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Historic coalition agreement ends almost a century of Civil War politics

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were forged out of the bitterness of an ancient quarrel

Civil War politics began in the surroundings of what is now the National Concert Hall in Earlsfort Terrace and has ended 98 years later at the Convention Centre Dublin.

The coalition government formed between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael with the Green Party brings to an end the biggest and most enduring rivalry in Irish politics and, to outsiders, the most baffling.

On January 7th, 1922, sitting in Earlsfort Terrace in Dublin, the Dáil voted narrowly by 64 votes to 57 to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty as negotiated by the British and Irish delegations a month previously in London.

Its terms, as Michael Collins famously opined during that debate, gave the nascent state "the freedom to achieve freedom". To Éamon de Valera it was a betrayal of the idea of an independent Irish republic.


Following the vote, de Valera led his followers out of the chamber and resigned as president of the Dáil two days later to be replaced by Arthur Griffith. The provisional government took office on January 14th.

In March 1922 the anti-Treaty IRA held a meeting in the Mansion House in which it pledged its opposition to the new government. In April it occupied the Four Courts as its headquarters.

De Valera roamed the country making inflammatory speeches, most notably when he declared that those who opposed the Treaty “would have to wade through Irish blood, through the blood of the soldiers of the Irish government and through, perhaps, the blood of some of the members of the government in order to get Irish freedom.”

For these remarks and for perceptions that he incited the Civil War, many never forgave de Valera.

There were now two rival armies and political camps, but even then civil war was not inevitable. In an attempt to broker peace, de Valera and Collins agreed a pact a month before the election at a meeting in the Mansion House, Dublin.

Coincidentally a photograph of that historic meeting, which was unseen for decades, has been discovered by the granddaughter of the photographer Leo McCormack.

The group is  shown in an informal pose before the official photograph is taken. De Valera is pictured beside Collins, Griffith and Harry Boland. Within three months Griffith, Collins and Boland would be dead, the latter two killed on opposite sides in the Civil War.

Both wings of Sinn Féin, the pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty sides, held a pact election on June 16th, 1922 in which they agreed to put up candidates according to their relative strengths in the Dáil, and not to oppose each other.

The election result, though, was interpreted as a victory for those who supported the Treaty. Pro-Treaty candidates outpolled anti-Treaty candidates by 60:40 (38.5/21.2). A hefty chunk of the electorate, 40 per cent in total, voted for Labour, the Farmers' Party and Independents who were pro-Treaty.

Even then de Valera hoped to form a Sinn Féin pact government with Collins, but events happened in the space of two weeks which made that impossible. The assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson by two members of the IRA in London on June 22nd was blamed by the British government, erroneously as it turned out, on the anti-Treaty side and a warning was sent to the provisional government to deal with the rebels in the Four Courts or the British would sort them out.

The kidnapping of Free State general JJ Ginger O'Connell in response to the arrest of anti-Treaty officer Leo Henderson was the final trigger.

The Civil War began on June 28th, 1922 when Free State forces shelled the Four Courts. Nine months later the anti-Treaty side were defeated, but never surrendered and the Civil War, in effect, never ended.

Uniquely, the Free State government, which came into being in December 1922, was a government in search of a party not the other way around. The pro-Treaty government broke with Sinn Féin during the Civil War and Cumann na nGaedheal was founded in April 1923.

The party gained 40 per cent of the vote in that month’s general election, but was able to govern because of the abstentionist policy of the anti-Treaty Sinn Féin side led by de Valera.

In 1926 de Valera too broke with Sinn Féin over the policy of abstentionism from Dáil Éireann, which was becoming increasingly untenable. Fianna Fáil was founded in October 1926, yet there was still one outstanding barrier to its entry into democratic politics - the oath of allegiance taken by members of the Dáil to the British monarch.

Lingering bitterness

Matters came to a head when the minister for justice Kevin Higgins was assassinated on July 10th, 1927 demonstrating that the hatred and bitterness of the Civil War still existed for a long time afterwards. Higgins was blamed for the extrajudicial killings carried out by Free State forces during and after the Civil War.

