It’s a well-worn epithet, liberally applied throughout the Irish social media grapevine to Fine Gael and their supporters. It has seen an increase in use in recent years, with Google Trends noting an uptick in searches for the term “blueshirts” and “Fine Gael blueshirts” since Leo Varadkar, ever the divisive figure, took the party reins from Enda Kenny in 2017.
The term conjures memories of Eoin O’Duffy’s “quasi-fascist” National Guard, nicknamed the “Blueshirts” in keeping with the right-wing paramilitary tradition of the time, alongside such notable counterparts as Mussolini’s Blackshirts and Hitler’s ill-fated SA Brownshirts. Eoin O’Duffy’s seminal role in the 1933 founding of Fine Gael has loomed like an ugly shadow over the history of the party in the eyes of its detractors.
But is it true? Was Fine Gael really founded by fascists?
The truth, it turns out, is considerably more nuanced than the Twitter commentariat might lead you to believe.
The Original Blueshirts
The course of Irish history was irrevocably altered when the General Election of 1932 swept Éamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil into power, ousting the decade-long de facto one-party rule of Cumann na nGaedheal. The Anti-Treaty Republicans, defeated just a decade before in the Civil War, had now come to power anyway through constitutional political means.
Almost immediately, de Valera moved to decriminalise the Irish Republican Army, who embarked upon an unremitting campaign of political violence against Cumann na nGaedheal and their supporters, breaking up meetings, harassing party officers and engaging in street fighting to degrade and demoralise the perceived enemies of the new Republican government.
Unsurprisingly, Cumann na nGaedheal and other organisations within the broad Pro-Treaty movement quickly organised to defend themselves against this protracted campaign of Republican violence. Civil War veterans on the Pro-Treaty side, seeing the very men they had fought and won a war against just ten years prior now in power, banded together as the Army Comrades’ Association to protect Cumann na nGaedheal and other Pro-Treaty organisation gatherings from IRA aggression.
Regular street battles between ACA and IRA men followed, though for all the growing paramilitary tension, the Pro-Treaty tradition in the Free State was largely relegated to the electoral wilderness. Cumann na nGaedheal and its eventual spiritual successor, Fine Gael, would not form another government in the history of the Free State, which was unilaterally declared dissolved by Fianna Fáil in 1937, and ratified as such a decade later in Westminster. Fianna Fáil took advantage of their uncontested political supremacy by calling a surprise snap election in January 1933, further cementing their majority in Dáil Éireann.
O’Duffy and Irish Corporatism
De Valera’s dominance over the Free State afforded him the political capital to remove another relic of the Pro-Treaty Free State government he had deposed. Eoin O’Duffy, an IRA veteran of the War of Independence and a National Army General in the Civil War, had served as Commissioner of An Garda Síochána during Cumann na nGaedheal’s decade in power. Now, de Valera moved to dismiss him in favour of an alternative more predisposed towards the new administration.
O’Duffy was quickly offered the leadership of the ACA, whereupon he set about reinventing the paramilitary movement in his own image. He renamed it the National Guard, and implemented the blue uniforms which gave the organisation its nickname. An admirer of Benito Mussolini, who had seized power in Italy a decade prior, O’Duffy modelled the organisation on European fascism, adopting the straight-armed salute made famous by the Nazis (who would storm to power in Germany that very same year) and limiting membership only to those with Irish parents and who professed the “Christian faith”.
The stated aims of the newly reorganised Blueshirts went beyond simply defending Pro-Treaty political meetings from IRA attack. O’Duffy married his new force to the Italian fascist ideal of corporatism, the organisation of the state and society according to economic needs, and rededicated it to opposing communism and “alien control and influence in national affairs.”
Despite modern conflation of the Blueshirts with fascism, scholars and historians generally dismiss the idea that the Blueshirts truly ranked among the fascist organisations of the era, preferring the term “quasi-“ or “para-“ fascism, in that while they took on much of the style of the fascist movements presently on the march in Italy and Germany, they exhibited little of the substance. The Blueshirts, like the IRA, would go on to involve themselves in the Spanish Civil War upon its outbreak in 1936. Whereas the IRA, with its left-wing, Republican tradition, would fight for Spain’s Republican government, the Blueshirts took the opposite tack and fought with Franco’s right-wing Nationalists. Michael O’Riordan, an Irish communist who fought for the Republican side, commented “I never regarded them [the Blueshirts] as fascists. They saw themselves as involved in a Christian crusade against godless communism in Spain. At worst, then, they were dupes.” Northern Irish historian Paul Bew suggested they were, rather than fascist, “angry rural conservatives” embracing populism in reaction to the sudden reversal in political fortunes faced by the Pro-Treaty tradition in Ireland. John Joseph Lee, an Irish historian and former Senator, quipped that “Fascism was far too intellectually demanding for the bulk of the Blueshirts.”
