How the split over the Treaty strengthened anti-national elements in Free State

One of the milestones in the journey of Cumann na nGaedhael away from their radical nationalist roots was reached in 1924 when Minister for Finance Ernest Blythe, who in 1913 had written of his hopes for a “co-operative commonwealth, cut the old age pension by 10%. This was at a time when the Government was considering abolishing income tax, and probably deserved the accusation by Labour leader Thomas Johnston that they were “asking the State to allow its policy to be dictated by people whose interests are in other countries.”

The old established interests in agriculture and commerce were pressing the Government to effectively bend economic policy to their demands, and their political representatives in the Dáil, mostly former unionists and Home Rulers, were gradually absorbed into Cumann na nGaedhael.  That process, along with the resentment of former IRA officers who had taken the Free State side in the Civil War at the failure to root out RIC, DMP and Dublin Castle administrators, led to division within Cumann na nGaedhael itself.

Within the Free State Army, dissent led to the Mutiny of March 1924. The dissidents had formed themselves as the Irish Republican Army Organisation, in opposition to what they claimed was a reorganised IRB among the Army elite, which they accused of attempting to “destroy any genuine attempt to carry a successful conclusion to Mick’s ideals.” The dispute culminated in the arrest of leading IRAO members in Devlin’s pub on Parnell Street on March 11 1924, days after they had issued an ultimatum to the Executive Council. Afterwards the IRAO defiantly declared: “We are all still revolutionaries, or should be, because our freedom is not yet complete.”

Devlin’s pub where Mutineers were arrested. Opposite Conways. 1924


Minister for Industry and Commerce Joe McGrath resigned from the Government, which he accused of being captured by “officialdom of the old regime,” and gathered a group of eight other Cumann na nGaedhael TDs with the suspected sympathy of others. As the IRAO attempted to negotiate their way back into the Army, the National Group constituted a real threat to Cumann na nGaedhael given the danger posed by a large number of bye elections which if lost would threaten the stability of the Government. Alternatively, the Cabinet might be replaced by McGrath supporters. The IRAO was in close contact with the National Group and appears to have grown in strength in the months following the Mutiny. In September Liam Tobin, former Director of Intelligence and close ally of Collins, declared that “Every political party in the country is rotten; we have descended to the lowest imitation of everything English; there is no individuality of mind or speech; nothing but jobbery and everything rotten that follows the curse of greed.”

In September the IRAO and the National Group, with the assistance of Judge Daniel Cohalan who had been a key Irish American advocate of the Treaty, drafted a document that was to form the basis of the dissident TDs re-entering Cumann na nGaedhael. The Cabinet was to be made responsible to the party on policy, there was to be a commitment to remove old Dublin Castle elements from the administration and replace them with those of “Irish Ireland views”. The state would ignore override objections of civil servants to economic and other policy and reinstate “Army men with records.” Cosgrave at first gave his assent and that may have been part of a move on Cosgrave’s part to oust Kevin O’Higgins and return to a more nationalist policy. As it happened Cosgrave was forced to renege on any commitments he may have made to the dissidents.



The position of the IRAO and the National Group clearly had a sympathetic ear among the Cumann na nGaedhael membership. The party’s Standing Committee presented a paper to the Executive Council echoing many of the demands of the dissidents and criticising the failure to remove holdovers from the Dublin Castle administration, who they claimed were the actual government. They wanted a more vigorous policy in support of the “common people” and noted the slow pace of land redistribution. It is a testament to the persistence of radicalism within the pro-Treaty party and illustrates the extent to which the Cabinet had become divorced from its revolutionary origins.

The talks between the IRAO and the National Group and the Government continued until October 1924 when the majority of the Cabinet refused to accept a proposal that the Government would pursue the type of policies they wanted, and in particular that they would reinstate supporters of Liam Tobin to the Army. In response the dissident TDs all resigned their seats but the National Group failed to gather momentum. Seán Milroy was the only one of their TDS to contest the bye elections held on March 11 1925 and he received just 4.4% in Dublin North.

Just two of the seats were lost by Cumann na nGaedhael to Sinn Féin. Of those who resigned Seán Gibbons was later elected for Fianna Fáil in 1932, as was Thomas Carter in 1943. Milroy’s claim that the Government was “pandering to the old Ascendancy Gang” echoed what the republican anti Treaty side was saying but the Civil War bitterness meant that the split in Cumann na nGaedhael along with the abstention of Sinn Féin merely strengthened the conservative elements.

An apt, and no doubt approving assessment of the period was made by Ronan Fanning in his history of the Department of Finance where he claims that the defeat of the Army Mutiny symbolised the triumph of “the administrative principles of the civil servants who had come to power with the provisional Government” over the “aspirations of those men who had taken up arms in 1919-21.” The common people had fought a revolution, the nice people had won. Business as normal.

National Group supporters formed a new party Clann Éireann in January 1926 and contested several seats in the June 1927 general election but failed to win any. Cumann na nGaedhael voters, no matter what their own reservations, were loath to vote for them given the danger that that would allow Sinn Fein to win seats. The National Group and Clann Éireann were supported by an intriguing weekly journal titled Honesty which lambasted the government over its national polices and in particular the Boundary Commission debacle. They also opposed conservative economic polices, claiming for example that income tax was necessary to ameliorate the ills of capitalism. The paper advocated a revolution that would eliminate the slums, help small farmers, abolish the Oath and all traces of English influence, take Labour into Government and implement Connolly’s social and economic policy.

Prior to his resignation, National Group TD Seán Milroy was one of the foremost critics of Government economic policy and of the 1923 Fiscal Enquiry Report which in effect scuppered any possibility that Cumann na nGaedhael would pursue the type of economic strategy favoured by Griffith and Collins. Milroy regarded the report as the death knell for those who had hoped that the Free State would have meant “a giving to the people of powers not only to determine the political trend of their national life but also the course of its economic development.”

The brief dissent within the Free State party and army faded quickly especially after the split within Sinn Féin in 1926 led to the formation of Fianna Fáil and the prospects of a more radical nationalist alternative became a reality.

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