Fianna Fáil & Arms Decommissioning 1923-32

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Devalera & Fianna Fail, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 1997), Volume 5

When Éamon de Valera gave his followers the order to dump arms at the end of the Civil War in May 1923 the fighting ended, but not the arguments about weapons. The Republican troops, still loyal to an increasingly phantasmagorical concept of the State, were told to conceal these weapons rather than surrender them, on the grounds that they might be needed again. This ceasefire—for it was essentially a ceasefire rather than a surrender—in turn inaugurated the controversy about decommissioning (although the word was not part of the political vocabulary of the day) which was to rumble on for almost another decade.

Evergreen issue

It did so in a way which eerily prefigured other, more recent and still current, controversies about political and constitutional developments in Northern Ireland, the political accountability of militant Republicanism, and the calibre of political leadership. That the controversy is still a current one can readily be seen in the reaction to the remarks of the former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, on 10 August 1997. Mr Reynolds told a Belfast audience that he had told the British Prime Minister, John Major, after the August 1994 ceasefire: ‘How can I go to the Republican leadership and ask them to give up guns when Fianna Fáil never handed over any guns?’ That this off-the-cuff remark, which he later argued had been misinterpreted, should immediately surge to the forefront of public debate, is itself an indication of the evergreen nature of this particular issue in Irish political life.
The existence of the arms, and the question of the political accountability of those who controlled them, remained an open question until November 1925, when the IRA Army Council effectively decided to shrug off the battered remnants of political control. But right up to that point, the links between political and military activity had remained close. First Frank Aiken, and then Seán Lemass, had been breveted as ‘Ministers for Defence’ in the still-united Republican movement. Lemass, in that capacity, had been actively involved, with George Gilmore and others, in planning jail-breaks and raids on cinemas which were showing pro-British war films, and defended his role and his responsibilities vigorously in Comhairle na dTeachtaí (the underground Republican ‘Dáil’).
The split in Sinn Féin in March 1926 which led to the creation of Fianna Fáil dramatically re-arranged the Irish political landscape, but it was not until the second Dáil election of 1927 that the question of decommissioning moved decisively off the law and order agenda and into the domain of politics. The fact that it was only four years after the end of the Civil War ensured that the tensions of those traumatic events informed a bitterly-fought election campaign, in which the protagonists in that war faced each other again on the hustings. The residue of political distrust lay just under the surface, like a jagged reef ready to rip the keel out of the frail craft of parliamentary democracy.
On the Fianna Fáil side, one of the key players was Seán Lemass who, despite his youth (he was only twenty-eight), already had de Valera’s confidence in large measure, and who had been a key figure in the birth and development of the Fianna Fáil organisation. As a former Republican Minister for Defence, his voice carried additional weight on any issue connected with arms.
W.T. Cosgrave, who had succeeded in backing de Valera into a constitutional corner after the June 1927 election by passing the Electoral Amendment Act requiring all Dáil candidates to pledge to take the oath, was in no mood to loosen the tourniquet. His speeches during the September 1927 election campaign were uncompromising and even provocative, inasmuch as he continually insisted that a firm purpose of amendment on the Republican side would have to be accompanied by concrete actions designed to prove their good faith—notably in the matter of arms decommissioning.

‘Dev in the Dumps’

The main burden of dealing with this issue seems to have been accepted, not by de Valera himself, but by Seán Lemass: certainly no other Fianna Fáil candidates were reported as referring to the controversy in any substantial way, and some of them would have been delighted rather than discomfited by it. Lemass’s sensitivity on this issue would, however, have been heightened by the fact that his Cumann na nGaedheal opponent in Dublin South City, Vincent Price SC, made a series of speeches intended to frighten the middle-class portion of that electorate with the insinuation that Fianna Fáil had not abandoned the armed struggle, but merely desisted from it temporarily. Price’s speech was in fact part of a calculated assault which had been launched at the end of August in a series of hard-hitting newspaper advertisements and in a major speech by Cosgrave himself. The newspaper advertisements proclaimed, in dramatically bold type: ‘Why Fianna Fáil is Afraid—Because Fianna Fáil has got the Dumps’, and ‘Dev in the Dumps’. Cosgrave, for his part, intimated that Fianna Fáil’s commitment to democracy had to be seen in the light of the fact that the IRA had not surrendered their dumped arms.
What was happening, in effect, was that negotiations were taking place across the barricades, and through loud-hailers. As far as the government was concerned, the IRA arms dumps were the core issue of the campaign. As far as Fianna Fáil was concerned, the core issue was the controversial Public Safety Act, introduced by the government after the assassination of Kevin O’Higgins in July 1927. Cosgrave signalled that if the dumps were surrendered the hated Act would not be implemented; Lemass and Fianna Fáil argued that a decision to abandon the Act was a necessary prerequisite to the surrender of arms—although they never went so far as to accept that they actually held any weapons themselves.

