‘Communist fellow travellers and soft-headed liberals’

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2012), Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 20

Fine Gael leader Liam Cosgrave broke ranks with his party’s opposition and complained of the subversives ‘whinging about civil liberties when brought before the courts’, alleging that only ‘Communist fellow travellers and soft-headed liberals’ could oppose security measures. (Victor Patterson)

Fine Gael leader Liam Cosgrave broke ranks with his party’s opposition and complained of the subversives ‘whinging about civil liberties when brought before the courts’, alleging that only ‘Communist fellow travellers and soft-headed liberals’ could oppose security measures. (Victor Patterson)

Fianna Fáil expected to lose the vote on the Offences Against the State Act and were preparing to go to the country on a strong law-and-order platform. Ironically, this meant that Fine Gael could be attacked as being soft on the IRA. Fine Gael TDs knew that Fianna Fáil was likely to win a general election fought on this basis, and one admitted that ‘if it had gone to an election the Fine Gael parliamentary party could have come back here in a taxi’. The debate was marked by provocative rhetoric. Jack Lynch claimed that by opposing the bill the Labour Party ‘had identified themselves with the Provisional IRA’. Fine Gael leader Liam Cosgrave broke ranks with his party’s opposition and complained of the subversives ‘whinging about civil liberties when brought before the courts’, alleging that only ‘Communist fellow travellers and soft-headed liberals’ could oppose security measures. Fianna Fáil minister for social welfare, Joe Brennan, stated that ‘the only people who wanted to see this legislation defeated were the people who went on the streets [and] slung bottles at the police, and used tactics copied from other countries where mob-rule had to be stamped out by strong measures’. His party colleague Paddy Power claimed that ‘the only people who had reason to fear were members of illegal organisations and the subversive elements who wanted to undermine the institutions of this island’. In contrast, Labour’s David Thornley described the bill as ‘a piece of disgraceful, fascist, totalitarian leglisation which, if introduced by the Greek colonels, would be opposed by every delegate we sent to the Council of Europe’. His colleague Noel Browne accused the government of ‘black cynicism’ in using the ‘horror, agony [and] terrible deaths of fellow Irishmen and women in the North’ as an election issue. Tipperary Labour TD Seán Treacy claimed the bill was a ‘despicable sellout of our national interests’. The former Fianna Fáil minister Neil Blaney told a tense house that ‘I and a lot of others helped to bring, and encouraged to bring, into existence what are now condemned as the terrorists and gunmen of the Provisional IRA’.

 

The explosions were audible inside Leinster House and news of casualties soon reached deputies. While Fine Gael’s T.F. O’Higgins was on his feet, speaking against the bill, he was heckled by Fianna Fáil’s Noel Davern as to whether he supported ‘the two bombings in this city?’ O’Higgins replied by telling Davern not to be a ‘bloody ass’, while his colleague Gerry L’Estrange interjected that he ‘would not be surprised if some of you [Fianna Fáil] set them off’. An hour after the bombs exploded, Paddy Cooney of Fine Gael announced that his party would not oppose the second reading of the bill. Most Fine Gael TDs then abstained, with only 22 TDs voting against.

 

Afterwards the atmosphere in the Dáil bar was described by journalist Mary Holland as being ‘like a Kilburn pub on a Friday night’. A British journalist remarked to Holland that ‘if this is what they’re like when they’re mourning the dead, tell me what happens when they have something to celebrate’. Drunken Fianna Fáil TDs sang and shouted ‘Up the Republic’ as they celebrated victory. British observers were impressed by Lynch’s win but concluded that it showed that the Fianna Fáil party had no firm ideological convictions and would support any measure in order to retain power. Nevertheless, while there had been vocal public opposition to the measures, Lynch also received many letters from supporters, who assured him that the ‘silent majority’ across the country backed him. Observers had also been noting that public opinion had been growing more hostile towards republican activity in the South since the summer of 1972.

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