26. “The Emergent Irish State – Did We Turn Our Backs on the North?”
Monday, 20th October 1997,
St. Columban’s College, Dalgan Park, Navan.
Prof. Tom Garvin (Head of Politics, UCD): “The Aftermath of the Irish Civil War”
John Bruton, TD (Leader of Fine Gael, deputy for Meath constituency; former Taoiseach, 1994-97)
Chaired by Sean Boylan (Manager, Meath GAA Football Team)
Introduction – background to the talk: Julitta Clancy
Editor’s note: The original plan for the talk was to have four speakers – two from the South and two from the North. Unfortunately the SDLP speaker, Brid Rodgers (who was filling in for Denis Haughey), was delayed at the Stormont talks and was unable to travel to Meath in time, and Sinn Fein sent their apologies for not having a speaker for the night.
“The Emergent Irish State: Did we Turn our Backs on the North?”
On behalf of the Meath Peace Group, Julitta Clancy welcomed the speakers and the audience and outlined the background to the talk: “this is the 26th public talk organised by the Meath Peace Group since the group was formed in April 1993. The aims of the talks are to raise awareness locally, to promote North-South understanding, and to facilitate local people in playing their part in the long-term work of building the foundations for a lasting peace on the island. In both its public talks and more private discussions, the Group seeks in a positive and constructive way to look at the divisive issues and listen to as many points of view as possible. At times this can be painful – deep wounds are opened; but we believe it is necessary to do this if we are ever to have lasting peace. For too long we have avoided engaging in discussion on difficult areas, particularly in the South.
“The topic of this talk was in our minds virtually since we started – it is the result of many conversations we have had over the past 4 years with many Northern nationalists. It was particularly reinforced for us this summer in a discussion with some young residents of Rosslea, Co. Fermanagh, during a visit there – at the invitation of Enniskillen Together – to observe the annual Royal Black Preceptory parade through the village. The belief that we in the South turned our backs on the North is a belief held by many Northern nationalists, and feelings of bitterness remain to this day. There is also, perhaps, a sense of guilt among many of us in the south. In this talk we hoped to look both at the historical background – did we really turn our backs? and if so, what were the reasons? – and also to look at the lessons for us today and for the future. What can we do about it and how can we be inclusive of all viewpoints now?”
ADDRESSES OF SPEAKERS
1. Professor Tom Garvin (Head of Politics, University College Dublin): “The Aftermath of the Irish Civil War”
“When talking to the Meath Peace Group about this whole theme – the key question was the emotional one: did the South turn its back on the North? I am going to avoid that question, in true Southern fashion, and instead try to give you some background as to what were the social, economic and political circumstances in which the independent State found itself in the South after the Treaty. In a way this paper is more about the aftermath of the Irish Civil War and its consequences for the politics of what is now the Republic of Ireland, rather than a direct answer to the original question which was set, but I sincerely hope that perhaps a partial set of answers to the question set may come about indirectly by this exercise.”
Introduction: “As I’m sure you all know, for a very long time after the end of the Irish Civil War a lot of people didn’t like talking about it. In fact, a sort of conspiracy of silence was entered into by a lot of people for perhaps the best of all possible reasons – to ensure that the bitterness of the Irish Civil War was not transmitted to a younger and possibly more innocent generation.
“There is no war more bitter than civil war. Our civil war was not very large but it does bulk large in our political consciousness. The Irish Civil War resembled others of its kind in its viciousness and in the enduring hatreds that it generated. In Ring, Co. Waterford, when I was a boy, it was always referred to as “Cogadh na mBraithir” – the local version of the phrase “the war of the brothers”, and of course in many cases it was indeed a war between brothers and sisters, as I’m sure you know.
“In this paper I would like to suggest some effects on the structure of Irish politics – southern political structure – and even Irish society – which were consequent on the Civil War.
Triggering of the conflict: “The first point that I would like to make is that the Irish Civil War was almost certainly not triggered off by the actual terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty or by any public actions of de Valera. During the Truce period of July 1921 to December in the same year, in the run-up to the signing of the Treaty, it was obvious to many observers, Irish and foreign, that some elements of the IRA, now fortified with armaments acquired in relative “peacetime”, were determined to use physical force against any compromise settlement anyway short of a Republic. Behind them again were others who were equally determined to push Ireland the whole way to a perhaps vaguely imagined socialist Republic dominated by the self-declared representatives of the small farmers and the workers rather than by what were thought of as the electorally chosen minions of national or international capitalism.
Perception of the Treaty: “The fact that the Treaty was, certainly in the eyes of the British and some of the Irish, an extraordinary concession was scarcely understood by some IRA soldiers and radical ideologues of the time, galvanised as they were by the expectations raised by the emotional rhetoric of that period. The fact that it marked the final defeat of Anglo-Ireland was also not fully grasped, partly because some among the nationalists could perhaps be accused of trying to step into the shoes of the ascendancy. Collins’s desperate plea that the Treaty offered the “freedom to achieve freedom” was not always believed, and was sometimes denounced as a device to camouflage a continuation of something like Ascendancy Ireland under new green symbols. This noisily expressed perception of the Treaty settlement as a sell-out was not just shared by extreme Republicans or Bolshevik sympathisers of that time, but even by later “bourgeois liberal” commentators such as for example Sean O Faolain in old age, at least in his more acidulous moments.
Free State a “disappointment”: “This mentality persisted for many years, and possibly still is amongst us to some extent: the proposition that 1922 was a defeat rather than a victory, or, at least, was not much better than an ignoble and perhaps crooked compromise. The “Free State”, it was felt, was a disappointment. The horrors of civil war were to make it worse: a military and psychological defeat for the ideals of the national revolution that in many people’s eyes appeared total.
