1927 was a pivotal year for the Irish Free State, for several reasons. Not four years removed from the end of the Civil War, the Free State could be considered an established entity, with a government that had proven it was capable of enforcing the Treaty terms and maintaining law and order on the island, for the most part. The ruling party, Cumann na nGaedheal, was undoubtedly helped in this by the lack of any major political opposition, bar the smaller Labour and Farmers Parties. Sinn Fein contested elections, but did not take up seats in the Dail. But in 1927 the situation changed. Sinn Fein was far from a united front, with plenty within the patty feeling that a policy of abstentionism was not useful to their cause of opposing Cosgrave’s government; that year a split would occur that would re-draw the political battlelines in Ireland, in the midst of two elections interrupted by one of the most serious moments in the young State’s history.
Eamon de Valera, in the course of his own internment and aftermath of the same, had come to believe that staying out of the Dail was not a viable strategy for Sinn Fein, or for himself. Perhaps he craved being back in a position of true power and influence after the way he was sidelined in the Civil War, as well as wanting to lead his own political formation free of the kind of republican diehards who had no time for his external association proposals. In the mid-20’s de Valera, still President of the party, began to agitate for Sinn Fein to take up their seats in the Dail, reasoning that a transition from Dominion status to a Republic could be easier accomplished if the party were to take power through constitutional means.
Sinn Fein found itself divided on the issue. Plenty still followed the line of figures like Mary MacSwiney that Sinn Fein needed to hold fast to its republican ideals and ignore what was deemed an illegitimate state. Others thought differently, and now came closer to de Valera’s thinking on the issue. These included prominent men Frank Aiken, Sean Lemass and Sean T. O’Kelly, who were no longer satisfied being on the outside, looking in impotently. At a special Ard Dheis in March 1926, the question was put to the party, of accepting the Free State constitution, if the Oath of Allegiance was removed. The party voted narrowly to reject the motion, by a margin of just two from nearly 400 members. Despite the victory for the abstentionists, it was the end of Sinn Fein as a united party. De Valera now has the impetus to leave Sinn Fein along with his cadre of loyal followers, and did so shortly afterwards. It has been claimed that supporters of de Valera encouraged the result by asking some of the converted to vote against the motion, ensuring a split and giving de Valera what he needed to start something else.
He now set-up his new political entity: Fianna Fail. Loosely translated as “Warriors of Destiny”, it was a party whose ethos would be somewhat difficult to define right from the off. Speaking in a general sense, Fianna Fail has been, for the most part, a conservative centre to centre-right party with some nationalist leanings. In truth Fianna Fail is a good example of what political scientists have dubbed a “catch-all party” that tries to appeal to as many people as possible at any given time of its existence. In its early years it was able to place itself against Cumann na nGaedheal by being seen as closely tied to the anti-Treaty movement, and to the pro-active pursuit of Irish unification. De Valera benefited hugely from the presence of men like Aiken and Lemass within his new organisation, as they had the capability of bringing many more with them, and in subordinating the Sinn Fein electoral machine in many areas.
Fianna Fail would get its first shot at appealing to the Irish electorate pretty quickly after it appeared, with Cosgrave calling a general election for June of 1927. Facing a challenge for the first time, Cumann na nGaedheal floundered, hamstrung by their lack of local organisation and alone being the subject of the electorate’s ire for the financial situation of the country. They ended up with 47 seats, down 13, to Fianna Fail’s 44, with Sinn Fein, now under the leadership of John J. O’Kelly, losing all but five of the seats they had held up to then. Cosgrave was able to form a government with the support of the reduced Farmer’s Party and a large number of Independents, but it was clear which way the wind was blowing.
