Fianna Fail were in power with Eamon de Valera as President of the Executive Council at the head of a cabinet of well know figures from the revolutionary period: Sean T. O’ Kelly as Vice-President, Sean Lemass as Minister of Industry and Frank Aiken as Minister of Defence were some of these. De Valera intended nothing less from his time in office than to tear down the most hated terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and to republicanise the Irish Free State, to the point of its very name. But right from the off he was first to tackle a very awkward problem, one that would test his commitment to one of the organisation that had, to some degree anyway, backed Fianna Fail since it had come into existence, and which now expected that their place in Irish society would be greatly restored: the Irish Republican Army.
The IRA over the last five years had been making more and more of an impact since their nadir earlier in the 1920’s, bit by bit, action by action. Its range of activities were quite varied: assassination attempts, some successful and some not, of Garda and informants; aiding in industrial strikes, in trying to protect workers from harassment and physical assault; continuing to make links with organisations and nations abroad; providing protection and security for Fianna Fail politicians and candidates; and their own intimidation campaign targeted at organs of the state, especially the judiciary when republicans were up on charges. The growing popularity of Fianna Fail seems to have only emboldened the IRA with such things, to the point that their own harassment of government and legal officials was deemed a serious threat by men like Eoin O’Duffy, though it was unlikely to really be the kind of existential crisis he would make it out to be. The IRA actively aided the 1932 Fianna Fail election campaign, believing that de Valera’s party was their best bet to regaining legitimacy, dismantling the hated Treaty and being in a position where they could better strike at their pro-Treaty enemies, whether it was the Garda, the Army or the veterans of the provisional government/Free State during the Civil War. As noted, the IRA’s leadership even withdrew its stated ban on Volunteers helping with election campaigns or voting in 1932, even if it stopped short of an open endorsement of Fianna Fail.
De Valera didn’t wait too long once elected. Soon enough after Fianna Fail took office the IRA was removed from a list of banned organisations, a move that seems extraordinary with hindsight: here was the government of the Irish Free State, those officials who were in charge of the Irish Defence Forces, legalising an armed militia they had no real control over who were essentially dedicated to the idea of armed struggle with Britain to achieve unification and the institution of a 32 county republic. De Valera proclaimed that no efforts would be made to seize IRA arms as long as no more importing took place. What IRA prisoners were currently confined were released almost straight away and IRA numbers soared over the next 24 months, to an alleged high of 10’000. The numbers included some former members who choose to re-join at this point, among them Tom Barry. Fianna Fail weren’t the only reason for that, with the IRA’s left-wing attitude attracting those unhappy with growing penury on account of the Great Depression, but the fact that membership of the IRA was no longer a crime certainly did not hurt. It was not difficult to foresee that such de facto legitimacy being granted to the IRA by the government would be a problem in the long-term, especially given the serious ideological differences that existed between their respective leaderships. There was some outreach from figures in Fianna Fail, like Aiken, to the IRA in this time, seeking to arrange a full-on merger between the two, or IRA recruitment into a new official reserve force, but IRA leadership balked at what was viewed as a likely one-sided union. That was just the leadership though: plenty of IRA members did join up with thew “Volunteer Reserve Force”, or the Garda, or essentially ceased their IRA allegiance to order to accept pensions from the state for their service during the revolutionary period
On the Treaty, de Valera quickly embarked on what would be a multi-term effort to dismantle its terms, aided in his quest by taking up the Ministry of External Affairs for himself, alongside the Presidency. The Statute of Westminster backed his efforts, though de Valera would never actually invoke it as he did so, reasoning that doing so would acknowledge British primacy over Ireland historically: but it did insure that Westminster was not able to interfere with most of his efforts. The Oath of Allegiance was one of the first things to go, with a bill introduced within weeks of Fianna Fail taking office, completed after some legislative delays by the summer of 1933. The year of Dail committee wrangling had thus, in a stroke, undone much of the cause of the Civil War. Land annuity payments to the British exchequer were halted, something that precipitated a larger economic conflict with Britain that will be the subject of future entries. The Governor-General position was neutered from a legislative stand-point, with James McNeill himself the subject of semi-formal snubbing from de Valera and his Ministers, to the point that McNeill would take early retirement before 1932 was out; his replacement, Domhnall Ua Buachalla – an veteran of the Easter Rising and the anti-Treaty IRA – was a member of Fianna Fail and followed de Valera’s instructions to essentially make the role invisible, living in a rented home in Monkstown instead of the much grander Viceregal Lodge, not attending official functions and not objecting as the powers of the office were transferred bit-by-bit to de Valera.
These early years of the Fianna Fail government certainly emboldened the IRA, even more than the five years before the 1932 election had done. Incidents such as a de Valera visit to Kerry, where he ignored a guard of honour from the local Garda but saluted an assembly of IRA Volunteers only increased the feeling that the government of the day considered the IRA as something more worthy of honour than the institutions of the state. But few in the IRA leadership considered Fianna Fail firm allies, with a 1933 conference claiming that de Valera refusal to tear down all elements of the Treaty in a stroke constituted recognition of “the overlordship of Britain”. Efforts to formalise the relationship between Fianna Fail and the IRA went nowhere, with de Valera’s annoyance with what he viewed as republican intransigence to his aims particular evident in letters of this time. The IRA, for their part, more and more considered de Valera’s government as just a continuation of Cosgrave on every point that mattered, with it headed by a hypocrite who forgot previous commitments now that he was in power.
