The IRA's all-time low

Thomas Carolan continues his series about the history of Irish republicanism


In 1937/8 the De Valera government - the government of those who had fought and lost the Civil War - gave separatist Ireland a constitution that made it a republic in all but name, and negotiated withdrawal by the British navy from the three Irish bases which Britain held under the Treaty.

Events since 1921 had shown not only that Michael Collins and the 'Free Staters' had been right when they said that the 1921 Treaty gave the 26 Counties 'the freedom to win freedom', but also that De Valera had been right in 1926 when he argued against the 'anti-political' republican rump from which he split to form Fianna Fail, that the Dublin Parliament could be used to extend separatist Ireland's independence from Britain.

As De Valera rightly claimed, the 26 Counties were 'a Republic within the British Commonwealth', recognising the British king not as king of Ireland but only as head of that association. The 26 Counties' capacity to remain neutral in the 1939-45 war would provide unanswerable proof that they were indeed a fully independent state.



Irish Republicanism before and after 1937-8 were very different things. After the successes of the severed wings of the 1917 Sinn Fein, first of Griffith, Collins, and their associates, and then of De Valera, Lemass, and their Fianna Fail party, the only outstanding issue concerning Irish nationalism was partition, the severed six counties of north-east Ulster.

That had not been an issue in dispute between Collins and De Valera in 1921-2. They had pretty much the same attitude to the North. Neither side in the civil war thought it possible or desirable to coerce the two-thirds Protestant majority in the Six Counties into a united Ireland.

The divisions of the Civil War were divisions within one political current, 1917 Sinn Fein, and both wings had, in the last reduction, the same goals, hopes, and underlying emotional, political, and religious certainties. The division between Catholic nationalist and Protestant Unionist Ireland which were expounded and registered in the Six/ Twenty-six county partition belong to a different order of things altogether.

Between the Unionists and the nationalists there was a sharp distinction of national identity, etched deep by history. The Protestant-Unionists were, they insisted, British; the Catholic-nationalists, Irish Irelanders.

Religion had played a major part in the creation of a national identity on both sides of this divide - the Protestant Reformation for the English, Scots, and British-Irish, Catholicism for the Irish-Irish, whose identity had been shaped in a centuries-long struggle to ascend from a helotry defined and legally classified for them in terms of the outlawry of the Catholic religion and its adherents.

In terms of distant English-Irish history, there was a savage irony in this. For the Gaelic Irish had long been denounced as heretics and non-Christians by Irish bishops and Italian popes. Irish bishops had agitated for the Norman invasions of the 12th century, which they believed would put Ireland securely under Rome, and Popes had repeatedly licensed and endorsed the English conquest.

But all that changed with the Reformation, when England turned against Rome, and Jesuits and others made Catholicism central to the Irish identity.

The divisions between Protestant-Unionists and Catholic-nationalists was as deep and ineradicable as the party divisions in the South in the 20s and 30s were secondary and shallow and - though the parties remained and remain - transient and ephemeral.



After 1937-8 and the expulsion of the Crown from Irish affairs and of the English bases from Ireland, Northern Ireland became the outstanding, and essentially the only, concern of the rump of physical-force Republicanism.

The late 1930s saw an exodus of talent and political intelligence from the movement. For example, Sean MacBride, IRA 'Chief of Staff' at various times, son of a martyr of 1916 and of the (English) Irish Republican heroine Maud Gonne, quit.

The 'Border' was the issue. 'Behind' the Border, in every sense, the Six Counties majority was determined to resist unity with the South. There was a sizeable (one-third) Catholic-Nationalist minority of the Six Counties population that was trapped in an alien state, one of whose founders had defined it as 'a Protestant state for a Protestant people'. That minority was the majority in much of the Six Counties' land area and along most of the Border, whose artificiality was thereby emphasised.

What could Republicans do? What those in power, De Valera and his party, did was declare Ireland a Catholic confessional state, in which the 'special place' of the Catholic Church was recognised in the 1937 constitution, and simultaneously insist that the Border problem was not an intra-Irish dispute at all, but a problem of 'British-occupied Ireland'.

