Mick Clifford: Mark their sins but acknowledge strengths of first post-Civil War government

Mick Clifford: Mark their sins but acknowledge strengths of first post-Civil War government

Exactly 100 years ago today, an Independent Ireland had its first chance to breathe. On May 24, 1923, Frank Aiken, who became chief of staff of the IRA following the death of Liam Lynch a month previously, ordered his soldiers to lay down their weapons.

“Comrades,” Aiken addressed his men and women in a communique, “the arms with which we fought the enemy of our country are to be dumped. The foreign and domestic enemies of the Republic have for the moment prevailed. But our enemies have not won. Neither tortures nor firing squads, nor a slavish press can crush the desire for independence out of the hearts of those who found for the Republic or out of the hearts of our people.”

In time, Aiken would accept the democratic state which the Anglo-Irish treaty had delivered and serve it faithfully in high office. But in May 1923, he still clung hard to the notion that the people had no right to be wrong.

Eamon DeValera, the political leader of the anti-treaty forces, agreed with his military commander, pointing out that “military victory must be allowed to rest for the moment with those who have destroyed the Republic”.

The Civil War was over. 

Seven years after a spark was lit in pursuit of a new republic, the final outcome, the “freedom to achieve freedom”, as expressed by Michael Collins, was finally dawning. The 10-month internal conflict had left the place in rag order. Rail and road networks had been destroyed, elements of a fledgling economy left stillborn, repairs aplenty to be undertaken. Around 2,000 people had been killed in the 10 months it raged. 

The economic cost was estimated to be around £50m, which would be close to €1bn in today’s money. And then there was the traumatised psyche of the nation.

The War of Independence had exercised a heavy toll on the country, but if anything it elevated a sense of national pride and solidarity. That was shattered in the ensuing internal conflict. 

And the division was not along racial, religious, geographic, or tribal guidelines, but whether or not individuals felt capable of accepting a political compromise. The split was highly uneven, with 78% of voters in the May 1922 election supporting pro-treaty parties. The fissures opened up would take decades to heal.

When the war ended it may well have appeared that Eamon DeValera’s career as a frontline Irish leader was at an end. He was extremely lucky to be alive. Unlike Collins, Harry Boland, Cathal Brugha, and Arthur Griffith, he had survived the conflict. But he was a much-reduced figure, blamed by many as the main reason why erstwhile comrades had turned guns on each other. 

He was hunted until his capture in the summer of ’23 when he was imprisoned. In time, he would be the towering figure of the first 50 years of the State he had set out to, and inspired others to, destroy. Had there been no conflict Collins would in all likelihood have survived to occupy the primary role in shaping a new free state, the precise role that Dev ascended to after a brief spell in political purgatory.

There was some “afters” in terms of the violence in the months and even years following Aiken’s order. In July 1923, anti-treaty captain Noel Lemass, brother of future taoiseach Sean, was abducted and brutally murdered in the Dublin mountains. In 1927, four years later, two IRA men shot dead Kevin O’Higgins, the minister for economic affairs, on his way to Mass. O’Higgins had been a central figure in the policy of executions during the Civil War. There were other incidents also, but the threat by an organised group to destroy the free state ended officially in May 1923.

Michael Collins addresses a crowd in College Green, Dublin, in March 1922. Picture: AP

And what had it been for? Debate on the merits of the Anglo-Irish treaty persist to this day, but does anybody believe that Britain, freshly confirmed as the biggest economic and military power in Europe after the First World War, still ruling an empire, would ever concede that its oldest colony could break free as a standalone republic? The idea was as preposterous as was the attempt 50-plus years later to violently drive the British out of the North.

History has shown that the anti-treatyites, for the greater part, honest and honourable in their intent, didn’t have any plan beyond to keep fighting until the Brits copped onto themselves. People such as Collins knew that such a strategy would end up with, at best, the same treaty being accepted a few years down the line following further death and destruction and less chance of making a free state economically viable.

Despite attempts in recent years by Sinn Féin to claim allegiance to the anti-treaty side, the North simply didn’t feature. If a 26-county republic had been on offer, there would have been no civil war to talk about. Arguably, the Civil War ensured that Catholics in the North ended up even more abandoned, most isolated in a sectarian state than would otherwise have been the case. As it was, they were completely abandoned as the shattered State in the south turned inwards.

Former Civil War anti-Treaty comrades, defence minister Frank Aiken and taoiseach Éamon de Valera, in the 1950s. Picture: Getty

That was one of a number of criticisms that could be laid at the door of the first government, led by WT Cosgrave. They came out of the Civil War resolute in their belief that they had to take firm action to secure the future of a new, democratic entity existing in a shaky and often dangerous world. 

During the conflict, the government had resorted to vicious methods of suppression, most notably the executions. Afterwards, they actively covered up the worst of the atrocities. Distrust and the influence in some areas of the anti-treaty side ensured that the administration would govern in a centralised manner, giving life to a system that was to blight the State to this day. They were economically conservative to a point where those most in need did not receive commensurate consideration when crafting budgets. Women were instructed to retreat to the home and undertake the role designed by them by the strictures of the Catholic Church.

This was a government in which Pearse or Connolly would not have lasted a wet week. Then again, would Pearse ever have been interested in addressing the compromises required to govern in any stable democracy? Would Connolly have ever been electable, and if not, what would his next move have been? Michael Collins wouldn’t have felt at ho

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