Leo Varadkar wants to portray Fine Gael as the face of liberalism in Irish politics. But as Barney Doherty explains, he would rather you didn’t know about his party’s shady origins on the far-right of the political spectrum.
Fine Gael’s new leadership have invested heavily trying to rebrand as the liberal face of Irish politics. The calculation—formulated by Leo Varadkar and his team of well-paid spin doctors—is that Fine Gael must now present itself as a modern and compassionate party, in order to better align with changing opinions in society, particularly amongst young people. This makeover was most obvious during the Repeal referendum, and in Varadkar’s subsequent push for further changes to the constitution—with Fine Gael rushing to catch-up with the mass protests for Repeal, suddenly discovering it’s sequestered liberalism after years of obstructing women’s rights.
This about turn, in one sense, should be considered a victory for the Left and the social movements. That we have forced the historic party of Irish conservatism into adopting these positions is surely testament to the potential that people power has in transforming this country. But we must also be alert to another danger; that in rebranding itself, Fine Gael is attempting to secure the foundations for an Irish establishment that allowed women and others to be let down for so long, and to guarantee that the architects of inequality and gangster capitalism are ensured another few decades of power.
Varadkar’s party have not abandoned their core right-wing politics. Instead, what we have is a case of old wine in new bottles—a skin-deep liberalism designed to sure up it’s own support. Behind this new look, however, lies a deeply disturbing history—one Fine Gael would rather you forgot. Recently, for example, they produced a slick video ‘celebrating’ their party’s 85-year history, posting it across social media platforms. Conveniently enough, the video managed to skip Fine Gael’s shady origins—tied to far-right organsations, modelled after European fascist movements—nor did they care to highlight their Nazi-saluting inaugural President, Eoin O’Duffy. Cleary, then, Fine Gael wish to whitewash their horrible history. In analysing their trajectory today, therefore, it is worth taking a look back at Leo Varadkar’s forebears.
Fine Gael’s roots begin in post-revolution Ireland of the 1930s. From 1918 to 1922 there was a huge swell of popular mobilisation involving strikes, boycotts, workers’ occupations and land seizures, as well as an armed struggle between the British forces and the IRA. Hundreds of thousands were directly involved in the various elements of the revolution; fighting for national liberation as well as a range of social aspirations, which were ultimately defeated.
After the defeat a counter-revolution ensued in Irish society, crystallised in the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the subsequent Civil War that enforced it. The counter-revolution was led by right-wing groups and individuals trying to quash the social demands of the revolution. It is from amongst these forces of the counter-revolution that Fine Gael would eventually emerge.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed in December 1921, split the independence movement into two camps. The pro-treaty counter-revolutionaries formed Cumann na nGaedheal and used weapons provided by the British to crush anti-treaty republican opposition in a yearlong Civil War. In December 1922, the Irish Free State was established and with it came partition and a new status quo with Cumann na nGaedheal representing a burgeoning Catholic ruling class, tied to the power of the Church.
The key figures at the helm of the state were W.T. Cosgrave and Kevin O’Higgins. O’Higgins, like many from the emerging Catholic ruling class, was educated in Clongowes Wood College, an elite private school. By 1926, ex-Clongowes boys outnumbered veterans of the 1916 Rising in the Cabinet.
During the revolution this elite watched as rural strikes and land occupations swept the countryside, and workers in towns occupied workplaces and established ‘soviets’. To crush this militancy, the counter-revolutionary government used the new Free State Army to break up strikes, and execute seventy-seven republicans during its violent repression. Conservative elements of Irish society had won the day—counter-revolution was deepened from 1922 until 1932 while Cumann na nGaedheal governed unopposed.
The Great Depression of 1929, and the ‘Hungry Thirties’ that came after, would have a profound effect on Irish politics. Like other European countries, this would see the emergence of radicalism and reaction on both sides of the political spectrum, including the emergence of openly far-right organisations. By 1932, this political instability would lead to a new party forming a government, with Eamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil winning a majority. Fianna Fáil was established in 1927, having dropped the policy of abstentionism in the hope of attracting support. Cumann na nGaedheal feared this would destabilise their conservative state—only years earlier Cumann na nGaedheal were executing and imprisoning IRA members, elements of whom now had state power. Their fears only intensified when Fianna Fáil, in their second month of office, lifted the ban on the IRA and released prisoners.
For a section of Cumann na nGaedheal the threat was too serious to remain passive observers. Senior figures formed an organisation called the Army Comrades Association, initially from veterans of the Free State Army who pledged to protect Cumann na nGaedheal from the state and IRA violence. The ACA reached its pinnacle under the leadership of Eoin O’Duffy; a former guerrilla leader of the IRA in the War of Independence, then a Civil War general on the pro-treaty side, who later became police commissioner in 1922. He was let go by de Valera after urging Cosgrave to organise a coup following the 1932 election. He quickly became the symbol of the counter-revolutions resistance to Fianna Fáil. During his command he renamed the group the National Guard and adopted a blue-shirt uniform to recognise each other during riots, the right-arm Nazi salute, and corporatist politics. Membership rose to tens of thousands, huge rallies were held, and the group became better known as ‘The Blueshirts’.