‘Guns rusting in holes’

Lemass’s counter-attack had two major components. One was an attempt to divert the argument into a discussion about legally-held guns on the government side. He had, he said, lately spoken at Athlone, with ‘barracks to the right of him, barracks to the left of him, and barracks in front of him, all full of armed soldiers’, and he believed that ‘the arms in the Free State barracks were a greater threat to the peace of Ireland than were the guns rusting in holes in the mountains’. Lemass’s public expression of concern about the problem caused by the Free State Army was misplaced, as even he must have been aware. Between 1923 and 1927 army strength had been reduced from more than 32,000 to about 12,000, and was to fall further to about 7,000 by 1930. It was one of the most ruthless processes of demobilisation experienced by any country in similar circumstances, and hardly provided much evidence for the assertion that the Free State was a covert military regime.
The occasionally convoluted rhetoric of Lemass’s speeches in this campaign was a pointer to the equally convoluted nature of the relationship between Fianna Fáil and the old Sinn Féin. Both organisations were fighting for the continuing allegiance of the larger Republican constituency. Lemass appealed to that constituency in speeches designed to reassure it that, by going into the Dáil, Fianna Fáil had not abandoned its Republican principles. These were the speeches in which he attacked the Public Safety Act and warned that W.T. Cosgrave’s insistence that Republicans should ‘do penance’ for their misdeeds was a recipe for disturbance, political instability and industrial decay.
The more he stressed Fianna Fail’s continuing Republican credentials, however, the more he laid himself open to the Cumann na nGaedheall charge that his party’s decision to enter the Dáil was no more than a tactical manoeuvre, and one, moreover, which could be reversed if circumstances suggested that a reversion to the armed struggle would be more profitable. This charge was never directly expressed, but it was implicit in the emphasis placed on the unresolved question of the IRA arms dumps, and the even more opaque question of which organisation ultimately controlled them.

Lemass finally bit the bullet, insofar as he could:

The dumps are harmless if no-one goes near them; they are dangerous only if there is hate between Irishmen…all danger from the dumps will be removed when the causes of ill-feeling between Irishmen are removed. If Mr Cosgrave was afraid of the dumps he also knew that Fianna Fáil did not control them. His [Lemass’s] offer…was that they would promise to use their influence with those who controlled the dumps if Mr Cosgrave would use his influence with those in control of the arms in the barracks, to put the whole lot away to be bartered for steam engines, and so do away with the possibility of another Civil War in Ireland.

These speeches were certainly remarkable for their implication that the relationship between Fianna Fáil and the IRA resembled that between the democratically constituted government and the army of the Free State, and that both relationships could be accurately described by the word ‘influence’. Lemass’s plea for the total abandonment of the state’s continuing military role appears disingenuous at this remove in time: but it also reflected lengthy discussions, which carried over from Comhairle na dTeachtaí into the new Fianna Fáil organisation, about the wisdom of having any standing army in the new Irish state, however that state might be constituted. This was one of the party opinions which—like the commitment to re-introduce the popular initiative as a way of changing the constitution—withered on the vine as Fianna Fáil approached the levers of executive power.

A ‘slightly constitutional party’

The aftermath of the September 1927 election was part of the context for the much-quoted 1928 Dáil exchange in which Lemass described Fianna Fáil as a ‘slightly constitutional party’. It was certainly a remark made in the heat of the moment and Lemass, while not unusual among Fianna Fáil politicians of the era in beating a Republican drum, was certainly unusual in the rapidity with which he sought to cover his tracks. His outburst was gladly seized on by some of his opponents. Patrick McGilligan, the Minister for Industry and Commerce, was particularly happy to have been handed a weapon by his tormentor, and saw it as an effort by Lemass to restore his standing within the IRA, or as an example of the Jekyll and Hyde contrast between the serious politician and the irreformable gunman.
Brian Farrell argues that Lemass’s remarks ‘certainly suggest a less than wholehearted commitment to democratic processes and reflect a pragmatic willingness to “go on the offensive” and use force to achieve political aims’. His case, however, is not a strong one. In the first place, as Farrell also points out, Lemass, within a month, went to considerable lengths to repeat the phrase in a totally different context. This was when he suggested that the Cumann na nGaedheal’s creative attitude to amending the 1922 Constitution entitled that party also to the ‘slightly constitutional’ epithet: what was sauce for the goose could be sauce for the gander, and in a hot and steamy kitchen nobody could be quite sure who was wielding the ladle.
Secondly, the main burden of the speech in which Lemass made this interjection was a sophisticated argument in favour of releasing political prisoners which hinged on the undoubted fact that Lemass himself, and other Fianna Fáil members of the Dáil, had been up to their necks in similar activities. Lemass referred to the 1925 Mountjoy jail escape which he had helped to organise, and to a speech in which Cosgrave alleged that at that time Lemass had been Minister for Defence and Frank Aiken Chief of Staff of the IRA. In a passage which glossed over his and Aiken’s expulsion from the IRA, and delicately finessed the issue of his own involvement, he posed the question:

