The Irish Civil War, a Revolution Left Unfinished
2022 marks the centenary of the Irish Civil War, it is year for reflection on the nature of the conflict and discussion on how it shaped Ireland (to the extent it will even be discussed in the mainstream). In my view the war was a counter-revolution that undermined the aims of the revolutionary period and values set forward in the 1916 Proclamation and Programme of the First Dáil, and served to stunt Ireland from fully developing as an independent nation in ways that still hold true to today and maintain the power of the incumbent bourgeoisie establishment.
The Irish Civil War broke out over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and arguments whether to compromise with the British for some form of independence or whether to continue fighting for a fully independent 32 county republic. The Pro-Treaty side became the official government of the new Irish Free State and received the backing of the UK. Meanwhile the Anti-Treaty forces refused to compromise their beliefs and recognise the Treaty. In April 1922 200 Anti-Treaty IRA members occupied buildings in central Dublin intending to continue the War of Independence. After months of deferral by Michael Collins, who had hoped a peaceful solution could be found, the British government ordered the Free State army to attack the rebel Anti-Treaty forces, in order to reaffirm that they were still in fact in control. This marked the beginning of the Civil War. Over the next year 1000s would die (massive names amongst them), even more on the Anti-Treaty side would be interned and the revolution would be well and truly over, with the British and Irish bourgeoisies’ status and power unaffected.
The revolutionary period of the early twentieth century set out to achieve more than a mere change of rulers; as James Connolly said “If you remove the English Army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts will be in vain. England will still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.” The 1916 Proclamation and Programme of the First Dáil were radical and egalitarian documents, in line with the Republican tradition, that set forward the Irish people’s rights to liberty, equality and justice. Rather than proposing an Irish mimicry of British-ruled status quo, rather called for total revolution and the overthrowl of the oppressive imperialist (and capitalist) structures introduced and enforced by the British ruling-class and their collaborators. Following the nationalist shift in public consciousness post-1916 the War of Independence provided Ireland with the chance to reinvent herself as a republic, in which all were free and equal; one for the many not the few, as the dead generations’ martyrs had dreamed of. The War of Independence was to be the rebellion to finally bring about these changes, from the overwhelming support for republicanism, as seen in the 1918 general election, and emergent socialism, as seen in the Limerick Soviet and amongst the ranks of the IRA.
Alas this radicalism disappeared from mainstream Irish politics following the Civil War. The Republican movement had been crushed and many of its greatest and most radical minds, such as Liam Mellows, were dead. What was left was a partitioned island; the North, a divided sectarian society still under British rule, and in the South a new Irish government was formed, one that did not seek to break from Britain, rather to recreate is economic and political system merely under new management. Constance Markiewicz saw the Civil War as “[a] deliberate attempt to set upon a privileged class.” The incoming Cumann na nGaedheal government further suppressed republicans and leftists, through interment and state-sponsored fascist intimidation, while leaving the impoverished Free State, a borderline vassal, still economically dependent on the UK. By the time of Fianna Fáil’s arrival to power a decade later the momentum for progressive change had dissipated and the so-called “republican party” had abandoned its initial radical and republican roots in favour of conservative agrarianism. Rather than truly developing a self-sufficient nation as had been envisioned de Valera’s government merely pursued a reactionary isolationist policy that left the South underdeveloped, and eventually reliant on the EU and free trade in much the same way as it had been on Britain to develop. The North did not fare any better, as talk of unification in the mainstream became nothing more than rhetoric, and the unionist government developed an unequal divided sectarian society in which the working-class was pitted against each other and Catholics were treated as second-class citizens. This inequality would eventually reach its breaking point in 1968 leading to a thirty year war more violent than any before.
Republican and leftist groups were left in ruins post-Civil War, with many of their leaders dead or imprisoned. Between Fianna Fáil’s abandonment of republicanism and any semblance of progressive politics once in power and Labour (which had already abandoned revolutionary and socialist politics following James Connolly’s death and William O’Brien’s ascension in 1916) merely serving to sheepherd workers and unions into inadvertently supporting Fine Gael and the bourgeoisie establishment. Between the deaths of Liam Mellows and Constance Markiewicz, and the likes of Jim Larkin, Peadar O’Donnell and Frank Ryan, as well as groups such as the IRA, CPI and Republican Congress being pushed to the margins of Irish politics their was no notable voices advocating for true revolutionary change in mainstream Ireland. As I mentioned in the introduction, serious and critical discussion of the Civil War even seems to beyond the Overton Window now. To this day Ireland has not had a socialist nor republican government, as radical politics were driven underground post-Civil War; only in the past year and half in fact has the left even seemed capable of forming a government. The hegemonic power of conservative politics, not too different from those pre-independence, serves as a damning indictment of the counter-revolutionary Civil War.
To this day Ireland still has not fulfilled its full potential, rather it is still at the whim of outside forces and dependent on foreign capital. Ireland still has deal with the trifecta of foreign influence, the economic power of (predominantly American) foreign corporations, top-down undemocratic EU regulation, and continued British occupation of the North. Ireland’s independence does not mean much when we are in fact still wholly dependent on others to keep the economy afloat. Granted as an island nation Ireland will always be somewhat dependent on imports the extent to which we currently highlight an underdevelopment of domestic manufacturing, energy and natural resources. While the reliance on imports dominates talk of Ireland’s reliance on the international system, the exporting of workers further represents how Ireland has failed to fully function as a self-reliant independent nation. The Irish diaspora has continued to grow as many working-class people have been forced to look abroad for a good life that they could never achieve at home. The reliance on exports can be further seen as Irish talents working arts and sports are forced abroad due to the underdeveloped domestic infrastructure in these “non-essential” fields, as Ireland still somewhat functions as a province of the UK rather than a nation unto itself with its own distinct culture. While on the subject of provincialism I feel that acknowledgement of continued partition goes without saying.
As we reflect on the legacy of the Civil War a hundred years on it must be asked what could have been for Ireland and her people? Is it time for the Irish public to reassess the Civil War, as a counter-revolution that undermined the ideals of the Republican tradition, from Tone to Connolly and beyond, and the root of many of contemporary Ireland’s most pressing issues (partition, reliance on globalised markets, lack of a strong left). What could have been for Ireland had things gone differently and the revolution set forward in the 1916 Proclamation been achieved? How can we, the Irish public, be better and fulfil the dreams of those who died for us, so as not to make their sacrifices have been in vain?;
Please read my previous articles if you have not and tune in for future ones. Apologies for the month long hiatus (let’s be honest no one cared), I was busy with real work. This one’s been in the can for a while so I probably should have released like last week, especially since next week’s piece is gonna be kinda outdated. Sure look what can you do.