Published in Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2022), Volume 30

By Séan Ó Duibhir

On 6 May 1970, Irish citizens were shocked to learn that Taoiseach Jack Lynch had dismissed two of his most energetic and powerful cabinet colleagues, Minister for Finance Charles Haughey and Minister for Agriculture Neil Blaney, because they failed ‘to subscribe fully to government policy’ on Northern Ireland. Moreover, it was announced that Kevin Boland had resigned as Minister for Local Government in sympathy with his former colleagues. Later, Haughey and Blaney, together with three other men, were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to illegally import weapons for supply to beleaguered nationalists in Northern Ireland. This marked the beginning of what was to become known as the ‘Arms Crisis’ and would initiate years of internecine strife within Fianna Fáil.


The Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ form the immediate backdrop to the party’s establishment. The eruption of sustained intercommunal violence north of the border in August 1969 presented Lynch’s government with an unprecedented set of security concerns. For Fianna Fáil militarists, the conflagration in the North also offered the ‘Soldiers of Destiny’ a possible opportunity to grapple with the unfinished business of partition. However, despite Lynch’s initial promise not to ‘stand by’ as the nationalist community came under attack from loyalist mobs, some argued that ‘standing idly by’ is exactly what the Irish government did, at least in military terms.

Moreover, for the militarists, Lynch’s failure to help the beleaguered nationalists of the North was not his only sin. The Irish state’s attempts to prosecute (some might claim ‘persecute’) those who had sought to assist northern nationalism, such as Haughey and Blaney, during the Arms Crisis marked Lynch out for particular opprobrium. According to Kevin Boland, ‘in the moment of truth, Fianna Fáil (The Republican Party) proved to have feet of clay’.

In the months following May 1970, Boland sought to usurp and replace the Lynchite leadership of the Fianna Fáil party. His ultimate goal was to install a traditionalist nationalist regime, one that would take a more active role in supporting the nationalist minority in the North. Together with many of his supporters, he made his final, public and unintentionally violent bid to gain control at the 1971 Fianna Fáil ard-fheis, but he failed to sway the majority of delegates. As Boland was carried from the scene on the shoulders of his supporters, Minister for External Affairs Patrick Hillery berated the dissidents: ‘You can have Boland, but you can’t have Fianna Fáil’.


Above: Party leader Kevin Boland speaking at the inaugural ard-fheis of Aontacht Éireann in the Clare Manor Hotel, Coolock, Co. Dublin, on 19 September 1971. (Irish Photo Archive)

Thus, for Boland, it was the sense that Fianna Fáil had moved away from its raison d’être—the active pursuit of unity—together with his inability to reposition party policy from the inside that prompted his decision to establish a new movement. In September 1971 he presided over the inauguration of ‘Aontacht Éireann—Republican Unity’, with more than a thousand enthusiastic attendees descending on the Clare Manor Hotel in Coolock, Co. Dublin. In his opening address Boland declared his intention to ‘cut down the rotten tree that Fianna Fáil has become and replace it with a new growth firmly rooted in the old tradition of nationhood’.

At Aontacht Éireann’s first ard-fheis in April 1972, the ‘Fundamental Principles’ (see link to Fundamental Principles below) of the organisation were enunciated. First among them was the party’s adherence to the concept of a united Irish republic, forming the basis of Aontacht Éireann’s clearly hawkish perspective on the Northern imbroglio. The party routinely excoriated what it saw as the weak and obfuscated Northern policy of Fianna Fáil. Lynch’s approach was viewed as indirectly legitimising the British presence in the North, particularly in the aftermath of Fianna Fáil’s grudging acceptance of the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974.

Conversely, Boland’s followers saw Aontacht Éireann’s Northern policy as clear and unambiguous. No legitimacy could be ceded, either directly or indirectly, to the Northern ‘statelet’; the Irish state was obliged to provide all possible aid to Northern nationalists; and Aontacht Éireann sought ‘to reunify the Irish nation, which was, and still is, forcibly, illegitimately and undemocratically disunited by the British Government’. Whilst the party was repeatedly referred to as ‘constitutional’ in orientation, it would become clear that this emphasis on the ‘constitutional’ related to the 26-county area only.

