Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael: From Civil War enemies to modern-day partners

Two parties rose out of Anglo-Irish Treaty but today their ideology overlaps considerably

Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera. Photograph: Getty/Irish Times

Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera. Photograph: Getty/Irish Times

 

If Wednesday’s historic announcement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael marked the end of Civil War politics, its beginnings can be traced to a vote on the Anglo-Irish Treaty almost 100 years ago.

On January 7th, 1922, the Dáil voted narrowly by 64 votes to 57 to accept the Treaty as negotiated by the British and Irish delegations a month previously in London.

Its terms, as Michael Collins famously opined during that debate, gave the nascent state “the freedom to achieve freedom”. To Éamon de Valera it was a betrayal of the idea of an independent Irish republic.

Following the vote, de Valera led his followers out of the Dáil and resigned as its president two days later to be replaced by Arthur Griffiths. The provisional government took office on January 14th.

In March 1922 the anti-Treaty IRA held a meeting in the Mansion House in which it pledged its opposition to the new government. In April it occupied the Four Courts as its headquarters.

There were now two rival armies and political camps, but even then civil war was not inevitable. Both wings of Sinn Féin, the pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty sides, held a pact election on June 16th 1922 in which they agreed to put up candidates according to their relative strengths in the Dáil.

The election result, though, was interpreted as a victory for those who supported the Treaty. Pro-Treaty candidates outpolled anti-Treaty candidates by 60:40 (38.5/21.2). A hefty chunk of the electorate, 40 per cent in total, voted for Labour, the Farmers’ Party and independents who were pro-Treaty.

Even then de Valera hoped to form a Sinn Féin pact government with Collins, but events happened in the space of two weeks which made that impossible. The assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson by two members of the IRA in London on June 22nd was blamed by the British government, erroneously as it turned out, on the anti-Treaty side and a warning was sent to the provisional government to deal with the rebels in the Four Courts or the British would sort them out.

The kidnapping of Free State general JJ Ginger O’Connell in response to the arrest of anti-Treaty officer Leo Henderson was the final trigger.

The Civil War began on June 28th, 1922 when Free State forces shelled the Four Courts. Nine months later the anti-Treaty side were defeated, but never surrendered and the Civil War, in effect, never ended.

Uniquely, the Free State government, which came into being in December 1922 was a government in search of a party not the other way around. The pro-Treaty government broke with Sinn Féin during the Civil War and Cumann na nGaedheal was founded in April 1923.

The party gained 40 per cent of the vote in that month’s general election, but was able to govern because of the abstentionist policy of the anti-Treaty Sinn Féin side led by de Valera.

In 1926 de Valera too broke with Sinn Féin over the policy of abstentionism from Dáil Éireann, which was becoming increasingly untenable. Fianna Fáil was founded in October 1926, yet there was still still one outstanding barrier to its entry into democratic politics – the oath of allegiance taken by members of the Dáil to the British monarch.

Matters came to a head when the Minister for Justice Kevin Higgins was assassinated on July 10th, 1927 demonstrating that the hatred and bitterness of the Civil War still existed for a long time afterwards. Higgins was blamed for the extrajudicial killings carried out by Free State forces during and after the Civil War.

In response, the Free State government made it a condition of standing for election that a TD must take the oath. Fianna Fáil came up with the “empty formula” of words to dismiss the oath and entered Dáil Éireann.

A minority Cumann na nGaedheal government ruled until the general election of 1932. This general election saw the peaceful handing over of power from a pro-Treaty to an anti-Treaty government.

The often vicious election campaign that year demonstrated that both parties had divergent views of themselves and each other which went beyond their stance on the Treaty.

Cumann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fáil posters from 1932 election
Cumann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fáil posters from 1932 election

An element of class politics entered the election with Fianna Fáil relentlessly pillorying Cumann na nGaedheal as a party of privileged west Brits out-of-touch with the public. Fianna Fáil’s slogan encapsulated this world view: “Government by the rich for the rich”.

These tropes have endured to the present day with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin accusing Fine Gael during the general election of being a party of privileged individuals. This prompted indignation from many Fine Gael politicians, including ministers Simon Harris and Joe McHugh, who said their upbringings were anything but privileged.

Cumann na nGaedheal portrayed Fianna Fáil as being a crypto-communist party that would bankrupt the State and were in thrall to shadowy gunmen who were the real power base in the party.

After Cumann na nGaedheal’s defeat in 1932, the party merged with the National League Party and the Army Comrades Association (ACA) to found Fine Gael in September 1933.

The National League Party (NLP) had grown out a group of like-minded independents and the Farmers’ Party which had supported Cumann na nGaedhael during the 1920s. The NLP won a respectable 11 seats in the 1932 general election. The ACA was a group of ex-National Army personnel led by Eoin O’Duffy, who was sacked as Garda commissioner by the incoming de Valera government.

The ACA was better known by the blue shirts its members wore in conscious imitation of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts.

The Blueshirts were some 30,000 in number and were regarded by the de Valera government as a threat to the State. This was somewhat ironic given their previous status as defenders of the State.

O’Duffy was the first president of Fine Gael, but he was not a success and resigned in 1934.

During the 1930s the Fianna Fáil government dismantled the treaty. It got rid of the oath of allegiance in 1933, the office of the governor-general in 1936 and got back the Treaty ports in 1938.