I do not know where President Cosgrave got his information. A number of these sensational disclosures which were made here were wrong and were founded on false information and, possibly, this information was of the same kind. But, if the information was correct, then Deputy Aiken and myself must have had knowledge of the Mountjoy incident and have sanctioned it, and, if the incident was of such a nature that three years after the event everyone connected with it must be punished to save the prestige of the State, it is strange that Deputy Aiken and I are here if we had anything to do with it, while those who actually engaged in it are prisoners in Mountjoy.

Thirdly, there is a great deal of additional evidence to suggest that the intensity of Lemass’s utterances on this issue, on the question of political prisoners generally, and on the need to repeal repressive legislation, was related primarily to his key political objective. This was to reassure those members of the party who were unhappy about the decision to enter the Dáil that Fianna Faáil’s new-found willingness to operate the hated Cosgrave system did not mean that its Republican teeth had been drawn. To this end, many Fianna Fáil speeches in 1928 and 1929, Lemass’s among them, were vibrant, often dramatic reiterations of Republican themes. One such speech by Lemass in 1928 managed to query the political credentials of the government on almost every count, alleging inter alia that it had no policy on partition, that its policing policy was ‘going to include in the definition of crime the desire to achieve the full political independence of Ireland’, and that the British were still in effective control of the Irish armed forces. In a rare comment made after his retirement, Lemass elaborated further on his motivation:

Our political problem of that time was to take a group of people who had fought in the Civil War and were still bitter in their defeat to make them feel that political action would help them to achieve what they had not achieved during the Civil War. So all that time we had to appear to be—not to be reactionary—to constantly move these people away from the idea that the political objectives could be achieved only by physical force.

These comments by Lemass may have painted the events of four decades earlier in a more benign glow than was apparent to his opponents at the time. What is inescapable is that Lemass and Fianna Fáil were slow to shut the door completely on Sinn Féin and the IRA, or at least kept it open enough to ensure that their electoral support would be maximised without giving any damaging hostages to fortune. During the tumultuous 1932 election campaign, Lemass told Peadar O’Donnell (now the leader of the newly-formed Saor Éire militants) that O’Donnell’s supporters were useful: ‘Don’t you see that we stand to gain from your organisation so long as we cannot be accused of starting the turmoil’.

‘Gunmen and Communists voting for Fianna Fáil’

Nor was the government unaware of what was going on. Shortly before polling day, it published a front-page advertisement in the Irish Times warning the electorate: ‘The Gunmen are Voting for Fianna Fáil—The Communists are Voting for Fianna Fáil’. Both statements had the merit of being largely true, although they were to some extent beside the point, as the total number of gunmen and communists in the entire country would scarcely have been enough to elect one TD. The Irish Times, for its part, had taken the public pulse more accurately: it ignored the threat from the gunmen, but warned: ‘The Marxian evangel cannot prevail. Its prophets and their few dupes in Ireland can draw a lesson from the study of the Soviet land laws’.’
It was not enough. Without the gunmen, but with the support of Labour, Fianna Fáil was to form the next administration. There was no more talk of arms dumps, and the word decommissioning was not to enter Irish political debate until a quarter of a century after Lemass’s death.

John Horgan is Senior Lecturer in journalism, School of Communications, Dublin City University.

Further reading:

J. Horgan, Sean Lemass: the Enigmatic Patriot (Dublin 1997).

T. Garvin, 1922: The Birth of Irish Democracy (Dublin 1996).

H. Litton, The Irish Civil War: an Illustrated History (Dublin 1997).

C. Younger, Ireland’s Civil War (London 1970).

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