The Army Comrades Association (ACA), later named the National Guard and better known by the nickname The Blueshirts (Irish: Na Léinte Gorma), was a right-wing Irish political organisation active in the 1930s.
The Blueshirts are sometimes described as "quasi-fascist", and the extent to which they can be seen as the Irish equivalent of Hitler's Brownshirts and Mussolini's Blackshirts continues to be debated. They employed paramilitary-style uniforms, greeted each other with the Roman salute, and participated in street fights against the IRA. On the other hand, fascist ideology was not widespread among rank-and-file members, many of whom simply shared an opposition to the IRA, the governing Fianna Fáil party, and contemporary economic policies. The organisation was defensive rather than offensive in outlook, and unlike their European counterparts, members were not known to engage in political terrorism. The historian R.M.Douglas has written: "Most scholars... accept that those who have sought to find in the Blueshirts an Irish manifestation of fascism have been looking in the wrong place".
Currently Blueshirt is used as a term of political abuse directed against Fine Gael, the mainstream center-right political party into which the Blueshirts were subsumed in 1933.
The Army Comrades Association was formed in February 1932, to promote the interests of ex-Free State army members, to defend conservative interests and to halt what they perceived as an emerging threat coming from their political opponents, the Irish Republican Army and Fianna Fáil.
In March 1932, Éamon de Valera became President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State. One of his first acts was to repeal the ban on the IRA. He also released many republican prisoners from jail. Following these moves, the IRA became increasingly active in disrupting the activities of the opposition party, Cumann na nGaedhael. The Blueshirts felt that freedom of speech was being repressed, and began to provide security at Cumann na nGaedhael events. This led to several serious clashes between the IRA and the Blueshirts. In August 1932, Dr. Thomas F. O'Higgins, a Cumann na nGaedheal Teachta Dála (TD; member of Parliament) became the leader of the ACA.
In January 1933, de Valera called a surprise election, which Fianna Fáil won comfortably. The election campaign saw a serious escalation of rioting between IRA and ACA supporters. In April 1933, the ACA began wearing the distinctive St. Patrick's Blue shirt uniform.
Eoin O'Duffy becomes leader:
Eoin O'Duffy was a guerrilla leader in the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence; an Irish Army general during the Civil War, and the Irish police commissioner in the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1933. After de Valera's re-election in February 1933, he dismissed O'Duffy as commissioner, and in July of that year, O'Duffy took control of the ACA and re-named it the National Guard. He re-modelled the organisation, adopting elements of European fascism, such as the Roman straight-arm salute, uniforms and huge rallies. Membership of the new organisation became limited to people who were Irish or whose parents "profess the Christian faith". O'Duffy was an admirer of Benito Mussolini, and the Blueshirts adopted corporatism as their chief political aim.
March on Dublin:
The ACA planned to hold a parade in Dublin in August 1933. It was to proceed to Glasnevin Cemetery, stopping briefly on Leinster lawn in front of the Irish parliament, where speeches were to be held. The goal of the parade was to commemorate past leaders of Ireland, Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and Kevin O'Higgins. It is clear that the IRA and other groups representing workers, republicans and socialists intended to confront the Blueshirts if they did march in Dublin.
De Valera banned the parade, remembering Mussolini's March on Rome, and fearing a coup d'état. Decades later, he told Fianna Fáil politicians that in late summer 1933, he was unsure whether the Irish Army would obey his orders to suppress the perceived threat, or whether the soldiers would support the Blueshirts (who included many ex-soldiers). O'Duffy accepted the ban and insisted that he was committed to upholding the law. Instead, several provincial parades took place to commemorate the deaths of Griffith, O'Higgins and Collins. De Valera saw this move as defying his ban, and the Blueshirts were declared an illegal organisation.
Fine Gael and the National Corporate Party:
In response to the banning of the National Guard, Cumann na nGaedheal and the National Centre Party merged to form a new party, Fine Gael, on 3 September 1933. O'Duffy became its first president, with W. T. Cosgrave and James Dillon acting as vice-presidents. The National Guard changed into the Young Ireland Association, and became part of a youth wing of the party. The party's aim was to create a corporatist United Ireland within the British Commonwealth. Following disagreements with his Fine Gael colleagues, O'Duffy left the party, although most of the Blueshirts stayed in Fine Gael.
O'Duffy then founded the National Corporate Party, and later raised an "Irish Brigade" that took General Francisco Franco's side in the Spanish Civil War. They were once fired upon by mistake by Franco's troops, after which they returned to Ireland. In December 1934, O'Duffy attended the Montreux Fascist conference in Switzerland.