Disjointed narrative on Fianna Fáil and partition

Fianna Fáil, Partition and Northern Ireland, 1926-1971
Stephen Kelly
Irish Academic Press, €24.99

This book is a thorough examination of Fianna Fáil attitudes to partition during the first 45 years of the party’s existence.

Disjointed narrative on Fianna Fáil and partition

The book is well researched and sober in its judgements, but readers are left somewhat up in the air, because — in ending at 1971 — it essentially only covers the first half of the story.

“For almost half a century, since Fianna Fáil’s establishment in 1926, the movement had pursued an impractical, naive, and at times deluded strategy towards partition and Northern Ireland,” Dr Kelly notes. Although the party’s “first political objective” was to secure a united Ireland, he notes “no realistic policies were actually implemented to fulfil this primary objective”.

By only taking up the story with the foundation of Fianna Fáil, the author does not examine Éamon de Valera’s earlier views on partition. “If the Republic were recognised,” de Valera told a private session of the Dáil in Aug 1921, “he would be in favour of giving each county power to vote itself out of the Republic if it so wished.” He went on to warn that attempting to coerce the majority in the Six Counties would be to make the same mistake the British had made with Ireland as a whole.

“Partition was ignored throughout Fianna Fáil years in opposition from 1926 to 1932,” says Dr Kelly. Once the party came to power in 1932, it had to cope with the treachery of opponents who prompted the British to wage the Economic War.

Having established independence in the 1930s, de Valera planned an international propaganda campaign to get the British to agree to Irish unity. This campaign was called off with the advance of World War II, during which de Valera pursued “five years of extremely benevolent semi-neutrality”, says Dr Kelly.

David Gray, the American wartime minister to Ireland, ignored the benevolence of Irish neutrality, because he realised that de Valera was going to wage a propaganda campaign against partition after the war. Believing this posed a danger to Anglo-American co-operation, Gray discredited de Valera by distorting the nature of Irish neutrality.

While Dr Kelly tackles his brief with an admirable thoroughness, he is less convincing in going outside that brief when he suggests that de Valera’s “anti-partition propaganda campaign forced the hand of the Inter-Party Government to play ‘the green card’.” There is little doubt that both the government and Fianna Fáil showed the inability of all the Irish parties to deal with partition effectively. This became a major factor in facilitating the IRA’s border campaign.

Neil Blaney’s demands for action in support of the victimised minority in the North spawned the Arms Crisis, but Jack Lynch’s ability to retain unanimous support within the party was “probably the most remarkable example of an Irish party’s instinct for self-preservation overcoming internal divisions”, Dr Kelly notes.

“In reality, Fianna Fáil’s entire approach to Northern Ireland was based on the optics of illusion,” he says.

-Ryle Dwyer is author of biographies of Jack Lynch, Éamon de Valera, and Charles Haughey

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