Micheál Martin on the ‘Civil War’

The Fianna Fáil leader made a speech at a Civil War Conference at Cork University on June 15th, 2022.  The following is the gist of it:

More than any other event marked during the past decade of commemorations, our public discourse is very clear about what it sees as the core narrative of events and themes of the civil war.  Within this, it has effectively been reduced to a handful of elite decisions and has been presented as having a fixed impact on politics.

“Unlike popular engagement with the history of the tumultuous decades before 1922, there has been little or no change in the public understanding of the civil war.  We are the poorer for this.

“During the War of Independence, people who had come from many different traditions had ultimately formed a highly united campaign for independence.  After the Treaty there were many different emotions and perspectives which motivated people.  Passionate and sincere debates continued over a wide spectrum of views and actions.  At no point in the following year and a half could it be said that the country was divided neatly into two separate groups.

“There were near constant efforts to reconcile different opponents—and in contrast there were also many efforts to further radicalise actions.

“It did not have a single cause or a pre-determined progress.  Its protagonists were not all defined by a fixed will and rigidity.  It cannot be understood by reference to the actions of a handful of individuals…

The narrative of events which Micheál Martin rejects was that the great majority of the people were united in the campaign for independence, that Britain broke this unity by offering partial independence along with the threat of all-out Imperial reconquest if the offer was not accepted, that a bare majority in the Dáil accepted the offer for fear of the threat, that that majority set up a Provisional Government on British authority for the implementation of the ‘Treaty’, that the Provisional Government, finding strong opposition in the country to the ‘Treaty’ requirement of taking an Oath to the Crown, tried to formulate a Free State Constitution that was Republican in spirit without rejecting the ‘Treaty’, that the Provisional Government made an election Pact with anti-Treaty Sinn Féin with a view to forming a Coalition Government, and that Britain rejected both of these measures, and demanded that the Provisional Government take action against a group of Republican leaders who had occupied the Four Courts or else the British Army would do so.

The Facts

The ‘Treaty’ had been signed under a British threat of war, and so was the ‘Civil War’.

The Crown was only an issue in Irish national politics because the British Empire made it so. 

The Civil War did have a single cause:  British Government policy.

Between the ‘Treaty’ and the bombardment of the Four Courts there were “passionate and sincere debates”.  These debates did not prevent war, neither did they cause it.  They were irrelevant to the War.  And the War, once it started, did divide the country in two.

There were many who stood aside from it, or tried to, but the course of events was determined by those who participated in it, as was the course of events subsequent to it.

“It cannot be understood by reference to the actions of a handful of individuals”!

It was a handful of individuals in Whitehall who gave the ultimatum to Collins.  And it was Collins (who appears to have had no equal in the Provisional Government) who decided to pre-empt a British attempt at reconquest by making war on the Four Courts Republicans who had so recently been his allies in his futile act of war against Northern Ireland.

Democracy has not made the activity of “elites” redundant.  Liberal democracy—the only kind that is now considered democratic—is largely an affair of elites.  Democracy as egalitarian activity of the general populace only ever existed in pioneer populations in America who were filling out territories cleared of natives by the genocide.  Many traces of it still survive there.  But, on the whole, actual democracy is not government of the people, for the people, by the people, but government of the people by elite institutions designed to achieve their consent.

This was made very clear when Donald Trump broke the unspoken elite consensus and brought the “deplorables” out to vote.

The populace, of course, has a part to play in the democratic system of government.  That part is to give its consent to decisions effectively made by minorities.  It is enabled to do this by expressing its preference, by voting at elections, for one rather than another of a small number of parties which offer to govern the state on its behalf.

What we call “democracy” is government of the state by a party chosen by the populace to act for it.

Political parties are minority institutions.  The membership of all of them put together is a small fraction of the electorate.  But the small party organisation which wins a majority of Parliamentary seats, in an election in which all adults have a vote, governs the entire electorate for a period of years.

That system of representative government by a small, tightly organised, minority which acts for the whole, and makes laws which all are obliged to obey—either by the moral force of custom or the material force of police—is the form of democracy that was made effective in comparatively recent times, in the United States at first and later by Britain.

Rousseau, who is usually seen as one of the prophets of democracy, denied that representative government is democratic at all.  But Rousseau was Swiss, and Switzerland is a country of Cantons and Half-Cantons and Communes in which “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, actually existed, and in which powers of government were gradually relinquished upwards from the sovereign base to a central authority.  However, the duty of universal military service, with citizen soldiers keeping their weapons at home, indicates that a substantial democratic tradition still survives in this small state.

