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.

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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.

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