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Election and civil war: 1922-1923

The split between the pro-treaty politicians (Collins, Griffith) and their anti-treaty opponents in the Dáil (led by de Valera) is reflected in the Irish Republican army, which has until now been fighting as a unified force against the British.

There is clearly a danger of civil war in this split, but it remains only a lurking threat (in spite of many acts of robbery and violence by anti-treaty gangs of irregulars) until the first election for a Free State Dáil has been held in June 1922. Both sides hope to win their case by political power legitimized in the ballot box. In the event the pro-treaty faction led by Collins wins a resounding victory, with 94 of the 128 seats.

With their cause slipping out of reach, anti-treaty republicans raise the stakes. In June they kidnap one of Collins's senior generals and hold him hostage in the Four Courts in Dublin. Collins responds decisively, bringing up artillery to bombard the building. There follow eight days of fighting in Dublin, in which some sixty people are killed and 300 hundred wounded. Much of O'Connell Street is again destroyed.

This is unmistakably civil war between the two halves of the old IRA. With greater fire power Collins's men - now the official Free State army - sweep their opponents out of Dublin. But the war spreads elsewhere .

Victory is almost certain to go to the government, with active support coming from Britain, the Free State's partner in the treaty (Collins receives at least one shipment of 10,000 British rifles). But the Free State government receives a double blow in August 1922.

First the prime minister, Arthur Griffith, dies. Ten days later Collins himself, now commander-in-chief of the army, is killed in an ambush in county Cork. In this crisis two relatively unknown politicians, William Cosgrave and Kevin O'Higgins, emerge as leaders. They fulfil their new responsibilities with a surprising and effective ruthlessness.

Emergency powers are secured from the pro-treaty majority in the Dáil and stringent measures are taken to suppress rebel acts of terrorism. Unauthorized possession of any firearm, even a pistol, is now punishable by death. In November the first executions take place, including that of the republican novelist Erskine Childers, found in possession of a revolver given him by Collins in more comradely times.

The pressure is kept up. In the six months to May 1923 the Free State government executes seventy-seven republicans by firing squad (more than three times the number of executions by Britain during the two and a half years of the Troubles), as well as holding some 13,000 political prisoners in detention.

But the severity works. In May 1923 de Valera and the IRA high command instruct their members to lay down their arms. By August the situation is calm enough for new elections to be held. De Valera and his followers win 44 of the 128 seats. But they have no intention of sitting in a Dáil which they regard as a betrayal of their principles.

As a result Cosgrave is left with a clear majority. He and his ministers soon put in place a skilful programme of national reconstruction. Meanwhile they hope that the Boundary Commission, promised in conjunction with the treaty of 1921, will go some way towards resolving the thorny problem of northern Ireland.

The Boundary Commission: 1924-1925

When Lloyd George persuaded Collins and Griffith to accept the treaty of 1921, with its exclusion of the six counties, he sweetened the pill with a promise of a Boundary Commission 'to deterimine in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic considerations, the boundaries between northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland'.

The logical implication of this is that nationalist Catholics living in large border regions of Tyrone and Fermanagh, and in rather smaller areas of Derry, Down and Armagh, will find themselves included in the Irish Free State. Similarly Protestants in slim border regions of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan will join northern Ireland.

Michael Collins, in 1921, put much faith in this aspect of the treaty, believing that the six counties so much reduced in size might not prove economically viable and thus would eventually merge within a unified Ireland. Cosgrave hopes for a similar benefit in 1924 when he presses the new British prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, to fulfil this part of the bargain.

By the same token the parliament in northern Ireland, which was not involved in the treaty of 1921, is resolutely opposed to the idea of the commission. The prime minister, James Craig, even rejects the treaty's stipulation that he nominate one of the three members.

The Irish Free State's representative is Eoin MacNeill, a venerable figure in Irish republican politics, but he proves feeble in pressing the southern Irish case. During 1925 senior Conservatives at Westminster declare that the treaty envisaged no more than consolidation of the boundaries of northern Ireland, adjusting them by only a few parishes here and there. By the end of the year, after the resignation of MacNeill, it becomes clear that this is indeed all that the Commission intends. Its report is neither published nor acted upon.

Cosgrave, in compensation, makes an advantageous financial treaty with Britain. But a large minority of Catholics is now stranded in Protestant northern Ireland, with ominous implications for the future.