In the British system, by contrast, all authority is devolved downwards from the central State.  When Rosa Luxemburg investigated Local Government in England, she concluded that it did not exist.  All that existed was various arrangements of State authority.  She was accustomed to Germany, where national government was established in 1871 by a coming together of many small sovereign kingdoms which continued to exercise considerable local authority within the national state.

Rousseau’s dismissal of representative government as a form of democracy was itself dismissed as elected representative Governments came to dominate the world.  But surely the concern about Populism which is now widely expressed puts it back in question.

Representative government puts the populace in second place.  But, if the handling of the populace by the consensus of elites become so grossly dismissive that the populace feels affronted—as it was by Hillary Clinton’s ‘deplorables’ remarks—representative government has a problem.

A well-conducted system of representative government by elites with the consent of the governed disables the masses. They can have no complaint about their condition because the Government was elected by them, and each of them was free to form a Party and contest elections if he was dissatisfied with the status quo.

It is also a system of irresponsibility!  When Tony Blair was resigning from active politics, he passed on his insights in a number of radio interviews.  One of them was that a political Leader must be able to dissociate himself from the consequences of his actions and move on—as he did after destroying the functional Baath State in Iraq and stirring religious conflict in the populace (which still continues).  His pretext for War was shown to be groundless by the time of the subsequent Election, and had been rejected in huge popular demonstrations—nevertheless Blair won it.    The electorate was concerned about other things than the purely destructive war which its democratically-elected representatives had fought.

The Prime Minister was not accountable for what he did.  Neither was the democratic electorate that elected him.

Hilary Benn, a member of Blair’s Government, explained that Britain had given Iraq its freedom by destroying Saddam’s regime, and that it was entirely up to the people of Iraq what they did with their freedom.  What they did with their freedom was called Terrorism, and war was declared on that too.  But the Anglo-American War on Terror was in effect only a contribution to the Terrorist anarchy which the Anglo-American destruction of the Iraqi State had caused.

Lloyd George threatenedimmediate and terrible war on nationalist Ireland if the delegates of the elected Dáil—which he did not recognise—did not immediately sign the ‘Treaty’ which he gave them without consulting their Government.  That ‘Treaty’ committed them to forming a British-authorised Government under the Crown in opposition to the elected Dáil Government.  The Irish delegates did not even challenge the British ultimatum to the extent of communicating it to their Government and seeking permission to sign it.

The effect of their surrender to the ultimatum was to split the Irish Government, split the Dáil, and split the Irish Volunteer army whose action in defence of the elected republican Government had obliged Britain to negotiate.

It might be that the decision of the delegates to submit to the British ultimatum was sensible, but judging it to have been sensible does not alter the factual detail of it, or the consequences.

The decision of the delegates to submit to the British Government, in opposition to their instructions from the Government that appointed them, subverted the elected Irish Government and alienated the Army which had sworn allegiance to it.

Fifty-one per cent of the Dáil met under Crown authority as the Parliament of Southern Ireland, under a British Act of Parliament which the Dáil had rejected a few months earlier, and appointed a Provisional Government which Britain financed and armed.

The Dáil was not the Parliamentary basis of the Provisional Government.  Effective authority, in the sense of power, was transferred from the Dáil Government to the Provisional Government. 

The Irish Army owed no allegiance to the Provisional Government.  Its allegiance was to the Dáil Government, and it was left without allegiance when the Dáil acknowledged that it had transferred effective power to the Provisional Government.

The Provisional Government, while building itself up as a power base with British assistance, tried to sow confusion around what had had happened and to remake itself back into republican mode.  It said Britain had given it freedom to achieve freedom.  But Britain had never said any such thing.  The British view was that any country subject to itself was free by virtue of that fact, and that demanding a greater measure of ‘freedom’ would be mere vanity.  It kept a close eye on its Provisional Government in Ireland, and brought it to heel when it seemed to be getting out of hand, forcing it to make war on Republicans.  That was the ‘Civil War’.

It has been advertised that the leaders of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will, this year, do jointly whatever it is that is done annually at Béal na Blá.  Collins, who gave the order to start the ‘Civil War’, was killed there while Commander in Chief of the Army of the Provisional Government.  When his convoy was ambushed, he gave the order to stop and fight instead of driving through.

Taoiseach Martin writes about ‘state formation’ in 1922.  A State was certainly destroyed in 1922.  Collins destroyed it.  If a State was also being formed, in place of the State that was being destroyed, he was central to the doing of it.  He was the Man of Destiny, destroyer and creator.

