Chapter CXXXVIII: When Irish Ayes Weren't Smiling.
For General Eoin O'Duffy and his green-shirted National Corporate Party (NCP) involvement in the Spanish Civil War had been a last roll of the die and, from a certain perspective, it came up a six. The Irish Brigade accredited itself well in it's first proper campaign, but the real prize for O'Duffy and the leadership had always been to revive the electoral fortunes of the NCP and on that front they certainly succeeded. In this they were aided by the Irish media who found the involvement of several thousand Irish volunteers in an active war to be the perfect distraction from the grinding tedium of the trade dispute with Britain. Even those papers who opposed O'Duffy, preferring to highlight those Irishmen fighting for the Spanish Republic in the International Brigades, indirectly aided the cause, their reports kept the conflict and Irish involvement in the public eye. In the run up to the combined election/referendum campaign of the Summer of 1937 O'Duffy would make the decisive contribution that would propel the NCP into the very front ranks of politics, it was just a shame from his perspective that this contribution was his death.
The exact details of his death are arguably somewhat irrelevant compared to the story, or more accurately legend, that was established around it. The generally accepted version was that General O'Duffy had been leading the Irish Brigade during the Battle of Toledo, after the Brigade had pushed the Republican forces back across the River Tagus, O'Duffy was killed leading the final assault on the Alcazar. Parts of this were undoubtedly true, though missing out key details such as the presence of the rest of the Porto-Irish division (O'Duffy only commanded the Irish brigade, the division itself was led by a Portuguese general) and two other Carlist Requete
divisions, while others parts are clearly (at best) embellishments of the true story, most notably there was no dramatic assault on the Alcazar. Crucially the Monarchists in Spain were prepared to back up the 'official' NCP line about O'Duffy's heroic death, as opposed to giving credence to some of the less noble versions, such as the one in which O'Duffy fell off a bridge and drowned in the Tagus while overseeing the baggage train moving into town. This unified propaganda was not out of any great respect for O'Duffy himself or the fighting qualities of his Brigade, but a recognition that the Irish were an excellent conduit for US money and equipment and so required careful handling. A senior foreign volunteer dying in a dramatic, but victorious, battle also helped feed the wider 'Crusade against Communism' propaganda narrative that the Carlists were developing to counter the Comintern's agitprop. This explains why the version of the story circulated to the American Catholic bishops had a brave Irish-American soldier from the "Meagher Battalion" dying alongside O'Duffy; proper Catholics have always understood the value of a martyr for the cause, especially if the cause was an (undeclared) holy war against the godless red hordes.
Major General Hugo MacNeill, former commandant of Irish Army's Curragh Military College and in the summer of 1937 the new commander of the Irish Brigade in Spain. Approached to be commander of the original force he had reluctantly declined, like many he doubted O'Duffy's wild promises of foreign support and funds. The initial successes of the Irish Brigade were enough to tempt him to think again and the NCP soon convinced him that the route to Dublin, and then onto the Six Counties, lay through Spain and establishing the NCP as a strong political force with a battle hardened and professional military wing. His arrival in Spain, along with the surge of new volunteers and the latest equipment from America, would transform the Irish Brigade as he brought much needed professionalism and training to supplement their raw enthusiasm and hard won battle experience. The reaction in the De Valera government to one of the most senior officers in the Army taking a 'leave of absence' to fight in a conflict can be imagined.
In Ireland the NCP national executive soon rallied, while O'Duffy's death was a shock they soon realised it was also an opportunity. As has been discussed in Chapter CXXVIII
O'Duffy was not actually very good at at the basic nuts and bolts of politics, as an example, despite the ongoing problems caused by the Economic War and the widespread hardship in the countryside, the party had managed to lose support in rural areas. Instead of vocally championing the NCP's policies, which were actually relatively popular, the party had taken the high line and demanded that the Economic War be made a 'national issue' above party politics to stop 'The English' playing the different parties off one another. While very statesman like, this approach had stopped them from attacking the government's mishandling of the issue or pushing their own solution too hard, a symptom perhaps of O'Duffy's failure to realise that the NCP was not a major party who had to be serious and considered, but a minor faction that needed to fight hard and dirty for attention. His replacement, another former Blue Shirt and Irish Army officer Ned Cronin, would not make that mistake. Despite Irish elections operating on the minority party friendly Single Transferable Vote system, Cronin was astute enough to realise the NCP would struggle to win more than a handful of seats and, being widely disliked by the other parties, was not going to be a key player in any post-election coalition building. Instead the NCP would focus it's efforts on the other large electoral event of the summer; the plebiscite on the new constitution.
