Radical History Review 85 (2003) 114-123
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Reflections and Reports
From Revolutionaries to Politicians:
Deradicalization and the Irish Experience
Donnacha Ó Beacháin
Fianna Fail (Soldiers of Destiny) has been Ireland's largest political party since 1932. Founded in 1926 by nationalist revolutionary Eamon de Valera, Fianna Fail broke away from the Sinn Fein party that had led the War for Independence in the years 1919 to 1921. 1 That war had ended with a Treaty negotiated between the British government and representatives of Sinn Fein, a Treaty that divided republican opinion in Ireland. 2 The pragmatist view stressed the gains made: Britain had made Ireland a coequal member of the British Commonwealth, with the same legislative and executive powers as Canada. The more radical section of Sinn Fein stressed what had been lost. For them, the Treaty represented a step back from the independent united republic declared in 1916, reaffirmed in 1919, and defended by force from 1919 to 1921. The difference in perception split the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the country, leading to a bitter, ten-month civil war. 3 The pragmatists won the civil war, formed a new party, Cumann na nGaedhael (Party of the Irish) and governed the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland) from 1922 to 1932. The losers in the civil war retained the name of Sinn Fein and refused to recognize the legitimacy of the new political institutions on the grounds that they did not encompass the whole island of Ireland and that the Irish Free State was still tied to Britain through membership in the British Commonwealth and through various provisions of the 1921 Treaty. Most controversially, Irish parliamentarians in Dublin had to take an oath of fidelity to the British monarch before being permitted to take their seats. When released from prison in 1924, de Valera resumed his leadership of [End Page 114] Sinn Fein but felt that abstention from Free State political institutions, while principled and justified, was not furthering republican objectives. With the intention of capturing state institutions for the furtherance of Sinn Fein's radical objectives, de Valera established the Fianna Fail party.
At the time of its foundation, Fianna Fail could legitimately be described as a radical organization for a number of reasons. It was an abstentionist party, rejecting the existing political system and opposed to the constitution of the state. It had a strong connection with the IRA, and there was an overlap in membership. The party was violently opposed to the police, the Free State Army, and the various security forces seen as Cumann na nGaedhael strongholds composed of those who had abandoned republicanism. Fianna Fail favored a radical approach to the partition of Ireland and to Anglo-Irish relations generally, with unity and complete independence serving as the dominant election themes. The party's support base was composed of small farmers and petite bourgeoisie, and it pursued decidedly left-wing social and economic policies. Its leadership was composed of politicians by accident, those of the revolutionary generation.
Within a short time of assuming power, however, the party had transformed in all spheres. Most of the changes took place within a few years of its ascendance to power. Fianna Fail embraced the political system, advocated full participation in its institutions, and de Valera became the author of the constitution. To those within the republican movement who maintained the traditional policy of abstentionism and opposition to the state, the party embarked on a ruthless campaign. Its leadership adopted a policy on partition marked by a paralyzing caution, Anglo-Irish relations became cooperative rather than confrontational, and national sovereignty was diluted by entry into the European Economic Community. Fianna Fail became increasingly reliant on big business contributions, while its policies shifted progressively to the right. At this point, its leadership was composed of politicians by design, who had no experience other than constitutional politics. The reality of Fianna Fail in power "did much to belie the fearsome 'bolshevik' image of that party and of its leader in the eyes of the right." 4 De Valera...