Before the Blueshirts – fascism and early Fianna Fáil
“Once Benito Mussolini hitched his star to Hitler’s in the late 1930s, dominant opinion in Ireland hardened against him. Beforehand, however, Italian fascism had a large and appreciative following in this country.” Photograph: Getty Images
This year marks the 90th anniversary of the foundation of Fianna Fáil. Emerging from the ashes of the Sinn Féin party, Fianna Fáil swept to power in 1932 on the back of progressive social policies that targeted the failings of the outgoing Cumann na nGaedheal government. Following a second electoral defeat in 1933, Cumann na nGaedheal joined forces with the Centre Party and the National Guard (the “Blueshirts”) to found Fine Gael.
In its earliest days, Fine Gael was led by the Blueshirt and would-be “Irish Duce”, Eoin O’Duffy. The new party also professed a corporate vision that fused Catholic and fascist political theory, with a greater emphasis being placed on the latter. The questionable trajectory of Fine Gael in turn impelled Fianna Fáil to wrap itself tightly in the traditional robes of liberal democracy. Yet it was not always thus. Rather, while in opposition, republicans had often looked to the Italian dictatorship of Benito Mussolini as an attractive counterpoint to the supposed “indolence” of Ireland under Cumann na nGaedheal.
Not surprisingly, fascism thus featured heavily in Irish public discourse long before the Blueshirts. In fact, Mussolini apologists honeycombed both Cumann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fáil, with government supporters taking a keen interest in the electoral “reform” and policing aspects of fascist Italy, while de Valera and his followers focused on the socio-economic dynamics of the Italian regime.
At the time, striking policy parallels linked Fianna Fáil and the PNF (Partito Nazionale Fascista), especially in the spheres of agronomics, emigration, irredentism, and cultural nationalism. Interestingly, Fianna Fáil, like generic fascism, also extolled the importance of charismatic leadership. In line with the internal structures and politics of the party, a cult of veneration for de Valera did exist. When compared to the obsequious Ducismo preached in Italy, it was relatively circumscribed, however. Besides, leadership cults in Irish politics did not begin with de Valera, whose eulogists were encouraged to think in terms of Tone, O’Connell, Parnell and Pearse rather than contemporary European figureheads.
Moreover, direct comparisons with the Italian dictator put de Valera on the defensive, for this type of association contradicted his preferred image as an enlightened alternative to the “Cromwellian autocrats” of Cumann na nGaedheal.
Though de Valera rejected the virtues of dictatorship per se, he did, like Mussolini, pose as the leader of a redemptive national movement rather than a sectional party. In this context, de Valera caused uproar in 1929 when he claimed that “Fianna Fáil could be for Ireland what Fascismo was for Italy”. Intriguing as these remarks are, they did not turn out to be an important revelation about his long-term thinking.
In fact, de Valera soon regretted the dubious analogy, which generated a heated clash with the intensely anti-fascist Irish labour movement. At the time, de Valera denied any difference in the policies of republicans and labour; however, by comparing his party with Mussolini’s, he placed Fianna Fáil on the wrong side of the trade unions, which had long complained that Ireland was a fertile arena for fascist propaganda.
Consequently, Fianna Fáil moved swiftly to nullify the controversy, with the party newspaper proclaiming de Valera as the foremost opponent of “anti-democratic terrorism in Italy, in Ireland, in Russia or anywhere else”. Meanwhile, a suitably contrite de Valera never again spoke in positive terms about Mussolini or his regime, though this did not prevent less sober elements within Fianna Fáil from continuing to do so.
To his credit, once in power de Valera also upheld democratic principles in the international and domestic spheres. Having quashed both the Blueshirts and a rejuvenated IRA, de Valera established himself as a capable statesman. In this capacity, he was an articulate champion of the League of Nations who condemned – in the face of strong Fine Gael objections – the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935.