There is little doubt that that was his idea of himself.  But at Béal na Blá he let himself down.  He stopped his convoy in order to exchange a few meaningless shots with a desultory company of ambushers—the only shots he ever fired, it is aid.  He had come to be seen as a nuisance by most of the members of the Government he had formed—always looking for a way to escape from the corner into which he had boxed himself by taking it upon himself to sign the ‘Treaty’, and then to shell the Four Courts.  The Government just wanted to get on with doing the business they had signed up for. They did not have any official inquiry into his death, no inquest, no death certificate was issued and the autopsy report by the very eminent Free Stater, Oliver St Gogarty, is missing.

There is certainly a way of undoing the Civil War:  agreeing that it was a war fought for a British purpose between two Irish parties who had no difference with one another over the kind of state they wanted.

The kind of state they wanted was the kind of state they had constructed between 1919 and 1921.

It was not the case that some of those who had taken part in constructing the Republican State came to feel that there was something inadequate in a state without a Crown, and that they went into rebellion against the Republic for the purpose of putting a Crown on it!

No demand for a Crown had arisen within the elite that took command of affairs in January 1919.  If a Crown had been available it would probably have been acceptable.  What was not acceptable was the British Crown, and the British Crown was the only Crown that survived British victory in the Great War.  Britain destroyed rival Crowns and established republics in place of them.  But it would not let go of Ireland unless Ireland rejected the republicanism which it had chosen and aligned itself with the British Crown.

Micheál Martin published a book called Freedom To Choose.  It is a suggestive title.  But what it suggests was not the case.  The ‘Treaty’ did not give Ireland ‘freedom to choose’, and in that freedom it did not fight a civil war over whether it was to have a republic or a monarchy.

And the text of the book does not say that it did!  The title is a kind of ejaculation—a fragment of a sentence expressive of a sentiment.  But it is possible for a book to be best known by its cover.  And Martin’s book has a carefully-chosen cover.  And, while it has some interesting things in it, they have nothing to do with the title.

The signing of the ‘Treaty’, a major event, is barely mentioned:  “The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6 December 1921 provoked an immediate cabinet crisis” (p51). The ‘Treaty’ was signed by delegates appointed by the Cabinet, acting under Cabinet instructions.  Why then should the signing of a document by them provoke a crisis in the Cabinet?

Because their instructions were that they should not sign any British document without Cabinet approval.  But they signed without consulting the Cabinet because the British Government threatened to launch an immediate and terrible war on nationalist Ireland if they delayed.

The British Prime Minister, who never recognised them as representatives of an Irish Government, held them personally responsible for the war he would launch if they did not sign his document at once, and they signed.  Their actions split the Government, the Dáil, and the country.

Six months later an Election was held under the terms of the ‘Treaty’, as part of the process to establish a new governing system in place of the Dáil Government.  Griffith, President of the Dáil wanted it to be held strictly as a ratification of the ‘Treaty’, but Collins, as Chairman of the Provisional Government, made an agreement with the leader of the opponents of the ‘Treaty’ that they should contest it as a Dáil Election and fight it as a joint programme with the object of forming a Treaty/Anti-Treaty Coalition in the new Dáil. Griffith, who was helpless without Collins, was obliged to call the Election on the terms agreed by Collins and De Valera.

Whitehall condemned the Election Pact, declaring it to be undemocratic, even though it was similar to the British Unionist-Liberal election pact of the 1918 Election.  It was also declared to be illegal because it was a breach of the ‘Treaty.’  Collins and Griffith were summoned to Whitehall and browbeaten.  Collins made an equivocal statement upon his return on the day before the Election, but the Pact was not revoked.  Coalition Government remained on the agenda for the Third Dáil, with representatives of the Labour Party and the Farmers’ Party as an Opposition.

But the Third Dáil never met.  The Pact was broken after the Election, when Whitehall hustled the country into the ‘Civil War’.  The War was launched by Collins, as Chairman of the Provisional Government, under pressure of a threat that, if he did not make war on the Republicans, the British Army would. This turn of events is barely mentioned in Martin’s book:

By the end of June 1922, however, electoral politics seemed of little consequence, as Ireland became embroiled in a bitter civil war.  Many of the anti-Treaty IRA forces had taken matters into their own hands by taking over various barracks and buildings in the country, most notably the Four Courts in Dublin.  The decision by the Provisional Government to retake the Four Courts on 28 June 1922 is generally regarded as the beginning of the Civil War…  Many brutal atrocities were committed on both sides…”  (p75).

