The Army Comrades Association (ACA), later named National Guard and better known by their nickname The Blueshirts (Na Léinte Gorma), were an Irish political organisation set up by General Eoin O'Duffy in 1932. O'Duffy was a guerrilla leader in the Irish Republician Army (IRA) during the Irish War of Independence, an Irish Army general during the Civil War that followed, and the Irish police Commissioner for the resultant Irish Free State from 1922 to 1933.
It has been regarded as Ireland's equivalent of Adolf Hitler's Brownshirts and Benito Mussolini's Blackshirts which were members of the European right-wing movements. Indeed, in December 1934, O'Duffy attended an International Fascist Conference in Montreux, Switzerland at which there were representatives from 13 other countries - Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, The Netherlands, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Switzerland. The argument that the Blueshirts were fascists is generally based on their own adherence to Radical Right-Wing ideology (with a particular admiration for Mussolini) as well as their paramilitary-style uniforms, use of the Roman salute (members shouted "Hail O'Duffy!" at rallies), militant Catholicism and anti-communism and a belief in corporatism.
Its leaders argued that they were simply defending democracy, citing the actions of the IRA, which had attempted to break up meetings of the opposition Cumann na nGaedheal party whom they (the IRA) regarded as 'traitors' for accepting the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
However, Anti-Blueshirt organizations such as the Anti-Treaty Fianna Fáil Party and the IRA, cited the example of other fascist movements coming to power where any democratic process was extinguished and how the Blueshirts clearly attempted to emulate this by their 'March on Dublin'.
In March 1932, Éamon de Valera (formerly leader of the republican Dáil government of 1919–21 and of the very much less influential republican government of 1922 (formed 22nd Octover 1922) during the Irish Civil War), became President of the Executive Council in the Irish Free State. One of his first acts as Prime Minister was to repeal the ban which made the IRA an illegal organization. De Valera also released many Republican prisoners from jail.
Following these moves, the IRA became increasingly active in disrupting the activities of the opposition party. The Blueshirts felt that freedom of speech was being repressed, and began to provide security at Cumann na nGaedhael meetings and rallies. This led to several serious clashes between the IRA and the Blueshirts.
The IRA and Fiánna Fail members referred to Cumann na nGaedhael as the murder government in reference to its executions under martial law of over 77 IRA prisoners during the Irish Civil War. Peadar O'Donnell adapted the slogan No Free Speech for Fascists to No Free Speech for Traitors, referring to the "Free Staters" of the civil war. In a public meeting, he said that he was "glad that the murder government had been put out of power but these men must be put finally put of public life". The Cumann na nGaedheal paper, United Ireland for its part, claimed that "Mr de Valera is leading the country straight into Bolshevik servitude".
In August 1932, Dr. Thomas F. O'Higgins, a Cumann na nGaedheal Teachta Dála (TD; member of Parliament) became the leader of the ACA (he was the brother of TD Kevin O'Higgins assassinated by the IRA in 1927). The ACA had the twin aims of defending free speech and promoting the interests of ex-Service men. However, the ACA increasingly took the role of protector at Cumann na nGaedheal meetings, when they were threatened by IRA activities. Clashes with the IRA became a regular occurrence and tensions rose sharply. 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, so as to allow members recognise each other at meetings.
De Valera banned the parade. Remembering Mussolini's March on Rome, he feared a coup d'état, and told Fianna Fáil politicians decades later that, in late summer 1933, he was unsure whether the Irish Army would obey his orders to suppress the perceived threat, or whether it would support the Blueshirts (as a movement made up of many ex-soldiers). O'Duffy accepted the decision, and insisted that he was committed to upholding the Law. Instead, several provincial parades took place to commemorate the deaths of Arthur Griffith, Kevin O'Higgins and Michael Collins. De Valera saw this move as defying his ban, and the Blueshirts were declared an illegal organisation.
To conservative opponents of Fianna Fáil, who remembered the comments in 1929 of de Valera's right hand man, Seán Lemass, that the party was a "slightly constitutional party", in a hysterical frenzy they regarded this statement as the first steps towards a Fianna Fáil dictatorship. The protectors of Cumann na nGaedhael and of the National Centre Party were declared illegal, while the Irish Republican Army, who were mobilising against the fascist threat by breaking up their meetings and organising mass resistance, were allowed to remain legal and armed.
In response to the ban the National Guard, Cumann na nGaedheal and the National Centre Party merged to form a new party: on September 3 1933 Fine Gael - the United Ireland Party was founded. General O'Duffy became its first president with W. T. Cosgrave and James Dillon acting as vice-presidents. The National Guard became the Young Ireland Association and became part of a youth wing of the party. The party's aim was to create a corporate United Ireland, within the British Commonwealth. It is often claimed that they advocated a corporate state along the lines of Mussolini, but in reality, the vast majority of O'Duffy's policies were ostensibly Catholic in nature, following the vocationalist ideas set out by the Pope.
Following disagreements with his Fine Gael colleagues, O'Duffy left Fine Gael. The majority of the blueshirts stayed in Fine Gael and became active members. O'Duffy went on and founded the National Corporate Party, and later fought on General Francisco Franco's side in the Spanish Civil War. In the end the adventure to fight with in the Spanish Civil War was a disaster; in one particular engagement they were fired upon by mistake by national troops, after which they returned to Ireland.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Blueshirt was a term of political abuse directed against Fine Gael. However , it has been adopted by members and supporters of that party as a self-deprecating nickname.