Between Two Hells: The Irish Civil War, by Diarmaid Ferriter, Profile Books, 336 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1788161749
Just one more to go! The Civil War centenary is fast approaching and will presumably receive the full commemorative treatment. It will be interesting to see the public response. In addition to the problem of commemoration fatigue, for some time there has been evidence of a tendency to dismiss the whole thing as an event of limited significance.
The plain fact is that twentieth century Irish history would not have been very much different had the entity which emerged in 1922 been called Saorstát Éireann or the Irish Republic. This does not mean there was no substantial politics in twentieth century Ireland, but simply that the politics of the period were overwhelmingly shaped by the material concerns of a hugely expanded electorate rather than by the issues in dispute during the Civil War. In other words, the politics of the twentieth century were not actually “Civil War politics”.
In 1922 the big story was autonomy and next to that came mass democracy. During the conflict, Rory O’Connor spoke of the people being wrong and referred to the possibility of military dictatorship. He quickly pulled back, presumably realising that there was no social basis for authoritarianism in a society where there was an irreversible commitment to the democratic method. That attachment grew throughout the nineteenth century, was extended in the 1918 election, and confirmed in the constitution of 1922. Those who later toyed with fascism were to learn the same lesson as O’Connor.
Similarly, Kevin O’Higgins’s conservative revolutionaries were to discover that the bulk of the electorate, which, under universal suffrage, had the government of the state in its power, were not impressed by conservative impulses and had a better purpose for elections than using them as a means of saying “thank you for founding the state”. For several decades Fine Gael made little effort to respond to the electoral writing on the wall and settled down to being the party of old, mostly Catholic, money and respectability. As a result, O’Higgins’s successors were in power infrequently, and only in coalition. They did however enjoy the bonus of support from an element which had a visceral antipathy towards de Valera as the man who, it was believed, should have prevented the Civil War. Indeed, without support from this element, Fine Gael’s electoral footprint would have been even smaller.
De Valera had the political wit to move away from undemocratic republicanism and to heed the concerns which animated voters. As a result, this somewhat cold, distant and austere man became popular. His party dominated government and did what should be nigh impossible under proportional representation, won a string of overall majorities. People wanted action on social and economic matters and believed that Fianna Fáil did too. This, and the fact that for a long time Fine Gael refused to compete, is the background to Fianna Fáil power in twentieth century Ireland. De Valera’s about turn over the Free State and the fact that he was followed by the bulk of the anti-treaty side, is further evidence of the conflict’s historical irrelevance. Purist Republicans found comfort with the Sinn Féin rump, which consistently failed to gain political traction. Even this element switched focus from the idea of a Republic to the issue of partition, which, though complex, was at least an issue of substance.
The big issue animating the electorate after independence was the struggle to crawl from the demographic and economic wreckage bequeathed by the nineteenth century. This would have dominated no matter what the autonomous state was called. Continuity nationalist issues such as keeping the British at arm’s length and complaining about the border would undoubtedly also have been priorities, again irrespective of the name plate.
The realisation that the destructive dynamic of the nineteenth century was to continue was politically sobering for Irish society. Massive emigration with population decline continued in each decade until the 1960s. This dark reality is the key to unravelling electoral politics, and much more, in Independent Ireland. Responding to the problem sourly, energetically or complacently were the options. Each category, especially the first, is represented in post-independence literature.
One of the distinct legacies of the nineteenth century was middle class dominance of nationalist politics. As Diarmaid Ferriter reminds us, the working class was absent from the early Dáils. Despite the bravery and patriotism of Connolly and the Citizen Army, Labour, with its weak political and numerical clout, could be instructed to wait for a remote tide which would come at some unspecified point in the future. In a clear sign of the lie of the land, when the East Waterford agricultural labourers struck in response to a wage cut, they were effectively starved into submission, their employers drawing on the support of the National Army.
Certainly, the divisions between the main political parties did not reflect a fundamental difference in political philosophy. But, as politics around the world continues to demonstrate, substantial political contest can take place within polities that are based on private property and its unequal distribution.
Diarmaid Ferriter’s compelling book Between Two Hells has set the commemorative ball rolling. The book is divided into two parts. The first deals mostly with the events of the war, where the emphasis is on the mentalité of those involved rather than on “taking sides” or judging. Mercifully, he leaves the military detail to the anoraks. The second part, “Aftermath and Legacy”, deals with politics in independent Ireland from 1923 to the present day.
