How Populism Works: Charles J Haughey and the Perils of Walking on Water- Part one: Rise and Fall, and Rise


I want to write about a politician who made himself the central political figure in his lifetime. He had charisma, the popular touch, and his ambition knew no bounds; he even had a splendid mane of sometimes unruly hair. He was the darling of his party, who knew exactly how to tickle exactly the right place on the membership’s funny bone. He was the chancer’s chancer, playing fast and loose throughout his career with fact, policy, law, the public finances and his personal life. More than once his career, rocked by scandal, seemed over, but he bounced back.

And he became prime minister.

Nothing ever stuck. Back in September 1985, whilst leader of the opposition, whilst sailing to his privately owned island off the coast of Co Kerry, his private yacht came close to the rocks and he had to be saved by the local lifeboat crew. Later, standing the lads a round of drinks or two, he was asked about how he managed to escape from the stricken vessel: he turned his interlocutor, with a characteristic twinkle in his eye and quipped, ‘I walked on water’.


Welcome to the life and times of a figure once loved by some, followed by others holding their noses and putting aside their principles, and detested in equal measure. A man who turned a once dominant party into a party of minority government and uneasy deals. Yes, it is Charles J Haughey: Irish taoiseach (prime minister) from 1978-81, 1982, and 1987-92, and leader of Ireland’s most successful political party, Fianna Fáil, from 1979-92. It was quite some ride.

Haughey first became active in politics whilst studying Commerce at University College, Dublin. Trinity College, Dublin’s other major university, was still predominantly Protestant, so UCD was in many ways the forcing house of the new generation of Irish politicians born after independence: a contemporary of Haughey’s was his great opponent, future taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, Garret Fitzgerald.

Politics in Ireland has always tended to be something of a family business: Fitzgerald’s father was minister of external affairs in the Free State government. Haughey was not born into the purple, though his father had been in the IRA, and then the Free State army. However, he would make up for that soon enough.

PA-1408667-310x415He was undoubtedly able. After taking a first, he qualified as an account and lawyer, establishing his own firm. Within two years of having entered the Dáil (the Irish parliament) in 1957, he was in government. He rose fast: in the Ministry of Justice, becoming minister in 1961, he was a great success. After a less happy spell at Agriculture, he organised the campaign to re-elect de Valera, Fianna Fáil’s founder and elder statesman, to the presidency in 1966. He became minister of finance. Haughey was clearly destined for the top.

charles-haughey-anne-robinson-390x285He posed, with some justice, as a moderniser. As minister of justice he introduced a wave of reforms: an Adoption Act reformed an archaic legal process, a Succession Act safeguarded the inheritances of wives and children, he abolished capital punishment. He was part of a new generation of Irish politics, and played up to that image. As minister of agriculture, he came into conflict with the National Farmers’ Association: after a protest march of some 30,000 descended upon Dublin, Haughey refused to meet them. After that, his modernising instincts were tempered by hard Irish political realities.

His success was not down to ability alone. In the Ireland of the ‘forties and ‘fifties, nothing happened without the right contacts. Haughey had already shown a gift for making them. He set up his accountancy firm with Harry Boland, son of a senior Fianna Fáil politician. At UCD, he met and then went on to marry Maureen, daughter of Seán Lemass (left), who would go on to succeed Eamon de Valera as leader of Fianna Fáil and taoiseach. He gathered round him a circle, notably including his future tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Brian Lenihan.

haughey lemass lynchHe was also something of a master of the dark arts. In 1966, Lemass retired. Haughey  was a candidate for the leadership, as were his fellow Young Turks, George Colley and Neil Blaney. All three were, in their own way, divisive. Lemass looked for a compromise candidate, and settled on his minister of finance, Jack Lynch (seen above with Lemass and Haughey) . Realising that he couldn’t win, Haughey took his father-in-law’s advice and stood aside. His reward was the Ministry of Finance.


There he showed what would be another trait. Pensioners were given free travel on public transport and cheap electricity. Fiscal prudence came very much second to a happy dollop of populism. The path to the top was still very much open.


