Bill Kissane. The Politics of the Irish Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. xii + 264 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-927355-3.
Reviewed by Patrick E. Maume (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-Albion (September, 2006)
Fighting for Democracy?
Over eighty years later, the Irish Civil War of 1922-23 continues to provoke debate, as seen in discussions of the films Michael Collins (1996), directed by Neil Jordan, and The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), directed by Ken Loach. These films reflect rival views of the conflict--for supporters of the Treaty, the Civil War represents the defense of electoral democracy against irresponsible militarists, while critics see it as a neo-colonialist coup supported by gombeenmen. This division is found to some extent even in academic work, with Tom Garvin hailing the Treatyite victory as "the birth of Irish democracy," while John Regan describes it as "the Irish counter-revolution."
In his earlier work, Bill Kissane has criticized the "defense of democracy" view by arguing that Irish commitment to democracy long pre-dates the Civil War. Here he attempts to move the Civil War debate on from what he sees as excessive emphasis on personalities, and to advance a conceptualization of the problem by providing a comparison between the Civil War and similar conflicts elsewhere; an account of how the conflict came about and how it progressed in terms of what the actors thought they were doing (when they articulated their assumptions); and a discussion of the long-term resolution of the Pro-Treatyite and Anti-Treatyite approaches. The author categorizes these approaches respectively as "protective democracy"--a Victorian-style minimal state confined to the protection of property rights--and "constitutional republicanism," which defines self-determination in terms of a particular definition of nationality rather than temporary majorities. Kissane draws on a remarkably wide range of primary and secondary sources, providing many important insights in his account of the Civil War. His reinstatement of "civil society" groups as political actors and his discussion of their attempts at peace initiatives (opposed as strenuously by the Treatyites, often seen as defenders of "civil society," as by the anti-Treatyites) deserves particular praise.
Nonetheless, this study has significant limitations. Kissane's attempt to provide a historiographical summary often produces lists of authorities, where a pithy summary would suffice. Some comparisons are too narrowly drawn; for example, by insisting that only divisions leading to immediate civil war are relevant, Kissane states that Afrikaner divisions over the 1902 Treaty of Vereeniging and the dispute over the Altalena incident during the Israeli war of independence are not comparable to the Irish case, although the longer-term political divide between the Botha-Smuts tradition and the Nationalist Party, and between Labour and Likud are clearly reminiscent of Irish "civil war politics"; indeed, these were comparisons made by Irish republicans at the time.
Oddly, considering Kissane's view about the depth of Irish democratic traditions, the Gaelic Revival is emphasized to the near-exclusion of older forms of nationalist identity formation, such as the 1840s Young Ireland movement. (Rural IRA men interviewed by Peter Hart--frequently quoted by Kissane--showed little awareness of the Revival, but frequently mentioned Young Ireland literature.) The cohesion of nineteenth-century Irish nationalism is greatly overstated, with the Parnell Split of the 1890s treated as exceptional. This confuses the ability of local communities to dominate and silence opposition with the ability of nationalist leaders to hold together a coherent and disciplined national movement. The central discipline imposed by Charles Stewart Parnell in the 1880s was exceptional, and the Parnell Split resembled the Civil War in that nationalists experienced it as a humiliating regression to a state of affairs thought to have been overcome. The later history of the Irish Party was dominated less by the prospect of being displaced by separatists than by fear of political disintegration and a return to localist, patronage-based factionalism. Kissane's view of Free Staters as successors to the Home Rulers may go deeper than he thinks. Perhaps, indeed, the Civil War has other precedents; if Kissane's implicitly partitionist terms of reference are discarded, the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century struggle between Unionists and nationalists might be seen as the first Irish Civil War, more influential than its successor because the losers were excluded completely from the nation's self-representation.
Kissane also shows a tendency to define democracy not in legal/political terms, but by reference to standards of individual liberty not found in most democracies until the 1960s and forms of participatory democracy which may not be attainable anywhere. A fondness for localism is not tested against the full force of Garvin's right-wing Progressivist argument that a strong centralized state, with a core of expert administrators, is a necessary condition for social and economic progress through the defeat of corrupt and short-sighted localist and populist vested interests.
Kissane tends to exaggerate the continuity between the Civil War and present-day Irish politics. For example, when discussing Fianna Fail's displacement of the pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal government in the 1920s by stressing economic issues, he fails to note that they were able to link their constitutional case to their economic agenda by claiming that protectionism would revitalize the Irish economy and that Cumann na nGaedheal's adherence to free trade reflected constitutional subordination--a point whose contemporary centrality is obscured by the subsequent failure of protectionism and its abandonment by Fianna Fail governments from the late 1950s. This present-mindedness is also reflected in Kissane's neglect of the extent to which Catholicism functioned as a marker of Irish ethnicity in the early twentieth century. Although the identification of the Catholic hierarchy with the Free State cause is noted, surprisingly little attention is paid to the role of Catholic moral theory in the self-representations of the two sides, even when this appears in quotations selected by Kissane himself (though self-justification in these terms was clearly important to many participants). He appears to treat as self-evident a contractarian view of society which emphasizes individual autonomy. The view that a legitimate government possesses inherent authority which enables--even obliges--it to perform actions that would be criminal if undertaken by others, is eminently disputable, but Kissane fails to recognize the extent to which it lies behind such issues as the emphasis placed on "legitimacy" by both sides. An extreme example is the insistence of some Republicans that to recognize the Treaty would mean admitting that the Crown had been the legitimate ruler of Ireland during the War of Independence, and consequently regarding the War of Independence IRA as traitors and murderers.
Despite its limitations this is a major achievement: Kissane provides a challenging, well-researched, clearly structured and deeply meditated analysis of one of the most controversial episodes of Irish history. Future scholars will build on Kissane's conceptual foundations even if they do not always agree with his conclusions.
. Tom Garvin, 1922: The Birth of Irish Democracy (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1996); and John M. Regan, The Irish Counter-Revolution: Treatyite Politics and Settlement in Independent Ireland, 1922-36 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1999).
. Bill Kissane, Explaining Irish Democracy (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2002).
. Peter Hart_ The IRA and Its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
. Richard Dunphy, The Making of Fianna Fail Power in Ireland 1921-1948 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
. See James Hogan, Election and Representation (Cork: Cork University Press, 1945).
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Patrick E. Maume. Review of Kissane, Bill, The Politics of the Irish Civil War.
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