Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Do the ends justify the means ?

A controversy of a relatively minor nature occurred in Ireland last week when a plaque was unveiled in Booterstown South Dublin to mark the spot where Irish Justice Minister Kevin O'Higgins was assassinated on the 85th anniversary of his death. The controversy surrounds O'Higgins' role in the Irish Civil War. As justice Minister he personally authorised the execution of 77 anti Treaty republicans, a feat which many believe make him unsuitable for commemoration. The following day I listened to a fascinating discusion on Joe Duffy's "liveline" radio programme in which people either defended the actions of O'Higgins or accused him of being a war criminal. As a dispute it is a classic one which is exceptionally difficult to call. As someone who believes that the Civil War was fought by honourable men and women on both sides I find the O'Higgins legacy difficult to grapple with but I will try.

The Civil War executions did not begin straight away. The conflict was three months old before the first captured republican was executed under emergency legislation that was introduced to counter the IRA's ongoing campaign against the new state. This legislation permitted the execution of anti treaty fighters captured with arms. It was not until the anti treaty side decided to continue the war into a new guerilla phase in the wake of their conventional defeat that the Free State Government concluded that decisive action needed to be taken to stamp out the unrest. Some of the executions were legal, others were not, and some can only be described as state murder. The most notorious of the executions occured after the assassination of pro Treaty TD (MP) Sean Hales on the 7th of December 1922. In response to his killing the government had four prominant Republicans, one from each province taken from prison and shot. Unlike other executions these men were innocent of the charges that the emergency legislation was suposed to provide for. In fact they had been in prison since they were captured in June when the Free State Army shelled and stormed the Four Courts at the outbreak of the war. Their execution was simply a reprisal. When accused in the Dail (Irish Parliament) of acting out of spite, O'Higgins responded, "Hardly, one of these men was a friend of mine". He was of course referring to Rory O'Connor who along with Liam Mellows was a former member of IRA GHQ who reported directly to Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy. Now as Army Chief of staff and Minister for Justice Mulcahy and O'Higgins were overseeing the executions of their former comrades. The story of O'Connor is particularly poignant. Just over one year earlier Rory O'Connor stood as best man at Kevin O'Higgins' wedding. It truly reads like something from a Shakespearean tradgedy.

The wedding of Kevin O'Higgins and Bridie Cole in November 1921. O'Higgins is flanked by future enemies Eamon De Valera (left) and Rory O'Connor (right) whose death sentence O'Higgins would sign 13 months later.

It is hard to justify the executions on any level and for both political and personal reasons people would be justified in describing O'Higgins as cold hearted. But some facts must be considered. Throughout the 20th century democracies that were not prepared to be
tough usually got devoured by fascism, communism or military hard men. In Ireland this did not happen and our democracy has lasted for 90 years. 1922 was the year Mussolini came to power. Democracies were failing all over Europe. What many people don't realise is that most civil wars, most political instability all over the world is not caused by ideology or ethnicity. It is caused by the failure of civilian authorities to exercise control over their own armed forces. The IRA was the army of the Irish Government. In 1922 the new Free State Government brought its army to heel.

People who are familiar with this period in Irish history will know that the greatest achievement of the pro treaty Government (1922-32) was the consolidation of the independent democratic state. O'Higgins is credited specifically with the demobilisation or the army, creation of an impartial police force and the setting up of an independent judiciary and civil service. It is hard to imagine that any of this could have happened if we were fighing an ongoing and intractable guerilla war. The executions worked. The IRA's guerilla war fizzled out and came to an official end in May 1923. What we have is a classic case of do the ends justfity the means? What do you think?

Below is a clip of the Booterstown commemoration including a speach by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny.


Paul said...

This is interesting and of course takes us into almost an area of counter-factual historiography. Namely what would have happened if Higgins had not executed the anti-treaty men? The likeliest answer is that the Republic’s defence forces would have remained a more powerful lobby and one with a strong latent sympathy for physical force republicanism in many quarters. That could quite plausibly have come about as the two sides reconciled and the Dublin government decided for expediency to more or less cede power to an anti-treaty faction controlling the states armed forces. Purely my own hypothesis of course, but one that would have gravely strained relationships with Britain in years to come. How democratic would Ireland have actually been with an armed militant body enmeshed in its establishment? An interesting point it would be great if there’s a link somewhere to the programme?

How might later troubles have been if say during the 1950’s and later during the 1970’s the Dublin Government was unable or unwilling from stopping its own army from playing a role in the troubles akin to Pakistan’s ISI in Afghanistan today. Just look at how things are between India and Pakistan as a result. Difficult to say really what would have happened but I believe that Higgins’s hard headedness did prevent future bloodshed. Certainly bad as the troubles were it is quite possible to see them as being even worse in some scenarios.

Conversely however it may also be possible to see the latest instalments of the troubles being prevented altogether if both the Dublin and London governments agreed to harsh measures implemented against both Loyalist and Republican leaders.

Ted Leddy said...


Thanks for your contribution to this.

It is very possible that both sides could have reconciled and the military forces of the south would have become more hard line. However it is my understanding that about one month before the Civil War broke out an agreement was reached between both factions where they agreed to run an equal number of candidates in the June election and that the anti treaty side would take their seats as the democratic oppositions as long as they didn't have to sign the oath to the crown that all TD's were obliged to under the terms of the Treaty. When this pact became public Churchill (as secretary for the colonies) contacted Collins and informed him that the British would view this as a repudiation of the Treaty. The pact collapsed and the civil war soon followed.

The Irish people understandably view the Civil War as a disaster but what many don't realise is that it could have been much worse. If the two factions had remained united it is likely that sooner or later a confrontation would have been forced on the north and then we would have had a Civil War of a much worse kind. Wide scale butchery of Catholic and Protestant never happned in Northern Ireland thankfully. It nearly happend in 1914, 1922 and again in 1972. Whether in 1922 or 1972 I think it is safe to assume that loyalist fury at the sight of a southern nationalist army marching on the north would have led to a Balkan style massacare, particularly of Belfast Catholics.

Incidentally, a couple of years ago Irish TV RTE produced a 90 minute documentary entitled "If Lynch had invaded" where several historians attempted to analyse and predict the praticality of the Irish Defence Forces entering Northern Ireland in 1969 as Taoiseach Jack Lynch had vaguely threatened to do. Their forecasts were not positive. The documentary is not on youtube but you may be able to get it somewhere

Paul said...

I'll check that link out Ted. Incidentally I remember reading in Mark Urban's 'Big Boy Rules' of an incident in County Louth that occurred in the 1970's. A 3 PARA patrol led by an individual nicknamed 'Banzai' strayed south and spotted a number of armoured cars belonging to the IDF. These were reported to Battalion HQ at Bessbrook as forming part of an invasion of the north by the south's armour due to the NCO being convinced he was still in the north. Army HQ in Lisburn despatched their own armour to the area and apparently a major diplomatic incident was narrowly averted. It is possible to assume that a paratrooper nicknamed 'banzai' by his own comrades was a man of action rather than a man of foresight.

Ted Leddy said...


Some guys I know who patrolled the border have told me that at times it was more tense than the Lebannon.

I guy also told me a story of his unit patrolling a road on the border when they came across the alarming site of a red post box. Our boys quickly retreated. Thankfully the OC on this occasion was not the Banzai type.

Paul said...

That's actually quite amusing in retrospect Ted. Generally speaking relations between the Defence Forces and The British Forces were cordial at the local level. I once heard of an AAC pilot actually landing his helicopter at a base in the south by mistake. The mind boggles but apparently the crew were accommodated, given a meal and allowed to fly back north without incident.