Loading...
Loading...
Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Kevin HargadenJanuary 19, 2023
A prisoner under escort at the South Western Front during the Irish Civil War: July 22, 1922. Courtesy of National Library of Ireland Ref.: HOG106.A prisoner under escort at the South Western Front during the Irish Civil War: July 22, 1922. Courtesy of National Library of Ireland Ref.: HOG106.

Ireland began 2023 with a new leader. The appointment of Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) on Dec. 17 was ground-breaking, though you could be forgiven if you did not notice this particular political transition. While Irish governments—like those of many European nations—are typically made up of coalitions of different political parties, since June 2020 power has been shared between the contemporary parties that represent the two factions that fought the Irish civil war a century ago: Fianna Fáil, founded in its present form in 1927, and Fine Gael, founded in 1933.

In the decades since the two hostile parties were created, no Irish government could be formed without a coalition involving one of them, but for generations it was inconceivable that any government could be formed that included both of them because the bitterness of the civil war persisted. That this transition has occurred without any protest from within the parties themselves and without any discomfort among voters suggests that a seismic shift has occurred in Irish politics.

Antagonists Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael—no Irish government could be formed without a coalition involving one of them, but for generations it was inconceivable that any government could be formed that included both of them.

The coalition between the two former antagonists was established, including the Green Party as a junior partner, in the midst of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Only months previous, it was the confirmed policy of both parties that they could not work together. Many commentators saw the power-sharing compromise as an attempt by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to reinvent themselves before a new generation of Irish voters.

Réada Cronin, a member of Parliament for Sinn Féin—the largest opposition party in the Republic of Ireland and a major threat to two-party dominance—certainly believes so. The coalition, she said, was formed “really to keep Sinn Féin out of power. I think it was out of necessity rather than any hope of a real reconciliation.” That this fragile coalition has survived indicates decisively that the Irish political scene is no longer in thrall to 20th-century disputes.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, both broadly center-right parties, have been for decades the two dominant forces in Irish electoral politics. Fianna Fáil emerged from the “anti-treaty” side, which perceived the partition as a betrayal of the fight for complete independence from British rule. Its founders had supported a remnant Irish Republican Army in continuing the fight. Fine Gael coalesced from the “pro-treaty” side in the conflict—former I.R.A. combatants who were willing to bring the War of Independence to an end by accepting two separate political entities on the island of Ireland, the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland.

With the support of the crown in the form of military aid and backed by a narrow victory in the Irish Parliament approving the treaty, the pro-treaty forces prevailed in the civil war and the Irish Free State gradually established itself.

The negotiation of the treaty had been widely welcomed by the church, even by Pope Benedict XV, and in a pastoral letter issued in 1922 the Irish church firmly supported the pro-treaty side, declaring the Free State the rightful government. The goals of the anti-treaty side, according to the church, could not be considered sufficient cause for a just war, meaning that any killing that occurred in resistance to the Free State would be understood as murder and that individuals pursuing “such evil courses,” as the bishops put it in their pastoral, could be denied the sacraments.

The Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael coalition was formed “really to keep Sinn Féin out of power. I think it was out of necessity rather than any hope of a real reconciliation.”

Daithi Ó Corráin is a historian based at Dublin City University. His work focuses on the Irish revolutionary period and the place of the Catholic Church in Irish society. Asked why the bitterness of the civil war period has lingered for so long, he said that “the ruthlessness with which the government put down the Republican challenge and in particular the use of execution” created deep historical resentments. The government of the new Free State in fact put more people to death than were executed in Ireland by the British military during the War of Independence.

Mr. Ó Corráin said that individual members of the Catholic hierarchy at the time were repulsed by the Free State’s brutality and intervened in various ways, “appealing for a humane approach.” But unlike the pastoral letter that had been warmly received by Free State authorities during the civil war, these more informal admonishments were largely ignored.

The church was alert to its responsibility to keep its doors open to both sides, Mr. Ó Corráin said, but the Free State government was eager to recruit its support in its state-building project. In education, health, cultural censorship and a range of other issues, the church was allowed a dominant role in Ireland. The bishops who penned that pastoral letter in 1922 would no doubt be distraught at the present state of the Irish church, but they might be cheered to see what the Irish state they helped create has achieved.

