Eleventh Hour for the Irish Republican Army
Mr Cosgrave's 'Civil Powers Act', 1931, in addition to setting up a military tribunal with very wide powers, and conferring special powers of raid, arrest and detention on the police, placed under a ban practically all the republican and left-wing organisations in the Free State, they became illegal organisations, membership of which was an offence bringing the person concerned within the uncontrolled jurisdiction of the military tribunal. The 'Coercion Act' featured by government spokesmen as an attack on the 'Communistic tendencies' which clerical propaganda declared to be rife in the republican organisations, was really provoked by the enormous success with which the IRA had reorganised itself, and a number of incidents proving that agrarian discontent was widespread, intense and dangerously allied to republican politics.
The watchword of farmer discontent was the 'Down with Land Annuities' slogan, raised originally by Peadar O'Donnell, at the time connected with IRA headquarters. De Valera made this slogan the main plank in his election campaigning of 1933, and by his undertaking to abolish coercion secured the official support of the IRA, whose policy prevented it from putting forward independent candidates. The first act of the new government was to release the republican prisoners sentenced by the military tribunal. The Coercion Act was not removed from the Statute Book, but De Valera realised that trying to kill the IRA by coercion was like killing a dog by choking him with butter. He commenced a policy of annihilation by attrition.
The first step was the establishment of a new Volunteer Reserve Force. The Volunteers were given their own distinctive uniform, popularised as a 'republican' army; everything was done to establish the Reserve in public opinion as something completely different from the unpopular Free State army. Finally, Mr De Valera made a dramatic appeal to members of the IRA to join the new force which was just as republican and had the sanction of legality.
The Economic War and his extension of social legislation gave considerable weight to the appeal for a united front. Nevertheless, the new volunteer force did not seriously affect the numerical strength of the IRA.
Meanwhile the Coercion Act formulated by Mr Cosgrave had been invoked against his own followers. An ex-servicemen's organisation, the Army Comrades Association, fascists in outlook and methods, chiefly composed of men with unsavoury records and including in its ranks a number of drug attacks and other criminal types, was incorporated in the united front welded together by Mr Cosgrave; it formed the nucleus of the blueshirt organisation. The blueshirts were eventually banned, after their activities had approached the pitch of civil war. The activities of the blueshirts further strengthened De Valera's position as the leader of republican feeling.
Considerable changes had by this time been made or begun in the Free State constitution. Among them was the abolition of the Oath of Allegiance. From the beginning of its career the present government party took the attitude that so long as an oath of allegiance to the British King was a compulsory pre-condition of membership of the Free State parliament, republicans were being deprived of their right of participation in parliament. With its abolition this condition no longer obtained, and the IRA, it was repeatedly emphasised, had no longer any reason for standing apart from normal democratic political methods. By the early summer of last year the government was in a position to take active steps to break the IRA without running the risk of antagonising its own supporters. In April 1935 about 30 prominent republicans were arrested; before that, suppressions of the IRA organ, An Phoblacht, had been frequent, and this frequency increased until by the autumn of the year the paper was sent into temporary bankruptcy.
The record of the IRA leadership, in face of De Valera's brilliant politics, can only be described as a record of gross political cowardice and incompetence.
The 1932 election proved to the farsighted republicans that in practice the theory of abstention from politics confined the effectiveness of eth IRA machine to an influence from the left on the policy on Mr De Valera/s party. They urged that the IRA should act as an independent force and held that with its influence, it could, if it tried, convene a united front of all shades of republicans big enough to raise the republic as a practical political goal, clear of what they described as De Valera's 'judicial formulae'. This was the view of a small majority of the organisation, and a minority of the leadership. After the vote of the leadership had succeeded in defeating the proposal for a republican conference, members of the IRA supporting the idea formed a separate political organisation, the Republican Congress, to organise a united front. They were attacked as 'tired revolutionaries', supporters of the Free State, Communists and enemies of religion, among other things, and expelled from the IRA. That was the first stage of the decline.
