RYLE DWYER: ‘That little sentimental thing’ turned into a bitter and bloody civil war

A CONCISE version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was about to be finalised when somebody noticed a howler. The encyclopaedia wrongly suggested that our civil war of 1922-23 was fought between the Catholics of the south and the Protestants of the North.

Last month the Department of Education announced an elearning initiative that would provide the country’s 4,000 schools with free access to the databases of Encyclopaedia Britannica and World Book.

Ian Grant, managing director of Encyclopaedia Britannica, did not know how the error occurred, but he suggested an inexperienced editor might have confused the civil war with the recent sectarian troubles in Northern Ireland. The explanation hardly inspires confidence.

But how many people in this country actually know the cause of the civil war? For decades the teaching of history was absurd, as it delved around in the mists of antiquity.

Of course, ancient history influenced modern history, but you can only understand that influence if you know what happened subsequently. When I was in school in the 1960s we barely reached 1916. History was being taught the wrong way around, beginning at the dawn of time and coming forward to the beginning of the 20th century. It would arguably have been more effective to reverse the process by beginning with the present and working backwards.

If you do not know what happened 20 years ago, you are unlikely to understand the influence of what happened 50 years ago, much less 500 or 5,000 years earlier. There was, in effect, a conspiracy to keep the Irish people ignorant of their history.

The argument was still being used in the 1960s that dealing with the civil war would open raw nerves. Talking about the civil war in 1963 would be like talking about 1970 now.

There was a suggestion that history could only be written after 100 years. Our system extolled historical ignorance and encouraged children to believe this was an island of bloody saints and scholars. Yes, bloody saints like Patrick Pearse and company.

People will say now that the causes of the civil war no longer matter, but they should be reminded of the axiom that those who are ignorant of their history are doomed to repeat it. We have been ignorant of the main cause of the civil war and we have made the same mistake over and over again. During the Dáil debate on the treaty in December 1921, Michael Collins challenged Éamon de Valera to produce an alternative. Dev came up with what became known as Document No 2 which contained all the partition clauses of the treaty. He had earlier warned members of the Dáil in August 1921 that they were going to have to accept partition or they would make the same mistake with the Orangemen in the North that the British had made with the rest of the island.

The real issue was whether the Irish Free State would be a republic, in fact, or subject to the British monarchy. The king no longer ruled in Britain, but critics of the treaty said British politicians would use the king’s technical right to veto legislation to intervene at will in Ireland. Supporters of the treaty contended, on the other hand, that Ireland was guaranteed the same independence as Canada.

De Valera admitted there was only “a small difference” between Collins and himself over “that little sentimental thing”. The civil war was then fought over that little sentimental thing.

When the international community tried to outlaw war with the Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1928, de Valera objected to the Irish Free State signing it because it would preclude a war to end partition. He had no intention of waging war, but he used the issue to deceive his so-called republican followers.

On coming to power in 1932 de Valera candidly admitted that he had underestimated the treaty. Thus, he was acknowledging that the “small difference” that led to the civil war was actually less than small.

When erstwhile “republican” colleagues tried to initiate a war to end partition during the 1930s and 1940s, he had them jailed and interned. He allowed some to die on hunger strike and had others executed, going so far as to bring over the English hangman, Albert Pierrpoint, to string up Charlie Kerins in 1944.

By then his political opponents had played their own anti-partition card. Cumann na nGaedheal imploded in 1933 and joined with the Centre Party and Blueshirts to form the United Ireland Party (or Fine Gael) under the erratic leadership of that gay cavalier, Eoin O’Duffy. He was an original twit who made de Valera look not just good, but great.

O’Duffy was quickly dispatched and the United Ireland Party began using its alternative name, Fine Gael. There never was any real difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, other than personalities. Both used the partition issue to try to lead the people by fooling them.

“In regard to partition we have never had a policy,” Seán MacEntee wrote to de Valera in January 1938. Successive governments said they did not wish to coerce Northern unionists into a united Ireland, but they did nothing to try to win them over. “With our connivance every bigot and killjoy, ecclesiastical and lay, is doing his damnedest here to keep them out,” MacEntee insisted. Some government colleagues were, he wrote, “subordinating reason to prejudice.”

When Fine Gael came to power in 1948, it launched an anti-partition campaign with the so-called Mansion House Conference. De Valera then took off on a world tour, railing against partition. The IRA duly launched its border campaign in the mid-1950s and de Valera reintroduced internment on being returned to power.

OF COURSE, there were some in the North who believed all the bull sugar they were being fed, and this essentially led to the troubles there. As we approach the 40th anniversary of the arms crisis, how many people realise this was really the ultimate lunacy in the cynical use of the partition card?

The traditional suggestion was that some Irish politicians conspired to smuggle arms into the North so that the nationalist community could defend themselves against well-armed loyalists, but that was just a fairy story. The arms involved included more than 300 machineguns. They did not need those to defend their homes. The whole thing was a farcical conspiracy to end partition by armed force.

“It is now necessary to harness all opinion in the state in a concerted drive towards achieving the aim of unification,” Capt James J Kelly of G2 (military intelligence) wrote to the Minister for Defence Jim Gibbons on August 23, 1969. “This means accepting the possibility of armed action of some sort, as the ultimate solution. If civil war embracing the area was to result because of unwillingness to accept that war is the continuation of politics by other means, it would be a far greater evil for the Irish nation.”

Neither Captain Kelly nor the ministers involved with him had the authority to engage this country in war. Only the full Dáil has the right to declare war. They were attempting to subvert our own constitution. Now our politicians are playing similar reckless politics with our economy.


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