Huge challenges face contemporary Ireland, including a housing market and a health system in crisis, an unprecedented influx of refugees from Ukraine and rising national debt levels in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, all set against the backdrop of a potential environmental catastrophe because of climate change.

Yet from its less than auspicious start, the Irish state has flourished in many ways. It never succumbed to the various totalitarian impulses that seduced other European nations. It established a respected position in the international community while maintaining a historic neutrality. Ireland now stands as an educated and affluent society at home within the other progressive states of the European Union.

The church was alert to its responsibility to keep its doors open to both sides, but the Free State government was eager to recruit its support in its state-building project.

The peaceful sharing of power by Irish political parties that once went to war may be understood as a triumph of the common good, one of the principles that the Irish bishops came to articulate repeatedly as the state found its feet. As we approach the centenary of the end of the conflict in May, it might be possible to declare that the Irish civil war is finally over. But some of the work left undone in that era remains a bedeviling challenge.

Northern Irish demographics have been shifting for years, with a Catholic majority being counted for the first time last year. And as the consequences of Brexit are more fully felt, the number of people from Northern Ireland who once understood themselves as British but who now travel on a passport stamped by the Irish Republic is growing. In this context, many people believe that the question of unification must again be re-examined.

As a parliamentarian for Sinn Féin, Ms. Cronin is keen to explore this possibility. Sinn Féin has become particularly popular among younger and working-class voters, in large part because of its ambitious housing policies and commitment to healthcare reform. It is likely to be the largest party after the next general election and is clearly seen as a threat by the old duopoly. It is also the party that has kept its goal of a united Ireland at the center of its political platform, in part through its controversial association with the I.R.A. during the Northern Irish Troubles.

As an opposition member of Parliament, Ms. Cronin acknowledges the democratic virtue of a peaceable exchange of power between the republic’s two main parties. But she is clear that thinking purely in terms of what has been achieved since the civil war leaves unaddressed what remains left to do. For her, the partition of Ireland created by the Treaty is an example of a “job undone… a job we walked away from because it was too difficult.”

As the consequences of Brexit are more fully felt, the number of people from Northern Ireland who once understood themselves as British but who now travel on a passport stamped by the Irish Republic is growing.

As Ireland grapples with the kind of nation it aspires to be in its second century, Ms. Cronin sees an opportunity to renew a vision of “an egalitarian republic where our citizens are all treated equally and with respect.” Rather than Irish politicians clapping themselves on the back for how far they have come, she suggests it is an opportune time to fulfill the promise of independence, to “reimagine the Republic that was” by securing equitable healthcare, secure housing and a just environmental transition.

Whoever is in power, this will invariably mean negotiation among the other old enemies on the island—Unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom, and Republicans, who want an end to partition and a single, unified republic on the island.

“We’re going to have to have painful conversations,” Ms. Cronin said, “but now we can talk; we can get on with things; we can heal the divisions.”

This pragmatic vision of ongoing reconciliation is grounded in an idea that disagreement and compromise are unavoidable and can even be generative. This may be the great genius of the Irish electoral system and the coalition governments it demands. “The whole point of coalition government is that you have to choose your dance partners,” Mr. Ó Corráin puts it, “and that depends on the availability of those dance partners.”

Whoever is leading the dance in the future will first have to contend with the echoes of the past. Modern Ireland will no doubt still struggle to decide what to do with the peace that has been won now that this civil war appears finally, truly over.

The latest from america

Pope Francis will make his fourth journey to Africa on January 31. Hopes are high that Francis’ visit may kick-start the struggling peace processes in both countries.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 29, 2023
He called for dialogue “immediately and without delay.”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 29, 2023
A Reflection for the Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas, Priest and Doctor of the Church, by Rachel Lu
Rachel LuJanuary 28, 2023
Pope Benedict XVI is accompanied by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney as he greets World Youth Day pilgrims at a welcoming ceremony at Barangaroo in Sydney, Australia, in this July 17, 2008, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Benedict’s German biographer, Peter Seewald, confirmed that nine weeks before he died, Benedict revealed that insomnia was the “central motive” for his resignation.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 27, 2023