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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 31November 1993

Class Struggle and National Liberation

Counter-revolution in Ireland


by Erna Bennett

XVI – Restoration of Old Order

Yet it was a victory without vanquished, hollow and uneasy, for the enemy had simply disappeared. More than 11,000 republicans were in prison, some of them under sentence of death. To supporters of the provisional government, the knowledge that adherents of the “party of disorder” now moved about freely, unseen and unpunished, rankled.

A Public Safety Act, rushed through parliament where the government enjoyed an unassailable majority, gave Ministers of the Executive Council (the cabinet) absolute powers of arrest and detention, independently of courts or judiciary, of any person they considered a danger to public safety. The same Act legalized the continued imprisonment of republicans, even though hostilities had ended.

A year later another Act reinforced these extraordinary powers, and many thousands of republicans “on the run” lived precariously in a society in which every minor official was a government agent, alert for hidden and unpunished enemies of the state. For many thousands the only choice was to leave the country.

Enforcement of the Treaty had cost £17 million. An army of 60,000 men had exhausted the country’s resources. The economy was in tatters. Society was shaken to its roots and yet the old social order remained substantially intact. Power now rested surely in the hands of the conservative middle class, whose power base was “firmly established among the instinctively conservative and prosperous elements of society”.101 It was “a social order in which Church, farmer, grocer and gombeen publican comprised a corrupt and corrupting alliance, intent on social advancement”.102

The new state was backed by the press lords. It was blessed by the Church. Sharing this alliance, the Farmers’ Union, representing the more prosperous farmers who, during the independence struggle and the civil war, had been at daggers drawn with the organised rural proletariat in Waterford and elsewhere in the south and east of the country, also reaped its economic benefits.

With the civil war so inconclusively behind it, the new Free State government strained every nerve to assert hegemony over a severely scarred society. The Church, which had intervened so high-handedly and decisively on the side of the provisional government during the civil war, moved in to claim its prize of leading role in a close-knit ChurchState alliance that set out to prop up the middle-class social order – “by repressive legislation if necessary”. 103 Moral and physical coercion were used with equal energy to ensure that no surviving sparks of revolution might be fanned to life in the harsh and embittered conditions of the new state.

Middle-class historians have described the mood of those times in their customary psychological terms, thus reducing to the level of personal problems what, in reality, were social problems demanding social solutions. People’s hopes, these historians explain, “were brutally disappointed”; “sour disillusionment” and “pervading cynicism” took their place; people even felt “a loathing for their own recent aspirations”.

Of whom are these historians speaking? The ruling middle-class or the commercial and large farmer interests on whose behalf the country was now governed? But for these, it was “business as usual” without qualms of conscience. Perhaps for middle-class intellectual spectators of the decade’s convulsions, who may have dared to hope but baulked at daring to act? Perhaps, indeed.

Certainly, for the masses of the working people of town and country, the reality with which they lived was not loathing for their recent aspirations, but rather the bitter realisation that the revolution, in whatever shape they had understood it, had been defeated, that the sacrifices of ten hard years of struggle had been betrayed, and that, as always, the poor were expected by their new masters to pay the price.

Next Section: XVII – Defeat
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  1. O’Donnell, Peadar. (1931) An Phoblacht, 7 February. cited by Beresford-Ellis (1972) History of the Irish Working Class. London. Gollancz. p.278. See also Rumpf and Hepburn, p.75.
  2. Brown, T. loc.cit. p.32. The Irish word gombeen means usurer; more specifically it refers to a petty-usurer who profits from the difficulties of the poor.
  3. idem. p.14.

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