In the long run the Republican Congress Movement, opposed both from the government side and the IRA side and supported only by a small number of trade unions and the Communist Party, proved unable to accomplish the task it had set itself.
The government attacks on the IRA launched shortly after wards, raised a new crisis inside that organisation. The IRA leaders debated whether they should support the Labour Party, resuscitate the practically defunct Sinn Fein abstentionist party - or form a new party. Eventually they did what, before, they had wrongly accused the Congress republicans of doing - formed a political party, Cumann Phoblacht na h-Eireann.
Its formation consummated the process of disintegration. What was left of the Dublin IRA organisation, once a powerful contingent, revolted against this entry into 'politics'. Throughout the country the strength of the army rapidly weakened.
A Free State general election will be held next summer. It will be contested, on an abstractionist [abstentionist?] basis, by the new republican party. The leaders of the new party claim that the p[resent determined attack on republicanism is directed to disorganising the new party in view of the election.
The fact remains, however, that, on the eve of an election, De Valera feels able, with safety, to operate the Coercion Act, enforce the ban on the IRA, repeatedly suppress its organ, arrest its leaders and sentence them to long periods of imprisonment.
The explanation of this, in the long run, is the failure of the IRA over the last three years to win an independent mass backing and to free its politics from the limitations of a fanatical militarism which has isolated it from a population essentially in sympathy with its objects. A more immediate cause is the political terrorism, recent instances of which are the ostensible reasons for the arrests and other actions against the IRA. The IRA have on several occasions emphasised that the arrests have no connection with the shootings, and at all events, it is certain that IRA headquarters had no connection with the shootings. These unfortunate occurrences, outbursts of political neurosis due to the abuse of real healthy political activity, have, however, done much to make possible the attack on the organisation.
The banning of the Bodenstown commemoration ceremony indicates a really bad position. Bodenstown cemetery, in County Kildare, is the burial place of Wolfe Tone who planned with the French Revolutionary Directorates for the establishment of an Irish republic, and whose efforts were finally defeated in 1798. Wolfe Tone is recognised by all sections as the founder of the national movement, and Mr De Valera's own party holds a commemoration at Bodenstown on the Sunday succeeding the IRA ceremony. The banning of the demonstration indicates the determination of the government to stand by the letter of the law making the IRA illegal; in other words, a determination to smash the IRA once and for all. We must conclude that De Valera believes he can do so without seriously endangering his prospects at the coming election.
This calculation will almost certainly prove correct if the form of opposition taken at the election is that of a republican abstentionist party. It is the nemesis of the purely militaristic policy so long and stubbornly pursued by the IRA leadership, that even its own members, not to mention casual supporters, are far from clear as to the differences of policy between that organisation and the government party. It is doubtful, indeed, whether many of the leaders themselves have any clear conceptions, except as to methods.
De Valera is at present elaborating a proposed new constitution for the Free State, on which he will take his stand in the election. The new party intends to fight on a republican ticket; members returned will not enter the Free State Dáil, but will meet as a separate Assembly. Under no shape or form, and in none of its ramifications, must the Free State be 'recognised'. It is possible, though not very likely at a time when important social issues are forcing themselves on the people, that after a long period a greater number of candidates would be returned 'outside' than 'inside' the Free State assembly, republicans in the meantime enjoying the advantages of government completely free from their control. Long before such an event, however, the IRA would have ceased to exist.
It remains to be seen whether, at this eleventh hour, the leaders of the IRA will put their hands to the work of creating a labour republican people's front making effective the opposition to coercion which otherwise will reach no further than small-town grumbles. One thing is certain, that if those who are backing the abstentionist party venture, made the attempt many of the government party branches and labour parties could be brought behind a republican programme, linked with popular economic reforms. Coupled with the numerous republican sections, these would form a serious challenge to the government in the election.