However, it was the Fine Gael government of John A Costello that provided the full coup de grace for the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the declaration of a republic in April 1949.

This was much resented by de Valera who opposed it on the basis that it would make a united Ireland harder to achieve. It was an affront to those who maintained that Fine Gael were a west Brit party.

With the Treaty no longer the defining issue, the two behemoths of Irish politics had to find something else to differentiate themselves.

Front page Irish Times advertisement taken out by Cumann na nGaedheal on the morning of the election, February 16th, 1932
Front page Irish Times advertisement taken out by Cumann na nGaedheal on the morning of the election, February 16th, 1932

When asked what separated Fine Gael from Fianna Fáil in 1950, Costello is alleged to have told a gathering of diplomats that there was “really no essential differences between the two”.

According to historian Dr Ciara Meehan, who is co-writing a history of Fine Gael with Irish Times columnist Stephen Collins, Costello “dared to give expression to what many non-partisan voters already suspected”.

She explained: “Costello’s comment was borne partially of frustration at Fine Gael’s lack of interest in policy formulation, but there was also an element of truth to his remark.

“Essentially the children of the Sinn Féin split in 1921/22, Cumann na nGaedheal, later Fine Gael, and Fianna Fáil positioned themselves in relation to the Treaty and this remained the main marker in the decades that followed.

“When other countries formed national governments during the second World War (or the Emergency, in Irish terms), the two sides did not – or could not – come together.

“Long after the Civil War ceased to be immediately relevant, the deep divide it caused still influenced the mindset of the staunchest grassroots supporters. At the most basic level, Fine Gael was once seen as the political home of big business and large farmers; Fianna Fáil was the party of the small farmer and the ordinary worker. Fianna Fáil propaganda presented this as the wealthy versus the working class, and the dichotomy was the subject of a myriad of cartoons.

“Cumann na nGaedheal’s willingness to work within the framework of the Commonwealth also provided Fianna Fáil with the material to dismiss its rival as West British, while at the same time priding itself on its own tag, ‘the Republican Party’.

“Aside from the Treaty split, I think the real difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, for a long time, was a psychological one. Fianna Fáil was Fianna Fáil, but Fine Gael was ‘not Fianna Fáil’. In other words, Fine Gael was concerned with defining itself in relation to its rival.

“Fianna Fáil’s impressive electoral record after 1932 fuelled the party’s confidence, while prolonged periods in the political wilderness demoralised Fine Gael and left the party in its rival’s shadow. Fine Gael’s achievements were in the past, with the creation of the new state. Rather than articulating what it actually stood for, it dwelt on that phase of its history and, more particularly, became preoccupied with explaining that it wasn’t Fianna Fáil.”

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are a product of an electoral system in which compromise and coalitions are fundamental

Maynooth University educated historian Dr Mel Farrell, the author of Party Politics in a New Democracy, the Irish Free State 1922-1937, says the perception has grown up through the decades that Fine Gael is more to the right of the political spectrum than Fianna Fáil on economic matters, but even those distinctions have been blurred over the years.

“Different leaders have put their own stamp on each of the two parties. In 1965 conservative Fine Gael moved to the left of Fianna Fáil with the adoption of the Just Society manifesto while the party pursued liberal reform during the 1980s,” he says.

“Until the later Charles Haughey years, Northern Ireland policy would have been another issue that clearly demarcated the two parties. In 1985 Haughey vigorously opposed the Anglo-Irish Agreement but later came to work it on his return to power. During the 1997, 2002 and 2007 elections Fianna Fáil’s alliance with the Progressive Democrats probably kept Fianna Fáil slightly to the right of Fine Gael.”

He maintains Ireland is not the only country in Europe to have large parties that are similar in ideological terms. Germany, with the dominance of the Christian Democrat and Social Democrat parties, is another.

“People tend to examine Irish politics with reference to British politics because we consume so much UK media. The British system of first past the post has led to a system in which two clear blocs dominate. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are a product of an electoral system in which compromise and coalitions are fundamental.”

Endless academic treatises and comment pieces have been written over the last century about the differences between the two parties. The late Jackie Healy-Rae, when he was still a Fianna Fáil stalwart, once cryptically said of such speculation. “Them that know don’t need to ask and them that ask will never know.”

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Getty
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Getty

The two O’Keeffes, Jim (Fine Gael) and Ned (Fianna Fáil), who have spent more than half a century between them representing Cork in Dáil Éireann, believe there are clear distinctions between the two parties.

Ned says: “I don’t have any problem with (the ending of) Civil War politics but Fianna Fáil is a more socially orientated, whereas Fine Gael would be the party of a different class in society.”

“Fianna Fáil would be the party of the ordinary people in villages and towns and the ordinary farmer in rural areas.”

Jim disagrees: “That image of Fine Gael being the party of the professional classes may have been true in the 1930s and the 1940s, but that all changed in the 1960s with Garret Fitzgerald and the Just Society.

“Garrett was a completely new broom in Fine Gael and the issues he was dealing with in Fine Gael would have been social issues – he would have been talking about divorce and contraception.

“Because of his leadership, Fine Gael would have been seen as a party of change – of course the problem was that when we were in government, we inherited some profligate spending by Fianna Fáil under Haughey.

“I don’t have any concern for Fine Gael going into government with Fianna Fáil on the issue of them working together – I’ve no doubt they can and will work together and will do a good job but they need a solid majority to do that.”