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A Servant of the State

Frank Callanan writes: It is an honour to be asked to speak on this occasion to commemorate Kevin O’Higgins. O’Higgins was the first minister for justice under the Ministers and Secretaries Act of 1924, appointed early that year. He had held following the death of Collins the post of minister for home affairs, the predecessor department to the Department of Justice, and was from December 1922 vice-president of the executive council. Following the election of June 1927 he also became minister for external affairs. He was murdered very soon afterwards, on July 10th, 1927.

This is an occasion to acknowledge O’Higgins’s role in the governments of which he was part and in the political tradition of the state. I think it is fair to say that full justice has never been rendered to Kevin O’Higgins. It would be too much to say that he has been made a scapegoat for the measures that were taken in the course of the civil war and afterwards to sustain a young state, but he has in some ways been treated as a figure set apart. It is that slight setting apart of O’Higgins I would like to address.



Ireland is a country which in its modern politics ‑ which I would take as dating from Parnell ‑ has been tightly constrained in its political choices. There is often a single course that realism dictates. The fascination of the early governments of the Irish Free State is that they faced those constricted choices in peculiarly unsparing form: in bringing an end to a civil war, in establishing an apparatus of government, and in the aftermath of the civil war in dealing with the British government and the government of Northern Ireland.

The art of government in the independent Irish state has continuously involved finding a narrow path as a way through besetting difficulties. Governments have frequently had to cleave tightly to a single course, to be as resourceful as they could be about it, to strike out imaginatively where possible to make a reality of Irish sovereignty, and to try to carry the country with them.

This has been pretty constant. It is what the first governments and their successors have struggled to achieve. Recent Irish governments have not had to wrestle with a civil war and its aftermath, but in a small open economy under globalisation they have confronted constricted policy choices. It leaves a paradigm of Irish politics in which those who say they are realists are confronted by those who believe that what passes as realism is the institutionalisation of a failure of social imagination or political nerve. The abiding interest of Kevin O’Higgins is that his career is so starkly concerned with that confrontation.

If there is a single theme in O’Higgins’s career it is the primacy of civil government, which found its most striking expression in the Army Mutiny of 1924. That was controversial, and highly divisive within the pro-Treaty camp. It brought O’Higgins into collision with some who had been close to Collins, with some in the Army, and with the IRB. He has often been accused of pursuing this end with exorbitant relish, or at the service of his own ambition, but it is hard to see that it was not necessary. It did not make him popular. Bryan Cooper remarked of him: “I am certain that if he woke up some morning and found that he was popular, he would examine his conscience.”

O’Higgins’s rise was meteoric, especially for a politician without a background of military involvement. He was a new man, but one with strong family links to the conservative wing of the Irish Party that Sinn Féin had displaced. He attracted a certain amount of suspicion. The reflective Liam de Róiste, a pro-Treaty deputy, wrote in October 1922 an assessment of the leadership post-Griffith and Collins, in which he observed: “[Kevin] O’Higgins is probably the ablest, but he can be very bitter and somewhat unscrupulous, I think.”

Moreover the drawing of a veil over what was adjudged necessary to preserve the new state contributed to the posthumous setting apart of O’Higgins to which I referred. Even though arguments about the treaty and the civil war were to be entrenched if often formulaic themes in Irish politics there remained a certain zone of reticence around the civil war and its aftermath. It was reflected in Seán Lemass’s reluctance to discuss that conflict, at the very end of which his brother was abducted and murdered in horrific circumstances. Indeed the fates of Noel Lemass and Kevin O’Higgins are in some respects twinned.

When one looks at the early Cosgrave governments it is clear that O’Higgins was a driving, dynamic and intellectually fecund minister. There is a need for men and women of that cut in politics. He had great energy and elan and they are perhaps the attributes at which most of all his three assassins, rogue members of the IRA, took brutal aim.

That is not to say that he was always right. His resurrection in 1926 of the idea of a dual monarchy under which there would be a separate “kingdom of Ireland” sharing the same monarch as Great Britain seems quite wrong-headed and did not in any case commend itself either to the British government or to James Craig, the prime minister of Northern Ireland. This personal initiative was prompted by a desire to overcome the partition of Ireland rather than anything else, but one still blenches to find O’Higgins writing breezily to Hazel Lavery that “a Dublin coronation is still a long way off”.

That brings us to the question of O’Higgins’s profoundly conservative Catholic views on moral and social issues, of which his proscription of divorce even for non-Catholics is the most obvious. He was not alone in holding such views, though it might fairly be said hhe was more insistently rigorous than he absolutely had to be. His stern Catholicism is not of our time, and one could also argue that it was philosophically at odds with his overriding belief in the state. The problem with condemning O’Higgins on this account is not that it is in some degree anachronistic or unhistorical but that it denies the point of his nationalism. The modern state that O’Higgins helped to constitute espouses values and policies many of which were repugnant to him. Indeed one can see that most clearly by looking at the diverse and expanding remit of the Department of Justice, which would have been unthinkable to him. But that is not the main point. However morally conservative his values, he accepted and was committed to the logic of independence. That is the point.

It is also the justification for following the painfully narrow path of realism. What this state has become, and has the capacity to become in the future, is the vindication of mainstream realism in Irish politics. In constituting a viable state, things became possible that could not have previously been achieved, or were indeed unthinkable. In time great things can be achieved.

It is not a paradox but entirely apt that the murder of O’Higgins should have created the political conditions in which Fianna Fáil entered the Dáil, taking office in 1932.

Much of O’Higgins is in the observation for which he is best known, his statement at a meeting of the Irish Society in Oxford University in October 1924 that “the provisional government was simply eight young men in the City Hall standing amid the ruins of one administration, with the foundations of another not yet laid, and with wild men screaming through the keyhole”. It is the reference to the men, for they were all men, as young that is most striking. We don’t know how Kevin O’Higgins would have developed. He remains to a degree frozen in the long moment of his death as the occupant of a particular role – that of the minister for this department – rather than as an entire political persona. He remains in that way doubly enigmatic. Something of that enigma is captured in Yeats’s lines from “The Municipal Gallery Revisited”:

Kevin O’Higgins’ countenance that wears
A gentle questioning look that cannot hide
A soul incapable of remorse or rest;

He deserves the recognition and gratitude of the state. He is a figure of the Irish state and not merely a sectional party figure.

This event is a worthy initiative of the present minister. It should not be taken to be party political. It provides the occasion not just to remember the first minister for justice, but to reflect on the nature of Irish party politics, traditions of governance in the Irish state, the development of this department as an institution and the diverse and challenging role it plays in modern Ireland.

22/12/2017

This is a version of a speech made in the Department of Justice in Dublin on November 23rd, 2017 to commemorate the death of the first minister for justice, assassinated on July 10th, 1937.