Ireland 2020: An End to 'Civil War Politics' or Counter-Revolution by New Means?

Reflections on counter-revolution in Ireland and the foresight of Liam Mellows

By Joe Dwyer


The February 2020 general election represented a transformation of the Irish political landscape. The electoral surge towards the left-republican party, Sinn Féin, has chipped away at the political dominance and popular hegemony of the two traditional ‘civil war parties’: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

Since the foundation of the State, the handover of power between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael marked a mainstay of Irish politics. At varying points in their history, both parties had shifted and veered from the political-centre to the political-right, and back again, with relative ease. Neither party has maintained a consistent ideological position decidedly separate from the other. Rather than by any ideological disagreement, the two parties were principally defined by their implacable opposition and aversion towards each other—particularly at a grassroots level. Once in office, neither pursued anything approaching a policy of radical social transformation. As John M. Regan notes, “The absence of class conflict, social revolution and social instability underpinned the post-revolutionary settlement.”[1] The political veteran Desmond O’Malley[2] described the political culture that existed between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, accordingly:

There was little or no ideology involved. Office and not policy was the main objective. The reasons for the divisions in the 1920s were irrelevant and long forgotten except for a few well-worn phrases. But emotions were not. Distrust and loathing were the inheritances of the time. [3]

The emotional reverberations of the 1920s is a reference to the Irish civil war; a ten month long conflict which served as the origin myth for both political parties.

Historical Background

Ireland's revolutionary period at the beginning of the 20th Century is typically characterised by three phases. Firstly, the 1916 Easter Rising - a pitched rebellion contained mostly to the capital city of Dublin. Secondly, the1919-21 Tan War (or War of Independence) - a nationwide guerrilla military campaign waged against British Crown Forces. Concluding, finally, with the 1922-23 Civil War – an internal conflict fought between the proponents and opponents of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty.

From the end of the 18th century onwards, underground revolutionary forces had engaged in a struggle for Irish national liberation from British rule. Since Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-1798), the founding father of Irish republicanism, the stated aim had remained absolute and inviolable: an independent Irish Republic. By 1921, the militant forces of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) - alongside the women’s auxiliary organisation Cumann na mBan - had brought the British Empire to the negotiating table. Following a six month ‘truce’, in December 1921, the Irish negotiation delegation returned from London with an agreed accord with the British government: the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

‘The Treaty’, as it was generally known, secured for Ireland a substantial, but limited, degree of self-government. Twenty-six counties were to become an Irish ‘Free State’ with its own parliament, judiciary, and armed forces. The remaining six north-eastern counties, six of the nine counties of the historic province of Ulster, would remain within the United Kingdom as ‘Northern Ireland’. The new Irish Free State would exercise Dominion Status within the British Empire; akin to Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Therefore, Irish Parliamentarians would be required to swear an oath of fealty to the British Monarch. For the most part, the British Military presence would cease to have a presence within the twenty-six counties.[4] However, the economic exploitation and impact of imperial conquest would continue. British colonial interest in Ireland remained secure and safeguarded. It was not the thirty-two county independent Republic that so many had struggled and sacrificed to realise. Sinn Féin, the political expression of the independence movement, rapidly divided into two camps: those who were ‘pro-Treaty’ and those who were ‘anti-Treaty’.

The civil war that followed, began on 28 June 1922, when pro-Treaty Free State forces, under pressure from the British Government, launched an attack on an anti-Treaty IRA garrison stationed inside the Four Courts building in Dublin.[5] The conflict concluded on 24 May 1924, when the beleaguered IRA ordered its volunteers to dump arms.

In the aftermath of the civil war, two principal political parties emerged. Splitting away from a demoralised and divided Sinn Féin; Fianna Fáil was founded in 1926 by Éamon de Valera alongside many of the leading anti-Treaty figures. Subsequently, in 1933. Cumann na nGael, the pro-Treaty party which had governed the Free State from its establishment until 1932, merged with various other pro-Treatyite groupings to form a new party: Fine Gael. As has been outlined, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would go on to become the two dominant political forces within the twenty-six county State. So-called ‘civil war politics’ was born and soon became entrenched into society. In 1937, the Free State adopted a new constitution stripping away many of the symbolic vestiges of imperial rule. But, only in 1949, did the State declare itself a Republic; removing the final remnants of British interference within the twenty-six counties.

As Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael grew to dominate the electoral arena, those who remained faithful to the Sinn Féin party found themselves in a political cul-de-sac. Civil war defeat, combined with the ensuing exodus of many of its most capable activists to Fianna Fáil, saw Sinn Féin retreat into constitutional dogma and inward-factionalism.