Then it all came crashing down. The return of large-scale violence to the north, and the plight of northern Catholics, stirred atavistic memories in southern politics. Though Fianna Fáil had long since abandoned anything except a rhetorical republicanism, the Troubles brought bthe republican corpse to life. Haughey was not averse to republican gestures, which went down well with many Fianna Fáilers. As a student, in 1945, he was one of group of UCD students who had symbolically burned the union flag outside Trinity on VE-day. As minister of justice, he had shown his republican colours by passing an Extradition Act, all but preventing extradition to the UK for IRA men. This was at a time when the IRA were pursuing a renewed campaign of violence, which had begun in 1956, the so-called Border War. He also showed his distance from the IRA, though, by setting up Special Criminal Courts to try IRA men in the republic: those courts did a great deal to end the IRA campaign of violence that had begun in 1956.

By 1969, Protestant attacks on Catholics in the north had put serious pressure of the government to do something. The government was divided. Some, such as Neil Blaney and Kevin Boland (Harry’s brother), wanted the government to intervene in some way. Others, such as George Colley, were staunchly opposed. As a compromise, Lynch was persuaded to provide funds for the relief of northern Catholics: as minister of finance, Haughey would administer the money.

What happened next has remained controversial ever since, but there is little doubt that at least half the money, under Haughey’s sole control, was actually set aside to buy guns for the north. Special Branch knew; they also knew that Haughey had met the IRA’s Chief of Staff.  When Lynch was told, he did nothing (Haughey claimed it had been a chance meeting). So, Special Branch told the leader of the opposition, who gave Lynch an ultimatum. Haughey and Blaney were sacked; Boland resigned, claiming (perhaps with some justice) that Lynch knew about the plan. Haughey and Blaney were put on trial, alongside an Irish Army intelligence officer, a Belfast republican leader and a Belgian businessman. The first trial collapsed, they were found not guilty in the second (Haughey and Blaney are pictured after their acquittal, below).

haughey blaney arms

However, it looked as if his political career was over, at least his ministerial one. Blaney became an independent TD; Boland left and formed a new party, fading into obscurity. Not Haughey. As a backbencher, he stayed loyal, publicly at least. It was in these years that he added another string to his bow. The farmers’ protests in 1966 had shown that Haughey lacked a following in the wider party in the country. He now sought to remedy that. Over the next five years, he travelled up and down the country, getting to know backbenchers, and local party men and women. Aside from his natural charisma, he also had charm in spades. He also had the uncommon knack of remembering names and personal details. He now became known simply as Charlie. The Fianna Fáil base loved him. By the time the party lost office in 1975, a weakened Lynch was forced to recall him to the front bench.

As opposition spokesman, and then as minister for health in 1977, he returned to his earlier reforming ways. He introduced Ireland’s first anti-smoking campaign. His Family Planning Bill legalised contraception (though only when prescribed by a doctor). Haughey was back.


He was back at the right time. Lynch’s authority was unravelling and, by December 1979, his time was up. In the leadership election that followed, all but one member of the cabinet supported Haughey’s opponent, an old rival he had been at UCD with, George Colley. But, Haughey’s time spent schmoozing the party in the country paid dividends.  Haughey won by 44 votes to 38: the backbenches were with him. Haughey had achieved his life’s ambition and, in the process, staged one of the great political comebacks. In doing so, he illustrated a political truth. Populism could trump probity in politics. Lies, illegality and corruption were by no means an obstacle in all circumstances. Intrigue had its day. Haughey stood for just one thing in politics, and that one thing had triumphed: Charles J Haughey.


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Ireland (part three): Ourselves Alone – Eamon de Valera and the Arrows of Adversity

dev 32By 1923, the civil war was over. The anti-treaty forces had been crushed, and the new Free State was established. The civil war left its legacy, though, not least in subsequent politics: the two sides of the civil war gave birth to the two political parties that have dominated Irish politics ever since.