“This mentality persisted despite the fact that the Treaty was given huge majorities in the general elections of both 1922 and 1923…. Republicans knew, in fact, that the vast majority of the population was in favour of the settlement, but rejected this popular will as being illegitimate, the product of clerical and press propaganda and an expression of the enslaved and cowed minds of the vast majority of the Irish people. Some of them felt that the majority were ignoble and unworthy of the glorious destiny which republicans offered them. In the eyes of republican purists, not only did Northern unionists suffer from what Lenin might have termed “popular false consciousness”, but so did the majority of Southern nationalists. In fact, Republicans were quite pleasantly surprised to find that they actually received about one-quarter of the votes in the first “Free State” election of 1923. 
Tensions: “The personal hatreds and distrusts that surfaced among the leaders in 1921-22 cast a revealing light on the tensions which had been inside the separatist movement and had lain buried there most of the time during the War of Independence. It was in part a division between administrators and fighters, people who were good at running things versus those who were good at fighting. It was in part a division between groups of comrades loyal to one or other of the groups of leaders on the pro- and anti-Treaty sides. It becomes quite obvious when you read through the letters of the period and reminiscences of the time that many people, at least declaredly, went pro-Treaty or anti-Treaty for personal reasons. “I couldn’t let the Long Fellow down” is what Harry Boland said about Eamon de Valera. Another man was bullied into going anti-Treaty, allegedly by his wife. Many of the people weren’t quite sure which side to go on and could easily have turned up on the opposite side. In some cases local loyalties meant more than any dedication to a national cause of one kind or another.
Left-right element: “In part again the division was indeed, as it was often made out to be by certain kinds of historians, between socialist and republican radicals on the one hand and “national bourgeois” leaders allied with Redmondite and ex-Unionist elements on the other. There was a sort of left/right element there as well.
“For example, there was a very clear correlation between social class and voting support for the Treaty. Employers, larger farmers and many urban middle- and working-class people supported it, while many other workers, small farmers and inhabitants of more remote areas often opposed it. However, at the elite level, there was very little obvious correspondence between social origin and one’s position on the Treaty: many scions of the “Big Houses” took up the anti-Treaty cause while many young men and women of humble origin followed Collins, Griffith and local IRB leaders such as, for example, Alec McCabe in my own ancestral county of Sligo. 
The split: “One of the reasons why the split took place so slowly and reluctantly between mid-1921 and mid-1922 was of course, being Irish people, they were aware of their history. They may or may not have known their history but they were certainly aware of it, which is not quite the same thing. They had a very vivid folk awareness of the catastrophic impact the Parnell split had had a generation earlier. They knew that Parnell’s shipwreck had shipwrecked Irish politics for a generation and they knew that if they split, something like it, or even something worse, might occur again. Even in advance, the leaders feared the bitterness of a new split.
“Splits were dreaded, and were seen as a cardinal political sin, but another cardinal political sin was real or inferred disloyalty. Disloyalty had also been the cardinal political sin in the secret societies of the late nineteenth century which so many of these men had been members of when they were starting their political careers.
“Fundamentally it was disloyalty, of one kind or another, which each side imputed to the other in 1922. The mind-set which labelled the other side as disloyal to the national cause caused a mutual contempt which still, I would suggest, residually poisons political relationships in the politics of our Republic even two generations later.
Conspiracy theory: “Republican purists developed a conspiracy theory about the split, one that still survives in republican folklore. There are absurd versions of this conspiracy – for example it was held by Mary MacSwiney and some others that Collins was seduced by the bright lights of London, the flattery of the English aristocracy and by offers of marriage to a royal princess in return for national apostasy. In turn, it was alleged, Collins and his lieutenants had used the secret network of the IRB to cajole, bribe and bully TDs and IRA leaders to support the Treaty.
“In fact, Collins had signed the Treaty in good faith, but the purists needed a Dolchstosslegende – a stab-in-the back legend, of the kind which was being used in Germany to promote the fortunes of the National Socialists of that time – rather like Joseph Goebbels some of them were saying that it was a stab in the back: there was a myth of the glorious IRA betrayed foully in mid-fight by internal betrayal and by the preternatural cunning and corruption of the British political establishment. 
The Fighting: “The very term “civil war” may be a somewhat grandiloquent misnomer for the fighting that occurred in the twenty six counties between June 1922 and May 1923. In part, the anti-Treaty IRA had local roots in a tradition of local solidarity much as had the pre-Treaty IRA. However, during the Civil War both sides had local contacts; the rather bewildered British, with their massive armaments, but their blindness to local conditions and local alliances, were replaced in the Free State Army, from the IRA point of view, by men with local knowledge and equally impressive armaments. Local men faced local men – sometimes they were relations, maybe even brothers occasionally, often wearing similar uniforms and often even having bonds of affection across the battle lines. On the Free State side, however, was an army in part drawn from ex-British veterans, IRA veterans and the apolitical youth of the bigger towns. The old local cunning of IRA leaders was in vain against the Free State’s equal cunning, combined with weight of armaments and men. 
“One example of this is afforded by the capture of Liam Deasy by the Free State in January 1923. It was decided to execute him. In return for a stay of execution, Deasy eventually was to consent to sign a circular letter calling for an immediate end to the hopeless resistance to the Free State. Before this “treasonous” act, Deasy was seen as a potential martyr by the republicans. Denis (Dinny) Lacey of South Tipperary IRA arrested five farmers who were brothers of the local Free State Army’s ex-IRA commanders in the area. If Deasy were executed, Lacey announced, all five would be killed by the Irregulars. Tom Ryan, the senior Free State officer involved, recalled fifty years later:
“I knew that it was possible to contact Lacey urgently through a sweetheart Miss Cooney, a Flying Column comrade of mine pre-Truce, who became Irregular and was at this time one of Lacey’s key men … She was at business in Clonmel and was known to be doing Irregular work. I called to her address and gave her a dispatch to be delivered in haste to Lacey. The wording of the dispatch was as follows: I understand that Liam Deasy will be executed tomorrow. Should you, following on the event, carry out your threat to execute the five prisoners now held, inside twenty-four hours of execution confirmation, every male member of the Lacey family in South Tipperary will be wiped out.” Signed Tom Ryan, Vice Brigadier, National Army.
