224: Irish Civil War Pt. 1


With the war over, the dreams of Irish Home Rule quickly turned into a violent nightmare



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 224. Patreon Trystan and Donation Richard. The years after the First World War would see new countries created all over the world. We have discussed many ares of the world where this would occur both in the podcast’s episodes on the Paris Peace Conference and then these most recent episodes about the post war world. Today we are making the last stop on this tour, Ireland. There had been a concerted effort by many Irish political leaders to push for greater autonomy from British leaders in London well before the First World War and there was real movement on making it a reality before hostilities would put a pause on everything. During the war tensions would increase, leading to events like the Easter Rising, and then after the war was over fighting would erupt first between the British and the Irish and then between the Irish themselves. Today we are going to lay the groundwork for most of that fighting, before discussing the period of open conflict between forces loyal to the British and the Irish. Then to close out this episode we will discuss the Treaty Negotiations that would occur in London late 1921 between the representatives of the new Irish leaders and Lloyd George. This treaty, once it was signed, would set the stage for the fighting within southern Ireland, which would lead to the Irish Civil War. Some of the treaties provisions would provide future for antagonism and violence that would last for the several decades due to the partition of Ireland. At the time I am writing this, which is early October 2019, this partition has once again come front and center in the politics of the United Kingdom and Ireland, almost a century after it was instituted.

The most important piece of Irish politics before the war were the debates around Home Rule. Home Rule, or just local autonomy for Ireland was a topic that gained support in the last decades of the 19th century. To implement Home Rule a bill would have to make its way through British parliament, and after the first one was introduced in 1886 it would take over 30 years before one would be successful. The first bill, introduced by Prime Minister Gladstone, would be defeated after his own party split its vote. In 1893 another attempt was made, this one would make it through the Commons but would then be defeated in the House of Lords. The House of Lords, due to the nature of its members at this time, was seen as an almost immovable blocker to any Home Rule legislation, it was generally accepted by everything that the Lords would just veto any version of a Home Rule bill. Then in 1910 this would change, due to almost completely unrelated political maneuvering. Without diving too deep into British political history, in 1909 the Liberal Party won the elections in what I have seen described as a landslide. They wanted to implement some pretty wide ranging reforms, but the House of Lords, with their far more conservative views, blocked many of these items. Eventually the Lords would reject what Prime Minister Asquith called the People’s Budget. This would cause Asquith to get the King to threaten to create enough new peers to be placed in the House of Lords that would overrule its protests. With such a direct threat to their power, the Lords eventually passed the budget. After the budget crisis was over the Parliament Act of 1911 was introduced, this Act would clarify the relationship between the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and most importantly for our story it would remove the Lords veto power. The most that they could due was to delay legislation, but not indefinitely. The passage of this bill represented a win for Asquith, but during 1911 he would lose his majority in the Commons.

The reduction in his party caused him to turn to the Irish Parliamentary Party, or IPP, to regain the majority. The IPP was at this point by far the most popular party in the 26 counties of Ireland that would eventually make up the Republic of Ireland. They represented the nationalist vote in Ireland, and they wanted a Home Rule Bill, and now that they were providing the support that kept Asquith in his position as Prime Minister they were now also in a position to demand it. The greatest impediment to previous Home Rule attempts, the House of Lords, now no longer had the ability to block it. These developments were very concerning to one group in Ireland, the Unionists in the north. At this point in history the partition of Ireland, which would eventually take place, was not being discussed and the home rule that was on the table would apply to the whole of Ireland. This was greatly concerning to the Unionists, who were most Protestant and were strongly against any form of Home Rule that would put them under the control of the Catholic majority in the south. In November 1910, not long before the IPP would start taking advantage of its new political position the Ulster Unionist Council began to plan not just for political resistance to Home Rule, but armed resistance as well. They would begin to import weapons, and they would create the Ulster Volunteer Army, or UVA. This situation would continue, with tensions rising, for almost 2 years while the Unionists prepared their resistance to the increasingly inevitable Home Rule. Then in September 1912, during a celebration called Ulster Day, they revealed Ulster’s Solumn League and Covenant. “Being convinced in our consciences that home rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as to the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship and perilous to the unity of the Empire, we, whose names are underwritten, men of Ulster, loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V, humbly relying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in Solemn Covenant throughout this our time of threatened calamity to stand by one another in defending for ourselves and our children our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognise its authority. In sure confidence that God will defend the right we hereto subscribe our names. And further, we individually declare that we have not already signed this Covenant.” The covenant would get 237,000 male signatures, and a similar declaration would get 234,000 female signatures. The wording was unambiguous, the counties in the north would resist any attempt to place them under the control of an Irish parliament. Meanwhile, the IPP and the Irish nationalists in the south were once again pushing for, you guessed, it Home Rule and an Irish Parliament.

