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Government urged to apologise for the at least 77 executed by Free State during Civil War

In the Dáil in 2011, Leo Varadkar said those executed without trial during this time period were “murdered”.

Image: Shutterstock/Derick Hudson

THE GOVERNMENT HAS been urged to issue a full apology to those who were executed by the Irish Free State during the civil war, as the country gets set for commemorations to mark the centenary of the War of Independence and subsequent civil war.

Official numbers put the number of anti-treaty republicans and civilians executed during the civil war at 77, but it is claimed that many more were executed or murdered during the conflict. 

Sinn Féin’s Pat Buckley submitted a question on if an apology would be issued, and cited comments made by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the Dáil in 2011 where he said those killed without a trial during this time were “murdered”. 

While Minister Josepha Madigan would not commit to such an apology in her answer to Buckley, she said it was important to approach this “challenging and sensitive” time of commemorations sensibly, and base it on a “respectful” approach. 

‘History lessons’

In a parliamentary question to Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan, Buckley asked her plans on:

[Issuing] a State apology for all IRA volunteers, republicans and civilians executed by the Free State during the Civil War whether carried out officially, unofficially or summarily in view of a statement in Dáil Éireann on 24 November 2011.

In the Dáil on that date in 2011, then-Minister Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar made a number of comments during a debate about a new road transport bill.

Sinn Féin TDs had proposed an amendment that would exclude “politically motivated offences covered by the Good Friday Agreement and which predate the enactment of the agreement”. 

Varadkar opposed this amendment, saying that offences covered by the bill were very serious ones, and this bill was not the place to have a discussion on these issues.

The now-Taoiseach also pressed home that he felt there was a difference between the different eras of armed conflict on this island.

“I do not want to get involved in history lessons but there is a big difference between the struggle of 1918 to 1921 and that in the period to which the Deputies refer. The earlier struggle had democratic legitimacy whereas the struggle which occurred in recent times did not have the support of the majority of the people,” he said.

Varadkar went on to reference to a notorious instance where the Free State executed a number of anti-treaty republicans in the Kerry town of Ballyseedy. 

Deputy Ferris raised the issue of Ballyseedy, for example, and I have been there. I can say, in clear conscience and without any doubt in my mind, that the events of Ballyseedy constituted an atrocity. I can also say that people who were murdered, or executed, without trial by the Cumann na nGaedheal government were murdered. It was an atrocity and those people killed without a trial by the first government were murdered. That is my view.

Atrocities

While there is a lack of consensus around how many people were executed by the Free State during the civil war, there has been a certain consensus around 77 instances where an execution was formally sanctioned.

The passing of the Public Safety Bill gave the Free State the power to impose the death penalty for a number of offences through military courts.

William T. Cosgrave, then-Dáil Éireann president, told the house in Septenber 1922: “Although I have always objected to a death penalty, there is no other way I know of in which ordered conditions can be restored in this country, or any security obtained for our troops, or to give our troops any confidence in us as a Government.”

In the case of Ballyseedy, as many as 23 republican prisoners were executed in the space of a month. 

The first executions followed shortly after and continued to the end of the civil war in May 1923. As well as the official executions, there were numerous unofficial ones, with some estimates saying there were more than 100.

‘Challenging and sensitive phase’

In her response to Buckley, Minister Josepha Madigan said: “As we approach the most challenging and sensitive phase of the Decade of Centenaries, the Government will continue to be advised and supported in its commemoration plans by the guidance of the Expert Advisory Group on Centenary Commemorations, and in consultation with the All Party Consultation Group on Commemorations.”

She said that it was important that the State’s approach to commemorations continues to focus on reconciliation on the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. 

“I am committed to ensuring that the State’s approach to remembering this very complex period in our history, and all of those who lost their lives during those years, will be based on the respectful, sensitive, appropriate and authentic approach that has become the hallmark of the Decade of Centenaries commemorative programme,” she added.

Given the Taoiseach’s previous statement on this particular matter, Buckley told TheJournal.ie he originally submitted the query to Leo Varadkar. He has since written to the Ceann Comhairle because he believes it is Varadkar who should respond, rather than Madigan.

He said: “We are approaching some very important years of commemoration in terms of the history of our nation and the struggle and sacrifice of many, many people for our freedom.

There are stories of heroism but sadly many stories of great wrong. These stories are often untold, especially when they implicate the Free State in that wrong.

“Ballyseedy, Countess Bridge, Cahersiveen and Drumboe Castle and many others must be remember. These stories must be told, these names and experiences must be collected and the state must recognise its wrong.

The Civil War caused much division and much hurt, it is long since time that we allowed honesty, openness and remembrance to heal that wound and enrich our national memory.

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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