As it sought to reject the new State and bypass its institutions, the party increasingly became characterised by expulsions, splits, and walk-outs. The veteran republican, Maire Comerford later reflected, “as a modern state grows up, it becomes very difficult to avoid being enmeshed by it.”[6] It was only in 1949, that the beleaguered party was revived, by a new generation of IRA leadership, to serve as the official.political-wing of the republican movement. As Kevin Rafter outlines, such was its poor standing organisationally, “the IRA was able to simply take over Sinn Féin without any fuss and, in tandem, obtain a long-established political name.”[7] Despite brief flourishes in electoral fortunes in the 1950s,[8] the party largely remained, in the words of J. Bowyer Bell, “the depository of retired revolutionaries clinging to the idols of their youth.”[9] Towards the end of the 1960s, as political violence erupted in the North, the republican movement again underwent a split. There were a myriad of reasons and personalities that lay behind this split. But principally, it was a divide between those advocating for a broad-based political strategy and those who wanted to maintain a more traditional militarist orientation. At the 1970 Ard Fheis (party conference), the split reached Sinn Féin and a walkout ensued. Those who left the conference, representing the militants, were soon branded: Provisional Sinn Féin. It was this grouping which would hold onto the ‘Sinn Féin’ mantle over subsequent years.[10] As the northern conflict waged on, a new generation, of mostly northerners, rose to positions of authority within Sinn Féin. These younger activists increasingly rejected false fidelity to outdated dogma and instead sought to develop new strategies of struggle; both militarily, via a revived IRA campaign, and electorally, via Sinn Féin. As Gerry Adams explains, prior to this strategic re-evaluation, “Sinn Féin was by and large perceived, and was in reality, a poor second cousin to the IRA.”[11] Over the course of the next three decades, through the adoption of greater tactical flexibility and revolutionary subjectivity, and under the combined political leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin was recast from a fringe protest grouping into a cutting-edge electoral machine. Following the end of the IRA’s campaign in 2005, the late 2000s saw Sinn Féin stand as a key political player in the North and a growing electoral force in the South.

2020: The ‘End of Civil War Politics’

The re-emergence of Sinn Féin, as a viable party of government, broke the cosy consensus that had existed between the two ‘civil war parties’. In the 2020 general election, for the first time ever, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael saw a drop in their vote share and a loss of seats. While, under the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald, a resurgent Sinn Féin unexpectedly received the highest share of the vote and returned with just one seat short of Fianna Fáil.[12] With no party securing a parliamentary majority; government formation talks soon commenced with both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael ruling Sinn Féin out as a potential partner in government. On 15 June 2020, a final ‘Programme for Government’ was agreed between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Irish Green Party.[13] The most popular party in the State, Sinn Féin, was excluded from office; while the supposedly diametrically opposed ‘civil war parties’ agreed to govern together. The once unthinkable had come to pass.

The crossing of this Rubicon led to a flurry of headlines heralding the “end of civil war politics.”[14] In much of the accompanying commentary, the step was presented as the realisation of political maturity and progress. Writing for The Irish Examiner, Michael Clifford remarked, “politics in this State may be finally growing up.”[15] While, in the Sunday Independent, Eoghan Harris suggested the coalition finally brought Irish politics “into the European mainstream.”[16] Speaking in Dáil Éireann, the Fine Gael leader, Leo Varadkar, stated, “Civil war politics ended a long time ago in our country, but today civil war politics ends in our parliament.”[17] The symbolism of the coalition was further demonstrated when the new Taoiseach, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, announced that the portraits of both Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins, the two nominal figureheads of civil war divide, would hang in his office.[18] Swords had been turned to ploughshares and, in the wake, the story of Sinn Féin’s unexpected advance was sidelined. The overriding establishment narrative was clear: the wounds of civil war were finally being healed.

However, unsurprisingly, such public discourse deliberately ignored the social, political, and ideological factors which lay behind the civil war conflict. It would be reductive and simplistic to solely present the civil war through a lens of personalities and parties. Especially through two political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, both founded years after the civil war had concluded.

As Regan has outlined in detail elsewhere, the modern Irish State relies on three fundamental ‘foundation myths’. Firstly, the idea that the current twenty-six county State emerged from a popular nationalist revolutionary struggle rather than from an imposed British settlement cemented and enforced by a counter-revolution. Secondly, that the legal provenance of the new State and its institutions originate from the institutions of the revolutionary period (i.e. the First and Second Dáil Éireann and the revolutionary forces of the Irish Republican Army and Cumann na mBan) rather than the suppression of these revolutionary bodies, with the actual legal provenance stemming from British statute. And thirdly, that the founders of the State upheld constitutional, democratic, and legal means to establish the State’s institutions. Despite the reality that, summary executions and violent repression was a touchstone of Irish state-building and a utilised means of removing dissenting voices.[19] These three ‘foundation myths’ provide a fixed narrative which has been reinforced and parroted by successive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments.

The Road to Civil War

During the revolutionary period, the notion that the ‘National struggle’ would fall short of a wider social revolution was not unanticipated. Prior to the 1916 Easter Rising, James Connolly, the only avowed socialist of the rebel leaders, is said to have warned his Irish Citizen Army: “In the event of victory, hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty.”[20] In ideological terms, the independence movement had always been all-encompassing. As Feargal McGarry notes, IRA membership could often span from “right-wing bigots to communists.”[21] Similarly, Eoin Ó Broin characterises the post-1916 Sinn Féin party as an “uneasy but stable alliance” that accommodated all strands of thought; from conservatives, to pragmatists, to social radicals.[22] At repeated stages throughout the period, the need to maintain unity between such disparate forces and individuals often trumped the ability to openly discuss what post-independence would look like.

It is necessary, however, to state that the social and ideological mix within the independence movement should not negate the revolutionary legitimacy of the liberation struggle from a Marxist perspective. In the case of Ireland, Karl Marx repeatedly argued that first its people had to secure self-rule before any final push towards social emancipation could materialise. A fundamental step on the road to dismantling capitalism lay in the dismantlement of imperialism.[23]