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Founding of Fine Gael

THE FOUNDING OF FINE GAEL – 1933.

Gerard O’Connell. (2003)

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the foundation of Fine Gael, the second largest political party in the state. It is perhaps appropriate that this year of all years, one should try to examine the factors and dynamics which brought about the party’s formation in the first place.

CUMANN NA GAEDHAEL

Fine Gael’s parent party, Cumann na Gaedhael, was formally established on April 27th 1923, and had evolved from the Pro-Treaty section of Sinn Fein. The Civil War had extracted a heavy toll on the fledgling party. The conflict had claimed the lives of Arthur Griffith, the foremost philosopher of the Irish independence movement and Michael Collins, arguably it’s greatest activist. The party was in time to embrace elements from other political traditions in the years to come, including the Irish Parliamentary Party of Parnell, Redmond and Dillon, various farming groups and a certain number of ex-Unionists, but at it’s core it was composed of pro-Treaty Sinn Fein.

The Cumann na nGaedhael party began largely as a parliamentary party. The leadership structure existed before the foundation of the party and it was around this national core of leaders that the party developed. Apart from the leader W.T. Cosgrave, this group included General Richard Mulchay, a close associate of Michael Collins, Kevin O’Higgins, Patrick McGilligan, Patrick Hogan, Desmond FitzGerald, Ernest Blythe and Eoin MacNeill. Cumann na Gaedhael was to remain in Government throughout the turbulent decade of the 1920’s and by the end of that time, it’s achievements were substantial and lasting. Among them were the restoration of law and order, the completion of land-purchase measures, improvements in agriculture, the careful management of the state’s finances, the successful completion of the Shannon hydro-electric scheme, and the establishment of the Electricity Supply Board, the Agricultural Credit Corporation and the Carlow Sugar Factory.

The 1932 General Election

The 1932 General Election was a highly significant result. It is possible to say that the result changed the face of Irish Politics. Fianna Fail swept into government on a platform of radical policies, thus necessitating a changeover of power between political opponents who only ten years previously were fighting a bitter civil war.

The difficult decisions of the previous decade, coupled with the effects of the world economic depression, had taken their toll on Cumann na Gaedhael’s popularity.

Fianna Fail had spent five years in detailed development of their national organisation now supplemented by a national newspaper, the Irish Press. The Fianna Fail policy platform was radical and attractive promising sweeping political and economic change. The campaign was fractious and incident-driven, culminating in the murder of Cumann na Gaedhael candidate J.J. Reynolds in Sligo-Leitrim. Cumann na Gaedhael fought the campaign mainly on it’s record in government, it warned of the instability that could follow a Fianna Fail victory. Many times during the campaign Cumann na Gaedhael played the so-called “Red Scare” card. One example was a poster with a red flag partially covering the tricolour with the caption “We want no Reds here, keep their colours off your flag”.

The election resulted in sweeping gains for Fianna Fail which gained fifteen extra seats, garnering 44.6% of the popular vote. Cumann na Gaedheal dropped five seats and Labour dropped six. Cumann an Gaedhael’s popular vote was down only three thousand votes, appearing to suggest that the bulk of it’s traditional support was intact, however the collapse in support for Labour and the Farmers Party propelled Fianna Fail into power.

Aftermath of Election.

The immediate aftermath of the 1932 election set in train a sequence of events that led to the formation of Fine Gael. The political atmosphere had become highly charged. The initial transfer of power to Fianna Fail from the Cosgrave administration was peaceful and seamless. Fianna Fail began to rapidly implement the more radical elements of it’s election manifesto. On the March 18th the Public Safety Act, was suspended, lifting the illegality of many organisations including the IRA. Movement was made on the vexed question of land annuities, and by late April De Valera had produced the text of a bill to abolish the Oath of Allegiance. The speed and decisiveness with which Fianna Fail had moved to implement it’s election pledges greatly unnerved Cumann na Gaedhael’s leadership, the IRA prisoner release had caused a mass alarm in the party. Fears were justified when IRA ex-prisoners started to attack Cumann an Gaedhael meetings in an apparent attempt to spark off reprisals. Under the slogan “No free speech for traitors” the IRA began to target Cumann na Gaedhael members, a culture of fear permeated the party, the IRA campaign of terrorisation had sparked a debate within the ranks of the party’s leadership that perhaps the time had come for defensive action to be taken.

