Aiken the gunman had the decency to be ashamed of the dirty stuff

MUCH of the publicity for this week’s Hidden Ireland programme on Frank Aiken projected dark secrets of his past that were to be exposed.

He was apparently involved in the reprisal killing of six people in his home area of Co Armagh in 1922. In one way this showed him in a better light because he had the decency to be ashamed of what had happened.

Unfortunately, some foolish people tend to glorify war and ignore the fact that outrages are part of it. Having researched books on World War II, the War of Independence and the Civil War, I have found those who bragged most about their involvement usually did very little, while some of those who did most frequently said very little.

Nothing excuses reprisal killings, but in Northern Ireland they were understandable in the light of what was happening. In February 1922, for instance, a bomb was thrown into a group of Catholic teenagers playing in the street in Belfast. Five of them were killed.

“In my opinion”, Winston Churchill wrote to Michael Collins, “it is the worst thing that has happened in Ireland in the last three years”.

There was a litany of outrages against Catholics. It was easy therefore to understand — though not excuse — how some people could have thought that giving the other side some of its own medicine was the best way to deal with the problem.

If Aiken did engage in reprisals, he, at least, had the decency to be ashamed of it and refused to talk about it for the rest of his life. After the Civil War, Stephen Fuller, the sole survivor of the Ballyseedy massacre, refused to talk about it until he was virtually on his deathbed. He realised there were wrongs on both sides.

The Aiken programme showed again the richness of our history, but it only scratched the surface. There were other interesting aspects of Aiken’s life that the programme did not bring out. In August 1922, at the height of the Civil War, for instance, he actually wrote a letter of condolence to the Free State Defence Minister Richard Mulcahy on the death of Collins.

“Accept my deepest sympathy for the loss of our old friend Mick”, Aiken wrote on August 27, 1922. “God rest him! I know you’ll acknowledge that I am truly sorry for him even though I have been in arms against him lately”.

Aiken went on to observe that it was Collins “who most of all was responsible for the building up of the strength of the nation”. On May 14, 1923, as IRA chief of staff, Aiken ordered the dumping of arms, thus officially ending the Civil War. He backed Eamon de Valera during the subsequent Sinn Féin split that led to the establishment of Fianna Fáil, and he served as Minister for Defence in de Valera’s first four governments until the start of World War II when he became Minister for Co-ordination of Defensive Measures. He assumed overall responsibility for defence strategy and took charge of censorship.

In June 1940, when Malcolm MacDonald delivered the secret British offer to end partition in return for the use of Irish bases, Aiken and Seán Lemass were the only members of government that de Valera invited to the discussions. MacDonald found that while Lemass seemed interested in the offer, Aiken was resolutely opposed. Aiken would have known better than any of them that unionists in the North could not be handed over at the time without further violence and, clearly, he had seen enough of war.

In the spring of 1941, de Valera sent Aiken to the United States to buy arms and ships because Britain was using economic pressure to push Ireland into the war. The British told President Franklin Roosevelt there was evidence that Aiken was pro-German and they hoped the White House would not facilitate him.

Aiken did not come across as intellectually well endowed. Some referred to him as “the iron man with the wooden head”. James Dillon actually described him as having “a mind half-way between that of a child and a baboon”. David Gray, the American ambassador, urged Roosevelt to send Aiken home with nothing, other than a flea in his ear.

Initially Aiken “hobnobbed” with Roosevelt’s supporters, according the New York Daily Mirror, but he got into a heated exchange with the president at the White House on April 7, 1941.

When Aiken asked if Ireland could anticipate the president’s sympathy if the country was invaded, Roosevelt replied that Ireland could expect his sympathy against German aggression.

“Or British aggression?”, Aiken asked.

Roosevelt said there was no danger of a British attack.

“If that is so”, Aiken interjected, “why cannot they say so? We have asked them”.

“What you have to fear is German aggression”, Roosevelt insisted.

“Or British aggression”, Aiken defiantly maintained.

THE president suddenly lost his temper. “I have never heard anything so preposterous in all my life”, he said, jerking a tablecloth in front of him, sending cutlery flying and effectively ending the discussion.

Afterwards, Aiken travelled about the US, associating openly with some of Roosevelt’s bitterest critics.

Under Irish-American pressure, Roosevelt offered to negotiate the sale of two ships to Ireland, but he had Gray transmit the offer to de Valera, making it clear Washington would not do business with Aiken who ridiculed the offer in a conversation with Roosevelt’s most vocal critic, Charles Lindbergh.

“I’d hate like hell to think our nuisance value was only half a million dollars”, Aiken said. He was deliberately making a nuisance of himself, and this caused a distinct strain in relations between Washington and Dublin.

In 1945, when Tánaiste Seán T O’Kelly was elected President, Seán Lemass was appointed Tánaiste, but Aiken became Minister for Finance. This was a surprise appointment. In February 1942, when Gray asked de Valera about Aiken’s interest in the social credit ideas in vogue in parts of Canada, de Valera laughed dismissively.

“We don’t pay any attention to Frank’s ideas about finance”, he said. But that did not stop de Valera subsequently appointing him Minister for Finance.

Aiken made his greatest impression as Minister for External Affairs in the 1950s and 1960s, when he pursued a distinctly independent policy in international affairs. He again antagonised the Americans, this time by supporting Communist China in the diplomatic battle for China’s seat at the United Nations.

Aiken served as Tánaiste under both Lemass and Jack Lynch from 1965 to 1969. But he played a very low-key role at the start of the Northern troubles.

He strongly supported Lynch during the Arms Crisis of 1970. He intended to run for re-election in 1973, until he learned that Lynch was unwilling to block Charles Haughey standing again as a Fianna Fáil candidate.

Lynch’s first stop on his nationwide election tour that year was in Aiken’s Co Louth constituency where he announced that Aiken was stepping down on health grounds. It was a blatant lie, and Aiken was so annoyed he threatened to explain his real reasons publicly.

But Lynch was able to get de Valera to prevail on Aiken to keep quiet in order not to harm Fianna Fáil’s election prospects.

In the circumstances it was a pity that Aiken’s selfless behaviour in bowing out of politics should have been distorted for perverse electoral reasons. It was probably de Valera’s last political act.

But Dev and Jack Lynch were not the last Fianna Fáil leaders who turned the blind eye to Haughey’s behaviour.

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