Initially Fianna Fail did not take up its seats, as de Valera made a legal challenge to the status of the Oath, but events soon overtook such a pathway. On the 10th of July, Kevin O’Higgins left his home on Cross Avenue to walk to Mass. Usually accompanied by his wife, on that morning he was alone save for a single Garda escort, who O’Higgins apparently sent back to his home to pick up something he had forgotten, or to go and buy cigarettes depending on the account. As the Minister approached Booterstown Avenue a man stepped out of a car in from of him and fired a gun, nearly point-blank, into O’Higgins’ chest. O’Higgins was capable of attempted flight, and managed to get to the other side of the road before he collapsed, his assailant firing all the while. Two more men then exited the car and fired into the prone O’Higgins, before all three got back into the vehicle and drove off. O’Higgins, remarkably still alive, was carried into a local home by passersby, where he expired a few hours later.
It must be remembered that O’Higgins was a reviled figure for many, probably the most hated man in Cosgrave’s government by members of the anti-Treaty faction. Even leaving aside his role in the prosecution of the executions policy, his open disdain for republican idealists and his commitment to the Treaty made him a marked man for many. The more left-wing the IRA got, the more likely it was to hate O’Higgins who has, maybe unfairly, been described as having some fascist tendencies. Whether it was over-confidence or foolishness, O’Higgins should never have been left unattended as he was: more than enough people in Ireland would have relished the chance to end his life if given the opportunity.
But was this an orchestrated assassination or a random happenstance? The evidence appears to suggest the latter. The three IRA men who killed him were Archie Doyle, Tim Coughlan and Bill Gannon, all members of the Dublin Brigade and veterans of the anti-Treaty cause. Gannon would later claim they had just happened to see O’Higgins walking that day, and overcome with hatred decided to take their chance. This does not explain why they were driving in a car stolen the night before though, or what they were doing in that part of Dublin. It is possible the three were actually executing a pre-planned operation, though it is likely we will never know for sure. None of them were ever arrested or prosecuted. Coughlan would be killed in 1928 in mysterious circumstances, in an apparent shoot-out with the police, though it is possible this was a cover-up for an extrajudicial execution. The other two would benefit from the 1932 amnesty and live to an old age, with Doyle by reputation proudly recounting later his part in the killing.
O’Higgins’ death was a nasty shock to the government, already reeling from its less than impressive showing at the polls in June. A new Public Safety Act was part of a crackdown on republican activity, bolstered by the introduction, or rather re-introduction, of the death penalty. The narrow arithmetic in the Dail left things at on a knife’s edge, and Cosgrave decided to prepare for what he must have known was an inevitable second vote. In July he and his party introduced new legislation requiring all Dail candidates to swear an oath that they would take the Oath of Allegiance if they were elected. De Valera and Fianna Fail were pushed into a corner, and thus de Valera decided to take the oath, famously, or infamously if you prefer, describing it now as an “empty formula”. They were words that must have enraged many who had fought the Civil War over issues like the Oath only a few years before. A narrow rejection of a vote of no confidence in August, combined with victory in two by-elections – one to fill O’Higgins seat, one taken from Fianna Fail following the recent death of Constance Markievicz – was enough for Cosgrave to call a new election.
This was was quite different to the June poll in many respects. Things had become more partisan between the opposing poles of Cumann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fail, with the result that the smaller parties lost out hugely. Labour dropped from 22 seats to 13 (Thomas Johnson was among those to lose his seat), the Farmers from 11 to six, William Redmond’s National League (a short-lived pro-Treaty party) from eight to two. Sinn Fein, as much due to financial reasons as anything else, didn’t contest any of their remaining seats. Cosgrave and de Valera hoovered them all up, with Cumann na nGaedheal ending with 62, and Fianna Fail with 57.
Cosgrave retained power with the support of the Farmers and some Independents, but things had now changed hugely in the Dail camber: with Fianna Fail taking their seats, a loud and uncowed opposition now existed to challenge Cumann na nGaedheal at every turn. De Valera’s new party was only growing in popularity, and it was a matter of when and not if Fianna Fail would gain the seats needed to take control. Cumann na nGaedheal’s membership didn’t know it at the time, but they had only a few years of relevancy left.
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