ACA is formed

On 9th February 1932 an organisation known as the Army Comrades Association had been formed, just one week before polling day in the General Election. The founding objectives were wholly uncontroversial, the body was to be a benevolent organisation for ex-National Army veterans. It’s first President was to be Col. Austin Brennan a Clareman, but the driving force behind the organisation was it’s secretary, Commandant Ned Cronin from North Cork. The first few meetings of the ACA received little or no press attention, and there is no recorded reference of their involvement in the election campaign. A national convention was held in Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin on St Patrick’s Day 1932, and it was reported that 87 branches had been founded in 24 counties. This sustained and steady growth in the association continued up to August 1932 when it was re-organised under new leadership.

On August 11th 1932 Dr. T.F.O’Higgins was elected to the presidency of the ACA. Up to this point the ACA had explicitly espoused the view that it was non-party-political, but in choosing O’Higgins, brother of Kevin and a prominent Cumann na Gaedhael T.D. as it’s President, the ACA seemed to be aligning itself with Cumann na Gaedhael. There was also a marked shift in policy, the ACA now were espousing a virulent form of anti-communism and had pledged to defend the right of free-speech for all, thus casting itself as a bulwark against the IRA’s campaign of “No free speech for traitors”. Similarly as the ACA began to create a more assertive role for it’s itself as a counterweight to the IRA, Cumann na Gaedhael members supported this and believed that a formal alliance between the two bodies was a natural progression, given that the vast majority of ACA members were Cumann na Gaedhael supporters. The ACA from late 1932 onwards were fulfilling the role of stewards and bodyguards at Cumann na Gaedhael meetings. In October 1932 Cumann na Gaedhael public meetings in Kilmallock and Ennis descended into a riot , pitched battle between the ACA and the IRA were the order of the day and the political temperature began to rise. 1932 ended with a rally in Carrick on Suir. Six hundred members of the ACA were present marching in military formation and wearing distinctive insignia, the Blueshirt had been introduced to Irish politics.

National Centre Party founded.

In early 1932, Farmers and Ratepayer’s Associations sprung up in counties Roscommon, Cavan and Leitrim, seeking cutbacks in public spending and subsidies for farmers. J.F. O’Hanlon and Frank McDermott were elected for this grouping at the 1932 election. James Dillon, an Independent Nationalist T.D.for Donegal soon joined up too. These three men all had roots going back to the old Home Rule party. In September 1932 Mc Dermott presided over a meeting of farmer’s groups drawn from all over the country. This meeting resulted in the formation in December of that year of a new political party known as the National Centre Party, which was to be independent and would espouse an end to Civil-War differences.

There were initial calls for the party to unite with Cumann na Gaedhael, Alfie Byrne the popular Lord Mayor of Dublin urged Cosgrave and Mc Dermott to form an anti-Fianna Fail pact. Cosgrave welcomed the proposals but McDermott rejected them, citing the Civil War as his reason. When the January 1933 General Election was surprisingly called, The National Centre Party advocated policies almost identical to those of Cumann na Gaedhael. They appealed mainly to the farming vote, and won 11 seats taking 9% of the vote, and thus became the third largest party in the new Dail. They abstained on De Valera’s renomination as President of the Executive Council, but they could not for long maintain a neutral stance. It’s almost identical policies drove it closer to Cumann na Gaedhael. A merger was on the cards.

The 1933 General Election.

