The execution of four Republican prisoners two days after the State came into being was “murder by any definition”, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said.
On December 7th, TD Sean Hales was shot dead and another TD, Padraig O’Maille, was badly injured when they were gunned down outside the Ormond Hotel on Dublin’s quays.
Their shooting was in revenge for the passage of the Public Safety Emergency Powers Bill in September 1922 that allowed for the execution of anybody carrying arms against the State. Nine men had already been executed, including Erskine Childers, by the time the Free State came into being on December 6th, 1922.
On the morning of December 8th, 1922, Dick Barrett, Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor and Joe McKelvey were executed by the Free State government in revenge for the killing of the TD during the Civil War.
The four men had been in custody since the fall of the anti-Treaty Four Courts garrison in June 1922 and were executed without trial as a “solemn warning” to the anti-Treaty side.
Speaking at the opening of a two-day conference in UCD on the centenary of the State, Mr Martin said their execution was murder and was seen as that at the time.
“The very point of being a constitutional government is that you accept limits on your actions, even in moments of great stress,” he said.
“This is not looking back from the vantage point of the values of another era – it is something which was acknowledged by every person present in Dáil Éireann.”
He quoted then-Labour Party leader Tom Johnson who said at the time the executions were “utterly to destroy in the public mind the association of the Government with the idea of law. I am almost forced to say you have killed the new State at its birth”.
Mr Martin said the executions are one of the reasons why December 6th, which also marks the date of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, has never been a “focus for national celebration”.
Another reason for the lack of euphoria concerning the new State was that it did not include a large part of the country, the Taoiseach stated.
“While partition had been imposed in 1920, the new State was founded on the premise that it was unlikely to continue. It is completely unfair to the leaders of the time to claim that they were not concerned with Northern Ireland,” he said.
“They were very concerned, what they didn’t have was an answer. Yes, they were not able to overcome partition but no one has ever offered a credible suggestion on how they could have achieved this.”
Nevertheless, Mr Martin said there was much to be proud of as the Irish State turns 100.
“What has mattered most in the century that followed is not any political tale put in place in 1922, but rather the fact that the new State showed a consistent ability to evolve and to ultimately transform,” he said.
“But by any measure the State managed to prove that a sovereign Irish State could, even with the economic, social and political damage of partition, prosper.”
He cited Mark Henry’s book Ireland at 100, which demonstrates the State has made more progress than many comparable countries.
“In terms of quality of life, life expectancy, employment, travel, population and many other indicators the State which was so unsure of itself in 1922 did find its feet,” he stated.
“Ours is a State whose foundation did not give us a moment of celebration or unity. For many justifiable reasons we look elsewhere for our heroes and our inspiration. But in spite of this we have every right to be proud of what we were able to achieve with our hard-won sovereignty.”
The conference at UCD, which is being streamed live, is the major State event to mark the coming into being of the Irish Free State.