Blueshirts real threat to democracy

 

A recent documentary by RTE and newspaper articles have served to paint the Blueshirt movement of the 1930s as a largely rural defence movement motivated by grievances over the economic war and fired by tensions which had existed since the Civil War 10 years previously.

This interpretation, however, diminishes the very real threat that the movement posed to our infant democracy and understates our close brush with the fascist ideology that was pervasive in Europe during this period.

Originally formed as the Army Comrades' Association, the organisation quickly became political, organising, stewarding meetings, holding parades, and was actively involved in the 1933 general election. Then, in April 1933, the organisation adopted a blueshirted uniform, leading many to draw comparisons between the Blueshirts and continental fascist movements.

Parallels with fascist movements in Europe became more pronounced when Eoin O'Duffy took over its leadership, renamed it the National Guard, and adopted an overtly political constitution.

There was good reason for the government to be fearful of the fascist tendencies of the Blueshirts or National Guard when in 1933 they planned a march on Dublin, reminiscent of Mussolini's famous march on Rome.

The march raised justifiable fears of a coup d'etat, especially since O'Duffy publicly stated a few days before the planned march that "party politics had served their period of usefulness and the sooner a change was effected the better".

Indeed, on the day O'Duffy announced his final plans for the march, he unveiled his elaborate plan for remodelling the Free State parliament. He would substitute election by constituencies for election by professional and vocational groups.

When asked if his plans were the same as the fascists had tried in Italy, he replied: "Yes, but it is the only part of our movement which is fascist." The serious threat posed by the Blueshirts was brought home to me in a conversation a group of us had with de Valera in 1957. As a young man I asked de Valera what he regarded as his greatest achievement. Along with the 1937 Constitution, he listed the banning of the Blueshirt march on Dublin in 1933.

He spoke of the risk he ran in ordering the armed forces on full alert as many officers had similar allegiances to those involved in the Blueshirts, and that unless they obeyed the order he would have had no option but to hand over the reins of government to the army. Happily, the armed forces honoured their oath and the Blueshirts abandoned their march.

Despite both O'Duffy's leadership of a uniformed and by now outlawed group, and his professed belief in a Mussolini-style corporatism, the Cumann na nGaedheal and Centre Parties merged with the Blueshirts to create a new political party, Fine Gael.

Many in the new party felt O'Duffy provided the strong type of character needed to win votes against de Valera. After only eight weeks in active politics, O'Duffy was leader of the second-largest political party in the State despite having never received a single vote from the electorate.

On his tours to counties as party leader, large crowds of blueshirted National Guards would turn out and provide O'Duffy with a guard of honour, and the Blueshirt salute, with upraised hand, became more and more a feature of rallies.

O'Duffy maintained the Blueshirts as a quasi-separate body from Fine Gael and continued to hold a separate congress. As with fascist organisations on the Continent, the cult of the personality was an aspect of Blueshirtism.

Some in Fine Gael, however, were uneasy about the separate existence of the Blueshirt organisation, and once O'Duffy used a Blueshirt congress to call for the withholding by farmers of the land rates, effectively advocating that they should break the law, these members made their opposition to O'Duffy clear.

He was pushed out of the leadership, resigning from both Fine Gael and the Blueshirts.

O'Duffy's position as leader had at this stage been weakened by his failure to deliver the landslide victory in the 1934 local elections he predicted he would achieve.

O'Duffy was not isolated in Fine Gael in his support for European-style fascism. As pointed out by Senator Maurice Manning and Prof Paul Bew in the recent RTE documentary, intellectuals in Fine Gael such as Ernest Blythe, Desmond FitzGerald and Prof James Hogan were admirers of Italian fascism. I would point out that many of the evils of European fascism were not as apparent at this stage as they are today.

THERE is no doubt that most grassroots Blueshirts were not fascists, but rather were motivated by a variety of factors, including opposition to the IRA and cattle seizures caused by the economic war. Indeed, when O'Duffy proceeded to establish the openly fascist and green-shirted National Corporate Party after leaving Fine Gael, only about 80 followed him.

However, to deny that the Blueshirts posed a fascist threat is to do a disservice to truth. European models of fascism prospered by capitalising on the discontent of ordinary people, thus mobilising them in support of their cause.

O'Duffy, despite his fascist inclinations, proved politically incapable of similarly capitalising on the locally-based grievances of Blueshirts to an extent that would ever enable him to emulate successful European fascist movements.

In Ireland we can be thankful that the seeds of fascism fell on barren ground. This may in part be attributable to the strong sentiment for republican-style government generated by people having fought for it during the War of Independence. It is also due to the strong action taken by de Valera in bringing about a showdown with the Blueshirts before they became too powerful.

Indeed, attempts to diminish the threat posed by the Blueshirts is in line with the modern tendency apparent in films and commentaries to play down de Valera's role in Irish history.

It was his strong leadership and political ability, aided by the Army's professionalism, that ensured the Irish experience did not parallel what happened in Germany, Italy, Austria and elsewhere. The fact that Fine Gael has since airbrushed Eoin O'Duffy from its family tree is sufficient comment on the danger the Blueshirts posed at that stage in our history.

Des Hanafin is a Fianna Fail senator and former chief fund-raiser for the party