Leftward shift thwarted by reaction and division

David Granvillle reviews The IRA, 1926-1936 by Brian Hanley, Four Courts Press, £17 (24.95 euros)

THE PUBLICATION over the last year of at least three major studies covering various aspects of the history and military campaigns of the IRA-- Old and Provisional -- has shown that there remains considerable interest in the historical twists and turns of Irish republicanism.

Of the three, possibly the most fascinating is that by young Irish historian Brian Hanley, who is currently a Government of Ireland Research Fellow at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.

Hanley’s study, which relies heavily on the author’s access to the papers of former IRA chief of staff Maurice ‘Moss’ Twomey, is set against a period of harsh economic conditions and growing conflict throughout Europe between the forces of progress and reaction. It was a period which saw the rise of Eamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil, the emergence of Ireland’s own proto-fascist movement, the Blushirts, and attempts by a section of republicanism to transform the IRA into a radical, anti-capitalist organisation.

The project was eventually to flounder on the anti-communism of the Catholic Church, which remained a dominant force within Irish society, the unrealistic expectations of the IRA leadership and their desire not to be seen as too antagonistic to de Valera’s Fianna Fáil, and the sectarian divisions which undermined successful attempts to forge common cause on social and economic issues in the north.

What appears to be one of the book’s more remarkable revelations is apparent confirmation that republicans worked with elements of the part-time Ulster Special Constabulary taking part in the 1933 railway strike.

However, given the left-leaning orientation of many key republicans, as indicated by the launch of Saor Éire in 1931, and Peadar O’Donnell’s drafting of an appeal to the Orange Order to join the fight for a unified Ireland, an early, if somewhat naïve, recognition that Protestant support was important to the success of the republican project, this is not quite as remarkable as some commentators would have us believe.

Unfortunately, the political radicalism underlying the launch of Saor Éire, which had been seized upon by the right-wing Cumann na nGaedheal government and the Catholic hierarchy as being ‘dangerously communistic’, was also either ignored or opposed by conservative elements within the IRA.

It also wasn’t long before the unionist leaders in the north succeeded in putting a damper on the dangers posed the emergence of cross-community working class solidarity by stoking the fires of sectarianism.

The book points to a number of interesting parallels with more recent times, including the tensions which surfaced dramatically within the republican movement during another leftward shift in 1960s, which eventually led it to split into ‘official’ and ‘provisional’ wings.

Recent republican efforts to quell unionist fears, while more realistic, though as yet no more successful, also have their echoes in the radicalism of the period covered by Hanley’s study.

Those perplexed by Irish attitudes towards arms ‘decommissioning’ would do well to study this book carefully. For example, out of 27 IRA officers who disobeyed the order prohibiting members of the organisation from standing in the June 1927 general election 19 stood for Fianna Fáil. Another who stood as an independent transferred his allegiance to de Valera’s party within three months of the election.

While the modern-day Fianna Fáil has moved about as far away from its origins in anti-treaty republicanism as is possible, the reality is that its leaders head a party in which its own armed elements never gave up their weapons.

Hanley’s book, which includes 90 pages of footnotes, appendices and bibliography, is replete with fascinating detail about the IRA’s membership, day-to-day activities and internal regime. It will undoubtedly become the starting point for many future studies of this period in the history of Irish republicanism.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2003-05-23 11:05:18.
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