By the start of June of 1922, Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith and Richard Mulcahy had established themselves as the chief leaders of a breakaway faction of Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army. The trio and the nationalist-orientated splinter they led strongly supported a compromise peace deal between the revolutionary movement in Ireland and the imperial government of the United Kingdom, which Collins and Griffith had previously negotiated in December of 1921. Despite the oaths they had taken in 1919-21 to uphold Bunreacht Dála Éireann or the Dáil Constitution, and the sovereign republic it enshrined, the three men were to become the instigators – intended or not – of a conservative counter-revolution which would sweep the country over the next ten months. On the basis of a misguided agreement with Britain the all-island, thirty-two county Irish Republic would be overthrown and replaced with a partitioned, twenty-six county Irish Free State.
However, this independent dominion of the British Empire would not come into formal existence until the 6th of December 1922. Up to that date the southern half of the country would live under the upstart rule of the Provisional Government, a transitional authority given twelve months to transform the state proclaimed in April 1916, and ratified in successive plebiscite elections, into its British-countenanced replacement. From the 16th of January 1922 this self-appointed administration of Pro-Treaty men would operate with little democratic oversight or mandate, existing in a twilight zone of legality and constitutionality.
At its head from January until his death in August 1922 was Michael Collins, carrying out the dual role of Chairman of the Provisional Government of Ireland (that is, of the twenty-six counties) and later Commander-in-Chief of the Irish National Army or INA. This small military body was the pro-agreement splinter of the IRA, and despite its grand title it began as little more than a personal militia answerable only to Collins and his immediate associates in Dublin city and county. Over the next two years, as it mobilised to make war against it former comrades, the INA would transfer its loyalty from the Provisional regime to the Free State, its numbers swelled by former “Trucileers” and ex-members of the so-called Irish regiments of the United Kingdom’s Imperial Armed Forces.
(Reflecting the political chaos and deception of the time, in the early months of 1922 Collins remained a minister in the Aireacht or Government of the Irish Republic and a GHQ officer of the Irish Republican Army, serving or having served as the Adjutant General, Director of Organisation and of Information. Meanwhile he was simultaneously setting up rival bodies seeking to replace both. His close associate Eoin O’Duffy, a fascist demagogue in the 1930s, was the Chief-of-Staff of the IRA from January to July 1922, despite being a de facto general in the INA and the opposition of Liam Lynch, a rival anti-treaty Chief-of-Staff.)
On a broader level, the political wing of the Provisionals, the breakaway pro-treaty section of Sinn Féin, would restyle itself as Cumann na nGaedheal in April of 1923. An uneasy coalition of Collins-admiring republicans, former nationalists of the old Irish Parliamentary Party and a ragbag collection of “southern” unionists, this grouping would owe much of its limited electoral and military success to the backing of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Ireland and the imperial cabinet in Britain. The organisation would dominate national government on the island for the next decade and more, using the mass executions, imprisonments and expulsions of the counter-revolutionary struggle and its aftermath to retain power in the Twenty-Six Counties.
Subsequently eclipsed by Fianna Fáil, a party emerging from the defeated anti-treaty side of the internecine struggle, Cumann na nGaedheal would later find it necessary to ally with reactionary or fascistic groupings in order to survive in the turbulent post-civil war politics of the early 1930s. These groups included the National Centre Party and the National Guard. That is, the infamous “Blueshirts”. From this second decade of compromise and appeasement was born the centre-right Fine Gael, the supposed United Ireland Party. Which of course survives to the present day.
This at least is one quick interpretation of Ireland’s political history from the 1920s until the ‘30s. Naturally, there is also a rival version which acts as an apologist for the nationalist “subversives” of 1922-23, as featured in the Irish Times:
In the summer of 1922, independent Ireland slipped into a state of civil war. As the government struggled to suppress a republican uprising with bolshevist undertones, elements within the Cumann na nGaedheal party (forerunner to Fine Gael) looked to augment the National Army and the infant Garda Síochána with armed treatyite paramilitaries.
There was, of course, no “republican uprising” in 1922. The anti-treaty side represented the majority of activists in the national independence movement, including Sinn Féin, the Irish Republican Army, Cumann na mBan and Fianna Éireann (most IRA volunteers voted against the treaty in an army-wide referendum in March of 1922. The CnamB and FÉ were to follow thereafter with similar votes). The pro-treaty splinter represented a tiny minority of activists who took up arms not just against the revolutionary majority but a thriving revolutionary state already in existence. Through sham political pacts and unity agreements with anti-treaty rivals, the support of a partitioned electorate, and access to British artillery and personnel, in June of 1922 the nationalists usurped the work of their one-time republican comrades.
As for a follow-on description of Fine Gael’s political antecedents, characterising them as “…pro-treaty constitutionalists“. Well, as noted above, it was Collins, Griffith and Mulcahy who subverted the Dáil constitution of 1919-23, and who formed a new and unconstitutional Provisional Government seeking to overthrow a Republican Government mandated in two general elections and two rounds of local elections between 1918 and 1921.
If the Irish Times opinion piece published yesterday is going to reflect the level of historical analysis we can expect in the lead up to the centenary anniversaries of 2021-23, then it is going to be a long few years ahead.
Update: A related Irish History Show podcast from Near FM.