Arguably, a discussion of the Civil War offers an opportunity to acknowledge the link between events around the formation of the state and the culture and politics of the nineteenth century. It also allows for the possibility of acknowledging that twentieth century Irish politics revolved around problems which emerged in the previous century and had virtually nothing of substance to do with the Civil War. Diarmaid Ferriter in Between Two Hells concentrates on politics over the century following the conflict, as will this review.
Like family feuds, former colleagues and friends fighting each other tends to be emotionally charged, and the treatment of the conflict by the politically dominant parties of independent Ireland has certainly been emotionally charged to the degree that most people thought it best to be extremely careful around the subject, as if walking on historical eggshells. But emotion does not of itself confer historical importance and in this case it has got in the way of historical appraisal.
While the incidence of fatalities, casualties and acts of barbarism was extremely low by contemporary international standards, the conflict had some decidedly unpleasant episodes. There was certainly more nastiness from nationalists in the Civil War than the movement exhibited during the War of Independence. Among other things, the torture and murder of Noel Lemass and the multiple rape of a young woman who was the daughter of a Protestant landowner were horrific, as was the whipping of three sisters in Kerry. And, of course, there was the vile cruelty of blowing up prisoners with mines. However these horrific events do not of themselves confer historic significance on the perpetrators, or the larger dispute they were engaged in.
One historical question that might be asked is why there was so little barbarism. (There was no shortage of less extreme civilian suffering, as recent scholarship has demonstrated.) One factor to consider is that the nineteenth and early twentieth century Irish were not a hate-filled warlike people. Indeed, this has remained the case since, as the consistent public response to Provisional violence revealed in the late twentieth century. The volunteers in 1913-14 would almost certainly have been trounced by the UVF, not least because the latter organisation did not suffer from a deficiency of hatred. Uneven military resources and the likely involvement of the British army would also have been factors.
The years after 1918 might have been bloodier had it not been for the Land War. That highly effective agitation was followed by a change of policy in Westminster which led to the massive transfer of land ownership from landlords to former rent payers. This transformative event essentially eliminated the basis for potential ethno-class warfare in Southern Ireland. Whatever potential existed for a War of Independence to take on a violent class/ethnic character melted away with the successful conclusion to the land war, which is yet another example of the way events in the nineteenth century shaped those of the twentieth century.
When Green election candidate Saoirse McHugh said in 2019 that she didn’t care who did what in the Civil War, it would be foolish to imagine she was morally indifferent to the examples of barbarism and suffering which occurred. What she meant, it is safe to assume, is that she saw the Civil War as politically irrelevant to her political priorities. It is a widespread feeling.
Considering the absence of substantial ideological difference between the two sides in 1922, it is difficult not to see the conflict as an unfortunate mistake. When historian Calton Younger concluded his relatively even-handed 1968 book, Ireland’s Civil War, with the observation that the differences should have been sorted out on the floor of the Dáil, he was reflecting this reality. But if this is so, it might be asked, why then did an unnecessary conflict take place?
It seems to the present writer, to strike a traditional note albeit in a non-traditional context, that no matter which way you cut it, the Irish Civil War was the fault of the British. Lloyd George’s ultimatum was, to put it mildly, politically stupid. What exact combination of imperial arrogance, shallow impatience and racial hostility it issued from is impossible to say.
In a situation when you are asking people who have been massively committed to a cause, and some of whom have been active militarily, putting their lives on the line, living in ditches and dug-outs, to accept a historic compromise which, though offering substantial gains, falls short of their ideal, you need to give political strategists time to bring both their military and political elements along. The initial response will almost certainly involve fear of being tricked and fear of betrayal. Muriel MacSwiney’s argument in Washington that there was not a civil war under way but that some Irish had taken the British side, reflected this impulse.
Such thinking, which was completely wide of the mark, was widespread on the anti-Treaty side in 1922-23. De Valera’s reassessment in the mid-1920s confirms its inaccuracy. Indeed, the Treatyites’ ruthless and unrelenting campaign to protect the autonomy achieved indicated that from the outset that the Free State leaders were pursuing their own agenda and were no puppets.