“Deasy was actually reprieved. The point is that the closeness with which the two sets of leaders of the two forces knew each other gave the conflict a peculiar intimacy and intensity that made its occasional viciousness even more unforgivable, as perpetrators and victims commonly knew each other and had roots in the same localities. 
“Hideous murders occurred on both sides, and the hideousness was intensified by the fact that the killers and their victims commonly knew each other. Young Protestant men in west Cork were taken out and murdered by local IRA – by young men who were their neighbours. Free State soldiers chained IRA prisoners to landmines and blew them up.
“It seems that the murderers and victims at Ballyseedy knew each other and had a common background of local agrarian differences. IRA attempts to kill Free State TDs were of course followed by terrible retaliation against republican leaders and IRA prisoners. The Civil War eventually ended in a whimper rather than a bang, and no formal surrender was either offered by the republicans or insisted upon by the Free State.
Cost: “A little-remembered aspect of the conflict was the cost to the emerging Free State. The Irish Civil War involved the hiring of fifty thousand soldiers, an enormous number in a small, rather impoverished country. It also involved the systematic wrecking of the country’s infrastructure by the IRA – the railway system was dismantled, for example. The War was estimated at the time to have cost about 50 million pounds. In our money that would be close on two billion pounds in Irish pounds (1997). As the GNP of the country was almost certainly less than one-third of what it is nowadays it possibly represents something like the equivalent of six billion pounds, all taken out of the country in eight months, possibly a quarter of a year’s GNP, or the equivalent of the entire EU tranche for Ireland for the decade of the 1990s. This crippling blow to the infant state, which I’ve never seen historians speak about, was to make the penny-pinching traditions of the new Department of Finance institutionalised at the moment of birth.
Consequences of the Civil War: “The consequences of the Civil War for the minor European democracy that emerged from its ashes were so multifold as to defy any brief listing. However, in the rest of this paper I will try to list what seem to be some of the major consequences of the split and conflict which wrecked the national liberation movement of 1916-21. I suggest that these consequences fall conveniently under four headings:
(a) North-South and British and foreign relations
(b) the structure of the party system and of democratic politics in the state;
(c) social and political culture; and
(d) the structure of the public policy.
(a) The Permanent Partition of Ireland: “The partition of Ireland was, as we all know, institutionalised a year and a half before the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December, 1921. Some partition under some constitutional formula was foreseen years earlier, but it was by no means clear that the “deep partition” of 1922 was inevitable. The collapse of public order in the south of Ireland had various incidental effects. This collapse we cannot quite imagine now – in 1921-1922 the South of Ireland went very close to chaos, there were no policemen for about eight months in the entire country. One effect which, I believe, has been inadequately commented on, was the weakening of anti-partitionist purpose among both Free State and republican elites. After Collins’s death, solidarity between the Free State and Northern nationalists weakened, and clear signs of accepting the North as a separate entity, perhaps to be negotiated with, but not to be absorbed, appeared among Free State leaders.
“The unionists’ political hand was immeasurably strengthened by the much-publicised spectacle of disorder in the south, the apparent uncontrollability of the IRA, and the equally apparent unwillingness of the Provisional Government to bring it to heel. It was easy for London newspapers to speak of the inability of the “native Irish” to govern themselves; to ask how could anyone ask “Ulster” to permit itself to be swallowed up in such a squalid, post-revolutionary and backward state.
“All the traditional stereotypes of the backward, superstitious and murderous “native Irish” could be wheeled out, and were, by the Morning Post and other newspapers. The fact that the Civil War was rather short and was rapidly replaced by a return to civic peace was less emphasised. 
Dominions: “Another point which we tend to forget is that the Treaty settlement had been warmly supported and encouraged by the “Old Dominions” – Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. This was in part because Ireland’s energetic striving for an even fuller measure of independence reinforced Canadian and other similar strivings. In the middle of 1922, for example, Canada, because of the Irish Treaty, found itself able to legislate for the right of the Federation to declare war independently of the Imperial Parliament; India watched attentively as the Irish blazed a trail which she longed to follow. Sympathy for the idea of a united Ireland existed in both the Canadian Federation and in what might be termed the “latent federation” of British India – the partition of India was of course on the horizon as well, as the Indians of that period were quite well aware. The violence in Ireland strengthened those in the Dominions who accepted Irish partition as acceptable and even natural, as against those who felt that Ireland, like Canada, and perhaps South Africa or India, was somehow a “natural” historic entity which should not be carved up at the whim of the imperial parliament. The diplomatic kudos of the Free State, very considerable in January 1922, was far less considerable in May, 1923. 
(b). The Party System: “Irish political parties derive, in the main, from the divisions of the Irish Civil War, as we know. Only the Labour Party and the farmers’ parties to an extent have other structural origins. The opposition between de Valera and Cosgrave became one that still structures Irish party politics two generations later. The hatreds are now faded, but strange residues still persist of certain mutual perceptions.
Persistence of hatreds: “These hatreds persisted for an extraordinarily long time, and seem to have partaken of a characteristically Irish persistence. Helen Litton, in a marvellous little book on the Irish Civil War, has commented that this persistence has sometimes been attributed to the small size of the population, which would have intensified the effect of personal relationships to people killed on both sides. However, there’s another European country that had a civil war at about the same time. Finland, which became independent of the Russian Empire in 1917-1918 in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and with roughly the same population as Ireland, suffered a ferocious little civil war in 1918.
“25, 000 people were killed in three months in Finland, many of them were murdered in concentration camps. The Irish conflict involved perhaps 3, 000 killings at most in the twenty-six counties. Six thousand people were killed in the entire Irish Troubles from 1913 to 1923, on the island as a whole. In Finland, former enemies were sharing government by 1937… 
“In Ireland, the bones of the Civil War dead were rattled for forty years. Noel Browne remembered “…as a young politician in Leinster House [in 1948], I recall my shock at the white-hot hate with which that terrible episode had marked their lives. The trigger words were “77”, “Ballyseedy”, “Dick and Joe”, and above all “the Treaty” and “damn good bargain”. The raised tiers of the Dail chamber would become filled with shouting, gesticulating, clamouring, suddenly angry men.” 
