With Ireland hit by election fever this week Conor Campbell attempts to explain the political system in the Emerald Isle.
Historically the country’s two largest parties have been Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, however unlike the origin of Britain’s largest parties, the parties beginnings have little to do with class conflict.
At the 1917 October convention in Dublin, Eamon de Valera officially became the leader of Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican movement. Eamon de Valera had been born in America to an Irish mother and a Spanish/Cuban father; however when his father died with Eamon only 2 years old, his family moved back to Ireland. He was one of the leaders in the 1916 Rising and he had originally been sentenced to death, but it is believed that his status as an American citizen saved his life. At the time the British were trying to bring America into World War One. With De Valera now at the head of Sinn Fein they went on to win the next Westminster Election in Ireland in December of 1918. They took 73 of the 106 seats in Ireland although many of these seats had gone unopposed. It would also be unfair to credit de Valera with all this success as since the Rising joining Sinn Fein had become the ‘done thing’. Ireland was at this time in the grasp of the Catholic Church and when many young clergy men begin to show their support for Sinn Fein, instead of the IPP, it legitimised the party in the public’s eyes. In April of that year the British government, played into Sinn Feins hands by trying to introduce conscription, which allowed Sinn Fein to tap into the public feeling and merge that with their own image.
During this period of the amalgamation of the Irish rebellion groups many people who had not been part of Sinn Fein previously were now to become prominent members of the party. Michael Collins became one of those men. Originally a member of the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) he was opposed to using politics to win freedom, as he never trusted politicians and in turn Sinn Fein. However after the Rising he, like many others, infiltrated Sinn Fein and in the election of 1918 he won a seat for Cork South.
With Sinn Fein clearly the largest party in Ireland they began to act out Arthur Griffiths (the founder and third leader) 1905 blueprint and refused to accept Britain’s right to govern in Ireland. The newly elected representatives set up their own government in Dublin, declared independence for the whole of Ireland and acted as if they were the ruling parliament for Ireland, from then on to be called the Dail Eireann.
This declaration started the Irish War of Independence, or the Anglo-Irish War, depending on where you view it from. Unlike other Irish insurgence which usually consisted of the Irish rebels squaring directly off against their British counterparts, this was the first based largely upon guerrilla warfare. Collins had now taken the senior lead role in the IRB and directed many of the operation in the newly formed Irish Republican Army (IRA). The war raged on until July 1921 when a truce was called. Over the next couple of months a group of delegates from Ireland headed over to London to negotiate a treaty between the two countries. Despite Collins lack of negotiating experience he was sent along in the group, by de Valera who himself remained at home during this period. There are many arguments as to why this was. Some claim it was because the British knew little of Collins and would be unsure of how to handle him, where as those of a more cynical disposition believed that de Valera knew he would never be able to bring back a Republic to the people and did not want to be the one to arrive back a failure. Regardless of the reasons the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 meant that Ireland gained home rule status within the British Empire, however the Northern part of the country was allowed to opt out of the newly formed country and remain part of the United Kingdom if it chose to do so. Shortly after the signing, the leading Protestants in Ulster, with the help of the Boundary Commission, opted out of Ireland and formed Northern Ireland with 6 of the 9 counties of Ulster, omitting Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan; which on the whole contain an Irish Nationalist/Catholic majority.
The treaty not only spilt the country but it also split Sinn Fein. Although the separation of Ulster was a contribution, the distaste of having to pledge an oath to the English King became a major factor and it seemed to go against the arguments that many had used years before to oust Redmond (leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party) and had compromised the idea of a Republic. The party was faced with Pro-Treaty members such as Collins and Griffith on one side, and Anti-Treaty members led by De Valera on the other.
When the Pro Treaty party won the vote in the Dail, De Valera walked out with his followers. Shortly after in1922 the Pro-Treaty Sinn Fein won a general election and relationship between the two factions deteriorated to the point where civil war broke out. The pro-Treaty side changed its name in 1923 to become Cumann na nGaedhael and eventually would go to merge with two other parties to form what is now Fine Gael. From this point on Sinn Fein began to vanish as a political power as offices were closed down and meetings rarely took place. De Valera held on to the title ‘President of Sinn Fein’ but it was merely a tool to keep him in the public eye. Those who also continued to fly the flag were hard line republicans who refused to accept the governing powers of others in the country. In 1926 De Valera tired to convince his fellow Sinn Fein members that remained, that the party should enter the Dail, removing absenteeism from its policy, if there was no oath. The motion failed by 2 votes and after De Valera resigned from the party and went on to form Fine Gael’s main opponent to this day, Fianna Fail.