Time to surrender your absurd Civil War caricatures, Senator

Sat, Aug 14, 2010, 01:00

Liam Twomey’s sulk over the Béal na mBláth oration betrays a wilful misunderstanding of our history, writes NOEL WHELAN

IN A short letter to The Irish Timeson Thursday, Fine Gael Senator Liam Twomey took issue with the decision of the Béal na mBláth Commemoration Committee to invite Brian Lenihan to give the oration at the annual Michael Collins commemoration next weekend.

While there were rumours of sullen partisan resentment among a minority at all levels of Fine Gael that the invitation to address the Collins commemorations was issued for the first time to a Fianna Fáil politician, Twomey is the first to publicly voice his concerns.

One has to take Senator Twomey’s letter at face value and assume he is genuinely put out about the invitation to Lenihan. Given the timing, however, one could be forgiven for suspecting that it was a stunt on Twomey’s part to garner media attention for himself in the August silly season. This week a raft of Senators got more publicity for commenting on the expenses of colleagues than the entire Upper House has achieved in years, so maybe the Fine Gael Senator from Wexford is feeling left out.

The invitation to Lenihan to deliver the Béal na mBláth oration has been public knowledge since June 21st. If he was genuinely so offended, it is curious that it took Senator Twomey a full six weeks to pen this six-paragraph letter. It is even more peculiar that he chose, “as a medical doctor”, to offer an opinion on the Minister’s health.

It is difficult to visualise Twomey as the self-appointed chief defender of what some see as Fine Gael’s great annual commemoration when one has regard to the fact that Twomey himself has been in the party for less than six years. Twomey was one of those independents who won a seat on health and hospital issues in the 2002 election in which Fine Gael suffered an electoral meltdown.

He joined the resurgent Fine Gael in 2004 primarily because it offered the best prospect of securing re-election to the Dáil. As it happens Twomey lost the seat to a Fine Gael colleague in 2007 but the party has hopes of him winning an additional seat for them in Wexford in the next election.

In a Wednesday evening interview with Drivetime, Twomey sought to explain his agitation about this year’s choice of speaker at Béal na mBláth as being due to the fact that he himself was born and reared a couple of miles from where Michael Collins was born and had been hearing about Michael Collins since the day he (Twomey) was born. It is strange given this lifelong knowledge of Collins that Twomey could claim in his letter that “Fine Gael under Michael Collins created the State”. Collins supporters can rightly claim that he made a substantial contribution to the winning of Irish independence and to the initial building of the State prior to his untimely death. However, to claim he did so as a Fine Gael politician is simply absurd.

The party didn’t exist until 10 years after Collins’s death. While it could be argued that Collins was prominent in the pro-Treaty grouping which subsequently formed Cumann na nGaedhael, the latter was just one element of what became Fine Gael in 1933. Fine Gael was founded by the merger of Cumann Na nGaedhael, led by the former president of the executive council William Cosgrove, the National Centre Party led by James Dillon and the “Blueshirts”, whose leader Eoin O’Duffy became Fine Gael’s first leader. Even if the depiction of Collins as a Fine Gaeler withstood scrutiny, to imply that only the Fine Gael side of our politics has claim upon him is mistaken.

The other entertaining utterance in Twomey’s letter was the suggestion that Lenihan’s “predecessors had murdered Michael Collins”. It was a simplistic and, in this instance, inaccurate attempt to smear all Fianna Fáilers with what Twomey perceives as the sins of the Civil War. As it happens Lenihan’s paternal grandfather did fight, in a limited way, in the Civil War but on the Treaty rather than anti-Treaty side. Notwithstanding this background he was subsequently attracted to join Fianna Fáil because of his admiration for and association with Seán Lemass.

While the bulk of politically active anti-treatyites did join Fianna Fáil when it was founded in 1926, so too did many who were not active during the Civil War period and indeed some pro-treatyites disillusioned with the Boundary Commission Report and the conservative social and economic policies of the Free State government. Fianna Fáil’s later leadership included many who themselves or whose fathers had fought against Collins militarily and/or politically but it also included many, including Lemass’s successor Jack Lynch, who were not encumbered by such heritage.

Twomey’s letter repeats an unsophisticated caricature of our party system which seeks to depict our two main parties as having direct lineage from the competing sides in the Civil War. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, like all our political parties, have more disparate origins than is commonly assumed and today they both have political DNA and support bases which are much more complex than they had even at their foundations. Twomey, himself a novice in the Fine Gael ranks, should appreciate that more than most.

The next couple of decades will see various national commemorations of the centenary of the events which marked the foundation of our State. We are fortunate that these commemorations come post the Northern Ireland peace process. Unlike previous commemorations they present an opportunity for all the political traditions on this island to engage in collective reflection on our past and perhaps come together to some extent on the implications of its legacy.

A move by the two large parties here to move beyond a contested past would be welcome. Next week’s event in Béal na mBláth should constitute a good start.