Left/right politics: “It is often lamented that the Civil War deprived Ireland of conventional European “left versus right” politics, in favour of two factions based on ancestral hatreds. I would suggest that even without a civil war, Irish society did not naturally lend itself to this kind of polarisation. To imagine the impossible, had there been no Civil War and had Collins succeeded in uniting both wings of the IRA as one force and had accepted that it could not be used to destabilise Northern Ireland, presumably a Sinn Fein party under Griffith, Collins and de Valera would have governed as a centre-right party, with farmers on the right, and Labour on the left. Sinn Fein would eventually almost certainly have divided into two main groups – on the pattern of India after independence – the one more republican and separatist, the other more “Commonwealth” and rightist. Both groups would have been rather loose and perhaps undisciplined. Irish politics would have been deeply centrist, although in a different form than was eventually to emerge under a centrist Fianna Fail after 1937.
Fianna Fáil: “A likely contrast with our reality would have been the failure of a Sinn Féin ever to forge the kind of internal solidarity of a military kind which Fianna Fail did succeed in forging eventually. Fianna Fail was the child of the Civil War; it was created in the prison camps of the Free State, much as Sinn Fein had been reinvented a few years earlier in British prison camps. The bitterness of the split and the comradeship of the defeated made possible the creation of an extraordinary political party under de Valera, whose unwritten motto might have been Never Split. No matter what disagreements there might be within the party, Fianna Fail generally showed a bland face to its external public. Divisions between left and right, between industrialisers and traditionalists, between localists and national interest politicians, Catholics and secularists, all have been consistently subordinated to the overall interests of the Party, or National Movement. Intellectual discussion suffered, because its potential for division was seen. An almost Soviet habit of solidarity and intellectual conformity, combined with a great practical political skill, characterised independent Ireland’s greatest political party.
“Fianna Fail could almost be characterised as the anti-Treaty IRA in civilian form. Old local commanders were converted into cumann secretaries and other key figures, aiming to rule Ireland by ballots rather than bullets. The seed of Fianna Fail lay in the surprisingly large vote the republicans got in 1923. The voters seemed to be saying: “if you accept the Treaty, there are those among us who like much of what you stand for. Act accordingly.” The votes tended to be in poorer and more remote areas, and in places where IRA presence had been strong. In particular, areas that had seen Black and Tan atrocities seemed particularly sympathetic. 
Prisoners: “Republican prisoners in jail in 1923 were fascinated by the mechanics of proportional representation and were, in a grudging way, impressed by the pedantic fairness of the PR-STV system of voting devised by the Free State government. The possibilities of Free State democracy were a shock to many republicans, persuaded as so many of them were by de Valera and Frank Gallagher that electoral democracy in the new polity was corrupt either in the sense of the ballot being interfered with or in the voters themselves being venal or cowardly.
“In Newbridge military camp prisoners were being taught courses in constitutional law, local government, and Irish history, under the aegis of Dan O’Donovan, a well-known Dail civil servant who went anti-Treaty, by September 1923. He and other lecturers suggested that the military victory of the Free State could be reversed by peaceful means. Non-violent penetration of the local government apparatus would, in the long run, deliver the new polity into the hands of its enemies. Local organisational centres were already being set up all over the twenty-six counties.
“This mixture of the military and the political, a central characteristic of Fianna Fail, was a prime result of the Civil War. If there had been no conflict, Irish party politics would have been very different, almost certainly even more localist than it actually became. 
“One could indeed argue that one of the reasons for the extraordinary tolerance which the activities of Charles Haughey and others received within Fianna Fail was a long-term effect of the conflict. The party’s internal solidarity was taken advantage of, and its internal discipline metamorphosed, for some, into a mechanism of intimidation and the enforcement of conformity. The party’s most central strength was used against it by its own leaders.
(c) Social Culture and Social Control: A consequence of the conflict, it could be argued, was an effort to intensify Victorian aspects of Irish social culture. In particular, women, partially mobilised by the suffragette and nationalist movements, found themselves thoroughly subordinated by the events of 1922-23. The allegedly extravagant and extremist behaviour of many women leaders was used as an excuse to discourage the participation of women in political life after 1923. Although many women were politically effective in trade unions and professional associations, by and large Irish politics remained very much a man’s world until the 1970s.
“Similarly, young boys and men were subjected to a neo-Victorian discipline of Spartan proportions in the schools of the Christian Brothers and similar orders in the decades after the Treaty. The genies of adolescent sex and violence had been let out of the bottle in 1919-23. The stopper was firmly put back again afterward, not to be taken out again until the 1960s.
Catholic Church: “The conflict also probably strengthened the power of the Catholic Church, at least temporarily. The Church had supported the Treaty, but rather conveniently many individual clerics had been vehemently anti-Treaty. The Church came to be seen as the only organisation capable of taming the animal instincts of Irish people.
“Film and book censorship, laws against dancing and policies designed to segregate the sexes were vigorously pursued by Church and State. The puritanism and repression of Irish society may have been aggravated by the aftermath of the conflict.
Death of idealism: “A less quantifiable cultural consequence was the death of idealism. The Irish state was founded in a wave of genuine idealism and enthusiasm that survived the Black and Tans and the British campaign. It did not survive undamaged the devastating psychological impact of the Civil War. Enthusiasm for the Irish language dried up and the task of reviving the old language was shucked on to the children. Many old revolutionaries later wondered privately whether the whole business had been really worth it. These questioners included such diverse people as James Dillon, David Neligan and Eamon de Valera. The perceived failure of revolutionary enthusiasm made many sceptical of all political action, and impelled many to enter the religious life in part, perhaps, seeking the fulfillments of this world. Others emigrated, some being effectively pushed out of the country because of their nonconformist political or religious views.