The pro-treaty side that now governed (above, in 1923) formed a party that, by 1932, had coalesced into Fine Gael. Meanwhile, Eamon de Valera created Fianna Fail (below). It went on to become its largest party in independent Ireland, as it would remain until 2011.

FF 26

If de Valera’s conduct in 1921-22 was at best deeply mistaken, and at worst malign, head discovered statesmanship quickly thereafter. Having lost his seat, he contemplated leaving politics. Instead, in 1926, he broke from and effectively broke Sinn Féin. Then, in 1927, he ate his old words about the oath: Fianna Fáil held their noses, took the oath, entered the Dáil and got on with constitutional politics. 


De Valera won power in 1932, on the back of the slump. In 1931, the Statute of Westminster had removed the last vestiges of London’s control over dominion parliaments. Taking advantage of the freedom to achieve freedom that Collins et al had given him, de Valera gradually stripped away the last vestiges of British authority: he abolished the oath, removed the powers of the governor-general and moved him into a small house in the suburbs, as well creating a separate Irish citizenship.

Britain did not react well. It imposed trade sanctions; in response, de Valera (seen at the top in London in 1932) refused to make the loan repayments due for land purchase made under the pre-war Land Acts. A trade war ensued (de Valera was a believer in autarky, at least in theory). The Irish economy languished, and many of its people were left in a not always genteel poverty. None of this stopped de Valera moving further to cut the ties with Britain. In 1936, he abolished the office of governor-general. Then, in 1937, he introduced a new constitution: Eire, as the state was now known, was independent.

Characteristically, de Valera’s constitution was a study in ambiguity. It made no mention of the word republic, though the word sovereignty was used liberally. It gave the state a president, though one with little actual power. It claimed sovereignty over the north, but without any real intention of acting upon it. It did not make the Catholic Church the established church, but it did acknowledge its special place in the nation’s life.


When Chamberlain came to power in 1937, he moved to repair Anglo-Irish relations. The debt issue was resolved and the constitution recognised; Britain also gave up the treaty ports. When war came, Eire remained neutral. Neutrality spoke powerfully of Irish independence, and de Valera knew that anything other than neutrality would quickly have opened old wounds. London even toyed with the idea of coming out for Irish unity in return for Irish support in the war. That de Valera would never have countenanced the idea tells us much about the place of the north in Dublin’s priorities.  Nonetheless, Britain had good reason to resent Ireland’s neutrality. In particular, the fact that they were not allowed to use the treaty ports made the Atlantic convoys riskier (whose supplies were destined for Ireland as well as Britain).

Ireland’s neutrality had its limits, though. Somewhere around 70,000 men and women who had been born in the Free State served in British armed forces; another 100,000 were working there. For some, this was a political act: in opposition to Nazism and Fascism, in support of democracy, support for Britain. For many, it was simple economic necessity.

018606A feature of modern Irish life has been the misery memoir, such as Frank McCourt’s international bestseller Angela’s Ashes. Written in the ‘nineties, as the Celtic Tiger roared and Ireland underwent rapid socio-economic change, many looked back to the old Ireland as a place of grinding poverty and puritanical theocracy. It is, of course, easy to overdo both. Those of us who knew the old Ireland sometimes are also prone to look back on it with a warm nostalgia, at least in part.

But there was grinding poverty. The Emergency, was the wartime period was officially known, merely exacerbated existing trends in the Irish economy: it also showed that autarky was a busted flush. In short, Ireland’s industrial base was paltry and underdeveloped, and its agriculture backward. Its currency was tied to sterling, and it was wholly dependent upon Britain for coal and oil. Joe Lee made much of the comparison with a similar-sized small European nation: Denmark. The Free State does not come out well. However, looked at in a European context in an era when most European economies were not doing well, and were protectionist, Ireland’s growth rates were about average: it was the 1950s that saw it fall well behind.


De Valera is sometimes accused of wishing backwardness upon his people. He famously lauded a vision of a nation of comely maids and pure, sturdy farmers; he sometimes seemed to personify a kind of puritan Catholicism, and aversion to the modern world. There is some truth in that, though that was an outlook many others shared.  It can also be overdone, however. Fianna Fáil’s most creative thinker, Seán Lemass (above), took the opportunity of wartime emergency powers to reform the state’s approach to the economy: Lemass looked to planning, state intervention and Keynesianism.