Importantly for the Ulster Leaders, they still had strong support in the government in London. This was enough to prevent, at least for some time, the passage of the Home Rule bill, but not enough to get it amended to exclude Ulster. During these discussions, in 1913, this exclusion, or partition was first discussed which would allow the northern counties to stay in the United Kingdom while the rest were given Home Rule. However, it would not be included in the Home Rule bill that was passed through the commons on January 16, 1913. The Lord immediately rejected it, but now this rejection was not a veto but instead just a delay. This period of delay would be used by the Ulster leaders to begin seriously recruiting and arming the Ulster Volunteer force. Retired British Army officers were hired to train the men, and weapons were imported into the country by the thousands. Eventually these imports would be banned, but not until December 1913. The UVF would eventually number almost 100,000 and many would end up participating in the First World War. For example the 36th Ulster Division would fight on the first day of the Somme, made up largely of UVF men. The increasing radicalization in the North prompted concern and protest by the leaders in the south. They protested that the British leaders had, if not encouraged, at least allowed the Northern leaders to create an illegal armed militia. This prompted the nationalists to created their own armed militia, which would be critical to later fighting in the south. Along with the creation of their own Volunteer force, there was also a shift in the views of the Irish Nationalists in the south, by and large they were becoming more and more radical. All of these movements, discussions, and the implementation of Home Rule were put on hold for the war. In 1914 everybody assumed that the war would be short, but as weeks turned into months turned into years, tensions in Ireland continued to increase.

The IPP had represented Irish Nationalists for generations, but by the time of the Home Rule debates in 1913 they had already begun to lose support among some groups within Ireland. The problem was that the IPP insistence on working with the British in good faith caused many more radical thinkers to believe that the IPP was fatally compromised and would be unable to enact real change. This caused a growing tide of those more radical members to break ranks, eventually leading to the resurrection of Sinn Fein. As the support for the IPP wanted during the war years Sinn Feign would gather more and more support. A key piece of the Sinn Fein policy was to try and unit as many nationalist groups together as possible to opposed British Rule. Then and only then would the precise nature of future Irish independence be determined. This allowed the party to unite more traditional nationalist republican with other groups with far more radical views on what the future Irish government should look like. One important feature of Irish political maneuvering at this point was the Volunteers who had been created to meet the threat of the UVF. However the Volunteers were not directly controlled by any political group, and they would instead answer to no one. There were often disagreements even among the leaders of Sinn Fein about the best path forward, with some leaders breaking from the generally accepted plan, resulting in actions like the Rising in 1916. The rising was discussed in episodes 81 and 83, an remarkable three years ago. The rising was an armed revolt in Dublin which sought to create an Irish republic by force by first capturing important buildings in Dublin, proclaiming the republic, and then spreading the uprising to the countryside. It would be unsuccessful, and most of its leaders would be killed, but it made clear to both the Irish and the British that there were radical groups in Ireland that were more than willing to take matters into their own hands.