The Blueshirts were the fundamentalists of the counter-revolution, they attracted those who had most to lose from a reawakening of the social aspirations from the revolution. Ned Cronin—a founder of the Blueshirts and later senior member of Fine Gael—promised that “if a dictatorship is necessary for the Irish people we are going to have one. It will be better than the so-called democratic Government we have, run by foreigners and Jews.”
The Blueshirts promoted a conspiracy that de Valera was a ‘foreign Jewish agent’. De Valera even felt the need to confirm in the Dáil that “there is not a drop of Jewish blood in my veins, I am descended from Catholic stock on both sides… I do not mean this as an attack on the Jews, but only to state the facts.”
O’Duffy limited Blueshirt membership to ‘Irish or those of Christian Faith’, because he claimed “Jews are the instigators of Communism.” The Cumann na nGaedheal leadership, including Ernest Blythe, Desmond FitzGerald and Professor James Hogan were attracted to fascism as they struggled to deal with the reality of a Fianna Fáil government and growing ‘communist IRA’ influence. The memory of the Irish revolution, the reality of the growing Soviet Union, and Fianna Fáil’s talk of land distribution and welfare expansion drove this political elite, as well as big farmers and the middle class into the Blueshirts.
Thomas F. O’Higgins—another founder of the Blueshirts and later parliamentary leader of Fine Gael—described Fianna Fáil as ‘the vanguard of the communist policy’ in Ireland and de Valera an ‘arch-Communist agent’. O’Duffy led violent resistance against the government’s policy to seize unsold cattle and to distribute the meat to the poor. Severe confrontations and street clashes between the Blueshirts and republican and socialist activists occurred around the country leading to deaths on both sides.
In 1933 the Blueshirts verged on a showdown with the Fianna Fáil state. A mass parade was planned in Dublin to commemorate Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, and Kevin O’Higgins—heroes of the counter-revolution. The planned parade beckoned memories of Mussolini’s March on Rome and the IRA and socialists planned to confront it.
Fearing a coup, de Valera banned the march, later admitting that he was unsure if the army would obey when tested. The test did not materialise though as O’Duffy backed down and instead held smaller provincial parades. This was a major moment for the Blueshirts; it became clear that the leadership were not confident in their extra-parliamentary forces. The more moderate conservatives in the Blueshirts ranks had been leaving, put off by the extensive street battles with left-wing opposition.
Instead of taking a stand against the state, the Blueshirts looked to an electoral strategy working with their conservative partners to challenge Fianna Fáil. The demoralised Cumann na nGaedheal politicians remained impressed by O’Duffy’s ability to mobilise significant numbers, and were willing to overlook his fascist politics. So, in 1933 the Blueshirts merged with Cumann na nGaedheal and the National Centre Party to form Fine Gael.
A United Right
Fine Gael unified the fragmented counter-revolutionary opposition with Eoin O’Duffy as its first president and W. T. Cosgrave as vice-president. The first test came quickly for the new formation in the 1934 local elections. Fianna Fáil emerged the clear victors after a very disappointing performance from Fine Gael’s point of view.
The base of the Blueshirts began to decline as they faced continued resistance on the ground. It also became quickly apparent that de Valera was not some great left-wing radical as feared by the farmers and business owners, with Fianna Fáil quickly acquiescing themselves with the ruling order rather than trying to overcome it. The demoralised O’Duffy further deteriorated politically, but by then the violence and extremist speeches would no longer be ignored by the Fine Gael leadership since he was not growing the party.
As Fine Gael’s flirtation with fascism was coming to an end they tried to rein in O’Duffy’s excessive politics, and he resigned. The first Fine Gael president went on to create the fascist National Corporate Party, but after failing to organise anything of significance he raised an Irish Brigade that went to fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War only to be sent home after a disastrous intervention.
Fine Gael developed from the most reactionary elements of the Irish counter-revolution. The Irish elite despised the demands made by the working class in the early 1920s and feared the revolutionary wave crossing Europe. For them the end of British imperialism was a way to install a new local ruling class not a step in uprooting the system that demands exploitation. As John M. Regan wrote ‘the new party completed the consolidation of the Irish right begun under Kevin O’Higgins a decade before’.
Fine Gael still represent those same interests today; they are by far the richest party with their 50 TDs having a combined wealth of €80 million. When confronted with a housing crisis they will protect the landlord class and subsidise developers. In an economic crisis they will bail out their own class and punish single parents, workers, and the most vulnerable with austerity. In the 1930s they were prepared to flirt with fascism to defend their class privilege. Today, they have adopted the cloak of liberalism to maintain power. The lesson from the shady history of Fine Gael is simple; never trust them.