It is worth recalling that when Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness sought to win over the Provisional movement to the compromise arrangements which were to form the Good Friday Agreement, they insisted on and were given time by Tony Blair and others to bring their movement along. It has since become clear that they quietly regarded 1998 as a temporary arrangement, rather than the more or less permanent settlement it was assumed to be throughout the South, and presumably they convinced their military of this. In 1922, the British didn’t give Michael Collins the time to argue his freedom-to-achieve-freedom analysis with the movement.
The number of ideological Republicans, such as Florence O’Donoghue, who opted out of the conflict, along with the efforts from both sides to prevent or curtail it, further suggest that, given reasonable time, it could have been completely avoided.
Many people, including prominent individuals in FF and FG have said ‑ and Diarmaid Ferriter quotes a fair few of them in the book under review ‑ that there was and is no great difference between FF and FG. Most people reading today will have heard this said. Indeed, over time, the proposition has come to take on the status of a self-evident truth. While it is partially true, it is misleading.
The “no difference” or “little difference” proposition is true enough when applied to the dispute between Treatyites and anti-Treatyites in 1922, which was not a dispute between ideologies but rather between pragmatists and purists, all of whom resided within the nationalist Sinn Féin family. However, as has already been suggested, the proposition does not apply when it comes to politics in the decades following independence.
Once the British were shown the door, the Irish were left to govern, based on an extensive and inclusive suffrage. The view implicit in the “no difference” argument would ask us to believe that there was no contemporary social or economic substance to the distinct choices made by voters in numerous twentieth century elections. This would bring the condescension of the present towards the past to a very high level indeed.
Certainly, there was a consensus between FF and FG in terms of overarching national interests. As Diarmaid Ferriter points out, both agreed on important national issues such as neutrality during WWII, opening the economy to outside investment and joining the EU. They also agreed on the Good Friday Agreement. But that type of overarching national consensus is not uncommon and does not imply or require a politically homogeneous society.
In post-Independence Ireland there was a great disparity in material comfort, and it is hardly surprising that this would find political expression. As the post-Civil War factions grew into competing government options, differences grew both from within and in response to signals from voters. These political differences were essentially class differences and were reflected in the degree of urgency applied to undoing the negative social and economic legacies of the nineteenth century. Conservative Cumann na nGaedheal could not be the natural choice of the poor. In an early example of signalling from the electorate, the 1922 election, which saw a massive pro-treaty majority, also saw the anti-Treatyites receive most votes in the poorest parts of the country, those parts hardest hit by emigration. Once peace was secured this element expanded to encompass a wide coalition of the dissatisfied.
As everyone knows, Irish society began to change from the 1960s. It was to be an uneven process punctuated by some phases of rapid movement and others of seeming stasis. The changes which occurred were not an inexplicable accident or the result of a moral awakening, as some today would appear to believe. They came with the major underlying change of significant economic growth and the ending of population decline. After a century of gloom, there was a feeling of excitement and even euphoria. The regimentation and conformity of earlier times eased. Politics also began to change as the mood of the electorate began to shift. Previously, the public, while expecting effort, did not expect miracles. From the 1960s with membership of the EEC on the horizon, more was expected. There was a feeling that elected governments should make things happen. Something more than business-as-usual was required. For politicians the new challenge became a version of “winning the peace”.
In the heady atmosphere of the time the Labour Party leader declared: “The seventies will be socialist.” Fine Gael emerged from its torpor with the Just Society document. The public liked it and Tom O’Higgins – Kevin O’Higgins’s nephew ‑ came within one per cent of defeating de Valera in the 1966 presidential election. Fine Gael, it seemed, had finally discovered what electoral politics was about and Fianna Fáil perhaps no longer owned government. The era of the able Garret FitzGerald, whose outlook was marked by social democratic impulses, was to follow in due course. But there was a problem. When the Just Society group emerged in FG, party leader James Dillon drily observed that FG was a “private investment” party.
Despite the talent and energy of innovating individuals, it transpired that the party en masse was not driven by ideals of social justice. Social justice and redistribution were not the sources of its energy. Over time it transpired that FG would not become a “catch-all” party in the manner of Fianna Fáil and at one point it looked as if it would contract severely. With the PDs a partner in government, the question was asked: What is Fine Gael for?
In the post-Sixties mood of new possibilities, other forces critical of the political status quo emerged. The left complained that Ireland did not have proper class politics like “normal countries”. The Progressive Democrats, on the other hand took the view that the “new Ireland” required nothing more or less than resolutely attending to the interests of “Ireland Inc”, and in the process making Ireland a “good place to do business”.