In response, the Free State government made it a condition of standing for election that a TD must take the oath. Fianna Fáil came up with the “empty formula” of words to dismiss the oath and entered Dáil Éireann.

The lingering bitterness between the two sides is exemplified in an exchange between Ernest Blythe, then the minister for finance in the Cumann na nGaedheal government, and future president Seán T O'Kelly in the Dáil in October 1927.

The government during the Civil War ruthlessly executed 77 anti-Treaty rebels in response to armed rebellion and O’ Kelly declared: “ As I said, I do not want to start on a bitter note, though God knows I could, and God knows I would have justification, in thinking of those who lie in cold graves - 77 of my comrades who lie in cold graves today -and the fathers and mothers, and the sons and daughters of these people expect us and look to us to vindicate them in some way.”

Blythe responded: “There was a sort of suggestion in Deputy O’Kelly’s speech that on their side was virtue and Erin, and on ours Saxon and guilt. That is all very well for an election platform, but it does not bear any relation to reality.”

A minority Cumann na nGaedheal government ruled until the general election of 1932.

The often vicious election campaign that year demonstrated that both parties had divergent views of themselves and each other which went beyond their stance on the Treaty. The dichotomy between “Saxon and guilt” and “virtue and Erin” was not so far from the truth.

An element of class politics entered the election with Fianna Fáil relentlessly pillorying Cumann na nGaedheal as a party of privileged West Brits out-of-touch with the public. Fianna Fáil's slogan encapsulated this world view: "Government by the rich for the rich".

These tropes have endured to the present day when Fianna Fáil leader and now Taoiseach Micheál Martin accused Fine Gael during the 2020 general election of being a party of privileged individuals.

This prompted indignation from many Fine Gael politicians, including ministers Simon Harris and Joe McHugh, who said their upbringings were anything but privileged.

In 1932 Cumann na nGaedheal hit back by attempting to smear Fianna Fáil as a party in thrall to sinister forces. Its most famous election poster “the shadow of a gunman, keep it from your home” sought to portray Fianna Fáil as a party which had a legacy of violence in ways that will be familiar to the modern-day taunts directed at Sinn Féin.

Leo Varadkar has a daily reminder of this campaign in his office as a party poster from 1932. It portrays de Valera with a gun jammed into his back by an IRA gunman. It also references Saor Éire, a revolutionary, republican organisation founded in 1931 which was associated with communism.

The Blueshirts

After Cumann na nGaedheal's defeat in 1932, the party merged with the National League Party and the Army Comrades Association (ACA) to found Fine Gael in September 1933.

The National League Party (NLP) had grown out a group of like-minded Independents and the Farmers’ Party which had supported Cumann na nGaedhael during the 1920s. The NLP won a respectable 11 seats in the 1932 general election. The ACA was a group of ex-National Army personnel led by Eoin O’Duffy, who was sacked as Garda commissioner by the incoming de Valera government.

The ACA was better known by the blue shirts its members wore in conscious imitation of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts.

The Blueshirts were some 30,000 in number and were regarded by the de Valera government as a threat to the State. This was somewhat ironic given their previous status as defenders of the State.

O’Duffy was the first president of Fine Gael, but he was not a success and resigned in 1934. He does not appear on the Fine Gael website as one of its leaders.

During the 1930s the Fianna Fáil government dismantled the treaty. It got rid of the oath of allegiance in 1933, the office of the governor-general in 1936 and got back the Treaty ports in 1938.

Fine Gael saw Fianna Fáil’s actions in those years as a vindication of its own belief that the Treaty was indeed the “freedom to achieve freedom”.

However, it was the Fine Gael government of John A Costello that provided the full coup de grâce for the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the declaration of a republic in April 1949.

This was much resented by de Valera who opposed it on the basis that it would make a united Ireland harder to achieve. It was a riposte to those who maintained that Fine Gael was a west Brit party.

With the Treaty no longer the defining issue, the two behemoths of Irish politics had to find something else to differentiate themselves.

