Opinion: with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the Civil War did not need to happen - and certainly not on the scale with which it did
As we move ever closer to the historic return of the original Sinn Féin (Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil) to government, one can only imagine how those old friends – and later, enemies – Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera would view developments.
Certainly, we can assume that when Collins issued the order to bombard the anti-Treaty IRA garrison occupying the Four Courts in June 1922, he understood that he was solidifying the split in the independence movement occasioned by the Dáil’s acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The Treaty had provided for a 26 county Irish Free State, but not the recognised "republic" desired by many. This factor propelled some, such as de Valera, to reject the settlement, and led to threats by the anti-Treaty IRA to militarily oppose the new state.
The immediate consequences of Collins’ action would have been clear to him: the violent cleaving of the united independence movement. What he could not have known, of course, is that it would take almost a century to suture (if not yet fully heal) this wound, with the participation of both sides in government together again.
From RTÉ Radio One's Liveline, does Fianna Fail and Fine Gael's deal to form a new government mark the end of civil war politics - and who actually shot Michael Collins?
Cogadh na gCarad (The Friends’ War)
The subsequent Civil War, which ended in victory for the Free State forces in May 1923, was both brutal and brutalising. Although exact estimates of the death toll vary, most historians are agreed that more Irishmen lost their lives in this conflict than were killed during the preceding War of Independence. The economic destruction wrought by the Treaty split was also greater and the Civil War came close to crippling the infant Irish state.
Atrocities committed by both sides were executed with a venom typically reserved for a treacherous friend. They left a bitter legacy, dividing not just neighbours, but often families. The conflict claimed the lives of some of the nation’s most energetic and visionary leaders. We can only speculate as to the difference men such as Collins, Séan Hales, Liam Mellows or Rory O'Connor would have made in Irish political life during the 1920s and 1930s. The failure to find a political solution, and the descent into violence was, to quote the title of RTÉ’s insightful documentary on the subject, a form of "Madness from Within".
An extract from The Madness from Within, RTÉ's 1998 documentary on the Civil War
A tragic waste
By common consent, the conflict was a tragic waste of life and opportunity. Whilst those from the anti-Treatyite tradition are often loath to admit it, de Valera eventually proved the "stepping stone" theory of Collins to be correct. A decade after losing the war, de Valera became the elected leader of the Free State, and began to democratically and peacefully dismantle the Treaty he had once opposed by violent means.
By 1938, he had effectively made Ireland a republic in all but name, and expanded the state's independence to the extent that it could adopt a policy of official neutrality during World War II, much to Winston Churchill’s chagrin. Had Sinn Féin remained united, and worked the Treaty from the beginning, this process might have occurred sooner.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is evident that the Civil War did not need to happen, and certainly not on the scale with which it did. Had de Valera’s supporters adopted a little more imaginative thinking, or engaged in a slightly different form of contemporary spin, many of those who opposed the settlement in 1922 might have been convinced to accept it at the time, even if grudgingly.
From RTÉ Archives, eyewitness John O'Connell, who was a private in the Free State army, recalls the events at Béal na Bláth in August 1922 when Michael Collins was killed in a 1965 interview
What’s in a name? ‘Free State’ or ‘Republic’
As most are aware, the subject of Northern Ireland was not an important feature of this violent split within Irish nationalism. During the bitter Dáil debates on the Treaty, the "Ulster Question" was rarely discussed. It appears that both sides of the emerging divide understood that some form of partition, already a reality since May 1921, would have to be accepted, at least in the short term.
Instead, many of those who rejected the compromise with Britain were primarily concerned with two issues: the failure to secure the status of a republic for the new state and the requirement for Irish parliamentarians to swear an Oath of Allegiance to the British monarch. The question of the Oath was itself the subject of some misinterpretation, as "allegiance" was to be sworn to the Irish Constitution first, followed by a declaration to remain "faithful" to the British king as the titular head of the new Irish polity.
For many who supported Sinn Féin in the elections of 1918 and 1921, the term ‘republic’ was likely, in the words of Professor Michael Laffan, to be "no more than a synonym for independence". It mattered not what an Irish state was to be called, but what it could achieve, once independence was obtained. But for others, the word ‘republic’ came to hold an almost religious significance. Moreover, the fact that the First Dáil had openly declared itself in January 1919 to be the sovereign parliament of a living ‘Republic’, gave added weight to this commitment.
From RTÉ Archives, Eamon de Valera's St Patrick's Day 1943 message to the nation when he talks about his vision of an ideal Ireland
For some within this cohort, the perceived status of the new state was just as important – perhaps more important – than the practical implementation of independence itself. Forceful anti-Treatyite, Mary MacSwiney, gave voice to this perspective when she declared "they think the [Treaty] they have brought back to us is a good thing. It might have been five years ago if it were brought to any one of us then...but after January 1919 no man having sworn an oath to the Republic can withdraw from it...therefore, if there is to be a split, it is because [those] who stand for expediency have accepted something which we who stand for principle cannot give way."
But did MacSwiney and her comrades have to "give way" on their principles? Arguably not, if they had chosen to fully embrace the Sinn Féin policy of the (re-)Gaelicisation of the Irish nation. From December 1922 onwards, the new state was officially known as the Irish Free State or Saorstát Éireann in the Irish language. However, Saorstát Éireann was also the term which Sinn Féin had used to denote the Irish Republic in the Gaelic versions of the Declaration of Independence, the Message to the Free Nations of the World, and the Democratic Programme of 1919. It was also the term utilised in Dáil written materials – and in correspondence with the British Government – between 1919 and 1922.
A disastrous Civil War, fought largely, if not entirely, over the absence of an English word, "republic"
Anyone who chose to conceive of the new state through the Irish language would have been, linguistically speaking, still referring to it as the Irish Republic. Even after the implementation of the Treaty, its Gaelic title remained the same as before: Saorstát Éireann.
With all that said, is it reasonable to argue that much anti-Treaty opposition to the settlement could have been overcome on this basis? Is it reasonable to argue that the disgruntled could have been encouraged to conceive of the new state through the Irish language only, in which Saorstát Éireann could still be regarded as their "Irish Republic" in the Gaelic mind? Probably not. Such a proposal appears abstract, convoluted or even farcical. Farcical, that is, until one considers the crazed reality of what did happen: a disastrous Civil War, fought largely, if not entirely, over the absence of an English word, "republic".
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