Defending Ireland: the Irish Free State and its Enemies since 1922, Eunan O’Halpin. (Oxford University Press, £25) ISBN 0198204264

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2000), Reviews, Volume 8

That Ireland escaped the familiar pattern of post-colonial military despotism is remarkable given that our political forebears emerged from a militant milieu. The transition from militancy to constitutional democracy is best examined in the context of the State’s attitude to violence.
Beginning with a refreshingly candid account of the civil war, Defending Ireland traces the history of the Irish state’s security policy since 1922. The success of W.T. Cosgrave’s government in establishing civilian control of the military and the normalisation of policing is rightly juxtaposed with the ‘grim precedent’ of state terrorism. Constitutionality triumphed over conspiracy as successive administrations adopted draconian measures to suppress internal subversion—militant republicans, erstwhile Communists and crypto-fascists found little sanctuary in de Valera’s Ireland.
The author details how the Department of Finance proved a wilier opponent than the Irregulars in frustrating the Irish Army. The force was ill-prepared for the Emergency, having been reduced to garrisoning an inherited military infrastructure, bereft of modern equipment and lacking political sponsorship. O’Halpin contrasts the inadequacies of the conventional army with the Herculean efforts of Col. Dan Bryan and the staff of Army Intelligence.
In dismissing the shibboleths of Irish neutrality the author examines the close co-operation between the Irish and British counter-espionage agencies. Beyond the rhetoric, a practise of ‘discreet understanding’ underlined acquiescence to Britain’s strategic concerns. Ireland’s role in the Cold War remained hostage to the ill-conceived notion of unarmed neutrality. Contributions to UN peace-keeping missions revived the stature and morale of the defence forces without necessarily increasing their capabilities. The author recounts the reaction of the Republic’s government to the crises in post-1969 Ireland as the resurrection of legislation and security policies of the 1930s. The absence of declassified material does not impede a succinct account of the threats which recent governments have faced.
The professionalism of individual officers and civil servants, rather than the existence of a coherent policy, determined the successful defence of state institutions. The extent to which Army-Dáil relations were based on a process of control by starvation is debatable, the author perhaps giving too much credit to those who supervised a regime of neglect through indifference.
The text lacks sufficient analysis of the formulation of security legislation—a central component of the state’s armoury. Though the author provides an enthusiastic treatment of espionage, particularly during the Second World War, a similar approach to the conventional army is required.
These caveats aside, O’Halpin has produced a well-researched and illuminating account of the complexities of the Irish state and its security. Drawing from numerous Irish and foreign archival sources this work serves as a stimulating and welcome addition to the growing volume of research in this area.

Alan Burke

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