independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Diarmaid Ferriter: 90 years on, traumatic birth of State is forgotten

NINETY years ago, on December 6, 1922, the Irish Free State came formally into existence after the Free State Act, necessary to give effect to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, received the royal assent exactly one year after the signing of the treaty.

Former Irish Parliamentary Party MP Tim Healy, the first governor general, the king's representative in Ireland under the terms of the treaty, was sworn in at his home in Chapelizod. Healy then administered the oath of office to the speaker of the Dail, Michael Hayes.

In the Dail, amid tight security and with the public gallery empty, head of government William T Cosgrave took the oath of allegiance to the king and made a sombre speech.

"On this notable day when our country has definitely emerged from the bondage under which she has lived through a week of centuries, I cannot deny that I feel intensely proud to be the first man called to preside over the first government which takes over the control of the destiny of our people," he said.

But it was not an event that lent itself to celebration.

As Cosgrave acknowledged, it came at a time of trauma. In the midst of a civil war that had become vicious, the formal establishment of the state was sandwiched between horrendous events. The execution of anti-treaty republicans by the Free State authorities had begun on November 17, and the day after the inauguration of the new state, pro-treaty Cork TD Sean Hales was shot dead. In retaliation, the Government authorised the illegal execution of four prominent republicans, including Rory O'Connor.

The leader of the Labour Party, Thomas Johnston, said in the Dail: "There was no pretence at legality. I am almost forced to say that I believe you have killed the new state at its birth." Hearts had turned to stone; two days after those executions, the house of another pro-treaty TD, Sean McGarry, was set on fire, killing his young son. Cosgrave and his colleagues committed to a ruthless military and political victory that ensured, by May 1923, a decisive win over the republicans and the end of the Civil War.

Little changed with the formal creation of the State; the actual powers of administration and control over internal security had already been transferred to the provisional government in March 1922, and the day after the formal birth of the State the reality of Irish partition was again underlined when the Belfast parliament formally opted out of coming in under the Dublin parliament, as was its right.

To this day, marking the occasion of the foundation of the State has been awkward. Commemorating it was always going to be regarded as an occasion belonging to only one side of the Civil War, in contrast to the 1916 Rising. Many involved resolved never to speak about the Civil War and remained true to their resolve, not least because it had divided not just Sinn Fein as a political party and movement, but individual families and communities.

WHEN the birth of the State did emerge in political exchanges, it was used for partisan reasons, with each side defining itself by its stance in 1921 and 1922 and using that as a stick to beat the other. Fianna Fail took advantage of its dominance to airbrush the period from official memory.

In 1963, a government publication, 'Some Facts About Ireland', in its section on politics, omitted all references to the governments of 1922-32, by moving from the Civil War – "a civil war broke out which ended in 1923" – to the creation of Fianna Fail in 1926 to Fianna Fail's election victory in 1932.

In terms of commemoration, the period 1921-22 was regarded as the preserve of Fine Gael, although its leader, Liam Cosgrave, suggested in 1971 "it would be far better if commemoration was organised by the State".

By the time of the 75th anniversary in 1997 there was more of a willingness to acknowledge the achievements of the state builders. Political scientist Tom Garvin suggested that the retention of democratic institutions, which was not managed in other European countries in the 1920s after their revolutions – was worth more recognition.

Thomas Johnston's fears in 1922 were understandable, but the State was not killed at birth; it evolved into an unusually stable democracy despite – and maybe also because of – the excesses of civil war. But the deepness of those divisions ensured that it would be difficult to celebrate or commemorate the State's foundation comfortably.

As Todd Andrews was to recall in his autobiography, 'Dublin Made Me': "In civil war, alas, there is no glory; there are no monuments to victory or victors, only to the dead."

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD.

Irish Independent

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