Queen's Policy Engagement

Irish Civil War politics are dead and gone; they’re with De Valera, MacBride and Mulcahy in the grave

With the Irish general election having thrown up the prospect of a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition, Dr Marie Coleman examines the historical background to the divisions between the two parties and argues that Civil War politics disappeared long before 2016.

Irish Civil War politics are dead and gone; they’re with De Valera, MacBride and Mulcahy in the grave

Irish politics deviates from much of the western European norm in that the cleavage between the two largest parties for most of the period since independence in 1921 was based, not on ideological left-right lines, but on the position taken by their political antecedents on the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

This Treaty established the Irish Free State in the 26 counties. This was a significant measure of sovereignty known as Dominion Status, which the Free State shared with Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. It fell short of the complete sovereignty and the notional republic declared in the Easter Proclamation in 1916 and re-affirmed by the First Dáil’s Declaration of Independence in 1919.

Dominion Status gave the Free State its own written constitution and the Dáil had considerably greater powers than the home rule parliament of Northern Ireland, but the King remained the titular Head of State and members of the Dáil had to take an ‘oath of fealty’ to him.

Under the terms of the Treaty, the British retained a territorial presence in the Free State in naval bases at Cobh and Berehaven in Cork and Lough Swilly in Donegal. The denial of full sovereignty epitomised by the retention of the King, the oath and the occupation of these ports caused a significant portion of the Sinn Féin party, led by the party’s President, Éamon de Valera, to reject the Treaty.

The pro-Treaty wing of Sinn Féin evolved into a new party, Cumann na nGaedheal, under the leadership of the first prime minister of the Free State, William T. Cosgrave. This party would in turn evolve into the modern day Fine Gael party in 1933.


The formation of Fianna Fáil

The political split on the treaty spread to the IRA, leading inexorably to a brief Civil War between June 1922 and May 1923. Following the defeat of republican opposition to the new state, Sinn Féin continued to oppose the settlement politically. Soon after his release from prison in 1924, de Valera felt that Sinn Féin’s continuing refusal to engage with the structures of the new state amounted to a self-denying ordinance that prevented republicans from having an effective voice in the newly independent state. This resulted in another split in the Sinn Féin movement with the establishment of Fianna Fáil in 1926.

Fianna Fáil initially continued Sinn Féin’s policy of abstention from the Dáil, refusing to take the oath to the King, but following new security legislation enacted in 1927, were forced to do so. The effectiveness of Fianna Fáil in opposition, its establishment of a strong grass-roots organisation and its adoption of a range of populist policies, combined with the increasing unpopularity of the Cumann na nGaedheal government, led Fianna Fáil to form a government in 1932.

The 1932 general election was a landmark in the erosion of so-called ‘civil war politics.’ The political representatives of the majority of anti-treaty republican opinion were now in power in the Free State. A peaceful and democratic hand-over of power was achieved less than ten years after many members of the new government had taken up arms against the new state and the treaty settlement.

Some members of the new Fianna Fáil government reputedly brought guns to the first meeting of the new Dáil after the 1932 election, fearing that some pro-Treaty elements in the national army would attempt a coup to prevent Fianna Fáil assuming power.


1948 – Ireland’s First Inter-party Government

The next occasion of a change of government is an even better example of the dilution of civil war politics. In the 1948 general election, Fianna Fáil, although winning the most seats but falling short of a majority, was replaced by an unlikely coalition of Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Labour’s internal rival ‘National Labour’, the farmers’ party Clann na Talmhan and a new republican party, Clann na Poblachta.

Clann na Poblachta was founded in 1946 by former IRA Chief-of-Staff, Seán MacBride. At the core of the party were republicans disgruntled with Fianna Fáil, especially with the government’s internment and execution of republicans during the ‘Emergency’ (Second World War).

The 1948 general election campaign has been described as Ireland’s first ‘bread and butter’ election, indicating that the issues were more heavily weighted towards poor social conditions, economic malaise, opposition to war-time and post-war austerity and growing industrial unrest, than focusing on the national question.

Ideological divisions alone suggested that this ‘inter-party government’ would be an unlikely outcome and the shadow of the civil war was also felt to be insurmountable. Seán MacBride was a republican prisoner during the civil war and on the 8th December 1922, his cell-mate in Mountjoy Prison, Rory O’Connor, was executed by the Free State as a reprisal for the IRA’s assassination of a Cumann na nGaedheal TD. The Commander-in-Chief of the Free State Army at the time, who was largely responsible for the decision to execute O’Connor, Richard Mulcahy, was the leader of Fine Gael in 1948.

As leader of the largest party in the putative coalition, Mulcahy was the likely choice for Taoiseach. However MacBride could not lead his party into a government led by a man who was responsible for the killing of his republican comrades during the civil war. Mulcahy’s decision to step aside in favour of his party colleague, John A. Costello, one of the few members of the new government who had no involvement in the revolution politically or militarily, paved the way for the formation of Ireland’s first coalition government, proving that the political divisions caused by the civil war were not insurmountable


2016 – A Grand Coalition?

The prospect of a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition was proposed by the constitutional scholar and Fine Gael politician, John M. Kelly, in the 1980s, reflecting the fact that there was little ideological difference between two broadly right-of-centre parties. Any sense that the lingering divisions between the two parties, dating back to their origins in the civil war almost 100 years ago, will be a problem does not stand up to historical analysis. Civil war politics were diluted when Fianna Fáil entered the Dáil in 1927 and assumed power in a peaceful and democratic hand-over of power in 1932.

There is a strong argument to be made that the civil war ceased to be an issue in Irish politics in 1948. That year’s general election was not dominated by questions of sovereignty or partition and the outcome proved that intense and personal rivalries from the civil war could be set aside in the interest of practical politics.

The obstacles to Seán MacBride and Richard Mulcahy serving in government together were much greater than those that would prevent Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin from doing likewise.


The featured image in this article has been used thanks to a Creative Commons licence.

Dr Marie Coleman
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Dr Marie Coleman is a Reader in Modern Irish History in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University Belfast. Marie's principal research interests are in twentieth-century Irish history, especially the Irish revolution. Her works include 'The Irish Revolution 1916-1923' (2013) and she was Principal Investigator on the research project 'Northern Ireland's 2016' funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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