Colum Kenny: Our collective amnesia about true nature of the Civil War is dangerous

Questions of legitimacy and democracy that underpinned the Civil War have consequences today, north and south of the Border

It should be clearly said. The Irish Free State, born in December 1922, was a democratic project that enjoyed widespread popular support. The Civil War was the result of a violent, undemocratic, attempted coup that did economic and political damage to nationalist Ireland. If parties today do not accept that reality, voters should be wary of them.

The present Government cannot or will not say it clearly. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, descended from opposite sides in the fratricide, now hang together rather than hang separately as they face today’s Sinn Féin. There is a well meaning but self-interested amnesia or omertà when it comes to the Civil War.

Does it still matter? It certainly does. The most worrying thing about the recent episode in Scotland, when an Irish soccer team robustly sang “Up the ‘RA”, was not the momentary lapse of judgment but the possibility that this revealed a deficit in the public’s understanding of our past.

When it comes to the Civil War, the Decade of Commemorations has descended into a series of anodyne events

The facts are that the general elections of 1918 to 1922 (with their greatly expanded franchise) changed everything. The anti-Treaty attempt to overthrow the new Irish Free State was different in kind from the struggle of 1916 or the War of Independence against British repression. And the IRA before 1922 was different in essence from that after it, once an official Irish army loyal to the elected Dáil Éireann came into existence.

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In the seven months, between December 1921 and June 1922, the cabinet, Dáil Éireann and the electorate each accepted the Treaty – albeit with reservations. At the general election of June 1922, more than three quarters of voters gave their first preferences to those Sinn Féin, Labour, Farmers’ Party and other candidates who supported the new state.

A terrible democratic beauty was born. The state was not the creation of Fine Gael, founded more than a decade later, but of the electorate.

The fact that voters felt under pressure from the British was a given. Centuries of English violence had created “the Irish problem”. But most Irish voters saw the new state as a stepping stone to better things. With the world today facing renewed assaults on democracy, it should be clearly and proudly recalled how the will of the people prevailed in the Irish Free State in 1922.

But when it comes to the Civil War, the Decade of Commemorations has descended into a series of anodyne events, including academic conferences and the uplifting concelebration of the sacrifice of Michael Collins at Béal na Bláth. The latter saw the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil gloss over old cracks.

Minister for Culture, Catherine Martin TD, stated this year, on behalf of the Government, that official initiatives to mark the hostilities would “invite everyone to consider the painful legacies of our past and reach their own conclusions”. She promised that “the State will not seek to communicate a preferred narrative or make judgments about any persons or actions.” Whatever you’re having yourself?

Possible destabilising impact of a hasty poll on reunification should be viewed through the prism of the disaster of 1922-23

Martin’s statement was troubling. For she wrote as the representative of a democratic state which the defeated side in the Civil War had tried to smother at birth. Elected representatives and other public servants were targeted for assassination.

Why shirk from judgment in seeking to understand and explain the rejection of civil authority by an armed minority – a violent rejection of Dáil Éireann’s approval of the Anglo-Irish Treaty that cannot be justified in hindsight by the fact that there were atrocities and excesses on both sides that contributed to those “painful legacies”?

In late 1922, having earlier stirred up Civil War, Éamon de Valera wrote that “Rory O’Connor’s unfortunate repudiation of the Dáil, which I was so foolish as to defend even to a straining of my own views in order to avoid the appearance of a split, is now the greatest barrier we have.” Yet even today, in the party that de Valera subsequently founded and in Sinn Féin, how many are prepared to acknowledge openly that the Civil War he helped to foist on people was unjustified?

There is a vital distinction between partisan justification and considered judgment. As Dorothy Macardle wrote of the period, No thinking person can be close to a conflict so intense and desperate without forming an opinion as to where the balance of justice lies.”

Meaningful remembrance of the Irish Civil War is not best done on the basis of a kind of moral equivalence, where sleeping dogs are let lie for fear of causing upset. For Irish public life continues to be dominated by parties largely grounded on factions of Sinn Féin in 1922–3.

If people “reach their own conclusions” about the Civil War, their conclusions are not necessarily equally valid. Neither elected politicians of Dáil Éireann nor its army were legitimate targets in 1922. Suspension of judgment is unfair to the victims in 1922–3, and dangerous in 2022–3. Equivocation itself is “a preferred narrative”.

Questions of legitimacy and democracy that underpinned the Civil War have consequences today, north and south of the Border. Sinn Féin is poised to enter Government in the Republic and has already done so in Northern Ireland. The possible destabilising impact of a hasty poll on reunification should be viewed through the prism of the disaster of 1922-23.

Dr Colum Kenny is professor emeritus, DCU, and author of A Bitter Winter: The Irish Civil War 1922–23