A Very Old Private Army

While today’s Dail debates a motion calling for “complete IRA decommissioning and an end to all paramilitary and criminal activity” by the republican movement, 50 years ago the Seanad was dealing with a motion highlighting what Dr. Sheehy Skeffington called the then Government’s failure “to take any active steps to stop in the Republic of Ireland open recruiting, drilling and the possession of arms by private military organisations”. If it all seems quite familiar, that’s because it is.Skeffington began by citing Taoiseach John A. Costello’s comments in a Dail debate a year earlier in 1954 where he said:

“They cannot profess loyalty to the democratic institutions of the State and, at the same time, applaud minority groups which defy those institutions by word and by deed.”

Costello went on to say:
“It is laid down in the Constitution that: ‘War shall not be declared and the State shall not participate in any war save with the assent of Dáil Éireann.’ The right to raise and maintain military or armed forces is vested exclusively in the Oireachtas, and the Constitution expressly forbids the raising or maintaining, for any purpose whatsoever, of any armed force other than the forces raised and maintained by the Oireachtas.”

Skeffington, however, pointed out that a year after the Taoiseach made these remarks that “there could be no mention of a practical step, no mention of further action. The clauses in the Constitution which the Taoiseach quoted are most apposite, and yet I suggest that, despite the fact that he quoted them and made clear his stand on that point—he referred to them a year ago—despite that fact, to-day in this Republic of ours those clauses of our Constitution are being openly defied. I am not happy that last year’s appeal, good though it was, has had a useful result in practice…

“It will be seen that the appeal of the Taoiseach last year, and his reference to the Constitution, have had no result at all; and those clauses of our Constitution are being openly defied, and have been equally openly defied since his last statement.

The Taoiseach in this year’s statement said: “Our attitude requires to be stated repeatedly.” To that I should like to put a question mark. I should like to ask why?

I should like to try and ascertain why it is that the Government’s attitude has to be stated so repeatedly? I should like to suggest that one reason why it has to be stated and restated is that the Government’s attitude is not always easy to guess at from its actions, and so it has frequently to be reformulated since sometimes it cannot easily be guessed….

“Again, at column 1343, the Taoiseach said in a simple and effective phrase:—

“The very mark of a civilised State is that the guns are all under lock and key…”

To that I would say: “Excellent!” but I feel entitled, as a public representative, to ask when is the Government going to put these guns under lock and key?”

Skeffington went on to address possible measures against the IRA:

“I have, in all sincerity, every sympathy with the Government and with the Taoiseach in the present circumstances, and I would certainly share his detestation of repressive measures. But when it is his opinion that the time has come when reasoned arguments are not listened to, when the deaf ear is turned to them, and when things continue as if no reasoned argument had been put, then I am afraid measures of repression will have to be introduced by us to stop the bearing of arms, drilling and recruiting of private armies in this part of the country.

“It is my belief that the Taoiseach, who is not in an easy position, is quite fundamentally and entirely a man of peace, but he now recognises that his appeals have failed. He recognises that in the statement that he made, and which I have just quoted, and I would ask him what, then, are the Government waiting for?

“Are they waiting for another act of armed violence? Are they waiting for an act of armed violence in this part of the country? I suggest that such a pause, such an interval, is merely an interval which allows those armed forces to grow stronger, and will render them more difficult to deal with, when eventually the Government decides to deal with them.”

Full motion here.