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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Members of the First Dáil - Kevin O'Higgins

Kevin O'Higgins

Kevin Christopher O'Higgins (Irish: Caoimhín Críostóir Ó hUigín; 7 June 1892 – 10 July 1927) was an Irish politician who served as Vice-President of the Executive Council and Minister for Justice. He was part of early nationalist Sinn Féin, before going on to become a prominent member of Cumann na nGaedhael. O'Higgins initiated the An Garda Síochána police force. His brother Thomas and nephews Tom and Michael were also elected TDs.

Along with Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and Eoin O'Duffy, O'Higgins is an important figure in Irish nationalist historiography, representing a more "conservative revolutionary" position when contrasted with republicanism. After having a role in the Irish War of Independence, he went on to defend order and stability, as part of the nationalist pro-Treaty side during the Irish Civil War. He was later murdered by a gang of republicans on the way to Mass.

Kevin O'Higgins was born in Stradbally, County Laois and was educated at the Jesuit-run Clongowes Wood, at Knockbeg College, at St. Patrick's Seminary at Maynooth, and at University College Dublin. His aunt had married the Nationalist MP Tim Healy. He joined Sinn Féin and was imprisoned in 1918. While he was imprisoned he became MP for Queen's County (Laois).
In 1919, the First Dáil elected its "Aireacht" (Ministry) and O'Higgins was appointed as the Assistant Minister for Local Government during the Irish War of Independence.
Sinn Féin then split in 1922 over the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. In the debate that took place in the Dáil on the Treaty, O'Higgins outlined the reasons for his support thus:

Last October the Minister of Local Government W. T. Cosgrave and myself came deliberately to the decision that we would not recommend any settlement involving allegiance to the king of England. That is true, but I am not ashamed to plead guilty to the fact that I consider political realities and the consequence of my vote... I would have gone back to war rather than recommend a settlement involving allegiance if the Treaty had not been signed. But I face the political situation and realise that some of the biggest personalities in our movement ... have considered this is the last ounce [that] could be got from England, and who, knowing the situation better than I do, attached their names to that document.

When running for election in 1922, he told a crowd:
I have not abandoned any political aspirations to which I have given expression in the past, but in the existing circumstances I advise the people to trust to evolution rather than revolution for their attainment.

In 1922, he was elected Teachta Dála (TD) for Leix–Offaly. He became Minister for Justice and External Affairs in the Provisional Government, as well as Vice-President of the Executive Council (equivalent to a Deputy Prime Minister).

When the Irish Civil War broke out in June 1922 he tried to restore law and order by introducing tough measures. He feared, as did many of his colleagues, that a prolonged civil conflict would give the British an excuse, in the eyes of the world, to reassert their control in the Free State. Between 1922 and 1923, Kevin O'Higgins confirmed the sentences of execution of seventy-seven republican prisoners of war, including Rory O'Connor who had been best man at his wedding. O'Higgins and his colleagues did not view them as prisoners of war, but as criminals.
He was given a nominal posting to the Irish Army during the early stages of the war, which he described as "very short, though very brilliant". General Richard Mulcahy was less impressed, recalling that "O'Higgins' personal presence in the Adjutant-General's office at that time (July–August 1922) was the personal presence of a person who didn't understand what was going on". In reprisal for O'Higgins' role in the executions of captured republicans, the Anti-Treaty IRA murdered his father and burned his family home in Stradbally, County Laois.

O'Higgins also set up An Garda Síochána (an unarmed police force). As Minister for External Affairs, he successfully increased Ireland's autonomy within the Commonwealth of Nations. O'Higgins was seen very much as the "strong man" of the Cabinet. He once described himself as one of "the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution". Though far-left political enemies characterised him as having supposed "fascist" tendencies, O'Higgins was to the fore in resisting the small wing of Cumann na nGaedhael who looked to Italy for inspiration. He did not approve of left-wing feminism, for instance when asked by Labour Party leader Thomas Johnson in the Dáil whether he believed giving women the vote had been a success, O'Higgins replied, "I would not like to pronounce an opinion on it in public." He famously derided the socialist influenced Democratic Programme of the First Dáil as "mostly poetry". Before his death, he toyed with Arthur Griffith's idea of a dual monarchy in order to end the Partition of Ireland.

On Sunday, 10 July 1927, O'Higgins was assassinated at the age of 35 on the Booterstown Avenue side of Cross Avenue while on his way to Mass at the Church of the Assumption by three anti-Treaty members of the IRA, Timothy Coughlin, Bill Gannon and Archie Doyle, in revenge for his part in the executions of IRA men during the civil war. He was afforded a state funeral and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

His brother Thomas F. O'Higgins and nephews Tom O'Higgins and Michael O'Higgins were later elected TDs.

None of the three assassins was ever apprehended or charged, but Coughlin was killed in 1928 by a police informer in Dublin. The other two benefited from the amnesty to IRA members issued by Éamon de Valera upon his assumption of power in 1932. Doyle remained a prominent IRA militant and took part in various acts in the early 1940s. He lived to an old age (d.1987) and continued to take pride in having killed O'Higgins. Gannon (d.1965) joined the Communist Party of Ireland and had a central role in organising Irish volunteers for the Spanish Civil War, and in party publications his part in assassinating O'Higgins is downplayed.

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