The final nail in the coffin for the IPP would come in 1918. In April, due to the casualties suffered during the German Spring offensives, Lloyd George proposed extending the Military Service Act, or conscription, to Ireland. The IPP would leave the government in protest, and it united with the Sinn Fein in opposition to any form of conscription. de Valera, the leader of Sinn Fein and the most senior survivor of the Rising, created an anti-conscription pledge, which would be signed by 2 million people. Eventually the government in London would decide not to push forward with Irish conscription, but by that point the damage had already been done. By threatening to introduce such an unpopular measure they had united the Irish nationalists not behind the more moderate views of the IPP, but the far more radical views of Sinn Fein. With this new support they would move forward with their vision of the future.

After the First World War was over an election would be held in December, which would later be called the Khaki Election. It would be the first election which would include universal male suffrage and with women over 30 given the right to vote. In Ireland this increased the number of votes from 700,000 to 2 million, and these voters almost completely removed the IPP from power. The IPP would only have a total of 6 parliamentary seats, and four of those would be in Ulster were the IPP and Sinn Fein agreed that only the IPP would run candidates to prevent the possibility of a split vote allowing the seat to be taken by a Unionist. With their leadership of Irish Nationalism confirmed, Sinn Fein continued their long held policy of abstention from the House of Commons by simply not sending any of its members to London. Instead of attending the government in London, they would instead create the Dail Eireann, the Assembly of Ireland. The Dail would be the official leaders of the Irish Nationalists during the coming period of conflict with the British, but they would have some problems asserting their control. They would only meet infrequently, and then only under the greatest secrecy. The Dail would always have problems controlling the Volunteers, or the IRA and during the fighting with the British they would only loosely control the military side of the independence movement. This division, between the political leadership and the generally more radical military groups would sow the seeds for later disagreements and fighting.

While the failure of the political leaders to control the military was a problem eventually, in early 1919 it was probably what allowed the Dail and the IRA to continue to exist. The almost entirely decentralized nature of the fighting made it difficult for the British to control. It would begin on January 21, 1919 when two members of the Volunteers in Tipperary killed to members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, or RIC. This would begin almost two and a half years of fighting. During 1919 this fighting would be very scattered around the country. It was mostly up to the local Volunteer commander to prompt their local groups into action. This meant that some areas, even those that strongly supported Sinn Fein, might be relatively peaceful while others would see almost continuous fighting. The lack of any kind of unified action made it difficult for the Irish leaders to drastically change the situation but it also made them unpredictable. Communication between groups, spread out all over Ireland, was challenging, and would only become more challenging as British strength on the island increased. This meant that local leaders, and the leaders in the Dail, often had no idea what was happening outside of their area, for the Dail this was Dublin and its surroundings. During the early stage of the fighting most of the action revolved around rural barracks of the RIC, these attacks were made to reduce RIC power and to capture arms and munitions. They generally resulted in the RIC abandoning their barracks and retreating to larger cities. To answer these attacks, between January and September 1919 over 5,500 raids by the police and accompanying military units into private residences all over Ireland.

While 1919 had been the year when the violence started in Ireland, during 1920 it would escalate rapidly. The government in London knew that it had to do something about the fact that Ireland was, essentially, in armed rebellion against British rule. However, it did not just want to send in large units of the British Army due to concerns about the lack of popular support for such a move. They therefore created groups of volunteers which were officially added to the RIC forces. These units were given the dark green tunics of the RIC, but then Army khaki trousers, resulting in them being given the name the Black and Tans. They were generally sent to the areas of greatest violence and they built up a reputation for meeting this violence with some of their own. They were known for their reprisals in any area that saw large IRA actions. For example in early November a group of IRA soldiers under the leadership of Sean MacEoin ejected the police from the Ballinalee for a week. When the town was recaptured units of the Black and Tans burnt it to the ground. The violence during 1920 would come to a crescendo on November 21st. It would be on this day that an IRA unit, led by Michael Collins, would assassinate 14 men known as the Cairo gang, who were informants to the British authorities. In response to these killings a unit of the Black and Tans opened fire on the crowd at a Gaelic football match in Dublin. 12 people would be killed. The events of November 21st would be a serious blow to British power in Ireland, the Cairo Gang had been an important intelligence asset, and the public killing of so many civilians was a public relations disaster.

