Were Cumann na nGaedheal ministers really ‘conservative revolutionaries’?
Jason Knirck’s new book challenges the depiction of the 1920s as a period of political inertia
In 1923, Cumann na nGaedheal vice-president Kevin O’Higgins denied that his party had preached anarchy and famously said, ‘we are the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution’.
In March 1923 the Cumann na nGaedheal government was criticised in the Dáil for allowing the military to seize cattle found trespassing on a landlord’s estate. Labour TD TJ O’Connell claimed it was hypocritical for the government to insist on strict enforcement when Sinn Féin had openly encouraged disrespect for the law during the revolution.
In response, vice-president Kevin O’Higgins denied that his party had preached anarchy and famously said, “we are the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution”.
This rather disingenuous statement has come to define Cumann na nGaedheal and the postrevolutionary period in Ireland, as historians often depict the 1920s as an era of stultifying conservatism and inertia. John Regan has even labelled the government counter-revolutionary, with its main goal being the creation of the Irish Party’s imagined Home Rule state.
The common notion is that the promise of the revolution faded in the 1920s as a conservative government replicated the institutions and ethos of its colonial predecessor. While the achievements of the revolution undoubtedly disappointed many, and were largely carried out in an atmosphere of social and cultural conservatism shared by much of the Sinn Féin leadership, recent research has increasingly questioned the depiction of Cumann na nGaedheal as counter-revolutionary or static.
The revolution and its emancipatory rhetoric cast a deep shadow over the following decade, as members of the government and their anti-Treaty opponents generally defended their policies by invoking revolutionary principles. Although most Treatyites understood the importance of the transition from active revolutionaries to government ministers, this shift did not necessitate a wholesale abandonment of revolutionary ideals.
Like any postrevolutionary government, Cumann na nGaedheal emphasised some aspects of the revolution while downplaying others. Notions of self-determination, anti-imperialism, and Irishness inherited from Sinn Féin became the key points around which Cumann na nGaedheal policies pivoted.
Taking a closer look at the Free State’s relationship with the British Empire is crucial in this regard. Despite constant criticism that the government was pro-British or pro-imperial, Cumann na Gaedheal consistently sought to protect and expand the state’s sovereignty against British threats.
The broadest strokes of this policy are well-known, culminating with the 1931 renunciation of the British parliament’s right to legislate for the Dominions, but the government’s support for Irish sovereignty went beyond these major initiatives.
Shortly before his assassination, for example, O’Higgins represented Ireland at a naval disarmament conference in Geneva. Although Ireland had no immediate interest in naval matters, O’Higgins attended in order to prevent Britain signing any agreement on behalf of the “British Empire,” an entity that he claimed had no legal existence.
The Irish government also earlier turned down a British offer to pay the expenses of Irish delegates travelling to London for the 1926 Imperial Conference, seeing this as an infringement on Irish independence. In this case, the desire to protect sovereignty even triumphed over the tightfistedness of the Department of Finance.
The government also invoked the other Dominions in protecting its sovereignty. Treatyites claimed that existing Dominions would be guarantors of Irish freedom, as any British interference with the Free State would implicitly threaten other Commonwealth members as well. This reimagined the British Commonwealth as an anti-imperial empire: a collection of sovereign states united against the metropole.
The argument was designed to meet anti-Treatyite criticisms that Britain would never allow Ireland the de facto independence that it allowed to Dominions further from British shores. Although the Cumann na nGaedheal government failed to make political capital out of these developments, it did continue the Sinn Féin legacy of anti-imperialism.
Another common charge against the Cumann na nGaedheal government is that it replicated British forms in setting up the new state’s institutions. While the Free State’s parliamentary and judicial systems owed a lot to British predecessors, there was considerable early discussion of ways that the new state could be made distinctly “Irish”.
This debate ranged across a far wider field than that of the language, including proposals for a particularly Irish economy that did not replicate British urban blight and industrial discord, and an Irish foreign policy that imagined a bloc of small nonaligned nations that wielded authority through moral force.
The government also sought to avoid the pitfalls of the British two-party political system, as Sinn Féin had argued that party politics in general was corrupt and un-Irish. Cumann na nGaedheal instead promoted itself as a “national” party and thus superior to any mere sectional and regional interest blocs.
The government also initially proposed a constitutional provision for extern ministers, in essence technocratic specialists individually responsible to the Dáil for the operation of non-political departments (Education, Agriculture, etc) but not collectively responsible for the overall policy of the Executive Council. The idea was to both woo anti-Treatyites into working with the government on areas of shared concern and to insulate some elements of the executive from “politics”, particularly in the form of endless debates over the wisdom of the Treaty.
As was often the case, the civil war scuttled many of these hopes. Foreign policy received little traction in election campaigns increasingly focused on the Treaty and the economy. The hopes for a particularly Irish nonparty politics foundered on the enduring split over the Treaty, as well as the growing need for Cumann na nGaedheal whips as the party received electoral pluralities rather than majorities.
Any chance of extern ministers promoting multiparty co-operation were dashed by anti-Treatyite abstention, as well as the fact that the smaller parties in the Dáil boycotted the selection process out of anger over the extrajudicial reprisal executions of Liam Mellows and Rory O’Connor.
Nevertheless, the Cumann na nGaedheal government maintained greater adherence to revolutionary principles than is often conceded. Treatyites continued Sinn Féin’s anti-imperialism and commitment to Gaelicising the state, as well as its focus on the protection of Irish sovereignty.
This is not to argue that government policies in the 1920s were wise, but rather that their initiators envisioned and presented them as being in harmony with the revolution. As Irish parties today wrestle with the legacies of 1916 and the revolution during this decade of commemoration, it is instructive to look again at the struggle over the legacy and implementation of the revolution during the state’s first decade.
Afterimage of the Revolution: Cumann na nGaedheal and Irish Politics 1922-32 is published by University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, $30.
Jason Knirck is a professor of history at Central Washington University.