The End of Civil War Politics in Ireland?

They call it Civil War Politics, and the death of it may be one of the only positive things to come out of the recession in Ireland. The term does not exactly conjure appealing images in the mind’s eye.

Eamon de Valera

Fianna Fáil – The Soldiers of Destiny – is Ireland’s largest political party, and has been wildly successful since its inception in 1926. Well, maybe not counting the escapades of the recent and current Fianna Fáil government, which presided over such glorious feats as the Celtic Tiger (a euphemism for the largest, most unregulated property boom in recorded history) and the subsequent collapse of the Irish economy. Fianna Fáil has thrived amid both nigh-religious devotion from scores of supporters and allegations of corruption, nepotism and unconstitutional practices.

How did Fianna Fáil command such support for so long? The key is in the name. Militant and ambitious, it is evocative of the bloody Irish Civil War. The party was founded in 1926 by Eamon de Valera, one of the true giants of Irish politics in the 20th century. Apparently, he decided on the name Fianna Fáil specifically to appeal to IRA men. After the Irish War of Independence, the British and Irish went into negotiations and a peace treaty was signed. The Treaty would grant the fledgling Irish Free State a limited independence from the British Crown, but not the elusive Republic. Northern Ireland would remain under British control – a decision that casts a long shadow right into present times. The IRA split down the middle over who was for and against the Treaty, and civil war broke out. Atrocities were numerous on each side as former brothers in arms turned on each other. Eamon de Valera was leader of the anti-Treaty irregulars, until he proclaimed in 1923:

Soldiers of the Republic! Legion of the Rearguard! The Republic can no longer be defended successfully by your arms. Further sacrifice of life would be in vain, and continuance of the struggle in arms unwise in the National interest. Military victory must be allowed to rest for the moment with those who have destroyed the Republic.

De Valera formed his new party Fianna Fáil in 1926 in a bid to republicanize the Irish Dáil or parliament. Unlike their Republican counterpart Sinn Féin, of which De Valera had been a leader, Fianna Fáil accepted the new Irish parliament and campaigned to win seats in it. The party was and continues to be conservative, center-right and Republican – meaning it strives, at least in name, to achieve a united Ireland by political and peaceful means. It also used to be very closely aligned to the Catholic Church to such an extent that one of De Valera’s nicknames was The Cardinal.

Michael Collins

On the opposite side of the Civil War rift stands Fine Gael, the Tribe of Ireland. Formed in 1933 from a merger of various pro-Treaty factions, it claims Michael Collins of IRA fame as one of its founders. Collins would later be assassinated by former comrades in Béal na mBláth in Co. Cork. Fine Gael’s heritage continues to be stained by its inclusion of the National Guard, commonly referred to as the Blueshirts, Ireland’s attempt at a fascist party. Fine Gael is viewed as being slightly to the right of Fianna Fáil, but there is no suggestion that the party has any fascist tendencies in this day and age. Even so, Blueshirt continues to be a common derogatory term.

While there are scores of songs commemorating the Irish War of Independence, the Civil War very rarely figures in musical tradition. When it does, it is portrayed with sad resignation rather than hatred and spite:

Oh when will the young men a sad lesson spurn / that brother on brother they never should turn / alas that a split in our ranks e’er we saw / Mick Collins stretched lifeless in lone Béal na mBláth

Pro-Treaty forces attack a Republican stronghold in Dublin, July 1922

Though rarely mentioned, the Civil War continues to haunt Irish political and public life, feelings of rage, distrust and betrayal staining public life for generations and forming permanent fissures in Irish society. For the hard core of supporters, voting Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael is not simply a matter of agreeing with their current policies on the environment or education – it is an identity and an expression of a proud heritage. You don’t vote outside your group, you don’t socialize outside your group and you most certainly don’t marry outside your group. Support for the two parties and even seats in the Dáil run in families in what can only be described as dynasties. And there are many of them.  A sure-fire way of achieving death by awkwardness would be to remind these proud dynasties that you get the government you deserve.

It seemed to be a permanent fixture of Irish political life, this division along blood-stained Civil War allegiances rather than left-right preferences. But now the landscape is beginning to shift. In recent opinion polls, support for Fianna Fáil is at a historic low – unless some unforeseen miracle happens before the next general election, only months away, Fianna Fáil is likely to be completely annihilated at the polls. Whether the party will still exist in a year’s time is anyone’s guess.

Fine Gael fares much better than Fianna Fáil in the poll and is set to form the next government – but what’s the point of playing Civil War politics when your opponent has imploded? If Fine Gael wins the next general election, they will have to prove to the Irish electorate that they have merits other than not being Fianna Fáil. As it is – loud rows on the Dáil floor aside – seeing what real, hands-on changes to current government policy Fine Gael would implement is very difficult.

Anti-Treaty rebels surrender, Dublin 1922

It seemed a ridiculously unlikely prospect only a few years ago. But amid the shockwaves of the collapse of the Irish economy and perceived loss of Irish independence to the IMF and EU, real hope can emerge that the Irish will be able to discard Civil War politics and vote for the parties most likely to bring future recovery and stability – not the parties most likely to inspire feelings of historical allegiance.

12 Replies to “The End of Civil War Politics in Ireland?”

  1. Nina, pls for give my lack of knowledge about Ireland. It appears to me that Ireland to a certain degree is still locked in a time capsule. People not marrying or associating with people outside their political party is very foreign to me, although scarily enough I understand it.

    This article caused me to read up on why you have Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Given the collapse of the economy, do you think the two will ever become a solidified Ireland?