(d) The Structure of Public Policy: “The split and civil war also strengthened the hand of the public service, central to Irish politics since at least the 1870s and now to be more central still. William Cosgrave leaned heavily on the wisdom of civil servants after 1922, and it is striking how quickly de Valera was to evolve a similar relationship with them in the 1930s. The systematic subordination of police and army to the central civil service, which still exists, is a direct legacy of the state-building process which was rushed through in 1922-23. Civil service “conservatism” has been blamed for many policy failures since independence, but it could be argued that civil service prudence also prevented some wilder experiments dear to the hearts of [??] revolutionaries. The present-day Irish Republic is, perhaps, the most centralised of the older western democracies; this is in part a result of the British colonial inheritance, but is also a consequence of the civil war; local government in particular was seriously weakened by the conflict, as central government came to see local councils as rivals for political authority rather than allies in government.
Universities: “A little-commented on effect of the conflict was the delivery of the main universities into the hands of the pro-Treatyites. Fine Gael had, for long, a preponderance of power inside UCD and the other NUI colleges. This had the unfortunate effect of alienating the natural governing party, Fianna Fail, from much of what existed of academic intelligence in the new country. What price, if any, was paid for this divorce between dons and politicians is hard to say. I would guess that Irish anti-intellectualism and public philistinism, always likely to be strong in the early decades of independence, was mightily strengthened by the conflict. A certain anti-rationalism of style, always noticeable in Irish public policy, may have been aggravated.
Conclusion: “The Irish Civil War had a profound effect on Irish political development, in ways that have been so pervasive and deep as to be taken for granted by we Irish who grew up in the world created by that war. North-South relations, relations with Britain and the Commonwealth, attitudes towards veterans of the Great War, Church-State relations and the entire fabric and quality of public life were affected by the conflict to an enormous extent. While a superficial recovery occurred between 1932 and 1945 under de Valera, it was in many ways a hollow thing, a pretence that the events of 1922-23 had not really happened. A crippling of Irish public political culture occurred which necessitated an exaggerated reliance on Church and central State structures for the supply of political and cultural coherence. The historical dependence on the overarching structures of the Church, the State, the Fianna Fail party and the GAA only began to fade in the 1960s, as a general social pluralism began to melt the sociological glaciers generated by the Great Freeze of the post civil war period. This historical crippling is one which, I believe, we are still trying to overcome.
2. John Bruton, TD (Leader of Fine Gael, former Taoiseach):
“Ladies and gentlemen, first of all I would like to say that, although I read a lot of history, I am not an historian, and I make that disclaimer before I attempt to answer what is an historical question. The question here is – “Did we turn our backs on the North?”, or “Did we avoid the Northern question in typical Southern fashion?” – One can only answer that question by tracing what has happened since 1921 – one therefore can’t avoid talking about history.
“I propose to deal with it under four headings: firstly, to ask and answer the question “Did we turn our backs?”, secondly, to ask and, to the best of my ability, answer the question “Why?”, thirdly, to go on to the next question: “What made the division deeper?” and, finally, to ask the question “What can we do to reverse this process of having turned our backs”
1. “Did we turn our backs?” – “Yes, very much so, I think particularly from 1925 until 1965. I would regard the beginning of that process of turning our backs here on this side of the border occurred in 1925 – I suppose this was felt most acutely by Northern nationalists but in fact it represented a turning away from all of the people living in Northern Ireland …. The failure of the Boundary Commission to deliver some solution, that it was never going to deliver anyway, left an intellectual void in the minds of southern policy-makers – they literally couldn’t come up with a new approach. I think the end of that period of turning our backs dates from 1965 when Sean Lemass went to Stormont to meet Terence O’Neill. I think that was an enormous change – it’s very interesting to note that that decision was made literally within a few minutes. Sean Lemass had no notice that he was getting this invitation – he got the invitation, nobody had the slightest idea whether he would say yes or no, but he said yes immediately and the meeting was organised very soon afterwards.
“Since 1965 for a variety of reasons – some of them not so pleasant – we haven’t turned our backs on the North. We haven’t got the solution, but we haven’t turned our backs. But there was a big turning of our backs from 1925 to 1965 – this left a residue of betrayal in the minds of Northern nationalists who still blame this present generation of politicians – who spend an enormous amount of time on Northern problems – for the failure of their predecessors from 1925 to 1965. To some extent the distrust on the part of Northern nationalists of Southern politicians represents their sense of anger with what happened between 1925 and 1965 which they couldn’t deal with at the time, and didn’t talk about at the time. They seethed quietly but hadn’t the language to express their anger.
“They are now venting their anger on us, to a great degree unfairly, at a time when Southern politicians are actually, and have been, since Sean Lemass’s historic move, devoting a great deal of time to the problems of Northern Ireland. So it’s a question, I think, of delayed reaction.
2. Why did we turn our backs?: I would identify the following reasons, and I’m sure there are about 5 or 10 others. Why did we turn our backs initially? –
(a) Firstly, I think, we didn’t know who we were ourselves – it’s very difficult to have a relationship with someone else till you know who you are yourself… this State didn’t really know who it was for a long, long time. Were we a Republic or were we a Dominion? Should we be a Republic, or should we be a Dominion in order to keep up links with the North so that we’d have something in common with it. That question was never thoroughly debated or resolved. Were we, if you like, aiming to be a Gaelic state – expressing one culture – or were we aiming to be a multi-cultural state, having a British tradition and a Gaelic tradition mingled together. We didn’t answer satisfactorily either one of those questions – to an extent we haven’t answered them properly yet. Given that we weren’t able to answer the question as to who we were ourselves, it was exceptionally difficult and almost inevitable that we wouldn’t be able to form a very clear relationship with the two communities in Northern Ireland
(b) There was also an issue as to who in the North should we turn our face towards? – was it our obligation to turn our face to the nationalists alone, as some would still claim, or was it our responsibility to turn our face towards the nationalists and the unionists equally? We haven’t resolved that question either. That’s another reason why, to a degree, we still turn our backs. Many people still think, many senior people still think, that our first responsibility lies to only one of the two communities. I don’t agree. You saw that debate in the General Election – there’s a profound disagreement between myself and the Taoiseach. He has one view, I have another. How can we therefore turn our face to Northern Ireland until we have agreed what group we are turning our face to – is it one community or both?
