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Facing both ways

(January 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 171, January 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow
Tim Pat Coogan
Hutchinson £20

Of all the figures to emerge from the Irish revolutionary nationalist movement in the first decades of this century none was to have a more profound impact on Irish society than Eamon de Valera.

He sprang to prominence in the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. He was the last IRA commander to surrender to the British, he was the only one of the commanders to escape execution, and he was the figurehead of the movement that fought against the British in the years 1918 to 1921.

Following the treaty which brought that phase of the struggle to an end, de Valera became leader of the anti-treaty Republican forces in the Irish Civil War. His defeat at the hands of the pro-treaty forces seemed to leave him in a political wilderness. Jailed a number of times by the British, he now found himself imprisoned by his erstwhile comrades.

Yet de Valera was far from finished. Released from prison in 1924, within two years he had broken from the IRA to form a new ‘slightly constitutional’ party Fianna Fail.

Within five-years his party was in power and he was Taoiseach (prime minister), his slightly constitutional party was well on its way to becoming the main party of the Irish capitalist class.

For 21 of the next 27 years he would hold the position of Taoiseach, and was then elected president for a further 14 years, before retiring from public life two years before his death in 1973.

His period in power was marked by a series of contradictions. His party Fianna Fail was presented as a party beyond classes, a party which could be trusted by worker and boss alike. Its very successful populism was all the more surprising given the profoundly conservative and reactionary nature of its governments.

His party wrapped the green flag round itself with gusto, playing on the Republican roots and its leader’s heroic past, whilst at the same time dealing with the IRA with the utmost severity.

Dev claimed that his whole life was devoted to ending the partition of the country, yet at the same time he introduced a Southern constitution that gave unprecedented power and privilege to the Catholic Church. This could certainly do nothing to entice the Protestants of the North.

Although frequently preaching the value of the simple life, both he and the class he represented enriched themselves, whilst tens of thousands of the population were forced to flee unemployment and poverty on the emigrant boats.

All of this has left de Valera one of the most controversial figures of Irish politics. For the generations that grew up in his era he was usually regarded as either saint or devil. There is little doubting which camp Tim Pat Coogan falls into. He clearly has little time for his subject, and has exposed every last wart on the de Valera countenance.

Coogan is a leading Irish journalist and writer, former editor of Ireland’s biggest national daily paper the Sunday Press. This book follows on from his biography of the other major Republican leader of these years, Michael Collins, who did a deal with the British in 1921, and led the pro-treaty forces against de Valera’s Republicans in the civil war.

Coogan is clearly an admirer of Collins, who continually is contrasted favourably with de Valera. Herein lies the main problem with this book. Regardless of whether Collins was (as Coogan argues) a nicer, braver, more talented, more honest and less self seeking man than de Valera, the fact remains that he did a deal with the British which brought into being the rotten Northern Irish state.

He accepted British weaponry and followed British bidding to crush the Republicans. In doing so he aligned himself not just with the British, but with the most reactionary sections of Irish society. Some of his followers of that time would later create the Blue Shirts, the Irish fascist movement. He did this deal at a time when the British were cornered and knew that their centuries’ old oppression of Ireland was coming to an end.

Irish society was in a state of revolutionary turmoil. Sinn Fein, on a policy of a complete break from Britain and support for armed struggle, had won a huge election victory in 1918. The attempts to crush that struggle through a British terrorist mercenary force had failed despite dreadful atrocities, and the Irish working class was growing in strength and confidence, as a series of major strikes and occupations swept the country.

The British, however, played the Orange card, allowing the Loyalists in the North to arm and drill, and said that they could not possibly allow Ireland to be united. Collins and his supporters bowed to the pressure of British bluffs and threats.

Coogan is right to accuse de Valera of fighting a civil war on questions of principle which he later abandoned. Having sworn that he would never enter the Irish parliament because it meant taking an oath of allegiance to the king, he promptly did so. Having sworn he would never accept partition he in reality did so. Having argued that as long as partition existed it was legitimate to wage armed struggle, he promptly turned round and viciously crushed those who took him at his word.

To accuse him of betrayal is one thing, but to argue that he was wrong to wage the struggle in the first place is quite another. It is in this accusation that Coogan’s book falls down.

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