Visiting Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery at the time of the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016, it was apparent from the abundance of flowers on his grave that Michael Collins was significantly more popular with visitors than Eamon de Valera, perhaps a case of principle triumphing over political intrigue, more likely a case of youthful film star looks having greater appeal than images of an old and frail man. Collins chose to support the 1921 Treaty with Britain; de Valera chose to oppose it. Collins died in an ambush in August 1922 at the age of 31; de Valera completed his final term as president in June 1973 at the age of 90. An RTE report yesterday, showing Collins’ grave covered with Saint Valentine’s Day flowers, suggests that Collins’ popularity is undiminished.
It was the Collins-de Valera split that created a false dichotomy in Irish politics, a suggestion that politics was about substance when it was a matter of style. Attitudes to the Treaty might have shaped Irish politics; to persist with a political system based on those divisions has become absurd. The legacy of de Valera and Collins has been a lack of a proper political discourse because they did not differ on their fundamental understanding of the nature of Irish society.
The Republican ideal evaporated after independence as whole sectors of society were allowed to be controlled by the church, not just education, but health care and social services became clerically dominated; there was to be no question of choice. Any measure that might have diluted the ecclesiastical dominance of society was resisted with vehemence, as was any legislation that might have taken the State in a direction not approved by the bishops. While de Valera may have resisted McQuaid’s attempts to have the Catholic Church declared the established church in the 1937 Constitution, the funding of church activities that should properly have been the responsibility of the state represented a virtual endowment.
The state funding of Catholic institutions might have been expected to have given ministers leverage in their dealings with the church, yet the politicians seemed to forget themselves. They behaved as though Ireland were not a twentieth century democracy and deferred to the bishops in almost every matter; the image of people bending to kiss episcopal rings emblematic of all that was wrong, no political philosophy or biblical theology ever sanctioned such medieval obeisance. Otherwise educated, articulate and cosmopolitan politicians seemed to lose their critical faculty when dealing with the church.
In 2011, with the electoral collapse of Fianna Fail against the background of declining church influence, it seemed possible that the days of Civil War politics might pass, that there might be the development of robust arguments that rested on differences in political philosophy. In 2016, the general election in February showed that the phoney politics of the Civil War divisions had returned, that voters really were more concerned with who would do the most for them personally, rather than with who could offer the most persuasive vision of society.
Irish parliamentary politics has been stagnant since 2016, the Fine Gael government impotent to carry through its own legislative programme, the Fianna Fail opposition afraid at the possible impact of an election. Following last week’s election, Taoiseach Leo Varadakar challenged Sinn Féin to “build a coalition and negotiate a socialist Programme for Government that keeps their promises.” Such a government would be the very last thing that Varadkar wants and something he knows to be beyond the capacity of Sinn Féin.
The likely scenario now is a coalition between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, for the first time in a century, de Valera and Collins will be on the same side. Will the politics marked by flowers on a grave triumph over the ideal of republican socialism?