Above: Many speakers at Aontacht Éireann’s first ard-fheis were vocal in their support for the Provisional IRA, with its chief-of-staff, Seán Mac Stiofáin, singled out for praise. Such support was not reciprocated by the Provisionals, who condemned this ‘new Free Staters’ party’. (IP Photos)

In accordance with principle 2, Aontacht Éireann favoured increased state support for the Irish language, with the ultimate aim of reinstating it as the spoken language of the nation. Interestingly, however, the party ruled out compulsion as a means of restoring the language, placing it closer to its Fine Gael bête noire than to Fianna Fáil on this issue. Its social policies were enunciated in principles 5–8, and included proposals such as increasing social welfare rates, introducing compulsory social insurance, extending the payment of children’s allowance whilst the recipient was in full-time education, and reducing the qualifying age for the state pension to 65 years.

Principle 4 reflected Aontacht Éireann’s interventionist and Keynesian economic perspective, whilst principle 9 signalled its adherence to (old) Sinn Féin forms of economic nationalism and the embrace of tactical protectionist policies. Boland’s party also opposed Ireland’s entry into the European Economic Community—sharing this (now often maligned) distinction with Official Sinn Féin, Provisional Sinn Féin and the Labour Party.


No Caption Available

Boland’s attempts to attract prominent Fianna Fáil dissidents such as Neil Blaney (top) and Charles Haughey (bottom) to Aontacht Éireann proved fruit-less. (RTÉ Archives, Alamy)

The new party adopted a similar organisational approach to its Fianna Fáil progenitor. Boland became its first chairman, and was assisted by four vice-chairmen, including Kevin Blaney, brother of Neil, and Captain James Kelly, the former Irish military intelligence officer who, along with Charles Haughey, had been tried and acquitted on charges of attempting to illegally import arms in 1970. The officer board of the party included two honorary secretaries and two honorary treasurers. These positions were complemented by a ‘Committee of Twelve’, the composition of which was intended to represent various regions in which the new party hoped to generate immediate support.

The basic unit of the organisation was the local craobh or ‘branch’—a direct carry-over from the Fianna Fáil cumann structure. Each craobh would feed into ard-craobhanna at constituency level in a manner similar to Fianna Fáil’s comhairle dáil ceantair system. Aontacht Éireann differed from its parent party in not having an equivalent intermediary comhairle ceantair system. It would appear that the absence of such a tier was due to low membership figures, which, according to its former honorary secretary, never exceeded 1,500.

Given Aontacht Éireann’s hard-line irredentist perspective, it hoped to appeal to the latent militant nationalist element that Boland believed lay within the Fianna Fáil grass roots. Initially at least, however, it also attracted some who were just as likely to support the Provisional movement. Many speakers at the party’s first ard-fheis were vocal in their support for the Provisional IRA, with its chief-of-staff, Seán Mac Stiofáin, singled out for praise. An observer from the Irish Press noted:

‘A pro-Provisional line was followed by many speakers and it was clear that, apart from the different attitudes of the two parties to [the] recognition of Leinster House, there is little to distinguish Aontacht Éireann from Sinn Féin (Kevin Street) in relation to Northern policy’.

A similar conclusion was reached by a Belfast reporter:

‘It seemed to me, a Northerner, that the only difference between these people who cheered loudly at the words “Get [the] British out of Ireland” and the Kevin Street Sinn Féin was that this was a party with a representative in the [Leinster] House and without guns’.

When Boland was asked whether he supported the activities of the Provisional IRA, he stated that he supported ‘the Nationalist community, but that if the main group of people defending them in the North was the Provisionals, then that was the case’. Another prominent party figure, Seán Sherwin, confirmed that Aontacht Éireann and the Provisional movement were targeting a similar demographic:

‘Aontacht Éireann allowed people that wanted to leave Fianna Fáil but not join [Provisional] Sinn Féin to have somewhere in the middle, and it was almost like a holding exercise … Aontacht Éireann [saved] Fianna Fáil republican thinking people from going all the way to [Provisional] Sinn Féin because if they did [go], they would not come back to Fianna Fáil.’

Such affection as Aontacht Éireann displayed towards the Provisionals appeared to be unrequited, however. Following the party’s formation, an editorial in An Phoblacht, the southern voice of the Provisional movement, was scathing of Boland’s new venture. It warned the Irish people not to be fooled by this ‘new Free Staters’ party’, the objective of which was the establishment of an ‘extended Free State gombeen Republic’. Surprisingly, this harsh criticism did not disturb many in Aontacht Éireann. At intervals throughout the party’s existence members were reported as giving sympathetic voice—if not outright support—to the Provisional approach. Furthermore, according to one high-ranking member, there were some in the organisation who were known to have provided ‘material support’ to the Provisional IRA.