De Valera and Fianna Fáil:1922-1932

In the years after the 1922 election de Valera remains leader of those republicans in the Dáil who reject the treaty of 1921. He remains also the most powerful voice within the IRA (the anti-government side in the civil war).

He and his followers are returned to the Dáil with a sizable minority of seats in further elections in 1923 and 1927 but they still refuse to take part, disowning this assembly which has voted to accept a partition of the island. Their absence helps Cosgrave in the practical business of passing legislation (a great deal of which is done, to considerable effect, in the first years of the fledgling nation) but it also makes a mockery of a working democracy.

Cosgrave brings the issue to a head after the election of 1927, prompted by a shocking assassination in July. His close ally Kevin O'Higgins is gunned down in the street as he walks to mass. Cosgrave responds with a Public Safety Act, classing as treason the membership of any revolutionary society. He also introduces a measure requiring candidates for the Dáil to swear in advance their willingness to take their seat if elected.

This sequence of events (plus the fact that he has won almost the largest number of seats in the recent election, 44 to Cosgrave's 47) persuades de Valera at last to bring his party in from the cold.

His faction has been known since 1925 as Fianna Fáil (Warriors of Ireland) and has been formally established as a political party in 1926 (once again the minority, unwilling to give up the armed struggle, continues as the IRA). De Valera now persuades his colleagues that the dreaded oath of allegiance, to the king as head of the Commonwealth, is so meaningless that it can be safely taken - though he himself pushes away the Bible while signing.

With Fianna Fáil members finally taking the seats in the Dáil that they have won in successive elections, Ireland's two main parties are in place. Cosgrave's is known at this time as Cumann na nGaedheal (Society of Gaels) but subsequently merges with other smaller parties, in 1933, and adopts the snappier Fine Gael (Race of the Gaels). Ireland can surely claim the most poetically named political parties anywhere in the world.

After a narrowly defeated attempt by Fianna Fail and various minority parties to unseat him in August 1927, Cosgrave calls this year's second election, in September. Support now falls away from the smaller parties, but Fianna Fail still trails in second place by a slim margin (57 seats to Cosgrave's 62).

This is reversed at the next election, in 1932, when de Valera wins enough seats to form a government. The undisputed leader of the nation during its revolutionary period (1919-21) is now back at the helm of a free state. But it is still not a republic. Amending that detail is high on de Valera's agenda.

Loosening the ties: 1932-1945

Although largely notional, the 'dominion status' of the Irish Free State irks the passionate republican in de Valera. Moreover there is a popular cause in which he can usefully pick a quarrel with Britain, the former imperial power.

Since independence, many of southern Ireland's farmers have been paying annuities to the British government for the purchase of their land. In 1932 de Valera withholds these annuities from Britain, diverting them instead into the Irish exchequer. The result is an immediate trade war, started by the British imposition of tariffs on Irish farm produce.

To win democratic support for his policy de Valera goes to the country again in January 1933 (the new state is displaying an almost addictive passion for elections). He is returned with an increased number of seats in the Dáil.

While the trade war continues, de Valera steadily dismantles the trappings of Ireland's link with Britain. The oath of allegiance is abolished. The governor general's duties are reduced to a minimum. Finally, in 1937, de Valera introduces a new constitution. This replaces the governor general with a president, elected by the Irish people. And it changes the name of the nation from the Irish Free State to Eire (Gaelic for Ireland).

The new name has significance beyond its romantic Celtic resonance. Ireland implies the whole of Ireland, and the new constitution claims sovereignty over all thirty-two counties - though even de Valera admits that six counties are at present beyond his reach.

In spite of vociferous protests from northern Ireland, the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, accepts the constitutional changes and invites de Valera to London for talks on wider issues. One, in particular, is of some urgency with the increasing likelihood of a European war. Under the 1921 treaty Britain retains the right to use certain naval bases until such time as the Irish Free State can defend itself.

De Valera now maintains that Eire is capable of doing so. Chamberlain, conscious perhaps of the difficulty of maintaining these bases in wartime in a hostile environment, agrees to relinquish them to Eire by the end of 1938. In this mood of reconciliation the trade war is also brought to an end.

De Valera declares in 1939 that Eire will be neutral in any forthcoming war, and therefore will not allow her ports to be used for an invasion of Britain. He is able to maintain this position through the six years of World War II (though a build up of US troops from 1942 is something of an anomaly). During the war de Valera manages to fit in two more elections, in 1943 and 1944, both of them leaving him in power.

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