90th Anniversary Of . . . What ?

This month sees the ninetieth anniversary of the signing of the ‘Treaty’ under duress. The Constitution and the Government set up under that Treaty in accordance with British constitutional usage and within Imperial parameters is increasingly being described as the founding of Irish democracy. In this scenario the 1916 Rising, the 1918 Election, the Declaration of Independence are air-brushed out of the Irish constitutional story. The new version of Irish constitutional history takes British law as its source, instead of asserting the beginning of a new law and a new constitutional departure in purely Irish terms.
Micheal Martin, having led historical Fianna Fail to the verge of extinction, made a speech at a ‘Civil War’ commemoration in which he accused Sinn Fein of “hijacking history” in justification of its campaign of “senseless murders”. The event which was being commemorated is the death of anti-Treatyite Denis Barry on hunger-strike in 1923. Martin said that Sinn Fein was “only belatedly recognising the validity of constitutional republicanism” (Irish Times, 21 Nov.)

A few days after Martin’s speech, Margaret O’Callaghan, a history lecturer at The Queen’s University, told the audience at a conference at Athlone military barracks that was chiefly concerned with counter-insurgency techniques, that De Valera, the founder of Fianna Fail, had “fomented Civil War” in 1922-3. Her audience did not repudiate the charge, which is the standard anti-Fianna Fail charge. It seems that Martin has accepted that charge as valid. But the death by hunger-strike that he was commemorating was an incident in that “fomented Civil War”. It was not in support of the Constitution imposed on the country by Britain, on the ruins of the Constitution adopted in 1918-19, that Denis Barry died. And a hunger-strike against the Constitution is not quite a Constitutional event.

There was a time when Fianna Fail knew very well that it had its source in active opposition, by military means as well as non-military, to the Constitution of 1922. After military defeat, in a war “fomented” by the British Government in June 1922, De Valera shaped the defeated Anti-Treatyites into an electoral force, though not quite a Constitutional force. He led it to electoral parity with the Treatyite Party (now called Fine Gael) in 1927 and to Government in 1932. In Government it repealed the Treaty Oath, which had been the issue in the ‘Civil War’ and dared Britain to do anything about it. Britain protested.

The possibility of peaceful electoral reform of the Treaty State into an independent republic did not lie in the wording of the Treaty. The wording of the Treaty would have entitled Britain to interfere forcibly in the affairs of the Free State if it considered the terms of the Treaty were being broken. It did so in the case of other imposed Treaties—for example, it over threw the Government of Iraq in 1941 for trying to implement a neutrality policy in the World War.

What made the peaceful reform of the Free State a practical possibility was not the Treaty, but the drastic decline in British Imperial morale, and a consequent decline in effective military power, that happened as a consequence of defeat in its attempt to impose an Unequal Treaty on Turkey around the time that the Treaty State in Ireland was getting its finishing touches. The British War Coalition fell as a consequence of defeat by the Turks and a long period of Imperial drift under weak Governments began. It was not until it launched another World War in 1939, in the hope of restoring its fortunes, that Britain was able to throw its weight about as it had been accustomed to do before 1922.

The Treatyite Party might have reformed the Free State so as to make it acceptable to republicans at any time from the mid-1920s onwards. It chose to do the opposite, using the Treaty Oath to keep the rapidly growing body of Anti-Treaty opinion out of its Dail. Its object was to humiliate Anti-Treatyites who wanted to play a part in public life by making them take the Oath, over which the ‘Civil War’ had been fought, as a pre-condition of doing so. This policy was persisted in until 1927, when it was subverted by the Speaker— who enabled Fianna Fail to enter the Dail by subterfuge and thus made democratic development possible.

The retired Professor of History at UCD, Tom Garvin, wrote a book about the founding of Irish democracy in 1922—that is, by the Treaty. Martin Mansergh, when he was adviser to Taoisigh, was the Fianna Failer who came to our notice as accepting this view. Our view was that Irish democratic government was established in January 1919 on the basis of the election of December 1918, was broken by the Treaty War “fomented” by Britain, and was gradually restored as the Treaty was rejected—though with deformities ingrained by the Treaty War and the refusal of the victorious Treaty Party to amend the system when it became possible to do so. (The Treatyites seemed to forget that they accepted the Treaty only because the Empire threatened a re-conquest, with concentration camps and chains of blockhouses to control population movements, if they refused to sign, and that they promised to use the Treaty to get rid of the Treaty.)

