Irish Republicanism - History - The Irish Free State

The Irish Free State

Though many across the country were unhappy with the Anglo-Irish Treaty (since, during the war, the IRA had fought for independence for all Ireland and for a republic, not a partitioned dominion under the British crown), some republicans were satisfied that the Treaty was the best that could be achieved at the time. However, a substantial number opposed it. Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament, voted by 64 votes to 57 to ratify it, the majority believing that the treaty created a new base from which to move forward. Éamon de Valera, who had served as President of the Irish Republic during the war, refused to accept the decision of the Dáil and led the opponents of the treaty out of the House. The pro-Treaty republicans organised themselves into the Cumann na nGaedheal party, while the anti-Treaty republicans retained the Sinn Féin name. the The IRA itself split between pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty elements, with the former forming the nucleus of the new Irish National Army.

Michael Collins became Commander-in-Chief of the National Army. Shortly afterwards, some dissidents, apparently without the authorisation of the anti-Treaty IRA Army Executive, occupied the Four Courts in Dublin, and kidnapped a pro-Treaty general. The government, responding to this provocation and to intensified British pressure following the assassination by an IRA unit in London of Sir Henry Wilson, ordered the regular army to take the Four Courts, thereby beginning the Irish Civil War.

It is believed that Collins continued to fund and supply the IRA in Northern Ireland throughout the civil war but, after his death, W. T. Cosgrave (the new President of the Executive Council, or prime minister) discontinued this support.

By May 1923, the war (which had claimed more lives than the War of Independence) had ended in the call by the IRA to dump arms. However, the harsh measures adopted by both sides, including assassinations of politicians by the Republicans and executions and atrocities by the Free State side, left a bitter legacy in Irish politics for decades to come.

De Valera, who had strongly supported the Republican side in the Civil War, reconsidered his views while in jail, and came to accept the ideas of political activity under the terms of the Free State constitution. Rather than abstaining from Free State politics entirely, he now sought to republicanise it from within. However, he and his supporters—which included most Sinn Féin TDs—failed to convince a majority of the anti-treaty Sinn Féin of these views and the movement split again. In 1926, he formed a new party called Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny), taking most of Sinn Féin's TDs with him. In 1932 he was elected President of the Executive Council of the Free State and began a slow process of turning the country from a constitutional monarchy to a constitutional republic, thus fulfilling Collins's prediction of "the freedom to achieve freedom".

By then, the IRA was engaged in confrontations with the Blueshirts, a quasi-fascist group led by a former War of Independence and pro-Treaty leader, Eoin O'Duffy. O'Duffy looked to Fascist Italy as an example for Ireland to follow. Several hundred supporters of O'Duffy briefly went to Spain to volunteer on the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War, and a smaller number of IRA members, communists and others participated on the Republican side.

In 1937 the Constitution of Ireland was written by the de Valera government and approved by the people of the southern 26 counties voting in a referendum. The Constitution changed the name of the state to Éire in the Irish language (Ireland in English) and claimed jurisdiction over the whole of Ireland. The new state was headed by a President of Ireland elected by universal manhood suffrage. The role of the King of Ireland diminished to ceremonial functions in relation to diplomatic affairs. He is believed to have been left with those residual functions as a concession to Unionist opinion. The new state had the objective characteristics of a republic, and was referred to as such by de Valera himself, but it remained within the British Commonwealth and was regarded by the British as a "dominion" like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Furthermore, the claim to the whole of the island did not reflect practical reality and inflamed anti-Dublin sentiment among northern Protestants.

Despite the successive splits of 1922 and 1926, the remainder of the IRA rejected compromise with the de facto political situation and continued to consider themselves to be original and sole Republican Movement.

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