- From Cumann na nGaedheal to Fine Gael:The Foundation of the United Ireland Party in September 1933*
The September 1933 merger of Cumann na nGaedheal, the National Centre Party, and the Blueshirted members of Eoin O’Duffy’s National Guard has attracted the scholarly attention of historians and political scientists. Studies examining the foundation of what was initially known as the United Ireland Party/Fine Gael have tended, however, to focus attention on the role of the Blueshirt movement in the merger, and on the selection of O’Duffy as the party’s first president, to the neglect of a more nuanced consideration of Cumann na nGaedheal’s apparent willingness to dissolve into the new movement as an equal partner with a minor party and an extraparliamentary movement. Most of these studies have also documented the role of the new Fianna Fáil government’s pursuit of the Economic War as a factor in the emergence of the Blueshirts as a mass movement.1 Such works have also assessed the extent to which the organization might be considered an Irish manifestation of the shirted-movement phenomenon evident across much of Europe during the interwar period. The latter point implies, by necessity, an examination of the relationship between the Blueshirts and continental fascism.2 [End Page 143] Authors exploring the merged party’s policy have focused exclusively on the role of pro-Treaty intellectuals such as Professors Michael Tierney and James Hogan while understating the discontinuities between O’Duffy’s Fine Gael and traditional pro-Treaty policy as represented by Cosgrave and Cumann na nGaedheal.3 Fearghal McGarry’s detailed biography of O’Duffy also deals with the merger, outlining the set of circumstances that led to the erratic former garda commissioner’s elevation to the leadership of the new party. In his earlier study of the impact of the Spanish Civil War on Irish politics, McGarry captured the complex and cross-party nature of the broader Irish right at a time when much of the continent was polarized between extremes of left and right.4 In recent histories of Cumann na nGaedheal the “transformation” of the party into Fine Gael has also been addressed. The recent scholarship of John Regan, Ciara Meehan, and Jason Knirck has explored the continuities between the parent party and its successor, the tensions existing within the new alliance, and the electoral lessons of both the 1932 and 1933 general elections.5 Moreover, the third element in the merger, the National Centre Party, has also been explored in the historiography, although further examination of [End Page 144] its local machine, the Farmers’ and Ratepayers’ League, would be welcome.6
The years during which the “Blue Shirt” was a potent symbol in Irish politics have therefore attracted considerable scholarly scrutiny. Indeed, within pro-Treaty historiography the party’s flirtation with the ill-fated Blueshirt movement has received greater attention than the ten-year period of Cumann na nGaedheal government that preceded it. Only recently has this neglect been somewhat reversed. This pattern is also replicated in popular memory of the period, with “Blueshirt” persisting as a pejorative term for supporters of Fine Gael up to the present day. Even within the modern party itself memory tends to overlook both the Blueshirt period and Cumann na nGaed-heal. Rather than commemorate either Cumann na nGaedheal’s public launch on 27 April 1923, or the establishment of Fine Gael on 8 September 1933,7 the modern party still looks to August 1922 and the lost pro-Treaty leaders Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith.8
Even though Cumann na nGaedheal has attracted greater scholarly attention since the late 1990s, a significant gap still remains in the historiographical treatment of the party’s decision to sink its identity into the new Fine Gael movement in 1933. After ten years as an independent party, most of which were spent as the Free State’s first party of government, the transition from the original pro-Treaty party to Fine Gael was a significant episode in the political history of independent Ireland and is worthy of closer scholarly analysis. Relatively little has been written about the merger itself, particularly...