The five years after the 1927 elections were not especially happy ones for Cumann na nGaedheal. With Fianna Fail now taking their seats in the Dail, the pro-Treaty party of government had a substantial opposition to deal with for the first time, and had difficulty with their legislative agenda. Their lack of local branches to the extent of their competition – in many areas Cumann na nGaedheal did not even contest local elections – meant that it was difficult to keep up with Fianna Fail’s growing rate of support, and even with several by-election victories it was clear that Cosgrave’s party would have a hard time keeping a hold of the rein of power. There was a resurgence in that time of IRA activity, undoubtedly connected with Fianna Fail’s rise in support, with instances of shootings, judicial harassment and raiding creeping up and up, leading to fears that Ireland was slipping back towards a violent course just a short time after the end of the Civil War.
Those five years were busy enough outside of a frequently raucous Dail chamber. Among the many events preoccupying Cosgrave’s government that we might take note of was the appointment of James McNeill, brother of Eoin, as the second Governor-General; the Free State taking more steps to be seen as an independent national internationally, such as its first participation as its own entity in the 1928 Olympics; continuing involvement with the League of Nations, which the Free State had joined in 1923; signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1928, wherein the Free State agreed to forgo war as a method of solving international disputes; the election of Sean Mac Eoin, newly resigned from the leadership of the Defence Forces, to the Dail; the 1929 Northern Irish election, where James Craig’s Ulster Unionist Party won an easy majority over Joe Devlin’s Nationalist Party; a brief bit of instability following a scheduling-induced loss of supply in a 1930 legislative vote, which required Cosgrave to be re-elected as President of the Executive Council; and the first effects of the worldwide Great Depression, beginning in 1929.
The most important development in terms of the Free State’s sovereignty was the Statute of Westminster. Cosgrave had taken an active part in Imperial conferences in 1926 and 1930, with the former resulting in what was known as the Balfour Declaration (not to be confused with the 1917 statement on Jewish nationalism), essentially a confirmation that the various members of the Commonwealth were equal to each other and the United Kingdom in terms of how they governed their domestic and internal affairs. Such things led inevitable to the Statute, passed in late 1931. The Statute essentially signaled London’s willingness to accept it no longer had a right to create any legislation for nations with Dominion status. It was a recognition of how the various members of the Commonwealth, especially since the First World War, now had to be considered sovereign of their own accord.
The Statute had a complicated legal effect in the Free State. Cosgrave’s government insisted that the Anglo-Irish Treaty already made clear that London could no longer legislate for the 26 counties, and never formally adopted the Statute. Still, it was heralded as a significant advance, owing to the fact that British law now recognised Irish sovereignty in nearly all respects, save the role of the British monarchy.
Most importantly, the Statute opened the door for wholesale changes to laws as they effected the relationship between the Free State and Britain, without fear that Westminster would interject or veto such moves. In essence, the Irish Free State could now be considered an independent nation in nearly all respects. It’s debatable how much Cosgrave was involved in all of these developments, though he certainly campaigned quite strenuously for them; less debatable is the reality that he would not get much of a chance to make use of them.
Only a few weeks after the Statute passed in Westminster, Cosgrave called an election, perhaps thinking it could be the best time to do so. It wasn’t going to work out. Cuman na nGaedheal campaigned on the back of their ten years in power, stressing their record when it came to law and order especially. An incident in the course of the campaign, where TD Patrick Reynolds was murdered by a former IRA sympathiser named Joseph Leddy would have helped their cause to an extent, though there appeared to be no serious political motive in retrospect. There was also a resort to what we would recognise as a “red scare”: drawing a line between Fianna Fail and communism (perhaps thinking people would greater tie Fianna Fail with the currently more left-leaning IRA, who had recently revoked a policy of banning members from voting or assisting in political campaigns), and making the case that de Valera was a would-be Stalin. Fianna Fail were not communists of course, far from it, and the comparison did not land with voters to the extent that Cumann na nGaedheal hoped it would be.
Fianna Fail on the other ran on the back of a broad programme of ideas. A dismantling of the Treaty terms, especially the Oath of Allegiance, were front-and-centre (though the party leader adopted a cauytious tone when it camer to relations with Britain, insisting a republic would be declared “in its own good time”), but de Valera also designed a popular manifesto that put his party at odds with Cumann na nGaedheal on financial matters, an especially important topic in the wake of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. A promise to stop land annuity payments to Britain, and to take steps to protect the Irish economy from outside forces, all appealed to Irish voters. The government also blundered in the course of the campaign with an effort to shut down The Irish Press, de Valera’s own newspaper, on the grounds that it was publishing articles overly-critical of government policy. Hoping to quell one of Fianna Fail’s most fervent media voices, the move predictably backfired on Cosgrave and his party, perceived more and more as one with more than a few dictatorial tendencies. There was also some violence between rival supporters during the campaign, most notably at a Cumann na nGaedheal rally in Dublin on the 14th February.
The result, when it came, was an enormous, if not quite complete, victory for Fianna Fail. De Valera’s party walked away with 72 seats, just five short of an overall majority, while Cumann na nGaedheal lost four to finish on 57. Labour, now under Thomas J. O’Connell, were left with seven. An agreement with Labour provided Fianna Fail with what they needed to assume power as a minority government, with Cumann na nGaedheal now forced to move to the opposition benches.
