murders).

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