(c) “We had different political parties. In Northern Ireland in the 1918 election the Irish Party beat Sinn Fein – de Valera was beaten by Joe Devlin in Belfast and almost all the constituencies in Northern Ireland were won by the old Irish Party. They only won one other seat in all of Ireland – Captain Redmond’s seat in Waterford. So the Northern Nationalists had a different party representing them … the Irish Party was wiped out effectively in the South. There were different organisations. Of course the Unionists also were wiped out in the South, and the Unionists were the party representing the other group in Northern Ireland, so you had two political parties up there – both communities represented by different political parties to the parties that were active in the South. That created, if you like, again a sense of organisational division which was compounded by these conceptual difficulties that we still have ourselves about what we aspire to be and who we aspire to have a relationship with in Northern Ireland.
“So those are the philosophical and organisational reasons as to why at the outset this turning of our backs took place.
2) What increased these divisions? “You could bring a list as long as your arm – I’m choosing arbitrarily a few factors which I’ll just mention and I’m sure any of you could come along and give me ten far better reasons than the few I’m going to give.
“I would identify the following reasons why the divisions which had this very profound conceptual root, which I’ve referred to already, became deeper:
- “Once our State was founded we had a lot to get on with in 1921 – this was a very poor and desperate State. Most people believed it had no hope of governing itself. We had to prove first that we could govern our own state – deal with emigration, deal with the huge agrarian differences that existed in our country, deal with poverty… Those problems did turn our attentions inwards and it’s only now, that we’ve attained prosperity, that we can begin to look outwards again. There was that factor that drove us to get on with the job – the immediate task of keeping our own people at home and giving them a decent living and decent housing, and so on.
- “The development of our economies was different – we started with two rather different economies. The South was agricultural, the North was heavily industrial. The North increasingly, and still, related to London economically – it was its principal market. The South initially did trade very much with Britain but as time went on it diversified much more and we had very different economies really. Then of course we had the fact that our currencies parted company in 1979, and since 1979 as well we had Thatcherism. We should not underestimate the significance of Thatcherism in the North. When you look at the ways in which North-South cooperation should be developed, it would have been far easier to have done this before 1979. Before 1979 they basically had Ministries and Semi-State companies and all of those sort of things of the kind that we have. You could always say, why don’t, say, the Northern Ireland electricity board and the Southern Ireland electricity board both get together, they’re both State companies, and cooperate. Why shouldn’t this or that be done on a cooperative basis for political reasons. The difficulty is that since Mrs. Thatcher took over in Britain all the bodies with whom you could have enforced cooperation in the North have been privatised or contracted out. So they’re not taking political direction any more – they’re taking direction from their shareholders. You can urge them all you like to have North-South cooperation, that’s not their priority. Their priority now, for many of these services, is achieving the bottom line… They’re not there to be told, as they were up to 1979, to cooperate.
- Bureaucratic interests in the South: “As the South became successful its own public administration became quite comfortable with itself, and it didn’t really want the bother of having to get involved with a whole lot of cooperation with bodies in Northern Ireland which had a fairly different set of problems. There was an already full “in-tray” on the table in other respects, and there was a tendency, if you like, of “let’s mind our own turf”. There is that problem of turf. If we were to create an all-Ireland body to deal with tourism, for example, that would mean that Bord Failte would have to give up power. “There will be a resistance to giving up power, and having to wait for a decision to be taken in Armagh for all Ireland, when last year we could have got on with it and made the decision in Dublin and be doing the thing without having to wait for Armagh, or wherever this joint body is going to be…. That sort of problem is there. I’m struck by this because I was looking at the agenda that would have discussed the second Lemass-O’Neill meeting in 1965, and the list of things that Lemass was about to cooperate with O’Neill on in 1965 is exactly the same as the list that is now in the Framework Document, and we’re actually no further on in most of those areas of cooperation. Lemass’s list in 1965 – he didn’t stay in office long after that for health reasons, and then all the Troubles came along – but in fact the agenda is still there and there hasn’t been much progress. I think the some of the reasons are as I have described.
- The 1937 Constitution and above all, the anti-partition campaign: “The anti-partition campaign was responsible, in my view, for entrenching partition. That’s an irony – I’m going to explain it in the last part of my speech, but it’s a very true irony, in my view. I would say this about the anti-partition campaign, particularly the anti-partition campaign of the late 1940s – the focus was on a distant objective of a united Ireland which all of the people involved knew, if they thought deeply about it, wasn’t going to be attained in the near future. By focusing all their efforts on a distant objective, the possibilities of progress in the foothills were ignored. That tendency, to sublimate everything into an impossible desire, rather than make practical steps forward, was something that we as a State here fell into. We were able to satisfy ourselves, as far as our consciences were concerned, not to get too worked up about, say, housing discrimination in Rosslea, or the way RUC members or B Specials treated Northern nationalists, on the basis that, if we solved these small problems, sure wouldn’t be reducing or removing some of the arguments we were able to use abroad for ending partition? Now you may say that’s an outrageous statement to make about our forebears, but I will quote you later in this address a memorandum of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and you’ll be glad to know it’s a memorandum that was published by Jim Downey in accordance with the disclosure of papers rules of 30 years, which clearly states what I’ve just said – that we wouldn’t want to get too involved in detailed activities to solve particular problems in Northern Ireland, particularly with a view to helping the nationalists because that would take away from our overall objective which is to end partition. That’s a fact – you may not believe it but it’s a fact, and I will quote later on the words from this memorandum.
- The final reason, I would think, is that we in the South have become very focused on Europe, we have become very proud to be part of the European Union, and while that is wonderful for us, it has created a different experience for political leaders down here, to political leaders in the North who are not tugged [??] into Europe in the same way.
