Jason Knirck’s new book challenges the depiction of the 1920s as a period of political inertia in Ireland
Reposted from the IRISH TIMES
BY JASON KNIRCK, author of Afterimage of the Revolution: Cumann na nGaedheal and Irish Politics, 1922–1932
In March 1923, Ireland’s Cumann na nGaedheal government was criticised in the Dáil (Irish parliament) for allowing the military to seize cattle found trespassing on a landlord’s estate. TJ O’Connell of the opposition Labour party claimed it was hypocritical for the government to insist on strict enforcement when Sinn Féin had openly encouraged disrespect for the law during the revolution.
In response, vice-president Kevin O’Higgins denied that his party had preached anarchy and famously said, “we are the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution.”
This rather disingenuous statement has come to define Cumann na nGaedheal and the postrevolutionary period in Ireland, as historians often depict the 1920s as an era of stultifying conservatism and inertia. John Regan has even labelled the government counter-revolutionary, with its main goal being the creation of the Irish Party’s imagined Home Rule state.
The common notion is that the promise of the revolution faded in the 1920s as a conservative government replicated the institutions and ethos of its colonial predecessor. While the achievements of the revolution undoubtedly disappointed many, and were largely carried out in an atmosphere of social and cultural conservatism shared by much of the Sinn Féin leadership, recent research has increasingly questioned the depiction of Cumann na nGaedheal as counter-revolutionary or static.
The revolution and its emancipatory rhetoric cast a deep shadow over the following decade, as members of the government and their anti-Treaty opponents generally defended their policies by invoking revolutionary principles. Although most Treatyites understood the importance of the transition from active revolutionaries to government ministers, this shift did not necessitate a wholesale abandonment of revolutionary ideals.
Like any postrevolutionary government, Cumann na nGaedheal emphasised some aspects of the revolution while downplaying others. Notions of self-determination, anti-imperialism, and Irishness inherited from Sinn Féin became the key points around which Cumann na nGaedheal policies pivoted.
Taking a closer look at the Free State’s relationship with the British Empire is crucial in this regard. Despite constant criticism that the government was pro-British or pro-imperial, Cumann na Gaedheal consistently sought to protect and expand the state’s sovereignty against British threats.
The broadest strokes of this policy are well-known, culminating with the 1931 renunciation of the British parliament’s right to legislate for the Dominions, but the government’s support for Irish sovereignty went beyond these major initiatives.
Shortly before his assassination, for example, O’Higgins represented Ireland at a naval disarmament conference in Geneva. Although Ireland had no immediate interest in naval matters, O’Higgins attended in order to prevent Britain signing any agreement on behalf of the “British Empire,” an entity that he claimed had no legal existence.
The Irish government also earlier turned down a British offer to pay the expenses of Irish delegates travelling to London for the 1926 Imperial Conference, seeing this as an infringement on Irish independence. In this case, the desire to protect sovereignty even triumphed over the tightfistedness of the Department of Finance.
The government also invoked the other Dominions in protecting its sovereignty. Treatyites claimed that existing Dominions would be guarantors of Irish freedom, as any British interference with the Free State would implicitly threaten other Commonwealth members as well. This reimagined the British Commonwealth as an anti-imperial empire: a collection of sovereign states united against the metropole.
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