|Vice-President of the Executive Council|
6 December 1922 – 10 July 1927
|Preceded by||Newly created office|
|Succeeded by||Ernest Blythe|
|Minister for Justice|
30 August 1922 – 10 July 1927
|Preceded by||Eamonn Duggan|
|Succeeded by||W. T. Cosgrave|
7 June 1892|
County Laois, Ireland
|Died||10 July 1927
|Political party||Cumann na nGaedheal (1923–27)|
|Sinn Féin (1918–23)|
Kevin Christopher O'Higgins (Irish: Caoimhghín Críostóir Ó hUigín; 7 June 1892 – 10 July 1927) was an Irish politician who served as Vice-President of the Executive Council and Minister for Justice. He was part of early nationalist Sinn Féin, before going on to become a prominent member of Cumann na nGaedheal. O'Higgins established the Garda Síochána police force. His brother Thomas and nephews Tom and Michael were also elected TDs.
Along with Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and Eoin O'Duffy, O'Higgins is an important figure in Irish nationalist historiography, representing a more "conservative revolutionary" position when contrasted with republicanism. After having a role in the Irish War of Independence, he went on to defend the nascent Irish Free State, as part of the pro-Treaty side in the Irish Civil War. During this time he signed the execution orders of seventy-seven political prisoners. He was later assassinated in retaliation by an IRA unit in Booterstown, County Dublin.
Kevin O'Higgins was born in Stradbally, County Laois, one of sixteen children of Dr. Thomas Higgins and Anne Sullivan, daughter of the Nationalist politician Timothy Daniel Sullivan. His aunt was married to the Nationalist MP Tim Healy. He was educated at the Jesuit-run Clongowes Wood College, where he was expelled. O'Higgins was then moved to Knockbeg College, St. Marys Christian Brother School, Portlaoise. With a view to becoming a priest he went to St Patrick's College, Maynooth. Here he broke the non-smoking rules and was removed to Carlow Seminary. He attended University College Dublin.
O'Higgins joined the Irish Volunteers in 1915. He was efficient, had a forceful personality and was soon appointed captain of Stradbally company, Carlow brigade. He joined Sinn Féin, but was soon arrested and imprisoned in 1918. While he was in prison he became MP for Queen's County (Laois).
In 1919 the First Dáil elected its "Aireacht" (Ministry) under the shadow of the Irish War of Independence. O'Higgins was appointed as the Assistant Minister for Local Government under W. T. Cosgrave. When Cosgrave was arrested in 1920, O'Higgins took the lead as head of the Ministry. Like other writers on Sinn Féin, O'Higgins believed the extremists were self-deluded; they themselves rejected the damning epithet "extremist". When he wrote on disillusionment he articulated this fear: the whole history of the world is the triumph of mind over matter. We are backing our Idea against aeroplanes and armoured cars.
Last October the Minister of Local Government W. T. Cosgrave and myself came deliberately to the decision that we would not recommend any settlement involving allegiance to the king of England. That is true, but I am not ashamed to plead guilty to the fact that I consider political realities and the consequence of my vote... I would have gone back to war rather than recommend a settlement involving allegiance if the Treaty had not been signed. But I face the political situation and realise that some of the biggest personalities in our movement ... have considered this is the last ounce [that] could be got from England, and who, knowing the situation better than I do, attached their names to that document.
When running for election in 1922, he told a crowd: I have not abandoned any political aspirations to which I have given expression in the past, but in the existing circumstances I advise the people to trust to evolution rather than revolution for their attainment. and was elected Teachta Dála (TD) for Leix–Offaly becoming Minister for Justice and External Affairs in the Provisional Government.
When the Irish Civil War broke out in June 1922 O'Higgins tried to restore law and order by introducing tough measures. Between 1922 and 1923 he confirmed the sentences of execution of seventy-seven republican prisoners of war, including Rory O'Connor who had been best man at his wedding. O'Higgins and his colleagues did not view them as prisoners of war, but rather as criminals. In reprisal for O'Higgins' role in the executions of captured republicans, the Anti-Treaty IRA murdered his father and burned his family home in Stradbally, County Laois.
