The Irish Times is reporting this morning that Fianna Fáil might be set to vote on the prospect of coalition with Fine Gael at their upcoming Ard Fheis. Though Fine Gael is, to borrow the expression used by the newspaper, ‘the old enemy’, the notion of an alliance between the two is not unheard of. Nor is it a somewhat recent development — a response to the rise of Sinn Féin, for example. In fact, calls for an alliance, which in some cases went as far as to suggest that the political bifurcation of the old Sinn Féin party that occurred with the Civil War be reversed, came as early as four years after the end of the Civil War.
** Disclaimer ** this post is taken from a previous post on this blog.
By 1927, although few people would still have thought of the party in those terms, the Sinn Féin split had entered its fifth year. During and after the campaign for the general election of September that year, there was much discussion about the possibility of the old Sinn Féin party re-uniting. The envisioned reunion took two forms: either the Irish-Ireland elements of the two parties would come together to form a new organisation, or Fianna Fáil and Cumann na nGaedheal — Fine Gael’s earlier incarnation — would merge.
The Midland Tribune, Leitrim Observer, Evening Herald, Nationalist and Leinster Times and The Leader were among those newspapers advocating the reunification of Fianna Fáil and Cumann na nGaedheal. In contrast, journalists at the Kerry Reporter insisted, with good reason, that there was little hope of reconciliation. Attempts had been made to fuse Sinn Féin with the pact election in 1922. They failed and the Sinn Féin split, in the words of Tom Garvin, marked not just a parting of the ways but also ‘a moral collapse, the destruction of a great solidarity which would never be re-built’.
Though the majority are likely to have been indifferent, elements of the general public, exasperated by political squabbles, may have welcomed the move. A cartoon found in one of the Dublin North ballot boxes depicted Eamon de Valera working in tandem with W.T. Cosgrave and carried the caption ‘this is what we want’. It is perhaps understandable that reunification, despite the Civil War, was considered an option because until 1921/22, Irish society had endorsed the idea of a single nationalist party (the Irish Parliamentary Party had been routed at the 1918 general election). The initiative for conciliation had its roots in Cork. It was there that W.T. Cosgrave, the Cumann na nGaedheal leader, explained that he was ‘anxious for peace, anxious for reconciliation’, and where he outlined the conditions for such reconciliation:
voluntary submission to the will of the people. The balancing of the national budget. A single, disciplined army, subject to the control of parliament. An efficient police force. The collection of all arms in the possession of persons not authorised by the state. An independent judiciary. Entrance by merit to the civil service. No truce with crime of any sort. Peace at home and abroad. The fulfillment of all pledges, national and international.
In order to reverse the old Sinn Féin split, certain obvious stumbling blocks had to be overcome. The clear policy differences were highlighted during the campaign for the September election. In Castleblaney, Ernest Blythe had declared,
If I could turn the Free State into a republic tomorrow, I would not lift a finger to do it, and, what is more, I would work with all my might against it. We have all we want and all the powers and liberties that we want for the up-building of this country.
In contrast, Fianna Fáil’s Eamonn Donnelly was reported as having said, ‘I frankly admit I am out to smash the Treaty’. Reunification was certainly not in Tom Mullins’s vocabulary when he spoke at a Fianna Fáil meeting in West Cork. He declared of Cumann na nGaedheal, ‘we are going to smash them — or they are going to wipe us out’. Such comments, however, must be read with caution as they were made in the heat of an election campaign.
An article in the Midland Tribune declared that de Valera was the major barrier stopping reunification, although also noted that ‘there was not the remotest possibility that Fianna Fáil will throw out the leadership of Mr de Valera’. Even if Fianna Fáil had been willing to make such an immense sacrifice for the sake of a reunion, Cosgrave would not have been acceptable, especially to de Valera, as head. When the Second World War occurred, a national government, not unlike those that were generally formed in Europe at the time, was suggested. De Valera rejected the proposal, thus declining an opportunity that might have helped ease any bitterness. It did not help, of course, that Cosgrave was still leader of Fine Gael. The Leader, in contrast, considered de Valera’s leadership and the loyalty it inspired as having the potential to bring about reunification: just as his supporters had followed him to the Dáil in August 1927, despite his earlier insistence that he would never take the Oath, ‘if tomorrow the leaders patched it up, the rank and file would patch it up and form a procession’.
Some conciliatory speeches, responding to Cosgrave’s Cork speech, were made. The most important came from Seán Lemass who declared,
I don’t know what spirit moved him [Cosgrave] to speak these words but those words speak the policy of Fianna Fáil. We are prepared to forgive – though it may be difficult to forget – and to make the will of the people prevail and be supreme and to work out a peaceful alteration of the Treaty. If he wants a political truce with Fianna Fáil he can have it tomorrow. We can make a condition also, and that condition is that all repressive legislation shall cease and that there are no artificial barriers placed in the patriot’s path.
Similarly, Frank Fahy explained in Loughrea how ‘they were willing to forget and forgive everything said or done against them in the last six years’. But he subsequently announced, ‘we are not going to swallow Cumann na nGaedheal principles. They have to accommodate themselves to ours if they want that unity’.
What this last statement clearly shows what that, although elements of both sides were speaking in conciliatory tones, it was patently obvious that each party was only willing to consider reconciliation primarily on their own terms. It’s hard to see how a coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael after the next election would be any different.
My history of Cumann na nGaedheal, which looks at the development of the party, was published by the Royal Irish Academy in 2010.