Fianna Fail, Partition and Northern Ireland, 1926-1971 by Stephen Kelly
Reviewed by Diarmaid Ferriter
Fianna Fail, Partition and Northern Ireland, 1926-1971
Irish Academic Press
But members did occasionally succeed in pressurising the leadership into more aggressive stances and Kelly suggests, convincingly, that historians “have failed to examine the persistent disagreements among FF supporters towards de Valera’s war-time approach to NI, which represented a genuine threat to the stability of the party”, though this quickly receded. After defeat in the 1948 general election, de Valera embarked on an indulgent anti-partition tour that achieved nothing; Hugh Delargy, chairman of the Anti-Partition of Ireland League of Great Britain, suggested the tour meetings there “were all flops . . . they were tribal rallies; tribesmen met to greet the old chieftain”.
De Valera may have admitted privately that more realism was needed, but what that amounted to was in effect the burying of the issue, and while limited grassroots complaints still surfaced, the national executive simply continued to try to neutralise this by centralising the issue and setting up another committee. A memorandum approved by Seán Lemass, which Kelly contradictorily describes as “revolutionary” but also largely “consistent with current FF thinking on Northern Ireland”, looked at the need for economic co-operation and getting rid of tariffs between the two states.
The IRA’s border campaign of the late 1950s stirred the Fianna Fáil grassroots, and the Dún Laoghaire councillor Lionel Booth was vocal, as was Lemass, about the need for the party to “speak in the same voice” in condemning the IRA at a time when other Fianna Fáil councillors were calling for the release of IRA prisoners. Lemass was frustrated that de Valera would not row in behind the idea of removing trade barriers, but as leader after 1959 Lemass had more leeway, discouraging the use of the term “six counties”. Recognising the principle of consent or the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, however, was not yet deemed to be feasible.
What is described as a “brave gamble” by Lemass involved himself, George Colley and Booth (who was useful as the “acceptable” Protestant face of Fianna Fáil) delivering speeches that tentatively offered a de facto recognition of Northern Ireland, but Lemass continued an ambiguity by occasionally still banging the more traditional drum. The eventual meeting in 1965 of Lemass and Terence O’Neill, prime minister of Northern Ireland, was a thaw in the Irish cold war, but it was also accompanied by an ongoing disdain on Lemass’s part for Northern nationalists for not engaging in Northern politics. (He admitted privately he found them as “intractable” as their unionist neighbours.)
For all the importance of the 1965 meeting Lemass still sometimes sought to have it both ways, and Kelly’s description of him advocating “revolutionary change” is exaggerated. In effect, in order not to cause divisions within Fianna Fáil, Lemass was forced “to deny the reality of what he was doing”.
His successor, Jack Lynch, was heavily influenced by the advice of TK Whitaker, who brought a blunt pragmatism to the analysis: “We can’t take over Britain’s financial contributions, nor do we want the terrifying task of keeping sectarianism and anarchical mobs in order.” Lynch, however, was slow in moving against militants such as Neil Blaney and Kevin Boland and reluctant to boot them out of the party. The arms crisis of 1970 and the ardfheis of 1971 provided an electrifying antidote to the traditional toleration of too much ambiguity. Patrick Hillery did the bellowing for the tepid Lynch by telling the hawks “ye can have Boland but you can’t have Fianna Fáil!” In any case, there was a muted response from within the party to the arms-crisis sackings and resignations, and the dissenters were successfully isolated. Boland’s rival republican party, Aontacht Éireann, floundered, and he complained: “The people didn’t want a republican party.”