The long succession of electoral defeats suffered by the Treaty Party after 1932 was not the result just of having signed the Treaty, but of the authoritarian stupidities of its conduct of government in 1927-32. Though forming occasional Coalitions with Labour after 1948, it took almost 70 years to overtake Fianna Fail in Dail sets.

And now that it has recovered the position of being the major party, it has begun to do strange things. In a Dail exchange with Martin Ferris (Sinn Fein), who brought up the Ballyseedy Massacre, Leo Varadkar said that it had to be admitted that the Treatyites committed war-crimes in establishing their State. Ballyseedy was, as far as we know, organised by Free State troops on the ground, directly engaged in conflict. The Immaculate Conception massacre was, in a sense, a more serious atrocity, because it was conducted at the level of what Margaret O’Callaghan (who must have been to Cambridge!) likes to call “high politics”. Four men who had been in captivity from the start of the Treaty War were, many months later, taken from prison, following a cold-blooded decision by the Cabinet, and killed as an exemplary act of terror.

Amidst all of this, where does one find a Constitution within which people might be actively but peacefully Constitutional? The 1919 Constitution might have been such if Britain had not made war on it. But after the delegates were presented with the Treaty ultimatum in Whitehall in December 1921 there was no return to Constitutional stability for almost twenty years. The Treatyites responded to loss of Office in the elections of 1932 and 1933 by becoming Fascist. It was only when the Spanish Civil War ended and Fine Gael supported the Fianna Fail neutrality policy in Britain’s Second World War that a routine of electoral politics within a very widely accepted Constitutional framework could begin.
But that was only in the 26 Counties. In the Six there was no real Constitution at all, and the 1937 Irish Constitution asserted de jure sovereignty over them. Jack Lynch, on whom Martin seems to model himself, added fuel to the flames in August 1969 with a mischievous speech, and made things worse in 1970 by bringing criminal prosecutions against people who were carrying out his orders or were taking him seriously. But, even if Lynch had not been frantic, and there had been no sovereignty claim, there would have been trouble in the North because, while being held by the British state, it was excluded from the British Constitution. The Catholic community had no democratic outlets in the political democracy of the state. It was ruled, with aggravating informality, by the Protestant community and its militia, in a bogus Parliamentary system, whose only apparent purpose was to keep them down. We don’t know that there are any Constitutional rules for conduct outside the Constitution. Articles 2 & 3 were repealed in 1998, but Martin still seems to think it is his business to say what is murder and what is resistance struggle in the North. And he regurgitates the decayed fantasy that there would have been unity, if only there had been no resistance to the undemocratic system of British government in the North. Sinn Fein has not “hijacked history”. Martin has jettisoned the history through which his own party developed, but Sinn Fein has not picked it up. Unless some element within Fianna Fail picks it up again, we will have to ask: What is Fianna Fail for?

(PS: Tom Garvin’s successor as History Professor at UCD, pop-historian Diarmaid Ferriter, celebrates the Treaty in the Irish Times (3 Dec): Birth Of The Nation: the treaty that transformed Ireland. His range of vision is determinedly sub-insular, provincial. What Ireland did for itself in defiance of the Empire is of no Constitutional account with him. All that counts with him as Constitutional is what Britain made Ireland do under threat of re-conquest by war and terror. He says that there is a moral obligation to submit to a threat of immediate and terrible war by a militaristic state which has the means of applying it. He quotes Trinity historian Desmond Lyons as “suggesting it was legitimate to argue the Irish delegation ‘had a moral duty to sign’ in face of the threat of renewed war with Britain if they did not”.

And he praises his predecessor, Tom Garvin, who “took Lyons’s arguments further” by ridiculing those who took what Ireland did for itself in 1918-21 as having moral or Constitutional validity as fanciful metaphysicians. Those who submitted to the threat of overwhelming Imperial force acted “more sensibly”, and more morally and Constitutionally. The sudden decline of British power in the face of the Turkish refusal to accept an Unequal Treaty is not mentioned as a factor in the working out of the Irish ‘Treaty’. The moral is that Power will have its way and must be submitted to. It is a convenient moral at a moment when a disoriented Ireland may be called upon to be a cheer leader for a US/UK war of destruction on Iran—for which assault it has put itself onside by withdrawing its Ambassador from Tehran.)
(Irish Political Review, Deeember 2011)