While 1920 had been a year of ever increasing violence, early 1921 would represent the turning point in the conflict. The number of raids by IRA units around Ireland were greatly reduced as the British presence continued to consolidate into fewer, albeit much stronger positions. The power of the IRA was also reduced due to some mistakes that were made during this period. For example in May an attack was made on the Custom House in Dublin, which was the headquarters for the local government. These headquarters would be successfully burned by the IRA, but they would not make a clean getaway and they would be caught in a shootout by a unit of the Auxiliaries, which were units of militia which had an even more sinister reputation than the Black and Tans. This attack on the Custom House greatly weakened IRA presence in Dublin, with over 100 men either killed or captured. This attack would prove to be the last major incident of the war, because there was already growing support on all sides for peace. On the British side, there was the matter of the costs of the continued fighting. This cost was in the form of monetary expenditures, which were over 20 million pounds per year but there were also political costs, with the events in Ireland being very unpopular both in the home islands and in British possessions around the world. There was also growing support for an end to the violence on the Irish side. After so many months of fighting the IRA was simple running out of weapons, munitions, and men. There were 4,500 IRA men interned, 1,000 in prison, and while estimates for the number of men still available to them in the summer of 1921 vary drastically it probably was not more than a few thousand. With the possibility of peace growing de Valera and Sir James Craig, the leader of the Ulster Unionists, would secretly meet in May to discuss a truce. It would take several months for the truce to become a reality, but it would be signed on July 11, 1921. While this truce would be the end of direct violence against the British, it would represent the beginnings of breaks in the Irish coalition. The most important internal conflict was between the Dail, led by de Valera, and the IRA, who resisted any attempt by political leaders to take control, and the most radical members of both, who believed that any negotiations with the British represented a betrayal of their beliefs.

While the fighting in the south had been ongoing, in March 1920 the Government of Ireland Bill had been passed by Parliament, this contained many of the provisions of the Home Rule bill from before the war, but it also contained a provision for partition. Due to Sinn Fein’s abstention policies they had played now part in the creation of this new bill and it would never been fully accepted in the south. However, it represented a bit win in the eyes of northern political leaders. It would officially create a new Northern Ireland province, which would be established within the United Kingdom in May 1921. This created Northern Ireland mostly as it exists today, and at the time it was specifically crafted to assure the dominance of specific groups that the Ulster Unionists wanted to be in control. For example some counties like Cavan, Monaghan, and Donegal with strong Protestant Unionist populations were excluded due to fears that the large number of Catholic Nationalists would upset Unionist political control. The passage and acceptance of the Ireland Bill in 1920 was important because it set a starting point for future negotiations between the Irish leaders and the British government. It was also not implemented without some violence. This violence would begin with Protestant mobs who attacked Catholic groups, they may not have been officially supported by the local governments and the police, but they certainly were not properly punished. In response to this violence the IRA would ramp up its actions in the north. Instead of reducing this violence the Truce in the south would cause it to escalate. During 1921 in Belfast 109 people would be killed due to the violence of both sides. Just in February 1922 44 more would be killed, including 6 children in a bombing, in March the total number would grow to 61. This would prompt Craig to push for the Special Powers Act of 1922, which implemented several changes that combined sound to me a lot like martial law. The government was given powers to arrest and detain indefinitely without trail, and summary courts were created with the powers to enact death penalties. This act would seem to enflame tensions even more, and it would only begin to dissipate when the Civil War broke out in the south. The Civil War would reduce the support that the northern IRA was receiving from the South, who were busy fighting among themselves. The reduction in violence in the north continued until it reached something that looked mostly like peace during 1923.