“So those are my reasons – firstly preoccupation with our own very severe economic problems, the divergence of administration following the Thatcher initiative, the fact that our economies started different and became more different as time went by, the anti-partition campaign, bureaucratic interests, and finally, the IRA. “The IRA have been the agents of partition more than anyone else… The IRA made us ashamed, they made us feel deeply ashamed. There was a sense there was something awful, and I feel this deeply. I feel horrified and ashamed at the IRA. I am an Irish Catholic – and I’m not ashamed to say I am a Catholic. I am a nationalist too, although I find it harder to say that because I hear spokespersons for the IRA attaching that term to themselves. I believe people down here have become radically turned off by the activities of the IRA and it’s not something that will disappear quickly, it’s not something you can turn around by calling a cease-fire and saying, “we have a cease-fire now, forget about everything in the past”. I feel the same horror at the death of Stephen Restorick as I did at the death of Jerry McCabe. I felt the same shame, and I would say most people here did too. If you really want to know why we’ve turned our backs, that’s the reason. When I hear spokesmen for the IRA and Sinn Fein talking about partitionist attitudes down here, I think who’s responsible? They are, more than anyone else.
“Those are my reasons as to why we turned our backs.
What can we do now to heal the divisions in Northern Ireland? “I’m going to talk personally, as John Bruton, as I have to say my credentials as someone who wants to bring unity of the peoples on this island have been questioned in the last few days by a number of people, not all of them Sinn Fein. I want to talk about my view as someone who has been, and hopes again to be Taoiseach, as to what our approach should be to end this turning of backs that has occurred.
“The building of a bridge between the Unionist and Nationalist people on this island has been my political priority since I became leader of my party seven years ago. This has been fundamental to every election campaign in which I have been involved, and always will be. We must lift the siege mentality in Northern Ireland that exists in both communities.
Understanding: “As in any human relationship which has been fractured, one must start by trying to understand the feelings, fears and suspicions of the other party. a simple recital of one’s own sense of loss, anger or injustice is unproductive, not because it is untrue, but because it drives the other party away, and ensures that dialogue never reaches the point where those issues can be explored in a useful way. That’s commonsense – it’s something you could talk about in respect of marriage or any other relationship which is in difficulties: you have to start with the other person’s point of view, not your own.
“Applying this commonsense insight about human relations generally to the divisions on this island, I have, in the last seven years, put a priority on showing the “other side” – in this case the Unionists – that there are many people on this side of the border who really respect their rights, views and allegiances. I am totally convinced that this is a necessary preliminary to any real dialogue of the kind that would result in Unionists showing reciprocal respect for the rights, views and allegiances of Northern Nationalists in particular, and of Irish Nationalists generally.
“My object has at all times been a settlement that would recognise rights, views and allegiances of both communities. But a reaching out by the Nationalist majority on the island to Unionists is a necessary precondition for this to happen, in my view.
Pan-nationalist front: “My approach to this has been constantly misunderstood by some Northern Nationalists, and particularly by Sinn Fein. The motives vary. Some have chosen deliberately to misunderstand. Others quite sincerely believe that Unionists cannot be persuaded by generosity, and that what is needed is a pan-nationalist front that stands up to them. I profoundly disagree with this view, but do understand that it is a natural enough reaction to the discrimination that Northern Nationalists experienced, especially in the period between 1922 and 1971.
“I do not believe that a pan-nationalist front would work. Indeed it would simply be a repeat of the errors made by successive Governments in the early years of this state who focused on anti-partition campaigns, rather than on practical and immediate steps to alleviate day-to-day Nationalist grievances while building day-to-day trust with Unionists.
“Indeed the policy of focusing on divisive long-term goals, rather than day-to-day measures to remove injustices, was described in a Department of Foreign Affairs memorandum of 1962, as follows: “Generally we have not been prepared to envisage attacking individual grievances of the Nationalist inhabitants of the North, as this would seem to imply acquiescence in the overall political status quo.”
Lemass visit to Stormont: “This policy was wisely abandoned by Sean Lemass. He reacted promptly three years later to the historical invitation to go to Stormont to meet Terence O’Neill. In so doing he responded positively to what Terence O’Neill had described as his policy of “building bridges in the community”.
“The Lemass meeting with O’Neill in Stormont was criticised by some Northern Nationalists, who felt it undermined the traditional anti-partitionist stance. One leading republican described the Lemass visit to Stormont as the “greatest betrayal of all”.
“Unfortunately, some Republicans, even today, see concern for Unionist sensitivities as “betrayal” too. They are wrong because they do not understand that anything that creates an impression that Northern Unionists are being “encircled” by a hostile nationalist front, which includes Dublin, just serves to make them more intransigent, undermines moderates within their ranks, and ensures that durable agreements will not be made by them.
“That is why, as Taoiseach, I was unwilling to have too many “front” type meetings exclusively with Nationalist parties, to the exclusion of other Northern parties. For instance, in the middle of the work of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, attended by numerous Northern parties, I declined to have a special joint summit with the SDLP and Sinn Fein, which would have excluded those other Forum parties from the North, as well as excluding the pro-Union parties who were not attending the Forum at all.
“This decision of mine not to have an exclusive Joint Summit with Sinn Fein and the SDLP was prompted solely by a desire not to isolate the other parties, but Sinn Fein chose to interpret it as a betrayal of some kind and even went to the bizarre length of using it to justify the IRA’s return to killing some time later.
Decommissioning: “Likewise, the decommissioning issue led to similar reactions. I have always realised that paramilitary arms will only be decommissioned, in any serious way, when a just political settlement is in sight. But equally it is not open to a legitimate democratic Government to concede the right of any private army to hold arms illegally on its territory.
“If an Irish Government were to let it be believed that, in any way, it regarded the holding of IRA arms as legitimate, this would entrench Unionist suspicions more deeply than ever before, because no previous Irish Government since 1922 had ever accepted the legitimacy of such arms holdings.
