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Seán Lemass tapes: the split in Sinn Féin and setting up of Fianna Fáil

The old Sinn Féin had collected ‘all sorts of queer cranks’ with ‘people making speeches in favour of vegetarianism and the single tax’

A victorious Fianna Fáil party in 1932 feared they would be subject to an army coup led by a man allegedly responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the Civil War, Seán Lemass believed.

The party won 72 seats – five seats short of a majority – in the February 1932 general election, supplanting, with the support of the Labour Party, the Cumann na nGaedheal government, which had held power for 10 years.

However, there was a long hiatus between the election and the new Dáil because of the murder of a Cumann na nGaedhael deputy Patrick Reynolds in Sligo-Leitrim two days before polling. His widow later won the seat.

In the Lemass tapes, Lemass said Paddy Daly, a former army colonel, had circulated a document among his fellow army officers stating they should not allow their jobs and pension be taken from them.

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Daly had been a brigadier in the National Army which landed at Fenit, Co Kerry, to put down anti-Treaty insurgencies during the Civil War. He was widely blamed for the notorious Ballyseedy massacre in March 1923 in which eight anti-Treaty prisoners were tied to a landmine and blown up. Only one survived.

Lemass said Daly had urged his fellow officers to rise up against the incoming government as they would otherwise lose their commissions and their pensions.

Fianna Fáil had made the abolition of the military pensions to men who had served with the pro-Treaty forces during and after the Civil War part of their election manifesto.

Anti-Treaty side

The pensions, brought into being in 1924, were only for those who had served in the National Army and were not available to those who had taken the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War.

Lemass recalled there was a “very strong sentiment among some of the army officers and guards officers that they shouldn’t allow themselves to be run out of office. They thought they were going to be sacked straightaway.”

He added that Ernest Blythe, the minister for finance and effective tánaiste, would have supported an army coup, but the president of the Executive Council and effective taoiseach, WT Cosgrave, would not go along with it.

“It was certainly strong enough to cause concern,” Lemass remembered. “The danger developed after the election when it was clear that we were to become the government.

“Whoever was responsible, we all had our own armed guards given to us straightaway. We were far more afraid of the armed guards than we were of the people who were likely to attack us. I can tell you that, but it was an indication that they knew there was a danger of some attempt on us.”

Lemass speaks at length of the process of the split in Sinn Féin, which led to the setting up of Fianna Fáil in 1927.

Lemass was elected to the Sinn Féin Ard Comhairle in 1923. He was just 23 and it occurred during the funeral of his brother Captain Noel Lemass, whose body was found in October 1923 in the Dublin Mountains. It had been suspected that his murder was carried out by Free State agents.

“There was no one more astonished than myself when I was elected,” he recalled. “It was purely an emotional response – nobody knew anything about me, or anything of that kind.”

Even then, he said Sinn Féin president Éamon de Valera was getting impatient with people within the movement who wanted to dismantle every aspect of the Treaty.

“There was a lot of nonsense associated with the old Sinn Féin organisation,” Lemass remembered. “It had collected all the cranks in the country and there were people making speeches in favour of vegetarianism and the single tax, all sorts of queer cranks.”

He gives de Valera credit for bringing the republican movement together after the Civil War and into a position of government.

“I’d say this was de Valera’s greatest achievement. I mean , look over the whole of his career, 1916 to 1921, a lot of it would have happened if de Valera hadn’t been there at all. The same would apply from 1932 . . . But I’d say nobody but him could have got the Republican movement, in the atmosphere of the 1920s, back to a state of reality so effectively that within a few years we were elected by the people as a government, by a majority.”

Lemass said he came to the realisation early that a resumption of military action after the Civil War by the anti-Treaty side would be “not merely impossible but detrimental”.

“Instead of succeeding, it would destroy us and that we could do nothing until we had public support for our policies.”

Lemass maintained the Irish public were “intellectually” anti-Treaty but had voted in favour of it in 1922 for the sake of peace.

He is candid that the anti-Treaty IRA did not do enough to convince the public of their career. “The IRA in the Civil War made the tremendous mistake, the fundamental mistake, of forgetting the importance of public opinion.

“They were being told by the papers that the people of the country were all in favour of the Treaty, which wasn’t true, but having accepted this, they began to adopt an attitude of hostility or indifference to public opinion – to keeping public opinion on their side.”

‘Traitors and blackguards’

He said Fianna Fáil came to the realisation that it would never get a majority if it characterised those who voted in favour of the Treaty as “traitors and blackguards” and that they needed to reach out to pro-Treaty supporters.

He credits a Cumann na nGaedhael deputy JJ [James Walsh] with giving de Valera the notion that he could enter the Dáil by declaring that the oath of allegiance to the crown was “an empty formula” and something he had to do to enter Dáil Éireann.

“It was then that Dev said, ‘If that’s so, if what you say is correct, then it’s no problem for us either’,” Lemass recalls de Valera telling Walsh.

Lemass was scathing of the Cumann na nGaedheal government which vacated power in 1932. He said their only policy was fear and they suffered from a lack of leadership.

“Their only argument for being allowed to continue carrying on their own government was that they had won the Civil War, restored peace and order and that if they disappeared disorder would start up again.

“They had no economic or social policy. There was nothing that they could rally people to except the idea that their removal would mean another deluge of disorder and fighting.

“The fact was that in all this period they were just merely content to govern, doing the minimum that was necessary to carry on government, bringing in only the legislation which would have evolved in the ordinary way.”

Lemass believed Fianna Fáil’s victory in the 1932 election was not its anti-Treaty stance, but the state of the economy – “the appalling economic conditions, the acute depression, the sense of impending doom and the complete instability of the government to produce any sort of policy to cope with it”.