The overwhelming majority of countries and their political landscapes essentially boil down to political ideology between the more progressively inclined left-wing and the traditional leaning right-wing.
However, Irish political history is a little more complicated. It is not driven by the political spectrum in a traditional sense, existing directly as a result of the consequences of colonialism.
To fully understand what makes Irish politics so fascinatingly unique, it is important to examine the early years of Irish independence, when Ireland was officially known as the Irish Free State (1922-37).
This period saw Sinn Féin in its original form (who were at the centre of the Irish independence movement following the 1916 Easter Rising) fracture into the three parties which are at the forefront of Irish politics today: the modern-day Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, and Fine Gael.
An act of union which divided Ireland
Over the 120 year period where Ireland was an integrated part of Great Britain following the Act of Union (1801), the two primary causes for political difference which would define Ireland throughout the twentieth century came to the fore.
The first was the ethnic and religious conflict between the Catholic natives and the Protestant ancestors of those who settled during the Plantation of Ulster, which could constantly intensify in tension, eventually peaking with the Troubles.
The second cause came as a direct result of the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) and its subsequent ceasefire and peace treaty.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed on 6 December 1921, paved the way for the 26 county Free State, while the six unionist-majority counties (Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone) exercised an opt-out clause to remain a part of Britain.
However, while the treaty was narrowly approved by Dáil Éireann, the differences exposed by its negotiations, particularly in when it came to articles relating to the Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown, and the partitioning of the island of Ireland, eventually led to the Irish Civil War (1922-23).
This would be the first of several major splits to shape Irish politics. The pro-treaty side led by W. T. Cosgrave, Kevin O’Higgins, Richard, Michael Collins, and Arthur Griffith (both died in 1922, with Collins killed in action) split from the anti-treaty Sinn Féin, which was led by Éamon de Valera, Frank Allen and Liam Lynch (Lynch was killed in action in 1922).
The pro-treaty side won the civil war (with British military support), and the subsequent 1923 general election with their pro-treaty political party, Cumann na nGaedheal (an embryonic form of Fine Gael) taking power, with Cosgrave becoming President of the Executive Council.
W. T. Cosgrave
Cosgrave is also recognised as being Ireland’s first Taoiseach, as he was the country’s first head of government, despite the title not being established until 1937.
De Valera, Sinn Féin abstentionism, and the founding of Fianna Fáil
Following Cumann na nGaedheal’s victory at the polls, Sinn Fein extended their policy of abstentionism from the House of Commons to Dáil Éireann, leaving Cumann na nGaedheal with no effective opposition for the first four years of its administration, other than the Labour Party.
At the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis of 1926, after a motion proposed elected members be allowed to take their seats in the Dáil if and when the Oath of Allegiance was removed was defeated, de Valera resigned from Sinn Féin, with most of Sinn Féin’s Teachtaí Dála (TDs) following suit.
In May of that year, he founded Fianna Fáil, which sought to republicanise the Free State from within its political structures. De Valera would lead Fianna Fáil into a coalition government with the Labour Party following the 1932 general election.
Eamon De Valera c. 1918–21
Most of de Valera’s time as President of the Executive Council, and later Taoiseach (following the passing of a referendum to ratify a new Irish constitution in 1937) was spent leading Ireland through most of its transformation from British dominion into a republic, and the Emergency (which occurred during World War Two).
While Ireland formally became a republic in 1949 (after de Valera became leader of the opposition), the country was considered to be a republic in all but name by the end of the 1930s.
A merger borne of necessity
Following Fianna Fáil’s ascension to power, Cumann na nGaedheal struggled in opposition. After losing further ground to Fianna Fáil after the 1933 election, a strengthened voice for pro-treaty supporters was required.
Fine Gael was founded in September 1933, following the merger between political parties Cumann na nGaedheal (led by Cosgrave), and the National Centre Party (spearheaded by party member James Dillon), as well as the paramilitary organisation the National Guard (also known as the Blueshirts), which was led by fascist sympathiser Eoin O’Duffy (who would become Fine Gael’s first leader).
Eoin O’Duffy, speaking at a rally in September 1934
While the merger brought two strands of Irish nationalism together – the pro-treaty wing of revolutionary Sinn Féin and the old Home Rule party of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries represented by Dillon and the Centre Party, Fine Gael in reality became a larger, more politically stable version of Cumann na nGaedheal.
The National Guard element of Fine Gael was weakened with O’Duffy’s removal as leader, and resignation from the party in 1934. However, Fine Gael’s members are sometimes pejoratively referred to as “Blueshirts”, despite the party’s rapid change of course to mimic Cumann na nGaedheal’s traditional conservatism following O’Neill’s departure from the party.
The third… and final split of Sinn Féin
Following de Valera’s resignation in 1926, Sinn Féin influence as a political force waned significantly, and it would be another three decades before they would even contest another general election in the Republic, at which point the party continued its policy of abstentionism.
Sinn Féin splintered for the third time in 1970, which led to the party taking its current form. In January, the proposal to end abstentionism and take seats (if elected) in the Dáil, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the House of Commons failed to receive the necessary two-thirds majority to be passed at the party’s Ard Fheis.
This along with other factors, mainly regarding the paramilitary operations of the Irish Republiacn Army (IRA), saw the party diverge into two distinct groups.
The larger, anti-abstentionist wing of the party became known as “Official Sinn Féin”, who favoured political and parliamentary means to achieve their aims, and outright rejected violence from 1972 onwards. They later distanced themselves further from Sinn Féin, and became known as The Workers’ Party by 1982, a far-left political party influenced by Marxism–Leninism ideals.
The smaller, “Provisional” wing of Sinn Féin, believed that violence, and especially terrorism, was justified. This split was paralleled in the IRA, which Sinn Féin were historically associated with (the Official IRA sided with the party now known as The Workers’ Party, while the Provisional IRA sided with the modern-day Sinn Féin).
Although a registered party in the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Féin was banned in Britain until 1974, because most of its leadership were believed to be members of the IRA. The party was also subject to expulsion orders and broadcasting bans in both countries, especially during the height of the Troubles of the early to mid-1970s.
It would not be until the early 1980s before Sinn Féin would shift their focus to political and parliamentary actions. In 1986, Sinn Féin ended its policy of abstentionism in Ireland, and began to take up the seats it had won in the Dáil (the party continued to abstain from participating in the House of Commons, which it still does today).
Sinn Féin’s position as a political force in the Republic of Ireland has steadily increased in the three decades since, with the party leading the opposition of the Dáil as of 2021, due (in part) to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael forming a historic coalition government last year, with support from the Green Party.