TV Eye: Aiken: gunman and statesman

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2007), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 15

Aiken: gunman and statesman
RTÉ 1, Tuesday 12 December, 10.15pm
Hidden Histories
Directed by Steve Carson
by Eamon O’Flaherty

RTÉ’s Hidden Histories series is currently concentrating on a ‘founding fathers’ theme, looking at the lives of major figures in the formation of the independent Irish state. The latest offering—focusing on Frank Aiken—illustrates some of the strengths of this essentially biographical approach to television history. Aiken has never been a charismatic figure, but his career involved an evolution from revolutionary to statesman that is typical of the founding generation of Irish politicians on both sides of the Civil War divide. In Aiken’s case this evolution was complicated by his Ulster origins.
Aiken, born in 1898, was, like many of his comrades, catapulted into revolutionary violence at a very young age. By 1922 he was commanding the fourth Northern division of the IRA at a time when the politics of North and South had already begun to diverge as a result of partition. As Harold O’Sullivan pointed out, the truce of July 1921 had much less meaning in the North, where sectarian and political violence increased in intensity while the rest of the country enjoyed an uneasy peace up to the middle of 1922. Aiken was in a pivotal position in the early months of 1922 as Collins and the provisional government of the Free State grappled with the problem of partition. By effective use of material from the

Aiken representing Ireland at the United Nations.(All images RTÉ Stills Library)

Aiken representing Ireland at the United Nations.
(All images RTÉ Stills Library)

military history archives, the film traced the complex and brutal events of this forgotten war and Aiken’s part in it. Aiken and other Northern IRA leaders attempted to forestall a civil war by mobilising the IRA against the fledgling Northern Ireland state, in which they were supported by Michael Collins. The film argued that a full-scale campaign against the Northern state was planned for 19 May 1922, and a series of attacks were carried out in mid- and west Ulster in accordance with this plan. For reasons that are not clear, Aiken’s division, centred in Armagh, Louth and Down, took no action. Within a month, however, Aiken’s division was involved in a reprisal killing in which six innocent Protestants were murdered in Altnaveigh, Co. Down, on the night of 17 June 1922. The massacre is still commemorated by a plaque in the village Orange Hall. Aiken tried to maintain a neutral stance between pro- and anti-Treaty forces even after the Civil War had begun, but after his arrest by the Free State army he was a leading figure in the anti-Treaty IRA, succeeding Liam Lynch as chief of staff. Despite his ruthlessness, Joe Lee suggested that Aiken’s heart wasn’t in the war. After ordering a ceasefire in 1923, he played an important part in rallying militant support behind de Valera’s leadership. This paved the way for a long and influential political career.

Frank Aiken (right, with pipe) with fellow IRA men in the early 1920s and (top right) as Fianna Fáil government minister.

Frank Aiken (right, with pipe) with fellow IRA men in the early 1920s and (top right) as Fianna Fáil government minister.

In archive interviews Aiken described his shift from revolutionary violence to gradualism as an almost seamless transition, although Seán McEntee recalled his handing out guns to members of Fianna Fáil when they took power in 1932. As minister for defence from 1932 Aiken, who had captured Dundalk Barracks from the National Army during the Civil War, successfully reconciled the army to the new government. By the 1940s he was a rigid defender of state security, managing a strict censorship and internal security regime and supporting the execution of IRA prisoners. Brian Girvin and others pointed out the irony of Aiken’s support for the decision to stay out of World War II despite Churchill’s offer of a possible end to partition. Caution and pragmatism were the victors here, given virtually unanimous support in the Dáil for neutrality and the fact that any change in Northern Ireland’s status would have to be by consent. Aiken was probably in a better position than most to realise how unlikely this would be.
Aiken was a central figure in successive Fianna Fáil governments throughout his career. In some ways he was an outstanding example of the economic ideals of de Valera’s Ireland. His farm in Sandyford, Co. Dublin, possessed a giant wind generator that he had designed himself and which is still standing, though the farm is now occupied by desirable suburban houses and apartments, called Aiken’s Village. Aiken also invented a ‘breathing shoe’ that was ingenious though impractical. Despite Aiken’s closeness to de Valera, it was Lemass who was appointed tánaiste, but Aiken dominated foreign affairs from the 1950s and it was here that he made his greatest impact.
In choosing to deal with all of Aiken’s career, Carson’s film captures very well the enormous transition from sectarian violence to international diplomacy that took place in little more than 30 years. In doing so, however, he leaves relatively little space for a full assessment of Aiken’s role in Irish foreign policy during the 1950s and 1960s, though all the historians agreed that he had given Ireland a role in international affairs far beyond its size. The breakthrough came with Ireland’s admission to the United Nations in 1955, but what was important here was that Aiken and the Irish government were able to choose a field of action that was commensurate with Ireland’s position as a small independent country at the height of the Cold War and the beginnings of decolonisation. The anti-partition campaigns of previous governments had had little or no effect on world opinion, and in any case it was impossible to raise the matter effectively at the UN, given that Northern Ireland was generally seen as an internal British matter. Instead, Aiken opted to use Ireland’s position to address a range of international questions, in which he showed himself to be capable of taking a stance independent of the Western powers. Most courageously, he spoke in favour of opening discussions on the admission of China to the UN despite intense American pressure, recalled by Conor Cruise O’Brien. As Michael Kennedy pointed out, even Cardinal Spellman could have little effect on someone who had been condemned by the church for his position in the Civil War. Aiken also spoke out against the invasion of Hungary and supported Algerian independence. He is perhaps most fondly remembered for initiating international action against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Almost everyone praises Aiken’s role in this period, but perhaps we need a longer film investigating why Ireland succeeded in carving out such a role in the unpromising conditions of the 1950s and just what has happened to this legacy.

Sharing a lighter moment with Éamon de Valera.

Sharing a lighter moment with Éamon de Valera.

Eamon O’Flaherty lectures in history at University College Dublin.

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