As an excuse for inaction - a way of accommodating to the hard fact that it was impossible by direct action, force, to unite Ireland - this must have had its attractions. What could little 26-counties Ireland do against mighty Britain? But it was dangerous self-deception, a radically false definition of the situation - ideological lying. It would play a major part in generating the tragedy that would engulf the people of the Six Counties in the late 20th century, Catholic and Protestant, Unionist and Nationalist alike.



At the end of the 1930s, it pointed the way for what the physical-force Republicans would now try to do. In their councils, Tom Barry, who had been the most successful military leader in the War of Independence (in Cork), proposed that they invade the Six Counties. When that was rejected, he retired.

Some of the Republican left - George Gilmore and Paedar O'Donnell - were concerned about Ireland's place in the rapidly approaching war, and wanted the Republican movement and the Dublin government to line up against German fascism, that is, with Britain. That did not prove popular, either, though a quarter of a million Irish would enlist in the British wartime forces.

The plan that was to be put into practice originated with Sean Russell. They would declare war - on England. He became Chief of Staff (leading to the retirement of more of the other leaders) on a pledge to carry it through.

Before proceeding, he arranged for the last of the 1922 Dail deputies adhering to the Republican tradition to transfer 'governmental' authority to the Army Council of the IRA, which could they believed, thereafter legitimately act as the legal government of Ireland, with power to make treaties, give ultimatums, and declare war.

They would give England an ultimatum to withdraw, and when Britain inevitably failed to comply, declare war on England.

At the start of 1939, the ultimatum was sent and ignored, and the IRA, claiming to be the legitimate government of a 32-county Irish Republic, declared war on England.

The war consisted of a few - bloody - explosions in English cities. It was as if a wasp attacked a shire horse. A few random English people died. Two Republicans were hanged (Barnes and McCormack), others were jailed. Some Irish residents in England had a hard time of it for a while.

The IRA Army Council also had, so they believed, the right to make treaties in the name of Ireland with foreign countries. Since, in the old Fenian wisdom, 'England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity', and Britain was in a sharpening antagonism with Germany, the IRA allied with Germany. Russell went to Berlin. To Nazi Berlin.

The Germans were keen to use Ireland against Britain, but not very keen. They promised help to the IRA. What that would mean would be determined by whether or not Germany invaded Britain.

In principle an oppressed people has the right to try to use the enemy of its enemy to win its freedom. The ridiculous idea that Nazi conquest of Britain was likely to be to 'Ireland's' advantage branded Sean Russell and his friends - who saw themselves as 'simple soldiers of the Republic' - as political omadauns and idiots.

The idea that Irish people should want the subjugation of fifty million British people, (millions of them people of Irish descent), by Nazi Germany - even if it would lead to a 'united Ireland' - could only occur to people reduced by chauvinism to a level of moral imbecility.



In fact the IRA-Nazi axis was of very little consequence. In 1940 the Germans tried to land Russell and the Stalinist Republican Frank Ryan in Ireland from a submarine, but Russell died suddenly and Ryan went back to Germany. The IRA in Belfast went around wearing 'anti-British' Mussolini-style 'fez with a tassle' hats to taunt the BritishÂ…

It might have been more than a sour joke, however, had the Nazis tried to reach Britain through an invasion of Ireland. In a number of parts of occupied Europe, the Nazis used ethnic and national antagonisms in order to 'divide and rule'. Thus they used the Flemings against the Walloons in Belgium and the Croats against the Serbs in Yugoslavia.

Might they not have used their IRA allies and others in Northern Ireland to divide and rule there? Might not something akin to the murderous antagonisms in Belgium and Yugoslavia have emerged in Ireland - whether with the IRA and Catholics in the Croat or Flemish role, or, which is surely also a possibility, with the 'British-Irish' in that role. It is hard to think of one's own people in the Flemish or Croatian role, and easier to think that it was impossible - that they would have more sense. That they would have behaved like decent, honourable people. But European history suggests that it was not impossible.



The Republicans in power, the De Valera government, feared invasion from either side in the World War. In fact German, British and US contingency plans for invasions of Ireland were drawn up. Knowing this, the De Valera government regarded the IRA, with its claim to make international treaties for Ireland, as a major threat to what was at times a precarious neutrality.

In late 1939 Republicans pulled off a spectacular coup when they raided the central arsenal of the Irish army, in Phoenix Park, Dublin, and made off with much of its contents. That triggered a full-scale onslaught by the Dublin government. With a savage thoroughness they suppressed the IRA.