For all that, many ordinary people were very poor, as the above (from the Irish Press 1932 campaign against slum housing) shows. Living standards were lower than those in a depression hit Britain and Northern Ireland. Many working class children lived in slums, were malnourished and lacked basic healthcare. In 1943, an estimated 17.3% of Irish children had rickets. Around 120,000 people lived in slum tenements: about half of them were unfit for human habitation and beyond repair. Ireland’s infant mortality rate, 7% of all births (9% in Dublin), was shockingly high; at the same time, in the Great Depression, Britain’s was 1.5%. A government survey in 1941 revealed that 60% of mothers in Dublin were too malnourished to breast-feed their babies. For those a little higher up the ladder, things were hardly abundant. Gradually, forms of welfare (such as pensions) and medical provision were extended, and houses were built. However, provision was patchy and often at behest of religious charitable organisations.

9780571119912-ukAnd the problem was that many of Ireland’s charitable organisations were not very charitable, to say the least. The past twenty years has seen a grim and, at the time, barely spoken truth finally emerge. The truth is a story of systematic and horrendous sexual, physical and emotional abuse meted out by churchmen, nuns and those allied to them against defenceless children in institutions all across Ireland for decades. This was hardly unique to Ireland, or to the clergy (as anyone who has read John McGahern’s The Dark, with its broken, violent father, will know): though its extent remains shocking. Just as bitter a truth was the extent of the moral complicity of the church, the state and, it must be admitted, many Irish people: it was a part of national life and the life of national institutions. There were, of course, many wholly decent and well-intentioned men and women caring for others: there were even a few who spoke out. However, the abusers were left to get on with it or, at best, moved on to pastures new, but similar: blind eyes were turned towards institutions and abusive families. Problem children, poor children, ‘immoral’ or pregnant girls were safely hidden from view, from care, and far too often horribly mistreated.

mcquaidWhat gave all this an especially hypocritical air was the Church’s teaching. Irish Catholicism in these years was fiercely puritanical, with an obsession about sex, sin and its punishment. Children were a gift from God. The importation and sale of contraceptives was made illegal in 1935. The church in these years is most associated with John McQuaid (left), archbishop of Dublin from 1940 to 1972. It is possible to overstate the influence the church, and McQuaid himself, wielded. It was, however, considerable. If independent Ireland was not actually a theocracy, there were times when it did a pretty good impersonation of one. The pervasive influence the church in Irish life gave it a great deal of power over its people; a people it sought to protect from the progressive, the Protestant and the impure. Above all, what the church did was lend force to Ireland’s, and de Valera’s, social conservatism: McQuaid would boast of Ireland’s success in resisting ‘modern aberrations’.

In part, his railings against modernity reflected an underlying truth: Ireland did modernise. Despite the church, censorship, economic backwardness and social conservatism, the modern world could not be kept out altogether. There was an obsession with the moral threat of dance halls, for example, because there were a lot of dance halls, licensed and unlicensed, and a lot of dancing going on. There is also something to be said for the notion that the obsession with sexual sin made up for the lax approach Irish society had to financial probity: the gombeen man, the shady wheeler-dealer, was a staple of Irish life.

Amongst_Women_(Hardback_Cover)In McGahern’s Amongst Women (his masterpiece) the old IRA man, Moran, rails against the Ireland he lives in: an Ireland ‘run by gangsters’. The Republican ideal has faded and gone, and ‘half his family’ have left for England. Moran dominates the family that remains, in part by emotional and actual violence. It was also an Ireland in which The Dark was banned; McGahern also lost his teaching job (in part thanks to McQuaid). An Ireland that so often seemed dominated by mammy was, in reality, a Catholic patriarchy.