The Irish constitution was, in the words of De Valera, "a tattered and torn affair" a statement which, while true, failed to mention that it had been De Valera and his Fianna Fáil party that had done a great deal of the tearing. As a simple example, when the Senate repeatedly delayed his government's attempts to ram through constitutional changes, he had the lower house vote to abolish the Senate. As the constitution could be amended by a simple majority vote of the lower house (as the document was still in it's 'transition' period when referenda were not required) this passed and a vital check and balance on the government was lost. Thus to many De Valera was in the position of the glazier imploring the homeowner to repair a window which he had just himself smashed, a charge he could never convincingly deny. Broadly speaking the NCP approved of the "Gaelicification" inherent in the new constitution, stripping out the last few constitutional and legal links to Britain and promoting the Gaelic language, and of the deeply reactionary clauses around the place of women being in the home and not at work. However they also recognised that the route to power for a fascist party rarely ran through entirely legitimate means, so a tattered and 'flexible' constitution was very much in their long term interests. In the short term the constitution was very much associated with De Valera and Fianna Fáil and, despite widespread opposition to it, was expected to pass. If the NCP could tip the balance against it, and be seen to do so, that would be a far more significant political coup than getting half a dozen TDs elected. Thus the NCP very publicly joined the opposition to the constitution and, as in Spain, it was not it's limited membership that would make an impact but it's mere presence. The opposition had struggled with the nationalist atmosphere around the referendum, a fully Irish document replacing one that had been written (at least in part) by the British had a visceral popular appeal, even if the actual contents were less attractive. While the NCP could be accused of a great many things O'Duffy's death had given them rock-solid populist patriotic credentials, helping to support the anti-constitutionalists position that a vote against the constitution was not a vote in favour of Britain. It should also be noted that, while the Church remained very carefully neutral, it was widely rumoured that many a pious American Catholic's donation to 'fight communism in Spain' ended up diverted to fund political adverts to stop the Irish constitution.
Cork Harbour during the Great War, a Majestic-class pre-dreadnought in the foreground serving as harbour guard ship. One of the so called 'Treaty Ports' Britain retained ownership of some of the facilities after the Anglo-Irish treaty, in the case of Cork this amounted to; the harbour fortress of Spike Island (rear left), fuel stocks and refuelling rights at Haulbowline (the enclosed facility behind the pre-dreadnought) and various mooring buoys permanently reserved for His Majesty's Ships. To the confusion of the British, the Irish government had added the return of these ports to their list of demands to end the trade war. While the motivation for the Irish government to want tear up the treaty was obvious, what confused the British was why it was being linked to the wider trade war. The issue had nothing to do with trade or even economic matters and, from the British perspective, Dublin had no leverage as it was losing the trade war. While the Irish government would dispute that there was certainly no clamour in Westminster for Britain to make concessions to end the conflict, if anything positions were hardening.
The general election campaign proceeded in parallel but provided no relief for the embattled Fianna Fáil government. Their policy had been to push the costs of the economic war onto large farms and landowners, who were never going to vote for them anyway, and try to protect agricultural workers, small farmers and the urban population. Strenuous efforts had been made to encourage domestic industry to manufacture imported products the hope being to provide employment, bypass British tariffs and generally make the country more independent. This had worked to an extent, new factories had opened making everything from light bulbs to glass bottles and a combination of price guarantees and minimum wages had kept food prices tolerable and the rural economy going for the first few years of the dispute. The problem was that by early 1937 Dublin had run out of money, as the economy declined all of these measures became more expensive to fund even as tax revenues continued to decline despite regular rises in the headline rate. The breaking point had been the annual purchase of the herds of cattle that should have been exported to Britain, originally a temporary measure it had become a pillar of the emergency economy and was vital in stopping the livestock industry collapsing and prolonging the 'free beef' scheme that was keeping food relatively cheap. A second attempt at a Coal-Cattle Pact with Britain was made at the start of the year but had been bluntly rebuffed, London was in no mood to make concessions when there was little domestic pressure from the coal industry and a general annoyance at Dublin's continuing efforts to link unrelated matters to a final resolution of the problem. Funding was eventually found, but only by raiding almost every other item in the budget, leaving De Valera going into the election having had to slash guaranteed purchase rates for every other agricultural product, reduce unemployment relief and raise taxes. Fine Gael, who had long criticised the conduct of the Economic War, leapt on the opportunity and fully committed to ending the trade war as a priority, promising no end of benefits when 'the greatest market for our products' was re-opened. Worse for Fianna Fáil their left flank soon proved to be vulnerable as well, the urban areas they had taken for granted were under pressure from the Labour Party which was highlighting the lack of a minimum wage for industrial work compared to the guarantees and minimum rates showered on the countryside. Ironically the new factories that Fianna Fáil had worked so hard to establish had proved popular recruiting grounds for the trade unions and this was translating into support for the Labour Party in Dublin, Cork and Galway.