In August of 1933, O’Duffy’s National Guard prepared a March on Dublin in imitation of Mussolini’s epochal March on Rome a decade earlier to commemorate Irish patriots Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and Kevin O’Higgins, a government minister who had been assassinated by the IRA in 1927. Fearing a coup d’etat, de Valera banned the march. Although O’Duffy and the leadership of the National Guard announced their intention to respect the ban, several Blueshirt chapters around the country proceeded with minor processions on the appointed date, giving the Fianna Fáil government an excuse to criminalise the organisation as a whole for defying the lawful ban on marching.
Fine Gael & O’Duffy’s Departure
In response to the banning of the National Guard, the Pro-Treaty tradition was once more faced with an existential crisis. Sitting down with the leadership of Cumann na nGaedheal and the National Centre Party, a rural conservative party founded on the tradition of Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party, O’Duffy agreed to a merger of both parties with his now-illegal Blueshirts in order to unite the Pro-Treaty side under a single banner. After flirting with the name of the United Ireland Party, the new party instead settled on the Irish language name Fine Gael, or Tribe of the Irish. The object of this new party was to achieve a United Ireland within the British Commonwealth. Tellingly, in its founding document no mention was made of establishing Ireland as a corporatist state.
Fine Gael’s inaugural leader was Eoin O’Duffy, with the leaders of both Cumann na nGaedheal and the National Centre Party serving as vice-presidents. For all his newfound potency on the political scene, however, O’Duffy largely failed to make an impact, first in failing to inject his corporatist politics into Fine Gael’s founding document, and then in the 1934 elections to make any headway with voters. The bulk of Fine Gael’s membership drew from rural conservatism, and had little interest in O’Duffy’s increasingly radical rhetoric. In September 1934 O’Duffy was persuaded to leave the party, and W. T. Cosgrave, who had served as head of the Cumann na nGaedheal government, was reinstated to his natural position as leader of the Pro-Treaty side in the Dáil.
O’Duffy’s flirtations with fascism were quickly dismantled by the new conservative bent of Fine Gael’s leadership. His departure from the party caused a split in the Blueshirts, with the majority remaining as members of Fine Gael and only an extremist core departing with O’Duffy, eventually reforming as an international brigade to fight for Franco in Spain.
Fine Gael, meanwhile, set about liberalising the Pro-Treaty movement. Spearheaded by James Dillon, a dedicated parliamentarian and the son of the Irish Parliamentary Party’s final leader, John Dillon, the party set about establishing democratic ideals as central to its new ethos. So driven by his belief in the unshakeable tenets of democracy was Dillon that he would resign as a TD in 1942, in protest at Ireland’s refusal to declare war on Germany. He would later be reinstated to the party, and went on to lead Fine Gael in opposition.
It is noteworthy, and a testament to the overall ineffectiveness and lack of lasting impact of the Blueshirts, that while they were there for Fine Gael’s birth and even enjoyed the leadership of Fine Gael upon its founding, the impact of Eoin O’Duffy on the party is a footnote in history compared to that of James Dillon, a man who wouldn’t get to lead the party until 1959, 26 years afters its inception. The combined forces of conservatism and liberal democracy proved too much for the nascent corporatism and quasi-fascism of the Blueshirts to overcome. The National Guard came to be outnumbered and outmatched by Cumann na nGaedheal and the National Centre Party they merged with to form Fine Gael.
Within just two years of its founding, Fine Gael had essentially purged the paramilitary fascist elements from its ranks, and was dedicated to preserving Ireland’s delicate democracy. Eoin O’Duffy, far from casting a shadow over the party that has resided in government now for over a decade, is relegated to little more than the answer to a trivia question.
As a final ironic twist in the deBlueshirtification of the party, Fine Gael would eventually come to power as part of a coalition with the Labour Party, a party founded on militant trade unionism dedicated to the nationalisation of certain state assets and utilities; the very spectre O’Duffy and his Blueshirts travelled to Spain in order to fight.
Written by: Matt Ellison
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