Like Moran’s children (and McGahern), young Irish people emigrated: in the ‘fifties, 1.4% of Ireland’s population emigrated each year, some 412,000 in total. Some went far, most went to Britain. Like all migrants, they left for a panoply of reasons, and many longed for home (though they more often sung about home than actually returned). Undoubtedly, though, emigration on that scale says much about the Irish economy, and society, in the years after independence.

By 1949, Ireland was a republic. That Republic of Ireland had underlying social and economic problems, and that the process of independence had exacerbated those problems. There is much that could have been done differently, and some elements of social and economic policy look like actual self-harm informed by wishful thinking.

And yet, those migrants did dream of home.


De Valera was no liberal. Social policy remained conservative and Catholic. There was censorship, and de Valera was not above using special powers against opponents. However, that was not de Valera’s only bequest. He had seen off political violence in the form of the IRA and Ireland’s would-be Fascist movement, the Blueshirts. His 1937 constitution entrenched liberal democracy in a Europe in which it was an endangered species. The Republic of Ireland was created by de Valera’s opponents: after 16 years in power, in a time of serious economic difficulty, Fianna Fáil had lost the 1948 general election. Fianna Fáil would return, but de Valera’s defeat betokens his greatest achievement. The Free State had become a stable democracy. The freedom to achieve freedom had been used, and in the end used wisely. In the end, Dev deserves his place in the pantheon.


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Ireland’s English Question (2): 1922, part two –Nationalist Unicorns, Ireland’s Dolchstoßlegende and the Great Hatred


If Irish nationalism had hid its head in the political and over the fundamental strategic realities of Anglo-Irish relations and northern unionism, the process of achieving independence exposed the other fairy tales, or unicorns as we seem to be saying nowadays, that underpinned nationalist political thought. If breaking up proved hard to do, the party that did the breaking, Sinn Féin, was broken in its turn, and Irish public life was poisoned for generations.

Constitutional Nationalist Unicorns: Political Realities, and the Limitations of Nationalism

Augustine_BirrellAs noted in part one, London was the great power: smaller Ireland the supplicant. This was made worse by the fact that Irish nationalists had never really needed to bow to realities before. In large part, this was because Irish politicians, at the turn of the century, did not govern in any meaningful sense. The Local Government Act of 1898 had created local councils, but national government was in the hands of Dublin Castle, which was answerable to the Chief Secretary, a member of the cabinet (from 1907-16, Augustine Birrell, left; you can read about him here). To put it simply, Ireland was not governed in the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom. To be fair, there were similarities to the constitutional arrangements with Scotland. However, Scottish politics was not separate: like then rest of the United Kingdom, it was about the clash of the great British parties and the United Kingdom general elections that decided its government.

That was not the case in Ireland. True, Irish unionists were Conservatives, but their Toryism had always been conditional; what mattered above all else was the maintenance of the union. Meanwhile, though, with the creation of the Parliamentary Party, Irish nationalists voted for a specifically Irish party, one than took no part in Westminster government. Thus, where there had been reforms, they had been the creation of enlightened British Westminster politicians on both sides.

This made the Parliamentary Party by nature a vehicle for opposition. Thus, home rule remained largely undefined. Ironically, in the end, it was the Westminster government that had to define what home rule meant in practice. When that definition went against nationalist aspiration, the party opposed it, as over the proposals to exempt northeast Ulster. Nationalism, and wishful thinking, triumphed over the facts of political life. The problem was that facts stubbornly refused to change, and Westminster governments had priorities and pressures of their own. Thus, any solution was always likely to fall short of nationalist aspirations, and the nationalists were unable to advance any alternative that might get the unionists on board. There was one realistic outcome: some form of home rule (something short of dominion status or, by 1921, dominion status) with partition. Twice, the nationalists rejected it. Home rule had never been clearly defined, and when the British defined it, the nationalists didn’t really like the outcome.

The Hillside Men: a republic means a republic, but what does a republic mean?


