Dublin governments were conspiring with Britain to smear prominent republicans and defeat the IRA as long ago as the 1930’s, according to a new radio documentary.
The reputation of former Fianna Fail leader Eamon de Valera has again taken a battering in the release of documents from the National Archives in London.
At the time, the IRA enjoyed considerable support among the Irish people, while a weak Dublin government was struggling to exert its authority.
According to a letter drafted in 1939 by a British official, de Valera’s regime asked the British government to provide propoganda that would depict IRA chief of staff Sean Russell as a paid agent of Soviet Russia.
Such “information” would be “of the greatest possible assistance to the Dublin authorities in dealing with him since it would practically eliminate the risk of him being treated as a patriotic martyr”, the letter said.
The author of the letter said Dublin was “seriously disturbed” by IRA actions on the British mainland, in which electricity pylons and telephone lines had been damaged, and “anxious to prevent future” incidents. He said de Valera had sought covert assistance from Britain as his administration could not take “overt action” against the IRA.
De Valera was also said to be concerned that the IRA prisoners captured in Britain would become the subject of a political campaign. Such prisoners included author Brendan Behan, well known for his imprisonment “in the belly of the beast”.
De Valera’s government warned lengthy jail sentences would be “embarrassing” for Dublin if the IRA men could “be made the subject of popular agitation in Ireland for release on the ground that they were ‘political prisoners”.
Secrecy was a key condition of the exchanges between de Valera’s regime and London.
The disclosure of de Valera’s requests, says Dublin City University lecturer Donnacha O Beachain, would have undermined de Valera’s “image of being the pristine Republican leader who had heroically and unstintingly challenged the British”.
However, his intervention has had numerous parallels and echoes in the seven decades since then, with client regimes in both parts of Ireland working with the British to combat republican opponents.