“Unfortunately, Sinn Fein again chose to interpret my insistence on the principle of decommissioning as support for a precondition of decommissioning, and again tried to use that to justify the IRA’s resumed violence. In so doing, they ignored the absolute necessity for an Irish Government to show that it is acting in good faith in its dealings with both Unionists and Nationalists.
Electoral pacts: “After the IRA violence had resumed, I made it clear that I did not favour electoral pacts with Sinn Fein, because Sinn Fein was supporting the IRA, and an electoral pact with Sinn Fein in those circumstances would convey the impression that violence was somehow a legitimate part of the tactics that ought to be deployed in support of political objects. This would radically alienate Unionists as any sensible person could see.
Suspicion: “I have dwelt on these incidents because they relate to an ingrained suspicion that probably exists, to some degree, in both communities in Northern Ireland. This suspicion is: anything done to reach out to one community must, by definition, be adverse to the interests of the other community. Therefore some Nationalists feel that reaching out to Unionists should not take place, and that the only thing they understand is pressure. Equally some Unionists of the law-and-order school think that pressure is the only thing Republicans will respond to. I believe their attitudes are completely wrong.”
Role of Taoiseach and Irish Government: “ As I said in the television debate before the recent General Election, I believe it is essential that an Irish Taoiseach see himself or herself as representing both communities in the North. Indeed for a Taoiseach to do otherwise would be contrary to the spirit of the Constitution. It would also contradict the principle of consent, because the principle of consent in practice means that both communities in the North will have to be agreeable to any durable settlement.
Stages and steps: “Obviously, there are stages and steps in the building of a durable settlement. the cessation of IRA violence was one such step, and a very important one. and it did require a priority be given at that time to building confidence in the Republican community that no settlement could be based on majoritarianism. That confidence is very strongly provided for in the ground rules that my Government put in place for the Belfast talks. This contributed to the IRA’s eventual second cease-fire. That was necessary to secure one side of the bridge, so to speak.
“Now that the talks have actually started, we need, from this side of the border, to look to the other side of the bridge as well. Only some of the Unionist parties are in the talks. Sitting in the same room with Sinn Fein was not easy for Unionist politicians, especially when, as they know, the IRA has not yet “gone away”.
Need for evenhanded approach “Therefore we need to ensure that we do not say or do anything that makes their position more difficult in the talks. At this particular point in the talks, it is consequently especially important that this State show itself to be evenhanded vis a vis Unionists. I believe that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and his predecessor, have tried to be evenhanded in the talks so far, and that the British Ministers will also seek to be evenhanded too. Otherwise, the talks process will unravel.
“As far as public opinion in the Republic is concerned, it is important that it too should take every opportunity to display an evenhanded approach to all the participants in the Northern talks, in the interest of peace. I stress that this was never more important than it is at the present time.
“In the past, some would have felt that the British Government, because of the 1949 Ireland Act, was not constitutionally evenhanded and that therefore the Irish Government had some sort of obligation to lean in the other direction, in order to even up the score in some way. This analysis was valid for a time. But it is no longer valid.
“Since the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Brooke Declaration, the Downing Street Declaration and the Framework Document, this argument is removed. The repeated solemn declarations in these documents by the British Government, that it has no selfish or strategic interest of their own in Northern Ireland, has levelled the playing field. Both Governments can now be evenhanded. This has created the conditions in which it is now up to both communities in Northern Ireland, with the support and strong urging of the two Governments, to find a mutual agreement that will respect and recognise both sets of allegiances – British and Irish – that must coexist in a productive way in Northern Ireland. I am reasonably confident that the talks will find a formula to achieve this. It will require constitutional and political innovation of a very high order. Lateral thinking, rather than a zero-sum approach, will be required. I believe that the talent exists at the talks table to find this way forward. But that talent will only find expression if the siege mentality is lifted. We must end the siege mentality. That is why we must go out of our way to show that both Unionist and Nationalist opinions count in our eyes.”
Editor’s note: questions section not included in the report due to difficulties with tapes
Sean Boylan – chair of talk: Sean is a native of Dunboyne, Co. Meath. He was born into a family of healers and continues to practise as a herbalist. Sean was appointed Manager of the Meath GAA Team in 1982 – under his stewardship the team has won 3 All-Irelands, 6 Leinster Championships, 3 National Leagues and the Centenary Cup. Sean Boylan has received countless major awards both for himself and his players.
Tom Garvin (Head of Politics, UCD): Education – BA (History and Politics) and MA (Politics) UCD; Ph.D. – University of Georgia USA, 1974; Fellow, Institute of Public Administration 1964-65, Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars 1983-84. Appointments: Lecturer, Politics Dept. UCD 1967-1991; full professor and Head of Department of Politics UCD in 1991. Other appointments: Professor, Political Science, Colgate University New York 1984; Professor and Fulbright Scholar-in-residence, Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts 1987-88; Teaching areas: Irish politics and Irish political history and development; American politics; Nations and Nationalism; Comparative political development; Current research: Comparative nationalism; Major publications: (books only included here): The Irish Senate (Dublin 1969, IPA); The Evolution of Irish Nationalist Politics (Dublin, Gill and Macmillan 1981 and 2nd ed. in 1983); Nationalist Revolutionaries in Ireland (Oxford 1987); 1922: The Birth of Irish Democracy (Dublin 1996, Gill and Macmillan)
John Bruton, TD (Leader of Fine Gael). John was first elected to the Dail in 1969, the youngest member of the 19th Dail. He served as spokesperson for Fine Gael in many areas. At various times in the 1980s he was Minister for – Finance, Industry and Commerce, Industry and Energy, Public Service. Deputy leader of the Party 1987-1990; elected leader in November 1990. President, Irish Council of the European Movement, November 1990 to 1994. Member, British-Irish Parliamentary Body 1993 to 1994. Member, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, December 1989-Jan. 1991. Johm Bruton was leader of the three-party coalition government which came to office in December 1994 and he served as Taoiseach with that Government until June 1997
Meath Peace Group Report, November 1997. (c) Meath Peace Group
Compiled and edited by Julitta Clancy. Talk recorded by Anne Nolan