But as Ferriter reminds us, The PDs closed shop as did a number of Social Democratic initiatives. The neo-communist Workers Party also failed, leaving behind a slight ghostly presence. If Ireland was going to turn to European-style class politics, clearly this was not going to happen in the twentieth century. Maybe later.
The demise of the PDs and the failures of FF gave Fine Gael essential electoral oxygen. It benefited from an aura of competence following the financial crisis of 2008. It did not then bother much with its earlier social democratic tendencies. After the crash of 2008, it is said that Leo Varadkar advocated swingeing cuts in social welfare. Today, there are few who would believe that the housing crisis comes between the Tánaiste and his sleep.
The good news for Fine Gael, as we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century is that its traditional base of old money has been augmented by the arrival of new money which requires a political home. While there will be no harsh PD style rhetoric, it would appear the party’s position in the political firmament, based on protecting ‑ albeit discreetly ‑ the interests of privilege and capital, is safe. But to sound a note of caution, being in the firmament and being in power are not the same thing.
Had some of the post-Sixties movements stayed the course, they might have been able to move into the space that appears to be opening up in Irish politics. It is a Fianna Fáil-shaped space. Historically, the decline of FF is the big story. What happened to the party’s support, and why, are the big questions.
A number of events could be mentioned which probably contributed to the party being blown off course. They are by no means of equal importance and it is difficult, if not impossible, to allocate proportional weight between them.
From the 1960s rising elements in the party put the importance of business and its associated “glamour” to the fore ‑ the famous “men in the mohair suits”. This is a dangerous path under universal suffrage when most people are well outside the magic circle. It can lead to people bragging on television about how many houses they own, which is not a good look in the eyes of the electorate. Arguably also, an implicit contempt for the electorate began to emerge in the party. Voters were simply people to be bribed. It could be said that a loss of seriousness followed, leading to the calamity of the 1980s, which saw a return of significant emigration, and a damaged Fianna Fáil.
The ideology of the unregulated market was a more fundamentally disorientating phenomenon. From the 1980s its message raged across the surface and seeped to the core of political culture in Ireland and elsewhere. Essentially it was a philosophy of capitalist anarchy, wherein government was seen as ultimately superfluous in a world in which the Gaia of the market brought everything into perfect balance. Politics in the new thinking was “old hat”, championed only by the “left behind” and pursued by chancers. The most popular newspaper in Ireland enthusiastically joined in the denigration of politics, spending much time exposing the freebies, junkets and expense claims of politicians, while lauding the business and financial sectors.
In the mists of market millenarianism, the habit of deep political thinking, a vitally important habit for small states, was diluted. For Fianna Fáil, as the “party of government”, the loss of this habit was seriously damaging. One seismic outcome, which followed in due course, was the socially disastrous financial crisis of 2008. Politicians had stopped taking responsibility and did not feel it was their job to prevent systemic Irish banks borrowing vast amounts of money abroad on short-term loans which could only be repaid by further short-term borrowing.
Another result is linked to the current housing shambles. One of FF’s great achievements during the time of no money and falling population was to build public housing. In deference to market ideology, in the time of money and rising population it stopped building public housing and agreed to the selling off of those built in the earlier era. The housing crisis we are living through is related to this failure.
In short, Fianna Fáil had ceased to do what was written on the tin. Actively determining a positive Irish destiny was no longer its purpose. It had declined into the political equivalent of middle management. Inevitably, this would cost the party.
The party did of course produce individuals in touch with traditional FF objectives, and in Charles Haughey, it had a politically talented leader capable of deep thinking and commitment. Haughey’s Social Partnership model, influenced by the German version, had the potential to square the Fianna Fáil ideological circle. Labour could at last come to the table and business would be encouraged. In theory there was the possibility of a new non adversarial social model which would see contentious issues dealt with through negotiation. In practice it worked well and, had it been maintained, the current housing crisis, to give one example, would almost certainly have been forestalled.
Diarmaid Ferriter has described Charles Haughey as “exceptionally venal, acquisitive and ostentatious”. There are few who would disagree. Left at that, however, as it usually is, it is an unbalanced portrait. Haughey’s bizarre aristocratic-like pretentions were a major departure from the traditional FF leadership aesthetic, which was one of studied modesty. Despite his talents and achievements, the electorate were always going to have reservations. Haughey, as is well known became a hugely divisive figure in his own party and in the country. It transpired he could not be the figure to “win the peace” for Fianna Fáil.