The day appointed for the meeting of the seventh Dail was the 9th March, a date riven with tension. The plain facts were that the people who had won the Civil War, often employing brutal methods on their enemies, were now obligated to cede political power, along with command of the Garda and the military, to those same enemies, and barely a decade after they had been shooting at each other. This is not just hyperbole: men involved at the highest levels of both military commands during the Civil War, and men more intimately involved with both trigger ends of the same conflict, were now in the Dail as elected representatives facing each other. The possibility of some manner of coup, or at least an effort to procure some manner of deferment to the proper handover of power, must have seemed enormous. There were certainly at least some efforts to attempt such a thing.
Eoin O’Duffy, who as head of the Garda, a fervent right-winger and veteran of the National Army had no time for the idea of serving under a Fianna Fail government, was the most notable proponent of such a thing. Recent trips to continental Europe while representing the Garda had exposed O’Duffy directly to fascist organisations, most notably in Italy, and his admiration for such bodies had grown enough to be considered alarming in government circles. His increasing level of insubordination when it came to public policy was obvious enough by 1932 that it could not be easily dismissed: a notable incident was when he told members of the cabinet that Garda loyalty to the state depended on how the government treated them. He also routinely pushed for more emergency powers for the Garda that would allow them to aggressively go after those that he believed were the enemies of law and order, and to essentially beat the concept of responsible citizenship into those who opposed the government.
The growth in popularity of Fianna Fail, and the continuation of the IRA’s existence and attacks only pushed him further to the right, to the point that he began to make public criticisms of democratic systems. By the end of the Cumann na nGaedheal time in office, O’Duffy was demanding a free hand in the fight against republicans, up to and including the deployment of paramilitary forces in troubled areas: the irony of such a course, all too similar to the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans, seems to have been lost on him. His moralistic zeal and enormous ego made O’Duffy a dangerous figure, and Cosgrave has already resolved to dismiss him from his Commissioner position should Cuman na nGaedheal win re-election.
Even before Fianna Fail had won the election, O’Duffy began to canvass people, especially within the Garda and the military, about support for a a coup d’etat to both stop them from taking power, and remove what he viewed as an ineffective Cumann na nGaedheal government from office. But his efforts to do so lacked either the necessary subtlety for a grand conspiracy or the required spectacular nature of a sudden, quick takeover of power. At one point O’Duffy allegedly attempted to get David Neligan, the head of the Garda Special Branch, onboard by showing him a draft copy of a pamphlet declaring a military dictatorship, upon which Neligan stormed out of the room: he would later be among those warning the government about what O’Duffy thought he was capable of. Michael Brennan, then Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, and Ernest Blyth, Minister of Finance made moves to quell such ideas, transferring officers of questionable loyalty from senior positions and directly warning O’Duffy they would move to have him arrested if he tried anything.
On the 9th March the Dail assembled and even though many Fianna Fail TD’s allegedly entered the chamber with guns in their pockets – more extreme stories claim that heavier arms were stored nearby in the event of serious trouble – it ended up being a remarkably straightforward day. De Valera was elected President of the Executive Council, and 16 years of uninterrupted Fianna Fail government began. In this much can probably be owed to Cosgrave, who did everything he could to dismiss any idea of blocking the take-up of leadership by Fianna Fail, to urge the British government to restrain itself from adopting an aggressive posture towards the new government and to facilitate a smooth transfer of power. Many point to that day as the true conclusion of the Irish revolutionary period, the moment when the peaceful carrying out of democratic processes was exemplified, and violence as the main part of Irish politics was negated. We should not go too far perhaps in our praise of Cosgrave and others like him in accepting Fianna Fail’s victory, but it was a very dangerous moment all the same; lesser men may well have found themselves seduced by the idea of retaining power by force rather than hand it over to their enemies, and their actions set a precedent of peaceful handover to a victorious opposition that continues in this country today.
But how serious was the coup threat? Richard Mulcahy would later dismiss O’Duffy and the conspirators as ineptly incapable of carrying off such a coup, and there is much to support such a viewpoint. Though O’Duffy had placed himself at the centre of an intricate web of like-minded figures and organisations, he undoubtedly over-estimated his own personal ability and appeal when it came to such things. His efforts at getting critical people onside for such a coup were remarkably clumsy, and in the end his possible insurrection was little more than what some have called “barrack room bluster”. But it was far from the end of his machinations, and within a short enough time O’Duffy would prove himself a thorn in the side of Fianna Fail – and the institutions of democracy in Ireland – into the next decade.
That was to be one of the many challenges facing de Valera and his Fianna Fail party. They were now the party of government, with expectations that they could arrest a decline in Irish finances, make greater moves to gain Irish sovereignty, and bring about a fundamental change in the way government departments and offices worked. The new President was quick to claim there would be no administrative vengeance carried out on former opponents in the civil service, Garda or Army, but few would have believed such a declaration. Among the many now hoping for a sweeping changing of the guard coming from the very top were the members of the Irish Republican Army: Fianna Fail’s relationship to that entity would be a defining aspect of the following few years.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.