Book Review: Frank Aiken, Nationalist and Internationalist

AikenEdited by Bryce Evans and Stephen Kelly,

Published by Irish Academic Press,

Dublin 2014


Reviewer: John Dorney

Frank Aiken is one of the most important figures in early twentieth century Irish history. Readers may be surprised by this statement; he is not as well known as, say ,Padraig Pearse or James Connolly, whose material influence on Irish history was much slighter but whose symbolic value is much greater.

One could probably have long arguments with any educated Irish person on the latter or about the likes of Michael Collins or Eamon de Valera, but few would have much to say about Frank Aiken. Yet Aiken was at the centre of the events that defined twentieth century Ireland.

Frank Aiken – at the centre of twentieth century Irish history

Frank Aiken inspects Irish troops in 1954.
Frank Aiken inspects Irish troops in 1954.

Born in Camlough, South Armagh in 1898, he spent the years of his youth in the IRA, rising to become commander of its Fourth Northern Division in 1921 during the War of Independence.

This was a more important position than even equivalent IRA commands as it straddled the new border with Northern Ireland and was therefore at the centre of southern efforts to destabilise the Northern state in early 1922. Aiken was involved in vicious sectarian reprisals with loyalist and state forces in the area.

He was also the source of some acrimony among republicans for his failure to take his heavily armed units across the border from Dundalk – as had been planned – in the ‘Northern Offensive’ of May 1922. As a result there was no coordinated assault on Northern Ireland. In short, Aiken was a key player, both in what he did and what he did not do, in the imposition of partition. This had an added air of poignancy because Aiken’s own home lay across the new border in what was now hostile territory for Irish republicans.

Equally important was his role in the Civil War over the Treaty. Aiken tried to stay neutral after fighting broke out between pro and anti-Treatyites in the south but found himself arrested by the Free State forces and forced to take sides. He broke out of Dundalk gaol and a few weeks later launched a spectacular assault on the town of Dundalk, capturing it and several hundred National Army soldiers. In May 1923, having become IRA Chief of Staff, he effectively ended the Civil War, ordering the anti-Treaty fighters to ‘dump arms’ and go home.

This revolutionary activism would be enough for a book on Aiken, but his influence went a lot further than the ‘guerrilla days’ of 1919-23. He was one of the leading figures in Fianna Fail, the political party that emerged out of the ashes of the anti-Treaty IRA, and helped lead it into constitutional politics. He served as Minister for Defence in the first Fianna Fail governments,  marshalling an army of suspect loyalty (it had after all fought on the opposite side of the Civil War) and helping to bring it onside and also by turns conciliating and repressing the rejectionist rump of the IRA.

Frank Aiken’s journey took him from IRA guerrilla leader to Government minister to influential presence at the United Nations in New York.

During the ‘National Emergency’ (known to the rest of the world as the Second World War), Aiken was a staunch upholder of Irish neutrality, to the extent that he drove US president Franklin Roosevelt into a furious rage when he entertained Aiken in Washington. Aiken refused point blank the President’s requests that Ireland either join the war or openly help the Allies war effort. In Ireland itself Aiken censored with a heavy hand those voices, such as the Irish Times, who showed too marked an enthusiasm for the Allied side, while at the same time locking up those members of the IRA who were courted by German Intelligence. He also has a brief spell as Minister for Finance shortly after the war.

Thus far Aiken had been a guerrilla leader, political partisan and gruff and sometimes authoritarian Minister. However in the 1950s and 1960s, Aiken made a new reputation, as the title of this book suggests, as something of an internationalist. As Minister for Foreign Affairs under the Lemass governments, Aiken spent much of his time at the United Nations headquarters in New York and there did his best to champion the cause of colonised nations struggling to be independent.  It is not too much of a leap to suggest, as this book does, that he tried in middle and old age to apply the principles he had fought for as a youthful guerrilla in the hills of Louth, Down and Armagh, on the international stage.

Among the causes he championed was the recognition of the (communist) People’s Republic of China, though paradoxically he also campaigned for the independence of Tibet. He lobbied for Cyprus to be free of British rule and against partition between Greek and Turkish inhabitants and he argued repeatedly that Palestinian refugees displaced in the war of 1948 (that led to the foundation of Israel) be allowed to return – which to this day is major sticking point in the remorseless and bloody conflict in the region.

He was also behind, in large part, the deployment of Irish Army troops under the United Nations in the Congo in 1960-64 (another region still torn apart by conflict today) in which they ended up being deployed in combat operations in the Katanga province. In short Aiken did much to bring the Irish state out of the state of semi-isolation it found itself in after independence and especially after its neutrality during the Second World War.

Interpreting Frank Aiken

All the above and more the reader will learn from this very interesting book.  The volume is a compilation of work by no less than 12 contributors, mostly historians but also including Noel Dorr, a veteran diplomat who worked with Aiken at the UN. It is difficult in a relatively brief review to comment on all the chapters, so comments must be limited to a few stand-out points.

Eoin Magennis and Robert Lynch discuss Aiken’s time as an IRA guerrilla commander in 1919-23. Like many of his contemporaries he was swept up in the wave of separatist enthusiasm among his generation of youth after the Easter Rising of 1916. His single-mindedness  and often ruthlessness brought him to the top of the IRA and as Magennis shows, along with Eoin O’Duffy he became one of the key IRA commanders in the border region. Lynch discusses three controversial questions; why Aiken did not participate, with his Division, in the IRA’s planned ‘Northern offensive’ of May 1922, his responsibility for the ‘Altnaveigh massacre’ of June 1922 in which 6 Protestant civilians were killed and his ambiguous role in the Civil War.

