The defeat of Irish Republicanism, 1921-1927 – introduction

This is the introduction to section five of the thesis; section five contains three chapters, which I’ll be putting up over the next few days.


In this section I am dealing with events from the end of 1921, when the Treaty was signed, until 1927.  By this latter date the Free State had become well-established.  An indication of this is the change in political orientation by the largest group of republican dissidents.  At the time of the Treaty the Free State had been seen not only as a betrayal, but also a “flickering will-o’-the-wisp”.[1]  Republican opponents of the Treaty refused to take seats in Leinster House[2] even after they had lost the civil war.  But, by 1927, anti-Treaty Sinn Fein had split, with a majority supporting recognition of the Free State parliament and, in that year, taking seats in it even though this meant accepting a pledge of allegiance to the British monarch – one of the central arguments the republicans had used against acceptance of the Treaty in the first place.  The reduction of the largest body of republicans to the status of a loyal opposition within the confines of a state whose establishment they had supposedly fought a civil war to prevent, marked the resounding triumph of that state over its opponents.  The death of Markievicz that year, shortly before Fianna Fail (of which she was a founding leader and a TD) went into Leinster House, therefore coincides with the end of an era.  Her death, coming at the time of the acceptance of the Free State by the de Valera forces, marks the failure of republicanism in the era of revolutionary upsurge in Ireland and the end of that era itself.

In the following years, Fianna Fail moved into the centre ground of the Irish political spectrum and, by the time it assumed power in 1932, it was totally committed to the preservation of the very state whose birth the de Valera forces had attempted to prevent.  Since 1932, Fianna Fail has been the dominant party within that state, and been in government over two-thirds of the period between then and now.

I will show that the triumph of the Free State was the triumph of neo-colonialism over the struggle for national liberation.  The victory of the Free State was not inevitable, but was largely facilitated by the republicans themselves.  In the opening chapter, on the Treaty debates, I will show that the Treaty gave away the Irish independence and Republic for which republicans stood, and which they had partly established after the 1918 elections.  The manner in which the Treaty was signed was a violation of even normal bourgeois diplomacy, while the way it was subsequently passed in the Dail excluded from any say the very people who had fought the struggle.  In this chapter and chapter eleven, I will show how the republican leaders consistently refused to take the steps necessary to prevent the establishment of the Free State and to organise the social sectors – especially the working class and rural poor – who had the social power to defeat Britain and block the path of a neo-colonial settlement.  Conversely, the Free State forces could only establish themselves with the backing of Britain and through repression of their own former comrades.  Since it was established in the face of substantial opposition, repression was central to its operation.  All of the social forces which had emerged to challenge the old class, gender and political order – workers, rural poor and women – had to be put back in their place.

In chapter eleven I shall also deal with the way in which the establishment of this conservative and repressive state was facilitated by the leadership and official organisation of the workers’ movement, the ILPTUC.  The ILPTUC leaders accepted the neo-colonial state and entered Leinster House, acting as a loyal opposition.  Without such a loyal opposition it would have been extremely difficult for the Dail to present itself within Ireland or internationally as a legitimate parliament representing the interests and commanding the respect of the Irish people.  I will show how this policy, far from protecting workers’ interests, simply strengthened the state which, in the context of renewed recession, was attacking the working class, rural poor and women.

In chapter twelve I will look at some of the most important legislation and social policies pursued by the Free state during the years covered by this section and show how these disadvantaged workers, the rural poor and women.  In the case of women, for instance, the attacks were not only on the immediate economic level; the state was concerned with the question of the family as a core institution of Irish society and the existing social order.  Women’s role within the family and their confinement to the domestic sphere was seen, in the conservative social thinking of the Free State establishment, as essential to social stability.

The defeat of the struggle for the Republic, the defeat of Irish republicanism in this period, was thus  also a defeat for the working class, rural poor and women.  The new state, founded in a counter-revolution, backed by Britain, and with the old socio-economic system fully intact, moved quickly to put these social sectors back in their place and restore social stability.

[1] See, for instance, Constance Markievicz’s speech against the Treaty, Official Report, Debate on the Treaty Between Great Britain and Ireland, Dublin, Stationery Office, no date, p185.

[2] The Dublin parliament is commonly referred to both as the Dail and Leinster House.  While republicans have traditionally referred to it as Leinster House, since they regard it as a usurper parliament rather than the parliament of a genuine Irish Republic, I am using the terms Dail and Leinster House interchangeably and simply for the purpose of avoiding constant repetition of either term.


Posted on September 1, 2011, in Civil War period, Constance Markievicz, Historiography and historical texts, Republicanism post-1900, War for Independence period, Women. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The defeat of Irish Republicanism, 1921-1927 – introduction.

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