If wishful thinking was part of constitutional nationalism, the radicals were even more devoted to it. The pure ideal remained complete separation. In the United Kingdom of 1912, that wasn’t on the table. Thus, the radicals supported home rule. However, in Easter 1916, the radicals had their heads: they proclaimed their Republic. Not that it mattered much, because they had no chance of actually getting an actual republic (some even argued that they should become an Irish monarchy, under a German prince). However, the Easter Rising became the foundational myth of the new Ireland, and the republican idea came was part of the package. The sixteen dead men, the executed leaders (above), became Republican saints: to disavow the Republican ideal was to disavow them. The Sinn Féin party that won the 1918 general election was avowedly republican.

griffithWell, after a fashion. Arthur Griffith (right) had founded the party in 1905, arguing that Ireland should follow the Hungarian model of a ‘dual monarchy’. Thus, Ireland would have its own parliament under the crown (which was essentially the same as Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal movement in the 1840s). In 1917, the party nearly split between monarchists and republicans: de Valera and Griffith brokered a compromise in which upon independence the Irish people could then choose their own government. Sinn Féin’s republicanism was, in fact, left carefully undefined.

Ireland’s Dolchstoßlegende: Drunk on English Hospitality, or the Sober Realities of Negotiation

After defeat in the Great War, German right-wingers became attached to Dolchstoßlegende, or the stab in the back. This myth asserted that an undefeated Germany, and German army, had been stabbed in the back by the democratic civilian (and Jewish) politicians that signed the armistice. Those same politicians, the ‘November criminals‘ would compound the crime by signing the Treaty of Versailles. Germany had thus been betrayed by the traitors within.

In Ireland, the bloody conflict that began in 1919 ended with a truce in 1921. It was time to negotiate. That meant compromise. For those who had fed their hearts on the republican fantasy, that compromise would inevitably mean what they would see as betrayal: Ireland’s Dolchstoßlegende.

Sinn Fein Leaders at First Dail Eireann

In those negotiations, there were some strengths to the Irish position. Sinn Féin’s spectacular win in the 1918 election, and the policy of abstention from Westminster, had done a great deal to raise a question over the legitimacy of the government of Ireland as it stood. Now, a parliament sat in Dublin, even if illegally: the first Dáil sat in 1919 (above). In a democratic age, the Irish voice had spoken. It might also be argued that the violence of 1919-21 did much to persuade the Westminster government that most of Ireland was no longer governable, unless its national aspirations were recognised. Not only that, but in a Britain recovering from four years of terrible warfare, there was no real appetite for more.  In other words, London was willing to compromise.

There were limits to that willingness though. In the first place, Lloyd George was prime minister of a coalition dominated by his Conservative partners, the same men that had once so bitterly opposed home rule. They would, in the end, be dragged a good way further down the road than home rule, but there were limits.

Nor was it a negotiation of equals. We may now feel that Britain’s great power status had been as much undermined as it has been confirmed by the Great War, but it didn’t really look much like it the time. Famously, when it came to the last phases of negotiation, Lloyd George had made sure that the Irish plenipotentiaries met him in the cabinet room, with a map of British forces and their deployment around the world, and a barely veiled threat that, in the absence of agreement, those forces would be brought to bear upon Ireland. Did the Irish want peace, or war?


That bore upon another weakness in the Irish position. Come the truce, many IRA men had blown their cover and were now identified. Furthermore, Michael Collins (above) believed that, militarily, the IRA had achieved about as much as they could. Not only that, but Collins also knew that if it came to anything like open conflict between the IRA and the British army, the IRA would be destroyed (as their republican rump were by Free State forces in the civil war). In short, this time was the ripe time, their best chance of a deal.

Negotiation didn’t just imply compromise; it also implied definition. There was no definite proposal emanating from Dublin other than the undefined republic; in part, because the Irish headers knew that defining it would divide them. When the first communications were opened, de Valera remained studiously vague, doing little more than simply restating the public position. Ireland wanted a republic, whatever it was they meant by that. With only Irish red lines (Brits out) and republicanism (unicorns in) coming from Dublin, it was over to Lloyd George to try to frame a constitutional settlement. His solution was generous, but with limits: dominion status, with riders attached.


