At last 31 years after his death, here is a full-length study of one of the most neglected military and political figures of Ireland’s struggle for independence, who later played a significant role in articulating Irish foreign policy through the United Nations.
It is not a biography but a collection of essays by reputable historians on the various aspects of Frank Aiken’s life. It has been undertaken with the cooperation of Frank Aiken junior.
Aiken’s career is studied first as a ‘Nationalist’ and then as an ‘Internationalist’. The nationalist phase covers his role as a youthful leader of the Fourth IRA Division in Armagh and Louth during the War of Independence and the Civil War; his promotion to Chief of Staff of the anti-Treaty IRA and his decision to end its military campaign; his break with his former comrades and his following Eamon de Valera in the setting up of Fianna Fáil.
From 1932 to 1948 he filled various ministerial posts such as defence, co-ordination of defensive measures (1939-45) and finance. In 1951 he left domestic affairs to serve two terms as Minister for External Relations spending long periods in New York at sessions of the United Nations.
He was dropped from the Cabinet by Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, after the 1969 general election and stood down from the Dáil in1973 in protest against Lynch allowing Charles Haughey, compromised by the Arms Trial, to stand again for the Dáil.
The essay on ‘Frank Aiken’s Civil Wars 1922-1923’ accepts the charge that Aiken was ultimately responsible for the so-called ‘Altnaveigh Massacre’, an atrocity in which his Fourth Division murdered six members of Presbyterian families in front of children. Aiken ruled his men with such iron discipline that the historian, Robert Lynch, concludes that “while there is no direct evidence that Aiken himself ordered the attack, the circumstantial evidence is compelling”.
Aiken’s overall role in the Civil War is puzzling. He kept his Fourth Division aloof from the order to attack along the border. He made personal pleas to both sides to avert a civil war and was determined to stay out of it to the anger of his anti-Treaty comrades. Yet he was appointed chief-of-staff of the IRA in the final weeks of hostilities and gave the order in May 1923 to cease fighting and dump arms thus avoiding the stigma of surrender, a ploy that successive IRA campaigns have followed.
Aiken’s role as newspaper censor during the Emergency years is seen as excessive, driving the editor of The Irish Times, Robert Smyllie, to describe him as a bigoted buffoon, “unintelligently impossible” to deal with. It seems that Aiken privately enjoyed making the lives of editors a misery.
Even pastoral letters of bishops were not immune from his red pen to protect neutrality.
His brief stint as Minister for Finance from 1945 to 1948 is usually neglected. He had asked de Valera for the post when the war ended and won respect from some of his civil servants like T.K. Whitaker for his efforts to drag the country out of the post-war economic depression.
But Aiken was not popular with ministerial colleagues, usually seen as dour and humourless. This did not worry him and he always had the trust and support of de Valera with whom he embarked on a world tour in 1948 on a fruitless anti-Partition campaign when Fianna Fáil was in opposition.
There are excellent chapters dealing with Aiken’s second stint as Minister for External Relations 1957-1969 when he plunged into his UN role.
Determined to follow an independent line in accordance with his republican, anti-imperialist background, Aiken infuriated the United States by voting to discuss the admittance of Communist China to take the seat of nationalist China on the Security Council. His anti-colonial stance also irritated France, Britain and Belgium then grappling with African independence movements.
When Sean Lemass succeeded de Valera as Taoiseach in 1959, Aiken’s freedom of action was curtailed.
With Lemass focussed on securing Irish entry into the EEC from 1961, there was to be no more irritation of future EEC colleagues. But he built up an impressive record at the UN and his initial sponsoring of a nuclear non-proliferation agreement was rewarded when he was invited by Moscow to be the first signatory in 1968.
Photographs show another side to Aiken’s public dourness as he plays with his children and poses with his wife, Maud, for family occasions.
He could be brilliantly inventive but his idea for a gun that could shoot around corners is probably a myth. His once extensive farm in Sandyford, south Dublin, is now an upmarket housing development called Aiken Village.
How many people living there know who he was?