While the violence in the north escalated after the Truce was signed, in Dublin and in London serious discussions were underway about what a permanent peace between Ireland and the United Kingdom would look like. These discussions would begin just one week after the truce was signed, when de Valera would travel to London to talk with Lloyd George. Coming into these discussions both sides had different views for what a post-Treaty Ireland would look like. Lloyd George would open with the offer that Ireland would be made into a Dominion, in a setup that would have looked a lot like those already in place with areas like Canada and Australia. de Valera, with the support of other Irish leaders wanted an Irish Republic that had even more freedom of action. He was still supportive of some kind of association with the British Empire, but he did not want Ireland to be a part of it. A critical point of division between the two sides of this debate was the presence of an oath of allegiance to the King. This was a critical part of the concept of being a Dominion, but was strongly opposed by many Irish republicans. While the exact nature of Irish Home Rule would be debated during the negotiations, there was also the matter of the partition. Overall both sides ended up mostly just accepting that the partition existed, and that it would be a real challenge to change that. The British, and specifically Lloyd George were adamant that the negotiations would only continue if they were done under the assumption that Norther Ireland existed. Even in the south there was a growing recognition that, in the short term, it might be better for the future of free Ireland for the 26 counties to be the priority, and not unity. De Valera’s official position, which would be generally accepted by most Irish Republican Leaders at the time and by the British as well, was that once a Home Ruled Irish state was created, the counties should be given the power to choose if they wanted to remain in the Irish state or not. He did not believe that any coercion of the north, either militarily by the south of politically from London was conducive to a stable Irish state. Craig and the Northern leaders, for their part, fully supported any agreement between London and Dublin as long as it did not change the position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.

The primary members of the negotiating team that was sent to London from Dublin was constructed to try and represent the different groups of the Irish coalition. The team would be led by Arthur Griffith, who at the time was serving as the Irish Foreign Minister. He also had strong support among many of the more moderate Sinn Fein leaders. He would be joined by Michael Collins, who was by far the most respected and influential leader of the IRA and the more radical groups within the army. Finally there were also members who represented other interests, including those of de Valera. As soon as the delegation arrived in London the British focused their attention almost exclusively on Griffith and Collins, and almost all of the most important conversation would occur with just these two Irish representatives. As soon as he was asked to attend Collins was concerned that de Valera was trying to use the members of the negotiating team as scapegoats, it was clear that compromises would have to be made, compromises that were sure to be unpopular among some Irish. This feeling of distrust between Collins, and to a lesser extent Griffith, and de Valera would cause de Valera’s representatives to be purposefully sidelined, and after just a few meetings Collins and Griffith suggested that meetings only occur with the two of them present.

The British negotiations were led by Lloyd George, and right from the start he offered and was never really pulled away from the offer of Dominion status. To try and gain acceptance for this, he even suggested that perhaps some of the primarily Catholic areas on the edges of Northern Ireland could be removed from the control of Ulster. Obviously this was not acceptable to Craig and the Northern Ireland leaders, Craig was adamant that no changes should be made to the previous arrangements for the north. The most that he would possibly accept was a Boundary Commission, which would be held after the treaty was signed and would handle moving the border perhaps a bit one way or another. This idea was accepted in principle by Griffith, but the details were not really worked out. By the first week of December 1921 the basics of the treaty had been established, Dominion status, Northern Ireland would be excluded, a few smaller details, and then there would be an oath of allegiance to the King. With these items outlined, the Irish delegation returned to Dublin to discuss the treaty draft with the Dail. When the delegations reconvened in London on December 5th, Lloyd George strongly pushed for the treaty to be signed immediately. Griffith, who had received instructions in Dublin to push for some changes, especially around the precise status and relationship with Northern Ireland and the exact wording of the oath of allegiance wanted to do some more negotiation. He would eventually agree to the oath as suggested by the British, but only if Northern Ireland was included. Lloyd George instead brought back up the idea of a Boundary Commission, which Griffith had previously agreed to. He even brought out the official note that Griffith had signed during earlier negotiations accepting the Commission in principle. Lloyd George then accused Griffith of dishonorably altering his position. He then threatened to resume the war if the Irish delegation did not immediately sign. Griffith and Collins, both believing that they had achieved the best deal possible, signed the treaty on December 5th 1921. We will discuss the treaty’s contents next episode, at which point we will also discuss how it was received in Ireland.