An internment camp was opened in the Curragh, in county Kildare, and hundreds of rounded-up Republicans were lodged there.

Repression in the Six Counties was, oddly, much less severe than in the 26 Counties, but many Republicans were jailed there, too.

In the South military courts were set up and a number of Republicans were sentenced to be shot, and shot. Others, convicted of specific acts, were hanged.

Deprived now of mass support, except in parts of Northern Ireland, the IRA met nothing but failure. There was not enough burgeoning, irrepressible life in it, such as mass support might have given it, to compensate for and overcome errors and ineptitudes. Internecine conflict erupted when some Northerners decided that the reason for their failures was that the southern-based IRA Chief of Staff, Stephen Hayes, was a spy. They came down to the Free State and captured, imprisoned, and tortured him. He escaped. Sean McCaughey, Hayes' captor, was arrested and died after a long hunger strike in one of De Valera's jails.

The IRA was smashed and would not rise again for a decade. Some brave and honest men lost their lives in this conflict, and many men and women lost their liberty and their youth in it.

What the war in Britain, the alliance with Nazi Germany, and the fiasco of Stephen Hayes and Sean McCaughey showed, was that physical force Republicanism was now the proverbial 'tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying' very little. Essentially, it had no answer to the 'problem' it tried to deal with - the division between the peoples on the island.

The existence of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, who were the majority in much of the territory along the Six/ 26 county Border and in Northern Ireland's second city, Derry, made the existing partition unstable. The Republicans and Irish governments alike concluded from this that the compact Protestant-Unionist majority in north-east Ulster (and the north-east of the Six Counties) should and with enough pressure from Britain might, come into a united Ireland.

That was neither the logical and only conclusion, nor, most importantly, one that the Unionist minority on the island was prepared even to contemplate.

In fact there was no short-term solution. In their own way, the De Valeraites when in their 1937 constitution they simultaneously declared that the territory over which Dublin claimed to rule included Northern Ireland and gave the Catholic Church a 'special' place in Ireland, recognised that.

Their claim on the North served only to incite Republican young men and women to try to do something about 'British-occupied Ireland'. For the De Valeraites, the formula meant that Britain was responsible for partition. For the ideology-fuddled mystics of the rump physical-force Republicans, it came to mean that war should be waged against the 'Crown forces' in 'British-occupied Ireland'.

Since the operational 'Crown forces' included two-thirds of the population in the Six Counties, it implied war on them. That logic would not emerge starkly until the early 1970s, but when it emerged it would have terrible consequences for the people of the Six Counties.

When in the late 1940s and early 50s the physical-force Republicans again pulled their forces together, it was to conduct a war for the 'liberation of the North'. From now on they would not shoot at Free State personnel, gardai or army; it was in a way recognition that the 26 Counties was independent Ireland. Even so, they would still boycott the Dail.



In the 1940s, the remnant of physical force Republicanism had been crushed into organisational nothingness by the combined efforts of the Dublin and Belfast governments, and driven by the logic of history into the nationalist politics of mysticism and obfuscation. But the Republicans who had abandoned physical force in the 1930s were doing very well.

Towards the end of its unbroken 16 years in office between 1932 and 1948, De Valera's Fianna Fail had settled in, with its snout in the troughs of power and industry. The one-time physical-force revolutionaries had become career parliamentarians. Many of them were corrupt, though still more or less honest compared to the blatant corruption of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

De Valera's wartime repression of the Republicans had alienated some of Fianna Fail's supporters and repelled Republicans from the 1930s generation, even though their essential political trajectory was the same as Fianna Fail's.

The tariff-secured industries set up in the 1930s had served Ireland well in the war years. Now the economy was stifling. Mass emigration was a permanent feature of Irish life. Ireland was a nursery, rearing people who would leave when they grew up for jobs in the UK.

The IRA leaders of the 30s decided to found a new Republican party that would recreate Fianna Fail's lost verve. Sean MacBride, a Chief of Staff of the right-wing IRA in the 1930s, emerged as leader of the new party, Clann na Poblachta ('family' or 'clan', of the Republic).

Clann na Poblachta won ten seats in the 1948 general election, in which Fianna Fail was reduced to a minority in Dail Eireann. This gave the other parties an opportunity they had not had since Fianna Fail (after a year in government dependent on Labour Party votes) had won an absolute majority 15 years earlier.

