The Irish civil war resulted in the establishment of a deeply conservative and profoundly reactionary government in the newly created Free State. Its claim to democratic legitimacy was based on a narrow election victory decided not so much by popular approval but as Mellows said, by the people’s fear of ‘immediate and terrible war’. Cumann na nGaedheal was unsure of its hold on power. It feared that a progressive republican message would lead to rejection of the dominion status it had agreed to through the Treaty and bloodily implemented during the civil war.
At the same time, the equally reactionary Roman Catholic Church was also fearful that its global influence was being threatened by left-wing and socialist revolutionaries. By the same token the Irish Catholic hierarchy was deeply hostile to the republican side in the civil war, routinely condemning its policies and activities. Nor was its paranoia eased in the following decade as many prominent republicans supported a socialist agenda.
Little surprise therefore that an unofficial, but nevertheless real, partnership was formed between Ireland’s right wing political establishment and an ultra conservative Church. In return for whole hearted support for the existent status quo, the Free State government placed enormous power in the hands of the Catholic hierarchy. Education, orphanages, reformatory schools and hospitals were managed by the Church. It was a relationship disturbingly similar to that which emerged twenty years later in Franco’s Spain and with a similar objective, to resist progressive change.
The partnership was so advantageous for a conservative ruling class that De Valera maintained the concordat when his Fianna Fail party replaced Cumann na nGaedheal as parliamentary caretaker of the Treaty. Not only that, but he embedded the arrangement by inserting a special placing for the Catholic Church in his 1937 constitution.
Given such power, the Catholic Church doubled down on its more extreme practices all the while operating with collusion from a state happy to be sustained by clerical approval.
That the cruel treatment of women and children in those vile institutions has finally been acknowledged by the perpetrators is a measure of progress. What has not been acknowledged and will not be acknowledged by them is the underlying reason for why this appalling situation happened in the first place. A damaging, self-serving alliance was created for the worst of all reasons: the preservation of two disreputable power structures, one clerical the other political/economic.
Tommy McKearney is a left wing and trade union activist.
He is author of The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament.
Follow on Twitter @Tommymckearney