  2. Great work Nina. I can’t help but compare what’s going on here to your reports regarding people voting against their own interests. Without emotion and fealty, where would parties like that be? It’s a shame it takes an epic collapse to bring about recovery and recognition, but let’s hope that it does. I’m not so sure here that we’ve managed that as the megaphone of misinformation is loudest.

  3. Shiva, that is a very good question – it’s an extremely complicated issue, but I’d say that after the horrific violence that plagued Northern Ireland for so many years, it will take another long time before the majority of people in the North will want to consider a unified Ireland, if ever. Perhaps the economic disaster here in the south will also influence Northern opinion – I don’t know, but it seems likely to me.

    I agree Sarah, these parties really are just thriving on emotions and a strange sort of inherited sense of loyalty. I really hope that the next generation both in the States and Ireland will feel so far removed from events of the past and the opinions of their grandparents that it won’t influence their own decision-making at the polls. And as you say, at least Ireland doesn’t have a Fox News-equivalent messing with people’s minds – I dread to imagine what would happen if we did!

  4. I have have family still living in Northern Ireland. We have always been hoping for peace over there! The first time I visited, at 17, was when I considered myself ‘growing up’. I had never seen the poverty and the violence I witnessed there in Belfast. My grandmother was raised as a Protestant, British Subject, but married a an American, Catholic GI during WWII; she desperatley wanted to get out of Belfast. My generation seems to be more progressive in their attitudes about the relashionship between Catholic and Protestant. I pray it only gets better!

  5. Breanna, it must have been very hard for your mother to have to leave her country, and I can certainly understand why she wanted to, to make a life for herself and her family in peace and a better chance for prosperity. Nowadays, the overwhelming majority of Northerners are determined that peace is the only way forward, so there is good reason for us to be hopeful.

  6. This is bunkum – almost every family I know in Ireland is ‘mixed’, and I do know quite a few, as I live there.

    FF and FG do loathe each other, and supporters of either never vote for the other, but it doesn’t go any further than that.

  7. You don’t vote outside your group, you don’t socialize outside your group and you most certainly don’t marry outside your group.

    lol, You might as well delete this bit because it is %100 incorrect. Honestly ?

    As for civil war politics, Its long dead with all but the few who it suits to keep it and that is the few.

  8. “You don’t vote outside your group, you don’t socialize outside your group and you most certainly don’t marry outside your group.”

    Ahahahahahaha!

    We also eat our young and sacrifice Protestants to our Catholic Gods.

  9. I know Thomas, the thought that I might get sacrificed often worries me ;-)

    Joking aside though, I think you missed the context of that sentence – I am of course referring to the hard core of supporters, not the majority of people. Ciarán, I live here too and I don’t know very many mixed families. But whatever about the peculiarities of my own circle of friends – I think when you look at the Dáil and even something like Kilkenny county council, it becomes clear that FF and FG seats and allegiances are inherited in some families.

  10. im afraid i would have to agree with Nina i live in Kilkenny and up until 20 -25 years ago it was very much like that not as bad now but there is the die hard minority out there that would still think like that some of my friends who came from staunch families have lightened up a bit thank god but when it comes up in conversation you would find out fairly quick what side of the fence they were on

  11. I’m sorry but this is completely wrong, I’m from Ireland and maybe in the past this was true but not now.

    When people are voting nobody cares about what side either party took on a treaty 80 years ago, and to suggest otherwise is just lying. People voted for Fianna Fail because they were the cause of the “largest, most unregulated property boom in recorded history”(as you said) which made a lot of people a lot of money and people are going to stop voting for them because they were in charge when it all came crashing down. Nothing to do with “Civil war politics”, this is the first time I’ve heard that term to describe Irish politics.

    Apart from people campaigning during elections no one has ever asked me what political party I vote for. And no one has ever excluded me from anything because of my politics.

    “The party was and continues to be conservative, center-right and Republican – meaning it strives, at least in name, to achieve a united Ireland by political and peaceful means”

    No this is not true either, no party except for Sinn Fein even considers trying to achieve a “united” Ireland, the entire peace process has been about giving Northern Ireland it’s own government.

    And you make it sound like a 2 party system in Ireland which it most definitely is not.
    This is the most recent political poll doesn’t show anyone running away with an election. The next government, like the last 3, will be a coalition with 2 to 3 political parties.
    http://www.redcresearch.ie/results.html

  12. Liam, I am sorry but your arguments read like “no, the emperor really DOES have clothes on” to me. I understand that this can be a sensitive issue. Perhaps that is why nobody has ever asked you who you vote for. We all want to believe that we are politically aware and make well-informed choices, but this is bordering on complete denial. If we want progress and recovery, denial is most certainly not going to help.

    Nobody is suggesting that Ireland is a “two-party state”- but you cannot seriously be asserting that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are not the two largest parties, and that other parties – apart from Sinn Féin perhaps – do not just align themselves with them as junior coalition partners? Also, you are ill-informed about the history and ideology of Fianna Fáil. Many would suggest that the reason they dropped the catch-phrase “Fianna Fáil – the Republican Party” was due to political expediency during the peace process in the North.

    You fail to realize what is happening beneath the surface of Irish politics. I am not suggesting that every Irish voter has the Civil War in mind when they vote, nor that every Irish person is still living in a re-enactment of it. But you have to stop and wonder why Irish politics are not aligned along the usual left-right axis. It is wilfull ignorance to assert that it has nothing to do with that war. You say that this is the first time you have heard the term “Civil War politics” – if so, you can’t have been following politics very closely!

    Also, the Civil War is nearly 90 years ago, not 80.

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