The referendum results were the first to be announce, being a simple yes-no ballot the counting was faster. The proposed constitution change had been rejected 54% to 46% on an 80% turnout, broadly speaking the Fianna Fáil heartlands along the west coast had backed it and everywhere else had rejected it. Given the coalition arrayed against it (all the opposition parties, the independents, almost all the trade unions and every women's group and league in the country) this was a surprisingly good result, it was however still a defeat. The result did not reflect a deep seated support for the current arrangements but a dislike of the new document, the process used to produce it and the people proposing it. As was often the case the people wanted change, just not the particular change being proposed and so had stuck with the status quo. The election result would eventually produce a similar result, while Fine Gael, Labour and even the NCP all gained seats, Fianna Fáil still just hung on as the largest party. In theory a 'rainbow' opposition of anyone who wasn't Fianna Fáil had the numbers, but as predicted no-one would work with the NCP and so a Green-Red Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition was assembled. De Valera remained as President of the Executive Council, giving the Labour leader William Norton the poisoned chalice of Minister of Finance. Still committed to fighting the economic war, the new coalition was also committed to raising industrial wages, protecting small farmers, keeping livestock and food prices stable and continuing to invest in new industries, the desperate efforts to square those often contradictory demands would define much of the domestic agenda of the government. Internationally the new government remained committed to neutrality, but the coalition fatally weakened De Valera's efforts to outlaw volunteering in Spain; it proved impossible to come up with a form of words that suppressed the pro-Monarchist Irish Brigade without also covering the many trade union and left wing volunteers in the International Brigades. An outlawing of the latest paramilitary arm of the NCP and another crackdown on marches in uniform followed, but the NCP itself was established enough to survive and continue to reap the benefits of it's 'martyrs' in Spain. The question remained, what would happen to Ireland when those 'heroes' returned home, especially if the economy had still not recovered.
Much has happened in Ireland, not all of it good. To begin with the over-arching issue, the more I look at the Anglo-Irish trade war, and the deals that were done, the less respect I have for Neville Chamberlain. I know the stereotypes about him being a foreign policy idiot who only ever appeased aren't really true, but his dealings with the Free State do not help his case. Technically of course the Coal-Cattle Pact was Baldwin's fault, but Nev was Chancellor and pushed heavily for it. Here with a different end to 1935 it gets delayed while everyone looks at Abyssinia, then none of the subsequent leaders would be quite that spineless. And as mentioned having the Irish beef quota to reallocate across South America and the Empire is fairly handy and is papering over some serious questions, so the status quo probably suits wider Imperial interests quite well.
Ned Cronin, real chap not very nice (as you probably could have guessed) did fall out with the NCP over the Spain adventure in OTL but still moved in the same circles and the whole far right was a bit of an overlapping mess, as it so often was. Which brings us to Hugh MacNeill who turns up in various reports as the notional leader of the Irish Brigade, it appears he was interested but correctly doubted the NCP capable of organising it. Aside from his ultra hardline views on Irish unification (to the point of openly advocating war with Britain) he was also pro-German, in favour of 'motivating' Irish youth and educating them to have the 'correct' views, that sort of thing. It didn't seem a huge leap for him to go full on Green Shirt if they proved a bit more competent.
The Constitution was of course passed in OTL but it was not a nice document, the 'Woman's place is in the home' clause in particular jars on modern eyes and shockingly is still in place to this day. But then De Valera was not a fan of women doing much of anything and had introduced the 'marriage bar' a couple of years earlier banning a married woman from any government job and heavily pressuring the private sector to do the same. The Gaelic language clauses were also, surprisingly, not popular as barely anyone spoke it day to day and couldn't see the reason for spending so much money on a minority interest. See also the Gaelic League repeatedly getting people appointed to the Senate who the public then voted out the first chance they got.
OTL constitution vote had 10% spoilt/blank ballots, it was not popular but many felt they couldn't vote for the 'British' status quo. Here Fianna Fáil are a lot less popular so the party line split favours 'No' and there is less stigma around No in general as the hyper-nationalist NCP are backing it, so those spoiled ballots become Nos as well. Those two factors, plus the Church being a bit less neutral and leaning a bit more No (well anti-Fianna Fáil, which amounts to the same thing) push the result the other way.
Election result has Fianna Fáil doing worse, Fine Gale doing a bit better and Labour doing a lot better, which I think makes sense. Fianna Fáil lost seats in OTL and lost their majority, but Labour had been backing them and the government limped along until new elections under the new constitution. Here it's a formal coalition so Labour has got something more tangible out of it, something they may come to regret.
Up Next: Japan and the Far East, where there are also elections and matters of economics and grand strategy to discuss.