‘Psychological difference’

When asked what separated Fine Gael from Fianna Fáil in 1950, Costello is alleged to have told a gathering of diplomats that there was “really no essential differences between the two”.

According to historian Dr Ciara Meehan, who is co-writing a history of Fine Gael with Irish Times columnist Stephen Collins, Costello "dared to give expression to what many non-partisan voters already suspected".

She explained: “Costello’s comment was borne partially of frustration at Fine Gael’s lack of interest in policy formulation, but there was also an element of truth to his remark.

“Essentially the children of the Sinn Féin split in 1921/22, Cumann na nGaedheal, later Fine Gael, and Fianna Fáil positioned themselves in relation to the Treaty and this remained the main marker in the decades that followed.

“When other countries formed national governments during the second World War (or the Emergency, in Irish terms), the two sides did not - or could not - come together.

“Long after the Civil War ceased to be immediately relevant, the deep divide it caused still influenced the mindset of the staunchest grassroots supporters. At the most basic level, Fine Gael was once seen as the political home of big business and large farmers; Fianna Fáil was the party of the small farmer and the ordinary worker. Fianna Fáil propaganda presented this as the wealthy versus the working class, and the dichotomy was the subject of a myriad of cartoons.

“Cumann na nGaedheal’s willingness to work within the framework of the Commonwealth also provided Fianna Fáil with the material to dismiss its rival as west British, while at the same time priding itself on its own tag, ‘the Republican Party’.

“Aside from the Treaty split, I think the real difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, for a long time, was a psychological one. Fianna Fáil was Fianna Fáil, but Fine Gael was ‘not Fianna Fáil’. In other words, Fine Gael was concerned with defining itself in relation to its rival.

“Fianna Fáil’s impressive electoral record after 1932 fuelled the party’s confidence, while prolonged periods in the political wilderness demoralised Fine Gael and left the party in its rival’s shadow. Fine Gael’s achievements were in the past, with the creation of the new state. Rather than articulating what it actually stood for, it dwelt on that phase of its history and, more particularly, became preoccupied with explaining that it wasn’t Fianna Fáil.”

Maynooth University educated historian Dr Mel Farrell, the author of Party Politics in a New Democracy, the Irish Free State 1922-1937, says the perception has grown up through the decades that Fine Gael is more to the right of the political spectrum than Fianna Fáil on economic matters, but even those distinctions have been blurred over the years.

"Different leaders have put their own stamp on each of the two parties. In 1965 conservative Fine Gael moved to the left of Fianna Fáil with the adoption of the Just Society manifesto while the party pursued liberal reform during the 1980s," he says.

"Until the later Charles Haughey years, Northern Ireland policy would have been another issue that clearly demarcated the two parties. In 1985 Haughey vigorously opposed the Anglo-Irish Agreement but later came to work it on his return to power. During the 1997, 2002 and 2007 elections Fianna Fáil's alliance with the Progressive Democrats probably kept Fianna Fáil slightly to the right of Fine Gael."

He maintains Ireland is not the only country in Europe to have large parties that are similar in ideological terms. Germany, with the dominance of the Christian Democrat and Social Democrat parties, is another.

“People tend to examine Irish politics with reference to British politics because we consume so much UK media. The British system of first past the post has led to a system in which two clear blocs dominate. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are a product of an electoral system in which compromise and coalitions are fundamental.”

Endless academic treatises and comment pieces have been written over the last century about the differences between the two parties. The late Jackie Healy-Rae, when he was still a Fianna Fáil stalwart, once cryptically said of such speculation. “Them that know don’t need to ask and them that ask will never know.”

The only surprising thing about the coalition government is the absence of surprise. What seemed unthinkable a generation ago now feels inevitable given the inconclusive results of the general election which saw both of the main parties fall behind Sinn Féin.

There may be one further denouement in the relationship between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Will the two parties merge to form a large centre-right party as has been long mooted and so create the right-left divide that seems to prevail in most other countries?

Many supporters of both parties fear for their future as separate entities. Éamon Ó Cuív, the grandson of Éamon de Valera, is one of them: “There will again be two big parties in future, but one of them will not be Fianna Fáil.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times