No change on the IRA front

  • 25 February 2005
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IRA today are up to the same old tricks and facing same the obstacles as the old IRA did in the 1920s and 1930s. Conor Brady reports

Historical comparisons should not be taken to extremes. But there are striking parallels between the present condition of the Sinn Féin-IRA axis and that which existed in the late 1920s and early 1930s between Fianna Fáil and the IRA.

In May 1923, Eamon de Valera brought the open hostilities of the Civil War to an end with his "Legion of the Rearguard" message. IRA volunteers were instructed to "dump arms." But the message made it clear that the struggle was not ended. "Military victory must be allowed for the moment to rest with those who have destroyed the Republic," he declared.

Low-level violence, nonetheless, continued in many parts of the State. Members of the Garda were murdered. Banks were robbed by IRA men, sometimes in order to pay a fare to America to start a new life. When 8,000 men were demobilised from the National Army after 1925, not a few turned to crime as well.

In March 1926, de Valera split from Sinn Féin, resigning as the party's president. In May, he founded Fianna Fáil, taking with him most of the Sinn Féin heavyweights including Frank Aiken, Seán Lemass, Seán T O'Kelly, PJ Ruttledge and Jim Ryan.

It was to be a further six years before de Valera and Fianna Fáil took power legitimately in Dáil Éireann. But over those years, many links continued to exist between Fianna Fáil and the IRA. Security reports showed a significant overlap in membership between the two organisations. It was hardly surprising. Men like Frank Aiken had been celebrated as gunmen. They could neither deny their past nor were they willing to repudiate – at least quickly – their former comrades-in-arms.

As de Valera built Fianna Fáil through the late 1920s, entering Dáil Éireann in 1927, the reduced IRA seemed to grow more embitterered, more unpredictable and more reckless. Attacks continued on Gardaí. Banks and post offices were robbed. Anyone who resisted was likely to be shot. In July 1927, the Minister for Home Affairs, Kevin O'Higgins, was murdered by three IRA men as he walked near his home in Blackrock, Co Dublin. It was, apparently, a chance encounter, a capricious killing, actuated by a long-seated desire for vengeance but carried out on a whim.

Yet de Valera and Fianna Fáil did not repudiate their former-associates. Although they had entered the Dáil, they refused co-operation with the Gardaí – shades of Sinn Féin and the PSNI. De Valera went to Tralee where the local superintendent had drawn up his men in a guard of honour. De Valera ignored them and instead inspected a parading unit of the IRA.

The Garda stepped up its operations against the IRA. The Special Branch was formed in 1925 and armed units began to engage IRA robbery squads. "S" Branch was at first assigned to Leitrim but was shortly expanded to operate throughout the State.

Commissioner Eoin O'Duffy and his officers found it increasingly difficult to differentiate between members of the new Fianna Fáil organisation and the IRA. For most practical purposes, they regarded them as a seamless whole.

It was often hard to tell the difference. In January 1928, the IRA sent a volunteer, Anthony Coughlan to shoot a suspected police agent, Sean Harling, at his home in Dartry. But Harling, who had been supplied with an official revolver, fired first, killing Coughlan. Detectives found Coughlan's Fianna Fáil membership card in an inside pocket and his loaded revolver in another.

As the 1920s drew to a close it appeared that the elected government and its law-enforcement agencies were losing the struggle. IRA men were still engaged in robberies. More than £12,000 was taken in an armed raid in Roscrea – more than €3 million in today's values. In some parts of the country IRA bosses were directing poitín-making operations on an industrial scale, with elaborate distribution mechanisms, supplying public houses in the larger cities and towns.

The rustling of livestock was a common occurrence, often backed up with the threat of IRA guns. Farms were stocked and fine herds of animals built up in this way.

By 1930, the IRA's campaign had been ratcheted up to include murders of witnesses, jurymen and Special Branch members. In Clare a witness was taken out to sea in a boat and thrown overboard. In March 1930, the IRA murdered the Garda superintendent in Tipperary, Seán Curtin, who had been preparing prosecutions against some of their members for illegal drilling.

Meanwhile Fianna Fáil's policy of non co-operation with the law-enforcement agencies of the State continued. Attempts by Gardaí to get witness-statements from party members were refused. Fianna Fáil members refused to serve on juries or obstructed court proceedings if they were empanelled.

The Cosgrave government responded with harsh measures, notably the insertion of Article 2A into the Constitution, effectively suspending Habeas Corpus and trial by jury.

We can only speculate where it might have all ended were it not for Fianna Fáil's accession to power in the 1932 election. The 1930s was not a good decade for democracy in Europe.

The progression of Fianna Fáil to full political legitimacy, while its former associates continued in criminality, has some resonances for today. The profound difference between then and now, of course, is that Sinn Féin and the IRA remain organically joined today – while de Valera had declared himself done with physical force in 1926.

Nonetheless, the break was far from clean and it was not completed for some years. It was only when de Valera came to power in 1932 that Fianna Fáil "recognised" the Garda, purging its existing leadership and seeding its ranks with its own supporters – the "Broy Harriers." And when the time came for Fianna Fáil to crack down on its former associates, it sent in the enforcers with a vigour and ruthlessness that matched anything that had been put in train by the ancien regime.