De Valera (above) was aware of this from the start. On his visit to London he rejected the idea and subjected his hosts to a lengthy account of the iniquities of Oliver Cromwell. Famously, Lloyd George described the experience of negotiating with de Valera as like ‘trying to pick up mercury with a fork’. When the time came to negotiate for real, de Valera chose to stay at home. His reasons for doing this have remained obscure, and controversial. It was not that de Valera was a completely doctrinaire and inflexible republican. In power, he would be supple and gradualist; in opposing the treaty in 1922, he was not an absolutist or separatist. It could be that his experience in London persuaded him that negotiations would go better without him. It might also be that by putting Collins at the de facto head of the Irish side in London, he hoped to tie the IRA and the hardliners to any deal that emerged. It might be that he hoped that by staying away, he could be the man to hold a divided Sinn Féin together. It is also is possible to take a more cynical view: staying away would give him the opportunity to indulge in some plausible deniability, when the inevitable compromise came home. It remained a fact that in 1918 Ireland had not voted for a republic as such. True, there had been elections in 1921 (though they were of a contested status), but even then republicanism remained less than precisely defined. That lack of definition suited de Valera politically: being in London would force him to define his position.


The Irish delegation, like Sinn Féin itself, was divided. Negotiations were complex and fraught. For both sides there would emerge what we now like to call red lines, and both sides had domestic political backs to watch. In the end, Collins led the Irish delegation in a recognition of what was political reality (they are pictured above, signing the treaty).

The British navy would have access to four ‘treaty ports’. The six counties of northeast Ulster would be treated separately, having what was in effect (ironically) a form of home rule: a devolved government under Westminster, but still returning MPs to parliament. The permanent nature of that partition was fudged by the prospect of a boundary commission. Most importantly, Ireland would have broadly the same constitutional status of the four white dominions in the empire (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa). That would be tantamount to political independence. It thus included fiscal independence, something Griffith and Collins regarded as a major achievement. However, the Irish also undertook to meet their financial obligations to send money to London to compensate former landowners whose land had been forcibly sold off under the terms of Land Acts.

The real sticking point was symbolic. Britain insisted that the new state must keep its ties to the crown and the empire. Ireland would have a governor-general. The issue that would convulse Sinn Féin was related: the British insistence that all members of the new Irish parliament would take an oath of loyalty to the new Irish Free State, and to be ‘faithful to his Majesty in virtue of the common citizenship of great Britain and Ireland’.

That oath would bring about the effective end of Sinn Féin and lead the Irish Free State into civil war.

Give Them a Republic? Sinn Féin Torn Apart

The fact that the issue of the oath led to civil war in Ireland is rightly seen as symptomatic of Irish political nationalism’s obsession with symbolism. There is some justice in that, though it is probably true of all forms of political nationalism. It is also true that the same might be said of empires, and imperialists. The British had been insistent: there must be the oath. When Collins drew up the first Free State constitution, trying to bind a fractured Sinn Féin together, he omitted the oath. The British insisted that it was included.

That insistence came partly from imperialist instinct. Apart from Lloyd George himself, the other delegates on the British side were three of the big names in the imperialist firmament: for the Liberals Churchill, for the Conservatives Lord Birkenhead and Austen Chamberlain. It was also seen as a constitutional guarantor, especially by Birkenhead. For Lloyd George, it was a political necessity, which would help win over reluctant Conservatives.

In Ireland, the divisions it opened up were visceral. In the end, all the Irish delegates signed, persuaded by Collins and Griffith. For them, it was the best deal they could have got. On the night they signed, Lloyd George had given them an ultimatum: they could have peace or war, but they would have either now. Griffith laid strong emphasis on the fiscal autonomy they had won, notably the right to set their own tariffs. For Collins (with de Valera and Harry Boland, below), the choice was the one Lloyd George had given him: a war that the IRA could not win, or peace and statehood.