One of Haughey’s problems in the eyes of the public was the suspicion, rightly or wrongly, that he was overly robust on the North. It, along with his ego problems, contributed to a schism in the party and was a contributary factor in the formation of the PDs. The Arms Crisis, whose full interpretation remains incomplete, occurred against the background of FF not having worked out a functional politics in relation to the North.
It was not just Haughey who was affected by emotional thinking on the North, many if not most in Fianna Fáil had a politically dysfunctional engagement with Partition. Lemass had begun to address the lacunae but did not live long enough to bring it to political realisation, which would have taken at least a decade.
Fianna Fail’s northern problem went back to the 1920s and the foundation of the party. Ulster is a glaring absence in the Civil War but is central to the politics of the 1913-23 decade. As noted earlier, had a civil war taken place in 1914, which once seemed very likely, it would almost certainly have led to the defeat of the South. Indeed, an island-wide civil war in 1914 might well have ended up with an ethnically cleansed nine-county unionist Northern Ireland. The outbreak of the 1914-18 war prevented this happening.
Had the treaty been accepted without division in 1922, it is quite possible, even likely, that the South would have attempted to incorporate Protestant Ulster by force. Richard Mulcahy was certainly interested in this project, as was Michael Collins. There were many others. It would have been a slaughter. The British had by that stage armed some 30,000 paramilitary loyalist police. Given that British military aid would also have been very likely, an island-wide civil war in 1922 would have ended in thorough defeat for the South and possibly a significant loss of territory. The dispute between the Sinn Féin factions indirectly prevented such an event in 1922. After the disorientating experience of the 1922-23 conflict, Independent Ireland quickly agreed that it would not be investing resources in preparing for a Northern war. Instead it would take the rhetorical route.
That became the FF de facto position following de Valera’s 180-degree turn in 1926. By any standards it was an about-face, but the idea that the new party would say that their foes in 1922 had been in the right could not psychologically be entertained. In compensation, Fianna Fáil presented itself as more authentic and robust on partition than the successors to the pro-treaty side. In 1969-70 the party’s bluff was called. On reflection, it decided it would back Jack Lynch’s softly softly approach, which was the essential FF position all along. After years of posturing, it felt like self-betrayal to many and contributed to the great loss of focus and confidence that came to characterise the party and which over time contributed to its decline, most recently manifest in the miserly 5 per cent of the first preference vote it secured in the Dublin Bay South by election.
After the financial collapse in 2008, it was possible that Labour might have seized a once in a century opportunity to become a national party of government. But if the party ‑ described by Lemass as “a nice, respectable, docile, harmless body of men” ‑ had a date with history, it didn’t show up. The failure of indigenous Southern politics to respond to FF’s decline has, of course, left the door open for Sinn Féin.
The new Sinn Féin is a professionally run and well-financed organisation which is essentially a Northern party moved South. From the basis of a slight traditional electoral presence, the party, born of the Provisionals’ Northern war, has bolted itself onto the Southern polity and in recent times has been widely accepted and supported, particularly by young voters. SF is the beneficiary of Labour failure and FF decline, and more generally of the failure of indigenous politics within the Southern state to rise to the challenges of a transforming society. Its ascent has brought the end of the FF-FG duopoly to the political doorstep. Many among those who most earnestly sought the end of what they called “Civil War politics” are less than happy with the form its demise appears to be taking.
Sinn Féin shares the widespread Northern nationalist irritation with the South and the desire to pick it up and give it a good shaking. This is probably what the party has in mind as it pursues its overarching ambition, from which it has, with a Presbyterian-style directness, never deviated, and that is to bring about a united Ireland one way or the other. The South wants it one way but not the other.
It may, however, find the re-fitting of Southern political culture more problematic than the flabby stereotype view it holds of it might lead it to believe. Either way, unless SF implodes in some way, the tension between its ambitions and the Southern attachment to peace are likely to shape politics in the coming period, which might well be a tumultuous time.
But there is also another possibility. The last chance saloon is an eerie place, yet drinks are still served. Is it possible that like Jane Austen’s heroine Anne Elliot, Fianna Fáil’s bloom could be restored? Let us watch and see how Darragh O’Brien’s housing solution plays out.
Maurice Earls is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.