A coalition government? But the biggest opposition party by far was Fine Gael, the bloodstained victors of the Civil War, the fascistic Blueshirts of the 1930s. They were led by General Richard Mulcahy, one-time Irish Republican Brotherhood leader and of all the Civil War Free State soldiers the one most detested by all Republicans.

An improbable coalition was nonetheless cobbled together. Clann na Poblachta allied with those who were Blueshirts when they themselves were Republican gunmen-on-principle. There were two Labour Parties, the party having split when Jim Larkin, the great working-class leader, and his son Jim Larkin junior, a former pupil at Patrick Pearse's progressive school, a graduate of Stalin's 'Lenin School' in Moscow, and a leader of the Communist Party of Ireland in the 1930s, joined. Both Labour Parties joined the coalition.

The Taoiseach (prime minister) was John Costello, a barrister who, unlike others in his party, had played no prominent part in the Civil War. Mulcahy became a minister.

It was this coalition which in 1949 formally declared the Free State a republic and left the British Commonwealth. The renaming was an empty gesture; leaving the Commonwealth simply put more distance between the two Irelands. De Valera was (privately) against the move.

The British government's response was to pass a law reiterating that Northern Ireland would not become part of an all-Ireland state except with the consent of a majority of its people. The government that passed this 'Ireland Act' was a Labour government made up in part of men and women who had supported the Irish nationalists against the British government during the War of Independence.

MacBride, as foreign minister, offered that the 26 Counties would join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which was then being formed, in return for an end to partition. It was an appeal for a British-imposed solution to the intra-Irish division. The Republic remained outside NATO.



The coalition government's Minister of Health was a member of Clann na Poblachta, Dr Noel Browne. Browne had tuberculosis, and most of his family had died of TB, which was still a mass killer in Ireland at that time. Browne had worked in English hospitals, where the wartime pseudo-socialist ethos of state action to achieve social goals in the interesting of promoting the war had greatly impressed him.

He was a supporter of the British National Health Service which Nye Bevan brought into operation in 1948, and of which Catholics in Northern Ireland could now avail themselves.

He launched a mass campaign to eradicate TB, and it was wonderfully successful. Then Browne decided to bring in legislation to provide free medical care for mothers and young children.

It was a small thing compared to what was available to Catholics under the NHS in Northern Ireland, 'British-occupied Ireland'. The bishops had said not a word against that. They had one big word to say against Browne's Mother and Child scheme: 'No!'

In his autobiography, written in the 1980s, Browne describes how he was summoned to meet bishops who pronounced their ukase against his plan. They were surprised and shocked and then angry that he tried to dispute the issue with them. They were used to telling government ministers what they wanted and to obedience without argument or requests for explanation. They did not explain anything. They pronounced.

Why, asked Browne, had the bishops not objected to the National Health Service operating in Northern Ireland? They would not explain or even discuss it. The blatant answer was that they knew what they could get away with in the 'Republic'.

Browne describes bishops such as his namesake 'Lord Bishop Browne of Galway', living in offensive luxury and pronouncing against medical care for the people as likely to corrupt the spirit of industry. People should not get something for nothing, they insisted.

Socially ignorant and self-centred the bishops were, indeed - but they ruled. The government turned on Browne for his 'disobedience' to the bishops, and he was driven to resign.

The former Republican leader MacBride was a vehement advocate of unquestioning obedience to the bishops. Clann na Poblachta, the 'radical' new Fianna Fail of the 'hillside men' who had lately come into the bourgeois Parliament, was thus shown to be a group of timid conservative clericalists. They had become common-or-garden bourgeois politicians.

From the point of view of republicanism, and the desire for Irish unity, the Mother and Child scandal - and it became a great scandal, for Browne refused to be silent - was palpable proof that in the South it was not so much 'Home Rule' as 'Rome Rule'. That is what the Unionist opponents of Home Rule said it would be.

Many of the people of the 26 Counties were outraged, too, and in the 1951 general election Clann na Poblachta was nearly wiped out as a force in the Dail.

Meanwhile the physical force Republicans were mustering their forces for an attempt to drive the British out of 'British-occupied Ireland'.

Continued next issue

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