Rhetoric and the Irish civil war

Something that has piqued my interest about Irish civil war historiography is its skewed nature and lack of context. The more thorough reading of the secondary material that my current work has involved has made the reason clear. Many historians refuse to engage with anti-treaty arguments on their own terms. Very few historians are not affected by pro-treaty propaganda, its scapegoating of individuals and groups (such as women and socialists) and especially its success in depoliticising the core arguments.

A quotation from Eunan O’Halpin’s Defending Ireland (1999, p. 37) is  particularly indicative of some widely held beliefs about republican ideology:

Republican complaints about the government’s attitude are revealing of an enduring strain in republican thought, whereby an extraordinarily strict litmus test of legality, of due process, and of general is applied to the actions of everyone save those in the movement itself… the movement on the one hand denies the legitimacy of the laws it happens not to like yet consistently complains that they are not fairly and correctly administered. This emphasis on fairness is deeply rooted in republican critiques of the state, and goes well beyond the necessary sophistries of defence counsel. It remains a central though puzzling part of republican doctrine and propaganda.

The point about the failure on the part of the republican movement to meet the standards it sets others is a fair one. However, there is also the assumption that there can be no justification in any republican position – whether this encompasses the entire period from 1916 to the present is not quite clear but we might perhaps infer that. It also downplays the role of state power – in this case that of the Provisional/Free State governments – and suggests that, because republican claims can a priori be dismissed, abuses by state power (as the forces of law and order) need not be too closely examined.

Yet, having only glanced at some of the many anti-treaty newspapers, pamphlets, leaflets, cartoons and posters in a rich and increasingly accessible body of sources, it is clear that there was a coherent and logical opposition to the treaty which was based on serious reservations about partition, empire, the rights of workers and the political stance of the Catholic church. Certainly, the rhetoric could be off-putting and inappropriate in some instances. The point remains that it is not good enough to assume that opposition to the Anglo-Irish treaty was based on personal inadequacies or a culture of violence for its own sake which some attribute to the IRA. It is telling that Nikolaus Braun, who made an extremely thorough and comprehensive study of the propaganda of both sides, could not “offer any objective cause” of the civil war conflict – “because I fear, none exists”. (Terrorismus und Freiheitskampf, 2003, p. 592) This does not  illuminate the exceptional nature of the Irish political landscape, but rather, perhaps, the inadequacies in the way in which it has been described.

Incidentally, for those who would like an introduction to the issues of the civil war, I would highly recommend Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution by C. Desmond Greaves. It is an attempt to describe the Irish revolution from about 1910 to 1922 through the participation of Liam Mellows in various organisations and movements and it succeeds amazingly well.


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