The seven-man Sinn Féin cabinet was split: four for, three against. The treaty was ratified by the Dáil, but only by 64 votes to 57. The debates, held in secret, were bitter and impassioned. The root of the opposition to the treaty was opposition to the oath, which was itself symbolic of an emotional attachment to the ideal of the republic. The delegates had been sent to negotiate a republic, not sign away the nation’s birthright, the argument ran. They had been lured by perfidious Albion, by English wiles: Collins had got ‘drunk on English hospitality and sold the republic down the river’. Had they only held their ground, negotiated differently, or brought the treaty home unsigned, things could have been different and the republic saved. They were now traitors, dishonouring the names of dead patriots. Unsullied and pure, the republic of the imagination (though arguably still undefined) must live on.

request dev comes to london

De Valera opposed the treaty, though his position was more nuanced than that of most. His proposed alternative, known as Document #2, was created during tghe negotiations, and had been sidelined by Collins et all (see above). It jettisoned the oath and dominion status, suggesting something like the status India would hold in the Commonwealth in 1947. It was couched in careful terms: it didn’t mention the word republic, for example. It was a creative and intelligent constitutional proposal, but in the context of the negotiations it was wholly unrealistic. Just as  Collins attempt to hold the movement together by eliding the oath was doomed to fail, because it was unacceptable to Britain, so was Document #2. The unicorns had run out of road.

‘We Fed the Heart on Fantasies’: Civil War

The verdict of the Dáil was backed up in a general election. For the majority, as Collins had argued, peace and statehood were enough. In the end, he famously argued, it gave Ireland ‘the freedom to achieve freedom’. For the irreconcilables, that didn’t matter: Ireland was still tied to Britain, and the Republic had been betrayed.


Tragically, the result was civil war, hence John Joyce’s mordant quip above. The pro-treaty side won, but not before civil war had done what civil wars do. The anti-treaty side (led by de Valera, above), described by Eileen O’Faoláin (wife of the poet Seán) as ‘abstract fanatics’, fought with the doomed brutality of their type. Free State forces, with the panoply of state power behind, then reacted in kind: and unlike their British predecessors, they knew who their enemies were. When five Free State soldiers were killed by a mine in Co Kerry, Free State forces retaliated by tying eight Republicans to a mine and blowing them up. Among the 1,200 or so dead were Collins, who had signed the treaty, assassinated in his native Co Cork. Erskine Childers, one of the secretaries to the delegation, was on the other side and was executed by the Free State (you can read about him here). Griffith became president of the Free State, de Valera his bitter opponent. Shortly before Collins’ assassination, Griffith had died of a heart attack, worn down by it all: Collins is pictured at his funeral, below.

collins griffiths funreal

To quote Yeats’ Meditations in Time of Civil War:

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love…

In Diarmaid Ferriter’s words, the civil war ‘sank the middle ground’.

‘Much hatred, little room’: the Price of Freedom

That middle ground had, and could have, existed. The divide between Griffith and de Valera was actually pretty Jesuitical, until the oath enraged Republican emotion past the point of reason. Even before that, home rule could easily have been a step on the road to dominion status. Dominion status did, de facto, make Ireland independent. Ironically, it was de Valera who would go on to show that very fact when he took power in 1932. Collins and Griffith had been right: the Irish Free State gave Ireland the ‘freedom to achieve freedom’. In short, Ireland could have got where it ended up, becoming a democratic republic, from that very starting point.

Independence came at a cost. Ireland was partitioned and, in the end, partition would see the Troubles bequeathed us by the Provisional IRA. The home rule crisis, the Easter Rising, the war of independence and the civil war brought the gun into Irish politics: it has proved a fatal attraction ever since. The bitterness of civil war would frame the politics of the Free State and its successor state, the Republic of Ireland, thereafter. The new Ireland would, for far too long, be economically backward, overly theocratic and a net exporter of its people. For far too long, independent Ireland lived up to John Joyce’s quip.

Could there have been a different Ireland? Probably, yes. However, the way in which independence came, left us with an Ireland embittered in its discourse, an island divided by violent rhetoric and deluded to its political imagination. An Ireland made brutal by fantasy. To quote the poet again:

Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother’s womb
A fanatic heart.

For far too long answer to Ireland’s English Question was thus: the great hatred had won.

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