When Leo Varadkar admitted in the Dail last week that Fine Gael in a previous incarnation had been guilty of atrocities including murder during the Civil War, he was asking for a full admission from all those who had engaged in the recent Northern Ireland troubles. It was a welcome recognition of the reality of our bloody history at a time when it is fashionable to pretend that the past is irrelevant.
Date-wise it was dead on. Next Thursday is the 89th anniversary of one of the most horrific of these events. In June 1922 the original Sinn Fein had won a majority in the general election, but the party had split over the signing of the Treaty and those who had opposed it had resorted to armed force. A Civil War began between the Free State and the Anti-Treaty-ites who were known as the Irregulars.
Five months into the Civil War a member of the Dail, Sean Hales, was shot dead in the street. A warning had been issued a few weeks before by the irregular forces that Dail members could be shot on sight. After the meeting of the Cabinet on December 7 it was decided by the Free State government to take out four prisoners from the opposite side who were in Mountjoy prison and execute them as "a deterrent".
They were shot on the morning of December 8 by a firing squad of 24 Free State soldiers who had been brought by lorry from Portobello Barracks to Mountjoy prison. The four men were chosen on the basis of one from each province. They had been important members of Sinn Fein along with their executioners during the War of Independence. Rory O'Connor and Liam Mellows had served on the General Headquarter staff of the IRA under 1916 hero, Chief of Staff, Richard Mulcahy one of the eight members of the Government who had ordered their death.
In the Eighties when I was writing a play, Execution, for the Abbey, which dealt with these events, I interviewed members of that Cabinet who had ordered this execution of their former colleagues and friends. They were convinced that unless they acted immediately after the shootings, the Dail might collapse. Ernest Blythe, the Free State Minister of Foreign Affairs, told me: "We could not wait, there might be no Cabinet left to convene the Dail."
The government clearly believed the shooting of Hales could be the beginning of a campaign to assassinate them all. Was it in order to show the absence of any malice, that they chose for execution in December those who were their close friends? Kevin O'Higgins replied in the Dail, on that morning, when accused of personal spite: "Vindictiveness, great God! One of these men was a friend of mine."
He didn't add that Rory O'Connor had been more than a friend, he had been the best man at O'Higgins's wedding in London less than a year before. In fact, all of the Cabinet who authorised the executions had had outstanding records in the War of Independence, including President William Cosgrave, who had been sentenced to death as a leader in the Rising of 1916.
Were members of the Cabinet in danger after Hales's death? Though such a scenario is hinted at in captured documents, the evidence available seems to show the killing of Hales was a random act and not part of an overall plan.
After the first night of my play, Execution, at the Abbey in 1985 in which I had written about the event, a man called Sean Caffrey asked to see me. He was a retired civil servant, dapper and precise. He told me without blinking an eyelid that he knew who had shot Sean Hales TD. He had been Adjutant of the Active Service Unit of the Irregulars when a 19-year-old volunteer, Owen O'Malley (also a son of a civil servant) had arrived at headquarters to report that an hour or so beforehand he had shot Hales. With a friend, O'Malley was walking on Capel Street when they saw Hales on a side car. He told Caffrey how he took out his revolver and shot Hales as well as wounding another man in the side car. Caffrey had no doubt that he had been told the truth by the young Irregular. If this is so, the killing of Sean Hales was a random act and not, as was thought, part of a conspiracy to wipe out the Cabinet.
The four men executed, Mellows, Joe McKelvey, Dick Barrett and O'Connor, were outstanding Sinn Fein figures in the fight for Irish freedom. They never could have thought that they would find themselves in prison on that December night awaiting execution by their former friends.
The late Sean McBride, Nobel Prize winner and Lenin Prize winner as well as a former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, was in the cell with O'Connor in the last few minutes before he went out for execution. McBride told me that Rory believed that he was being deported to the Seychelles for internment. He asked Sean to help him sew two golden guineas he had in his possession into his trousers as they might be useful for bribing warders later on. Those guineas had been given to him by O'Higgins at his wedding.
Peadar O'Donnell, fine novelist and revolutionary, shared a cell with Barrett and recalled him singing softly Carrickfergus as he went out to face the firing squad.
The execution of the four men went horribly wrong. Twenty-four soldiers had been brought over from Portobello Barracks to Mountjoy Prison to form a firing squad. But a clumsy decision resulted in the four prisoners being shot together and not simply one by one. The result was carnage. Only one had been killed after the first volley. The officer in charge, Captain Hugo McNeill, took out his revolver and gave the coup de grace. Even after that Joe McKelvey was still alive and asked to be shot. But one shot wasn't enough. "Another one," he said and the killing was over. (I was given this account by the chaplain present and one other.)
What happened that day was to have a profound effect on the politics of Ireland in the 20th Century. Sinn Fein had split and for some time a small Labour Party formed the only opposition in the Dail. This has inhibited the natural evolution of left and right that is inherent in the democratic system.
We as a decolonised people inherit many confused reflexes from centuries of being governed. The working of these reflexes out of the national mind is a painful process. By facing up to what actually happened on December 8, 1922, we can free ourselves from the baleful influence of an unresolved past.
Ulick O'Connor's play 'Execution' first produced at the Peacock in 1985 was later translated into French and produced by Les Baladin at the Les Nuits Theatre festival. It will be revived by the New Theatre, Essex Street, in spring 2012