Fianna Fail, Partition and Northern Ireland, 1926-1971 by Stephen Kelly

Reviewed by Diarmaid Ferriter

Fianna Fail, Partition and Northern Ireland, 1926-1971
Fianna Fail, Partition and Northern Ireland, 1926-1971
Author: Stephen Kelly
ISBN-13: 978-0716531869
Publisher: Irish Academic Press
Guideline Price: Euro24.95

Young Irish historians have done much in recent years to exploit the release of an abundance of archival material covering Irish politics from the 1920s to the 1970s. This book, born of a PhD dealing with Fianna Fáil's approach to partition and Northern Ireland from the foundation of the party, in 1926, to the turmoil of the 1971 ardfheis – when divisions between militants and the more moderate exploded with great drama – makes invaluable use of such material.

The author is to be applauded for his industriousness in mining the party’s archive and the papers and perspectives of some of its leading lights and louts. He offers a dense but energetic overview of one of its central dilemmas: how to bring meaning to its declared aim of achieving a united Ireland. It is also an important study because, for all the party’s historic domination and electoral success, there had been a dearth of archival material until recently, and little has been written on Fianna Fáil’s internal dynamics.

This is not to assert, however, that all the answers are contained in the archives. The recording of decisions made rather than the discussions of the parliamentary party and its national executive can frustrate the historian, which creates a need to broaden the research canvas by examining grassroot members' correspondence and the papers of Éamon de Valera, Frank Aiken, Seán MacEntee, Patrick Hillery and the civil servant TK Whitaker, of which Kelly has made good use.

MacEntee, one of the party's founding fathers and a Belfast-born Catholic, had concluded by 1970 that, in relation to partition, Fianna Fáil was too rigid and "too proud to temporise or placate". This was not a conclusion born of hindsight; from the earliest years he was uncomfortable with the party's approach to the North, a reminder that Fianna Fáil was no monolith in relation to this delicate subject. Kelly makes much of MacEntee's perspective and is not shy in characterising the party's approach as "impractical, naive and at times deluded". For all the rhetoric of demand and aspiration, the party often "intentionally ignored partition", treated Northern nationalists with contempt, refused to extend Fianna Fáil into Northern Ireland and was put under pressure from cumainn members who wanted a move beyond rhetoric. There was noise too about a possible federal solution, with the two parliaments in Ireland remaining but Westminster's powers over Northern Ireland transferred to Dublin.


While de Valera in the 1930s was relatively consistent in his insistence that “force is out of the question”, he had little to offer beyond that assertion. A Fianna Fáil national executive memo from 1930 wondered plaintively, “what is the party’s official policy on this matter?”

Propaganda was preferred, with the formation of a committee to influence British opinion; if the citizens there, de Valera surmised, knew the facts of partition "it would be inconceivable it would be allowed to remain". But the committees were also a ploy, with de Valera retaining control over deliberations and decisions. Likewise, at times of noticeable grassroots discontent he would convene national-executive meetings during which he would exhaust the attendees into not reaching any decisions.

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."

Fianna Fáil had clearly been unprepared for the outbreak of the Troubles, but by 1971 it had settled on certain things, including a new engagement with constitutional nationalists in the North – a historic shift – and the dispelling of the suggestion that violence was legitimate in pursuit of a united Ireland.

The book is not without its problems. It is too long and repetitive, and the four chapters covering the 1950s and 1960s should be two. The author has a curiously dysfunctional relationship with the comma and semi-colon, and his prose is undermined by sloppy phrasing and poor editing (“ability to reign in his younger colleagues” or “tow the party line”). Too often he characterises the moderates as “adept” and those wanting a more aggressive approach as “irrational” (a desire for unification or anger at the treatment of nationalists in the North was hardly irrational) and does not explore sufficiently the attitude of unionists, who are barely even shadows in this book, towards Fianna Fáil.

While he maintains that the book is unique because “it explores FF’s attitude towards Northern Ireland from the perspective of the entire apparatus of the organisation”, he does not adequately address the issue of how much weight can be attached to different perspectives and how to quantify grassroots dissent. This is reflected in an ambiguity in characterising those voices; they are described, variously, as “ a cohort”, “ a consortium”, “a vocal minority”, “ a selection” or a “vocal section”, but often on the basis of a limited correspondence.

Overall, though, the book is very well researched, authoritative and nuanced, and the central thesis – that Fiana Fáil failed to formulate a constructive, coherent or long-term policy on Northern Ireland, which resulted in political impotence – is convincing and supported by the wealth of fresh sources marshalled.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. The paperback edition of his latest book, Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s will be published next month by Profile Books.

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter, a contributor to The Irish Times, is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. He writes a weekly opinion column