Boland’s attempts to attract prominent Fianna Fáil dissidents such as Neil Blaney and Charles Haughey to Aontacht Éireann proved fruitless. The party only ever held one seat in Dáil Éireann, that of Seán Sherwin, then a first-time TD from Dublin South-West. Sherwin, elected on a Fianna Fáil ticket in March 1970, made known his dissatisfaction with Lynch’s Northern policy on a number of occasions before opting to defect to Aontacht Éireann. The party was only marginally more successful at local level, occupying less than twelve county council or urban district council seats in various regions, most as a consequence of defections from Fianna Fáil.

For Fianna Fáil, Aontacht Éireann was never viewed as a serious electoral threat. In the words of one former minister they were ‘only a joke … public house republicans, all talk late at night after a few jars, singing rebel songs’. Nevertheless, as Sherwin observed, the party’s ultimate impact was not in its capacity to replace Fianna Fáil but in its ability to damage Fianna Fáil. The results of the 1973 general election appear to bear this out. In each of the twelve constituencies contested by the party, it was clear that votes were siphoned away from Fianna Fáil. One example of note was the five-seat constituency of Laois–Offaly, where, prior to the election, Fianna Fáil held three seats to Fine Gael’s two. In 1971, however, Thomas Dolan, one-time election manager for the Fianna Fáil candidate Ber Cowen (father of the former Taoiseach), defected to Aontacht Éireann. Dolan ran for the new party in 1973, and siphoned sufficient first-preference votes away from Cowen to allow Fine Gael to take the third seat.


Aside, however, from demonstrating a capacity to cost Fianna Fáil seats, the 1973 general election was disastrous for Aontacht Éireann. The loss by Sherwin of the party’s only Dáil seat and the dismal performance of Kevin Boland in his own constituency of Dublin South were particularly demoralising. Nevertheless, the party faithful, led by Boland, limped on, hoping that the Northern policy of the incoming ‘Free State’ Fine Gael/Labour administration might provoke the kind of upsurge in nationalist sentiment on which Aontacht Éireann could capitalise, but the ‘republican dawn’ never came. The organisation haemorrhaged members from 1973 onwards, and when Boland again failed to win a seat in the Dublin South-West by-election of June 1976 he finally bowed to the inevitable. At a special delegate conference later that month, he proposed that Aontacht Éireann should be dissolved, stating that:

‘No one who took part in the formation and subsequent development of this party has cause for regret. We tried, and whatever [the] outcome of the physical struggle [in the North], we know the cause will survive into future generations.’

Above: Seán Sherwin, Aontacht Éireann’s only TD. Originally elected for Fianna Fáil in a by-election in 1970 in Dublin South-West, he failed to be re-elected in the general election of 1973. (RTÉ Stills Library)

When the motion to dissolve the party was narrowly defeated, Boland, together with close supporters and senior party colleagues such as Sherwin and Captain James Kelly, resigned from the organisation. A Wicklow-based solicitor, Michael Fahey, was elected chairman in Boland’s stead and voiced his belief that the party remained viable. Such was not the case. The descent of Aontacht Éireann into obscurity after 1976 was such that even surviving founder members are unsure as to when their former party actually officially dissolved itself, if indeed it did so at all. In 1985, following futile attempts by the clerk of the Dáil to make contact with any party officers, it was finally struck from the Register of Political Parties. Considering the initial enthusiasm and sense of dynamism amongst its early members, this was a somewhat ignominious end for Aontacht Éireann, an organisation which founding members such as Seán Sherwin regarded as the one-time ‘conscience of Fianna Fáil’.

Séan Ó Duibhir is president of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, and lectures part-time at the Centre for Adult Learning and Professional Development at NUI, Galway.

Further reading
P. Maume, ‘Kevin Boland’, in Dictionary of Irish Biography (Cambridge, 2009 and 2018).
D. Ó Beacháin, Destiny of soldiers: Fianna Fáil, Irish republicanism and the IRA, 1926–1973 (Dublin, 2010).
C. O’Donnell, Fianna Fáil, Irish republicanism and the Northern Ireland Troubles, 1968–2005 (Dublin, 2007).




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