THE first shots of the Civil War were fired on 18 February 1922, when an IRA unit commanded by Ernie O’Malley seized a police station in Clonmel.
The last shots were fired in April this year when Séamus Ó Néill, president of Fianna Fáil’s Comhairle Dáilcheantair for Waterford, issued a statement criticising Micheál Martin for proposing a government coalition with Fine Gael.
Mr O’Neill urged Mr Martin to step down as Fianna Fáil’s leader, recalling: “In 1927 Eamon de Valera called on all Republicans to unite in opposition to WT Cosgrave’s Government, which they did. I am now calling on all true Republicans in our constituency to unite and demand the right to vote against this proposal.”
Mr O’Neill’s gunfire was metaphorical, of course, but he shot himself in the foot nonetheless.
There may have been sound reasons for Fianna Fáil to reject a deal with Fine Gael, but Eamon de Valera’s dispute with WT Cosgrave was not one of them.
I doubt if many people even knew what Mr O’Neill was talking about and, for those who did, it must have seemed like a good reason for supporting the pact and burying the bitter legacy of the Civil War for once and for all.
There is no-one alive today who remembers the Civil War. When, in the late 1970s, I joined the staff of the dear departed Irish Press, there were a few elderly journalists who had hazy memories of it as a troubled time from their childhood. They recalled talk of great hatreds, when families were divided and old comrades fought each other to the death.
Was the cause worth dying for? They did not think so and they did not contend that the Civil War, or the rows that shaped the Dáil of De Valera’s day, had any relevance to the politics of the the 1970s, which centred on planning rows, fiscal rectitude, efforts to legalise contraception and attempts to bring peace to the North.
Today the dispute between Cosgrave and De Valera has as much relevance to our politics as the one between Elizabeth I and Hugh O’Neill. So it was good to hear Mr Martin declare his intention to hang pictures of Dev and Michael Collins side by side in the taoiseach’s office. Maybe they’ll both be turning in their graves – but who cares? It’s history. And what we should do about history is to learn from it, not live by it.
The lesson from that sad chapter of our history should be never to come to blows over matters that can be settled by debate. The issues behind the Civil War divisions – the name of the State, the oath of allegiance, the British right to use some Irish ports – became irrelevant in a very short time.
All except partition, about which we continued a futile fight for 70 years before accepting that it, too, could not be resolved by bloodshed.
Civil War issues apart, the differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael always had more to do with style than substance and there has been no major policy difference between them for years.
It is a sign of their compatibility that this government formation came under more strain from the inclusion of the Greens than from the partnership of the two great rivals and their coming together was quickly pushed out of the headlines by a controversy over ministerial appointments.
Nevertheless, I believe the new coalition agreement is one of the most significant developments in modern Irish history and will eventually lead to the amalgamation of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the parties whose phony war has shaped our politics for most of a century.
It will lead to new ways of thinking and parties that will be supported for what they do, not what their founders did.
But that is a matter of another day. For now I am just happy to record that, at long, long last, the war over.