The fact that both the signing of the ‘Treaty’ and the shelling of the Four Courts had the purpose of warding off a British re-conquest is not mentioned.

Nor is the fact that the Irish Army, commissioned as the Army of the Republic, was left as a loose end when the Provisional Government, acting on the authority of the Crown, took over from the Dáil Government.

The effective instrument of the independence movement which obliged Britain to negotiate was not voting but shooting.

The British Government gave actual recognition to the existence of the IRA by negotiating a Truce with it.  In doing so, it did not recognise it as the Army of the Dáil Government.  It never recognised the Dáil Government.  It certainly did not make a ‘Treaty’ with the Dáil


Its purpose in the ‘Treaty’ was to set up another Government in place of the Dáil Government and make an agreement with it.

The Treatyites—by signing up on their own behalf, and persuading a small majority of Dáil members to meet as the Parliament of Southern Ireland, and receive power from Britain as the Provisional Government, and set up a new Army supplied by Britain—took the game into their own hands.  But, in doing so, they left the Irish Army as a loose end.  That was not a wise thing to do with an Army—especially an Army that had been the effective instrument of the movement.

The Army Executive did no more than recognise that it was an Army whose civil authority had deserted it and left it independent.  And it did that three or four months before the ‘Civil War’.


So much for Micheál Martin’s thoughtful book, written in the days of John A. Murphy and Eoghan Harris.  Now we come to his speech—written under pressure of the rise of the modern Sinn Féin, and possibly the collapse of his own party.

There is every reason to believe that the war itself could have been avoided, and I believe that the tragedy of the first six months of 1922 was that the key figures in Dublin were never allowed to find a shared route forward.  Constant interference and inflexibility from London was central to the fact that nothing came of these efforts.  The implied and open threats made to the Provisional Government directly escalated division—and reinforced the views of those who questioned the good faith in London.

“The insistence that an electoral pact would abridge the Treaty had no legitimate basis—and the constant effort to force confrontation did great damage.

“It is very striking that the only offer of assistance made by the departing power to a new government facing enormous hurdles related to weapons and ammunition.

“If it is true that Irish divisions arose from an outsized focus on the impact of the crown and empire on Irish self-determination, then it must also be understood that it was London’s inflexible insistence on its interpretation of these provisions which gave them their importance.

“How different could things have been if Collins’s draft Constitution had been supported rather than vetoed in London…`’

A couple of hundred words, uttered with great daring in the middle of a speech of a few thousand, with a denunciation of Putin thrown in as a counterweight, brings the leader of Fianna Fáil to the fringes of the ground on which the Fianna Fáil party made itself.  And these words are more the cry of pain of a disillusioned Anglophile than anything else.

And how does British “good faith” come into question?  Britain, as always, acted out of State interest, which means Imperial interest.  It had always said that Irish independence was not negotiable.  It did not recognise the Dáil Government in 1919, and did not negotiate a ‘Treaty’ with it in 1921.  What it did was to persuade the Dual Monarchist founder of Sinn Féin [Arthur Griffith] and the Head Centre of the Irish Republican Brotherhood [Michael Collins] to draw a number of TDs from the Dáil to meet as MPs of the Parliament of Southern Ireland and appoint a Government under the Crown.  It then saw to it that its new Crown Government in Ireland held to the terms of its appointment.  If Lord Birkenhead had said something different to Collins over a whiskey that was not its concern.

De Valera did not deceive himself or anybody else about the British State.  At the meeting of the 2nd Dáil in August 1921, he accepted nomination as President only on the understanding he would be head of government with wide powers of discretion, and that the Dáil was in earnest about itself, and that it would abide by decisions it made even at the risk of war.

He prepared the ground for a confrontation with Britain on the issue of the Crown.  He had devised a way of recognising the Crown as the symbolic head of an association of states called the Commonwealth, but not of the Irish State.  He had persuaded Brugha and Stack in the Government to accept the Crown in this form.  If Britain preferred to declare war rather than accept it, so be it. 

If Britain accepted it, the Government had authority over the Army both in constitutional form and by means of Army representation.

There might still have been dissent in the Army on the issue but it would have been different in kind and degree from the state of affairs brought about by Collins and Griffith when, without preparation of any kind, they usurped the authority of the Government by signing the ‘Treaty’ as free agents—Plenipotentiaries—and took matters into their own hands, and allowed themselves to be directed towards ‘Civil War’ by the British authority to which they had pledged themselves.

Micheál Martin has a long way to go yet before he becomes a Fianna Fáiler.


