Michael Clifford: Civil obedience in new political age

Michael Clifford: Civil obedience in new political age
Neil Blaney: Used Civil War memories to win seats. Photo: European Parliament Multimedia Centre

The Civil War was alive in well in 1968 when Des O’Malley was running for the Dáil on the Fianna Fáil ticket. His uncle, Donagh, died in March of that year, requiring a by-election for his seat in Limerick East. 

Des O’Malley was up against a James O’Higgins, who was a relation of Kevin O’Higgins, the State’s first justice minister, who had been assassinated in 1927.

O’Malley’s election agent was Niall Blaney, the Fianna Fáil minister known as a firebrand Republican. One of Blaney’s tactics in that contest was to paint in red at various junctions around the city “Remember the 77”. 

This was a reference to the 77 people executed by the Free State during the Civil War, which took place over 10 months between July 1922 and May 1923.

Kevin O’Higgins had been a central figure in these executions and Blaney thought it tactically astute to remind people the kind of stock from which the Fine Gael candidate had come.

For Blaney, this was the meat-and-drink of politics. Forty-five years after the guns fell silent on the brief but brutal conflict, it was all about the tribes, them and us, Free Staters and Republicans, winners and losers, that emerged from it.

Later, he would regret his role in the election of O’Malley in that by-election. O’Malley represented a new kind of politics that was alien to Blaney. 

The Limerick man went on to serve as Justice Minister during the Arms crisis, and in 1985 made the first significant break from Civil War politics by founding the Progressive Democrats.

As observed on these pages by Professor Gary Murphy this week, the PDs, in turn, had a major influence on the government led by Fianna Fáil between 1997 and 2007. 

In terms of economic policy, it could well be argued that the PDs were more Fine Gael that Fine Gael itself.

Now, two years short of a century on from the end of the Civil War, the tribal politics spawned in its aftermath is finally dead. 

The world has moved on. In the 1969 general election the two parties between them took 80% of the vote.

In February of this year, their combined vote was just over 43%.

The two parties are on course to coalesce in a government with the Greens. 

If the Green party’s members reject the deal, then the Civil War parties will scout around for a few independents to prop up an alternative government. 

One way or the other, the pretence that there is any real difference between the two parties is over.

The coupling is loveless and reluctant. The Soldiers of Destiny would appear to be far more put out than the Blueshirts. 

For some in Fianna Fáil their self-image as the representatives of the small farmers, the men and women without property, the republicans with a small R, is offended by getting into bed with the curtain-twitching Fine Gaelers.

Some Fianna Fáilers would see themselves far more in tune with Sinn Féin.

However, that ship sailed around the time Neil Blaney was in his pomp, when a good chunk of the country still ate their dinner in the middle of the day.

The Fianna Fáil of Charlie Haughey, and, in a different guise, Bertie Ahern, was far more in tune with the developers than the dispossessed, big business rather than small farmers.

Those in Fine Gael are a lot more relaxed about the coupling and with good reason. As things stand, they are better placed to become the dominant partner. 

The evolution of their Civil War opponent leaves Fine Gael far more clearly defined on the centre-right of the socio-economic spectrum.

As such the smart money says this will go one of two ways. 

Either there will be a merger — most likely sometime after the next election — or Fianna Fáil will continue to decline and tiptoe towards the centre-ground to huddle with the Greens, Labour and the Social Democrats, awaiting the call of either Sinn Féin on the left or Fine Gael on the right after each general election. 

Whatever the destiny of the Soldiers of Destiny, all has changed.

Of course, the big winner in both the realignment and the successful government formation talks is Sinn Féin. The party’s representatives have bleated repeatedly about “exclusion”, but beneath it all, they must be thrilled.

Their most successful general election result ever has been enhanced by an outcome in which they have managed to dodge a bullet.

The reality is that practically nobody in politics would enthusiastically go into government right now apart from Micheál Martin, who is mad anxious to be Taoiseach. 

Bar a miraculous recovery the next couple of years have the potential to be savage. Governing will be difficult, possibly torrid. 

Opposing government will be a cakewalk, high on righteous indignation and guaranteed exalted status on social media.

Strategically, the Shinners can use the time to bed in the dozens of new recruits, hone the lead role in opposition and prepare for the next election.

The end of Civil War politics is a boom for the Shinners but also throws up an irony for the party.

The actual issue that led to the Civil War, the Anglo Irish Treaty, was quickly buried. Eamon DeValera demonstrated this when he led his Fianna Fail party into the Dáil in 1927 and signed the oath of allegiance. 

The other big element of the treaty, the partition of the country, was quietly ignored. So while the enmity endured for decades, the reasons behind it quickly disappeared.

Today, the only party with a guiding policy which harks back to the Anglo Irish Treaty is Sinn Féin. The party’s big leap forward this year was attributable to its policies on socio-economic issues. 

Yet ending partition remains the main event for Sinn Féin. 

So while the electorate has moved on from the Civil War and its aftermath, the party that wasn’t around at the time, and only really came into being 50 years later, considers the issue behind the war to be unfinished business.

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