O'Higgins feared, as did many of his colleagues, that a prolonged civil conflict would give the British an excuse, in the eyes of the world, to reassert their control in the Free State. He was given a nominal posting to the Irish Army during the early stages of the war, which he described as "very short, though very brilliant". General Richard Mulcahy was less impressed, recalling that "O'Higgins' personal presence in the Adjutant-General's office at that time (July–August 1922) was the personal presence of a person who didn't understand what was going on".
In August 1922, following Collins' assassination, he was moved from the Army to Home Affairs. O'Higgins had formed a negative view of Cosgrave having worked under him at Local Government and was not happy when the latter was appointed President of the Executive Council. Of the alternatives Mulcahy had been seen as indecisive, pedantic and too close to the Army whereas O'Higgins himself was not perceptibly avowedly republican. In the Government of the 3rd Dáil, he would be classed, along with Desmond FitzGerald, as one of the “Donnybrook set" – more civilian-oriented and out of step with the rest on issues such as Irish language, autarky and militarism.
O'Higgins had set up the Garda Síochána but by September 1922 was experiencing indiscipline in the ranks. He appointed Eoin O'Duffy commissioner. At the time O'Duffy was a fine organiser and worked for the emergence of a respected and unarmed police force. O'Duffy insisted on a Catholic nationalist ethos to distinguish the gardaí from their RIC predecessors. Cosgrave appointed O'Higgins as Vice-President in December that year.
Politics and later career
In March 1924, midway through the Army Mutiny, Minister Joseph McGrath resigned and President Cosgrave took sick leave. O'Higgins, de facto head of government, reversed Cosgrave's appeasement and confronted the IRAO mutineers confounding their objectives. In June the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924 changed his title from Minister for Home Affairs to Minister for Justice.
As Minister for External Affairs he successfully increased Ireland's autonomy within the Commonwealth of Nations. O'Higgins was seen very much as the "strong man" of the Cabinet. He once described himself as one of "the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution". Though far-left political enemies characterised him as having supposed "fascist" tendencies, O'Higgins was to the fore in resisting the small wing of Cumann na nGaedheal who looked to Italy for inspiration. He did not approve of left-wing feminism, for instance when asked by Labour Party leader Thomas Johnson in the Dáil whether he believed giving women the vote had been a success, O'Higgins replied, "I would not like to pronounce an opinion on it in public." He famously derided the socialist influenced Democratic Programme of the First Dáil as "mostly poetry". Before his death, he toyed with Arthur Griffith's idea of a dual monarchy to end the Partition of Ireland.
On Sunday, 10 July 1927, O'Higgins was assassinated at the age of 35 on the Booterstown Avenue side of Cross Avenue, Dublin while on his way to Mass at the Church of the Assumption by three anti-Treaty members of the IRA. Timothy Coughlin, Bill Gannon and Archie Doyle, in revenge for his part in the executions of IRA men during the civil war shot the minister dead. None of the three assassins was ever apprehended or charged, but Coughlin was killed in 1928 by a police informer in Dublin. The other two benefited from the amnesty to IRA members issued by Éamon de Valera upon his assumption of power in 1932. Doyle remained a prominent IRA militant and took part in various acts in the early 1940s. He lived to an old age (d.1980) and continued to take pride in having killed O'Higgins. Gannon (d.1965) joined the Communist Party of Ireland and played a central role in organising Irish volunteers for the Spanish Civil War. Yet in party publications his part in assassinating O'Higgins is downplayed.
In 1927, a relief of O'Higgins was posthumously added to a controversial 1923 cenotaph in the grounds of Leinster House dedicated to Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. This was replaced in 1950 by a simpler granite obelisk commemorating Griffith, Collins and O'Higgins.
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- Cronin, Sean, The Ideology of the IRA (Ann Arbor 1972)
- De Paor, Liam, On the Easter Proclamation and Other Declarations (Dublin 1997)
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- McGarry, Fearghal, Eoin O'Duffy: A Self-made Hero (Oxford 2005)
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- Townshend, Charles, 'Civilisation and Frightfulness': Air Control in the Middle East between the Wars', in C.J.Wrigley (ed.), Warfare, Diploacy and Politics: Essays in Honour of A.J.P.Taylor (London 1986)
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|New office||Assistant Minister for Local Government
|Minister for Economic Affairs
|New office||Vice-President of the Executive Council
|Minister for Justice
W. T. Cosgrave
|Minister for External Affairs