Meanwhile, what is the point of comments like this:  “After 1923 no party contesting an Irish election while advocating armed conflict won more than 4% of the vote”?  When was there ever an election held on the question of whether the party that won it should launch a war?  Not even in Britain, the greatest warmonger of the past half-millennium, has such a thing been done.  Parties are elected to govern, and making war comes within the remit of government.

Sinn Féin/IRA fought a war against the State in the North, adopted a realisable aim for the War half way through it and carried it to success, and then won Elections.  It had no electoral mandate for war, not even the indirect governmental one.  It was born in the course of an insurrection and scarcely existed when it declared war in the Summer of 1970.  The fact that it made war effectively is its justification for doing it.   Wars do not arise out of nothing.  It was only after the war got going in earnest that people started voting for it.

The anti-War party, which insisted on being “constitutional” within the constitutional absurdity of Northern Ireland, did not know how to act in the peace that followed the war —which was profoundly different from the peace that preceded it—and it has withered.

The essentially Treatyite leader of Fianna Fáil—whose complaint is that Britain did not keep faith with the ‘Treaty’—denies that what happened in the North was a war, and he still treats Sinn Féin as a criminal gang—a Mafia at best.  But he feels obliged to say this:

The ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland was a central concern during 1922, particularly for Collins.  The overt and aggressive use of the security agenda for sectarian ends was both understood and condemned.  Once again the adherent bad faith of London showed itself in the complete failure to insist on protecting the minority as well as the creation and funding of a new sectarian policing group.

“The nature of the 1920 partition and its subsequent strengthening is that it created two administrations based on a sectarian headcount, it sundered historic connections within the island and it undermined the ability to build a more diverse and prosperous state.  The administrations were designed in a way to make the issue of partition almost unsolvable and to promote a steady drift apart.  Those early years are critical and we should do more to understand them.

De Valera, when accepting nomination to the Presidency at the meeting of the Second Dáil

suggested that a settlement with Britain which left Ireland independent might include an opt-out clause for Northern Counties, or even a Provincial opt-out.  Collins, in signing the ‘Treaty’, committed himself to Six County Partition, and even to recognising the Northern Ireland system—but then he made war on Northern Ireland, with assistance from the Four Courts IRA.

If “the 1920 partition” had just been partition, the ground of “sectarian conflict” in the Six Counties would have been small.  But the Act took the form of setting up a Six County Government on a par with a 26 County Government with a view to uniting the two.  The Ulster Unionists made it clear that they did not want a Six County Government, in which they would have to conduct “sectarian government”.  They just wanted British Government.  But Britain insisted that there could only be Partition in the form of setting up a Northern Ireland system, which would be funded as part of the British state but excluded from British politics, and would be linked with the 26 County Government by a Council of Ireland.  And then it added the Border Commission, which Griffith declared would whittle away Northern Ireland.  On top of that, Collins launched his invasion of the North in May 1922 and brought the Six County IRA out in the open.

The two sides in the North were at war with one another in 1922.  The Treatyites used their influence to pit the Northern nationalist government community against the new Government.  It was an easy thing to do.  And it undertook to fund separate education in nationalist areas, and to subsidise local Councils which refused to play a part in the Six County system.  And then they made war.

It was not De Valera who fostered that disorder.

And as to the “historic connections” sundered by the 1920 Act, those connections, insofar as they had ever existed since the 16th century, were Ascendancy connections.  The colonial aristocracy put in command of Ireland in 1691 governed the island by means of the Anglican Irish Parliament.  There was a movement within the Ascendancy in the 1780s and 1790s to broaden the base of the Parliament by gradually introducing Catholic and Presbyterian representatives (led by Grattan, Tone etc.).  The Parliament, however, decided that it would be a breach of the Constitution to admit Papists.  After it provoked rebellion in 1798, it was abolished by the Act of Union.

The separate development of the Presbyterian colony and the native population began within a decade of the abolition of the Ascendancy Parliament.  The first major point of rupture happened in 1831 when the Belfast radicals who had supported O’Connell on Catholic Emancipation parted company with him over his demand for Repeal of the Union, and were roundly abused by him.

Martin’s comments on Belfast in 1922 are all Collinsite.

If he wants to become an actual Fianna Fáiler he should go back a bit farther—to De Valera’s telling of the facts of life to the 2nd Dáil in August 1921.

Sinn Féin in the South might have moved in on that ground and made it its own, but it has chosen a different course—the leap into existential freedom.

Brendan Clifford

August 2022