Violence between the IRA, as a more left-wing organisation, and those on the right also became part-and-parcel of these times. I wish to take the opportunity of a separate entry in this series to more fully discuss the rise of fascistic entities in Ireland and their often violent relationship with the left, but for now it suffices to say that the running battles, more akin to riots, between Volunteers on the one hand and various shades of right-wingers on the other, were a consistent part of political campaigning, speeches and other public events in these years, to the point of being a clear and obvious danger to the proper functioning of democracy. IRA attacks on the meetings of Fianna Fail’s rivals were sometimes so brutal – one in Tralee in October 1933 lasted nearly five hours, and involved bombs and grenades – that the government felt compelled to act, with military tribunals used to try arrested republicans.
Not everyone in the IRA was happy with the direction that the organisation was going though. It might have moved towards the left, but outright communists were still a minority within it, and in this period the term “communist” had morphed into something akin to a catch-all insult for groupings of the centre and right to throw at their opponents. Add in the Catholic Church’s disdain for the ideology, and it is understandable that a significant section of the IRA would now want to distance themselves away from such accusations, that Cuman na nGaedheal and their supporters throw around freely. At an IRA convention in 193X affiliation with communism was declared incompatible with membership of the IRA, causing a split: some IRA members left to form the short-lived Irish Republican Congress as an out-and-out socialist entity with similar leanings to the IRA when it came to unification.
But there was also a more serious divide growing between hardliners who wanted the IRA to take full-on military action in pursuit of their aims – the declaration of a republic and the reunification of the island – and those who were predisposed to a more patient course. As IRA numbers swelled it was inevitable that a cadre of newer, younger members would push for immediate action, up to and including a general insurrection against the institutions of the Irish Free State. A lack of progress by Fianna Fail on republican aims stoked this fire, and left the old guard of the IRA fighting a continuous battle against its larger membership: more than one such figure was heckled at meetings when it became clear the IRA was not about to imminently rise-up. This divide was part of the transformation that came ahead of Fianna Fail’s about face on the IRA, with more and more personalities in that party happy to treat the paramilitary force as a “new” IRA, one that did not conform to the organisation that they were a part of, and thus one that did not deserve their respect, protection or granting of legitimacy.
Eventually, the IRA would go too far, even for de Valera and Fianna Fail, who probably valued the IRA as allies pre-taking power, but had less and less time for what can only be described as a rogue militant entity. In early 1935 IRA Volunteers in Longford murdered the son of a land agent who had been involved in disputes with local farmers, then the next month they fired shots at Gardai during bus-and-tram strike in Dublin. As time went on, more and more IRA members were arrested for causing disturbances or other crimes, as Fianna Fail began to row in more-and-more behind the Garda. The republican newspaper An Phoblacht was suppressed, and the military tribunals suddenly found themselves busy with the trials of detained republicans.
On the 24th March 1936 Boyle Somerville, a retired Admiral of the Royal Navy living in his family home in Newtownsend, Co Cork, was shot dead in the middle of the night by the IRA, with a note left on his body claiming the killing was undertaken on account of his efforts to recruit locals to the British military. The circumstances surrounding this operation are murky: Tom Barry was involved in its authorisation, and would later claim Somerville was meant to have been taken hostage, not killed. Others have posited that Somerville’s brother, living nearby and a member of the British Army, may have been the intended target, and that Boyle was killed in a case of mistaken identity. The killing caused outrage, with Somerville not an unpopular man in the locality, and who was described as at least somewhat nationalist in his political leanings by family members. It was one of the last straws.
In June 1936, just over four years after the IRA had been legalised by the state, the government reversed course. The IRA was banned again, with many more to soon join the hundred or so members already being detained for various offences. It would never again enjoy a similar level of recognition and legitimacy from an elected government, and from this point on would tend to view Dublin as much, or more of, an enemy as Britain or the unionist government in Belfast. The feeling was mutual: a newly installed Minister of Justice Gerry Boland would declare it was the government’s intention to “smash” the IRA as they had done to right-wing opposition.
In many ways, the outcome was inevitable. The IRA that had emerged from the defeat o the Civil War was not an entity that was ever easily going to tie itself to a democratic institution ever again, while Fianna Fail, as headed by de Valera, was an entity that was never likely to seriously tolerate a threat to its position of power for very long. It’s hard to imagine a peaceful co-existence ever coming to pass between them: instead, it was all too predictable as the IRA chanced its arm more and more, to the point that the government felt forced to declare it an enemy of the state again. In so doing de Valera seems to have had the backing of the popular will at least, with the people unhappy at the prospect of a re-run of the Civil War on the streets, or with the idea of the IRA as a group who could murder people at will without much in the way of official intervention until after the fact. With the banning of the IRA de Valera had reached a fairly decisive break with republicans: we will return to the more specific status of the IRA, especially on their leadership and operations outside of Ireland during the 1930’s, at a later time.
The status of the IRA was just one of the problems that de Valera had to deal with in the early years of his lengthy tenure as the leader of the country. While he was not willing to accede to the pressure to completely dismantle the Treaty and Free State constitution in totality, or to make more aggressive moves towards Northern Ireland, he was willing to square up with Britain. But not militarily; instead, de Valera decided to duke it out with London on the economic front, in what would become a long-running financial battle that would define much of the Free State’s progress through the 1930’s. This Economic War, whose final outcome would be vital in determining Ireland’s strategic position on the eve of the Second World War, will be the focus of our next entry.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.