The 1933 General Election returned Fianna Fail to power with an overall majority, for Cumann na Gaedhael the election result, was a catastrophe, losing nine seats, this was the party’s second defeat at the polls in a year. Prospects appeared bleak a total of 14 seats had been lost between the two elections, some important rural seats had been lost to the National Centre Party, the belief that Fianna Fail wouldn’t last more than a year in power had been shattered. For the ACA activism reached new heights. The Blue Shirt had now been formally adopted as the official uniform of the organisation. O’Higgins had stepped down as President to be replaced by Eoin O’Duffy, the recently deposed Garda Commissioner. O’Duffy renamed the ACA, the National Guard. A resurgent Blueshirt movement, a demoralised Cumann Na Gaedhael, and a successful National Centre Party seemed strange bed-fellows to the outsider, but throughout the summer of 1933, there was a flurry of activity amongst the three groups promoting the notion of a merger and the foundation of a new political party.

The Merger

From June 1933 a series of meetings had been held with the aim of uniting Cumann na Gaedhael and the National Centre Party into a single opposition party. Cosgrave and Patrick Hogan for Cumann na Gaedhael and Dillon and McDermott for the Centre Party attended the first meeting, chaired by T.W. Westrop-Bennett, Chairman of the Senate. Little progress was made, but larger meetings of both parties took place in early August, and Blythe and O’Higgins both of whom were also among the leadership of the National Guard, attended these. On August 9th The Irish Times predicted that the two parties would soon merge.

On August 12th the government banned the annual commemorative parade to Leinster Lawn in honour of Griffith, Collins and O’Higgins, due to took place the next day, in which O’Duffy proposed to lead the National Guard. Developments reached a crisis-point when nine days later the government proclaimed the National Guard to be an illegal organisation. O’Duffy had heretofore rejected all overtures made to him by Cuamnn na Gaedhael and the National Centre Party in relation to a merger. But now, he was in a position of considerable less bargaining strength. Leading an isolated movement which was outside of the law, he needed new and strong allies.

The banning of the National Guard had galvanised the pro-merger elements in both Cumann na Gaedhael and the Centre party. There was a new impetus for unity amongst the opposition. O’Duffy and the executive of the National Guard met in Bandon on August 28th and agreed in principle to consider merger proposals. The three groups agreed a basis for discussion around four proposals.

(i) The new party was to be called the United Ireland Party.

(ii) O’Duffy was to be it’s leader

(iii) Cosgrave was to be it’s Dail leader

(iv) Twelve members nominated by Cosgrave, McDermott and O’Duffy.

Special conventions of Cumann na Gaedhael and the Centre Party were addressed by O’Duffy on September 8th, and later that day the new political party Fine Gael-The United Ireland Party was formally launched in the Mansion House.

The title Fine Gael was suggested by Prof. Michael Tierney of UCD, himself a former Cumann na Gaedhael TD. It’s English equivalent was “Family of Gaels”. The Centre Party members would have preferred the United Ireland Party on it’s own, but the National Guard and Cumann na Gaedhael insisted on the gaelic name. Cosgrave’s role in the merger outcome is interesting as he was now to play a subordinate role to O’Duffy in the new party. Cosgrave’s support for the merger was based on the notion that if the opposition didn’t unite, they could all be wiped out by Fianna FaiL. The Centre Party had driven a hard bargain in the merger talks, they had insisted in nominating a equal amount of members to the new party’s executive, and were determined not to be consumed by Cumann na Gaedhael. The National Guard became the Young Ireland Association, a youth movement within Fine Gael, this was a first for a political party in the state.

Conclusion

Fine Gael was founded out of a necessity for the opposition to combine and unite against De Valera’s Fianna Fail. It was dominated by Cumann na Gaedhael in terms of membership but outwardly at least the new party seemed to be a three-way partnership. It married together a political movement which hovered on the edges of the law with two parliamentary parties. The role of the National Centre Party is significant it pointed to the importance of the farming community to the electoral fortunes of the new party, something which is true about Fine Gael to this very day.

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