RYLE DWYER: The government have important lessons to learn from history

THE Scannal programme on the 1970 Arms Crisis on RTÉ television this week began with me proclaiming that the whole thing was the most serious crisis since the civil war. It has never been properly investigated but then no one should be surprised because the civil war was largely ignored, too.

We are currently in the midst of what is possibly the greatest crisis since independence. One finds a great many Irish people now questioning whether we are capable of governing ourselves. A recent public opinion poll found that the International Monetary Fund was the most popular choice to take over the running of our economy.

A great many, if not most, Irish people no longer believe that our politicians are capable of running this country properly. That must be the most damning indictment of any Irish government since the foundation of the state.

When I was in secondary school, teachers used to say history could not be written for 100 years. We never even touched on the 20th century at school. I only became interested in Irish history at university in Texas in the mid-1960s.

As part of a history course on Europe between the two world wars, we had to do a term paper. I decided to write on the Irish civil war. I believed it had been over partition, but was staggered to learn that it had essentially nothing to do with it.

Before the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations, de Valera told the Dáil during a private session in August 1921 that if it did accept that the northern unionists had a right to their own independence, it would be making the same mistake the British had made with the rest of the island. But at the same time, he insisted, the nationalist minority in the Six Counties should have the right to join with the rest of island.

Fermanagh and Tyrone had nationalist majorities, and de Valera said if they were allowed join with the 26 Counties and it was accorded independence, he would favour such an agreement. What Michael Collins and company formally got with the treaty was the de facto freedom of Canada, along with a Boundary Commission that would redraw the border of Northern Ireland in accordance with the wishes of the people in the border areas.

Collins challenged de Valera to suggest an alternative, and the Long Fellow introduced Document No 2, which contained all of the partition clauses of the treaty. Partition really had nothing to do with the controversy. Basically Collins said that the 1921 treaty could be used as a stepping stone to secure full independence by peaceful means, while Éamon de Valera and company said it would be just to bolster the British position and the Irish people would have to resort to arms again to secure the desired independence. So they fought between themselves over whether they would have to fight the British again.

Cumann na nGaedheal sought to demonstrate Irish independence after the civil war by defying the British in registering the Anglo-Irish Treaty at the League of Nations as an international agreement. Having officially been accorded the same de facto status as Canada and the other dominions, the Irish Free State played a leading role in securing the Statute of Westminster, which formally proclaimed in 1931 that the dominions were independent and had the right to withdraw from the British Commonwealth.

Thus, within 10 years of signing the treaty, the British had formally recognised that the Irish Free State had the full right to independence. When de Valera came to power in 1932, however, Cumann na nGaedheal sought to frustrate his efforts to demonstrate that freedom.

Ironically, it was de Valera who proved that Collins was right about the stepping-stone argument. But Collins had been wrong about the Boundary Commission and de Valera cleverly twisted the whole thing by pretending he had opposed the treaty because of partition.

This was a patent lie, but opponents were more interested in obscuring their own failure on the partition issue. Cumann na nGaedheal joined with the Centre Party and the Blueshirts to form the United Ireland Party (Fine Gael) in 1933. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael harped on the partition issue in the following years.

When the British secretly offered to end partition in return for Irish bases in June, 1940 de Valera rejected the offer. Of course, it would have needed further assurances, but he was simply not interested.

By staying out of the war he clearly demonstrated that Ireland was independent, which had been his main aim in 1921. When the National Coalition ousted him in 1948, it launched an anti-partition campaign in the form of the Mansion House Conference, while de Valera went off on a world tour railing against partition. It was all pathetic posturing.

Last Monday’s programme on the Arms Crisis ignored the fact that it was really 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 Military Intelligence wrote to Defence Minister Jim Gibbons on August 23, 1969. “This means accepting the possibility of armed action of some sort, as the ultimate solution,” he continued. “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.”

Only the Dáil has a right to declare war on behalf of the Irish people, so the whole thing really amounted to a conspiracy to subvert the constitution. But Monday’s programme largely ignored this and suggested instead that the vital issue was the denial by Gibbons that he was aware of the gun-running plans.

While the defence minister did lie about this to the Dáil, he admitted on the witness stand at the trial that Capt Kelly had informed him of the plans. Gibbons contended, however, that he did not actually approve of the scheme. The trial judge advised the jury that it was entitled to conclude that Gibbons effectively authorised the plans by not objecting – in which case the importation was legal. This was essentially what the jury concluded. Forty years on, it seems strange that the programme did not get that story right.

When it comes to the current financial crisis, who believes that the Government which got us into the mess can lead us out of it? In 2008, Brian Lenihan boasted that the Government had devised “the cheapest bailout in the world so far”. We have been pouring money into a raging banking crisis for the past two years, but it keeps getting worse.

In March 2009 Peter Bacon estimated that our banks may have made more than €150 billion in toxic loans on property. That amounts to more than €100,000 for every household in the country. Are we now going to take over those debts?

The soaring Irish bond interest rates and Fianna Fáil’s plummeting performance in public opinion polls are indicative of a lack of confidence both at home and abroad. In a democracy it is the duty of a government that has lost confidence to get out. To do otherwise is treason.


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