Robert Lynch discusses AIken’s role in the Altnaveigh massacre of June 1922 and why he did not participate in the IRA’s northern offensive.

Lynch repeats his argument from his book (‘Northern Divisions’) that Aiken’s decision not to cross the border as part of a general uprising was due to his scepticism about the plan itself and concern for his men. While plausible enough, it is now clear that Aiken received orders from Michael Collins at the last minute telling Aiken the offensive was off (as Keiran Glennon has explained in more depth). So the idea that the Northern Offensive was effectively sabotaged by the pro-Treaty Provisional government to weaken the anti-Treaty IRA is not as outrageous as Lynch suggests.

Similarly Lynch argues that Aiken never wanted the Civil War over the Treaty (true enough) and that he deliberately stayed out of it after his raid on Dundalk in August 1922. True to some degree, especially in the early months of the conflict, but Aiken’s correspondence to Liam Lynch from late 1922 shows that he was committed to the anti-Treaty guerrilla campaign by that time and his units did carry out numerous low-level attacks throughout that conflict.

However it was never possible to concentrate so many men and arms in the same place again after the attack on Dundalk and this, as well as reluctance on Aiken’s part, helps to explain his relative inactivity thereafter. Todd Andrews’ claim that he could have put together 1,000 men and marched on Dublin was a fantasy. Apart from the rapidly swelling National Army with its armoured cars and artillery there were also 6,000 British troops with those arms and air support garrisoned in Dublin. Harassing attacks on isolated barracks and use of mines on Free State vehicles was the most his units could do.

Lynch gives a sober assessment of the Altnaveigh killings, putting them in the context of brutal  exchange of reprisals between the IRA and the Ulster Special Constabulary along the border. It is suggested that Aiken was roused to fury by the killing and sexual assault of several Catholics and ordered the reprisal killing of local Protestants. While not producing a ‘smoking gun’ implicating Aiken, Lynch concludes he probably was behind the killings. The atrocity, while uncharacteristic of Aiken’s actions generally, certainly shows that he had a dark side.

Then as later in his career Aiken showed a marked indifference to outside denunciations of his conduct.  He moved on from the Civil War, at first determined, as Brian Hanley shows in his chapter, to keep the IRA together, but rapidly concluding that political means were the best way to advance republican objectives. On becoming Minster for Defence in 1932, he tried to bring the remaining IRA into a Volunteer Reserve of the Army. As Hanley and Lar Joye show here, this was basically unsuccessful  and Aiken ultimately had to resort to imprisoning former IRA comrades who broke the law, something he had no hesitation (again the ruthless side) in doing.

Aiken was often obstinate and authoritarian in defence of Irish neutrality in the Second World War

Aiken’s obstinacy certainly upset many local and international figures during his time as a senior Irish politician. And while he was able to drive the likes of Franklin Roosevelt (and quite often the British, to whom he remained hostile throughout his career) to fury with his independent foreign policy initiatives, his career also shows the limits of what was achieved by the Irish independence struggle. After the birth of the Irish Free State, the banking sector remained largely in the hands of southern unionists, who kept most of their reserves in London and thus discouraged investment in Irish business. An Irish Central Bank was not established until 1942.

During Aiken’s term as Minister for Finance in 1945-48, as Conor Keelan shows, Ireland desperately needed loans for infrastructure projects, but Lord Glenavy head of the Irish Banks Standing Committee blithely refused. Aiken was angry and made some noises about punishing banks that acted ‘contrary to the welfare of the people’. But ultimately there was little he could do.  The entrenched conservatism of such vested interests should be borne in mind when we look back on the economic stagnation of the Irish economy in these years.

Similarly, Aiken in New York (where, apparently Sean Lemass preferred him, the two did not get on) ploughed a lone and distinctly Irish furrow at the UN, much more so than his counterparts today. However as in many other matters, Irish independence in foreign policy faced very real limits. As Noel Dorr, Kate O’Malley and Helen O’Shea’s chapters show, in the end Ireland needed to placate its powerful contemporaries, particularly American and Britain.

Despite his independent streak, Aiken, like other Irish politicians ultimately recognised that Ireland would have to placate both Britain and the US in foreign policy.

While Aiken upset the Americans by recognising that the UN needed to discuss the matter of recognising ‘Red China’, he made it up to them by afterwards championing the cause of Tibet against Chinese communist annexation – a policy that could be framed as both pro-western and anti-colonial. Similarly during the Cuban missile crisis of 1963, Aiken warned Cuba that Ireland had always adopted the policy that it could never be used to threaten its stronger neighbour, Britain, and that Cuba would be wise to do likewise.

Frank Aiken was at heart an Irish republican, never really reconciled to the partition of Ireland. He expressed some regret in later years for the blood that had been shed – advocating during his diplomatic career that peaceful solutions were always better than armed force – but never disavowing the cause of Irish independence. While he did much to advance this cause both as an insurgent and as a politician, he ran into the limits of what a small country could do. This book is somewhat difficult to give an overall verdict on given the many different contributors but is highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand one of the founding figures of modern Ireland.

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