225: Irish Civil War Pt. 2


The Anglo-Irish war would end with a treaty that had to be accepted in Dublin, but not everybody thought that it was the best path forward.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 225. Thank you to Steven for the generous donation and for support on Patreon. Last episode we discussed the events of the Anglo-Irish War, which resulted in a treaty begin signed by Irish Leaders and the British government led by Lloyd George. This episode we are going to look at what happened in Ireland after the treaty was signed. To simplify it down as much as possible, after the treaty was brought back to Ireland and was accepted by the Dail a Provisional Government was created. The leaders and members of Sinn Fein would be split on their views of the treaty, with most supporting but a large minority not supporting the treaty. On top of this disagreement the IRA, the military force of the new Irish government, would mutiny against the leadership of the Dail due to the Dail’s support of the treaty. The core of the issue between the pro-treaty and anti-treaty groups in Ireland was based on the provisions contained within the treaty. In this episode we are going to discuss the political and philosophical debates surrounding the treaty, and dive into the break between the anti-treaty and pro-treaty groups within Ireland in the lead up to the June 1922 elections. Then for the next two episodes we will follow the course of the Civil War to its conclusion before discussing, just briefly, the aftermath. Kevin O’Higgins, a fixture within the leadership of the Irish Free State until he was assassinated in 1927 by anti-treaty members of the IRA would say this about the state of Ireland at the time of the Civil War. “To form a just appreciation of developments in Ireland in 1922, it is necessary to remember that the country had come through a revolution and to remember what a weird composite of idealism, neurosis, megalomania, and criminality is apt to be thrown to the surface even in the best regulated revolution. […] In Ireland in 1922 there was no State and no organized forces. The Provisional Government was simply eight young men in the City Hall standing amidst the ruins of one administration, with the foundations of another not yet laid, and with wild men screaming through the keyhole. No police force was functioning through the country, no system of justice was operation, the wheels of administration hung idle battered out of recognition by the class of rival jurisdictions”

The root of all of the problems within the new Irish Provisional government and between the political and military leaders was the treaty that had been signed in London. It included some clauses that presented Ireland with a level of autonomy that was well above what had been discussed during the Home Rule debates before the First World War. It allowed Ireland almost full fiscal and political autonomy and was very similar to what the relationship was between the British and Canada and Australia. However, critically, it still contained two clauses that would cause the greatest friction in Ireland: an oath of allegiance to the king and the presence of a British governor-general with wide oversight powers. Of these two clauses the oath of allegiance was the most important, especially in the context of the Civil War that followed. While there were some who had problems with the treaty, I do want to say that the treaty as a whole was incredibly popular in Ireland. This support was not uniform though, and generally there was more support for the treaty in the eastern counties than in the western counties, and there was generally more support in urban areas. There was also wide ranging support among various official groups, organizations, unions, and the church. All of these groups were in favor of peace, and that meant they were also in favor of the treaty. Regardless of this support from all corners of Ireland there were also many who did not support it, and in the treaty debates that followed it would become clear that for some groups it did not actually matter what the majority of the Irish people thought.

While the two sides of the treaty debate would eventually resort to violence to make their case, at least initially there was some hopes of a compromise. Over the course of three weeks the treaty would be debated in the Dail, many of these debates focused on specific parts of the treaty. When looking back after the next several decades of Irish history it is interesting to note that the presence of the partition in the treaty was not a huge topic for discussion during these weeks, even from those who were vehemently against the treaty. This was mostly due to the assumption that the border commission would be able to chip away at the territory given over the Northern Ireland, and if enough of this territory was pulled away then Northern Ireland as a whole would unsustainable. After the weeks of debate the vote would be just 64 to 57 in favor of the treaty, not exactly a crushing mandate. The Dail would then elect Griffith, one of the architect’s of the treaty, as its new president with a vote of just 60 to 58. This was a critical shift in the leadership of the Dail, with de Valera, the previous president being one of the most outspoken anti-treaty leaders. Even though they had been defeated in the treaty vote, and then the leadership vote that followed, the anti-treaty leaders refused to acquiesce their position, and instead they dug in harder. As Florrie O’Donoghue would say “National unity was broken at the top. No power under heaven could prevent the split from spreading downwards.” The result of the treaty debates is that the Dail was broken, a fate that in retrospect was almost inevitable. The Dail, as an institution, was a carry over from the earlier revolutionary efforts of those involved, it was created by and for revolutionaries and this meant that many strong constituencies within Ireland were not represented at all among its members. All it took was one strong disagreement for the Dail, and the Sinn Fein party that had created it, to come toppling down.

While the Dail did not have representatives from some viewpoints, from the perspectives of many anti-treaty soon-to-be rebels, they were betraying Ireland. This view was most strongly held among the IRA. Not every member of the IRA was anti-treaty, where were many who understood how important the treaty was, and how poorly the Irish forces had been doing before they had signed the truce. These were often higher officers, and it started right at the top with Michael Collins. Collins had been sent to London to negotiate the treaty due to his position as the leader of the IRA and Collins’ support for the treaty was absolutely crucial if it was to be put in place. Just his name alone kept some military units on the pro-treaty side, and it kept even more at least in a neutral state. Collins could not convince the majority of IRA men, who fell into the anti-treaty camp. The specific reasons that particular members or groups of the IRA fell into the anti-treaty camp were varied. Some drew issue with the oath of allegiance, others refused to acknowledge the partition, believing that they had just fought a war with the English not just for the 26 counties of southern Ireland but for all 32 counties. Others just viewed the conflict with the British as one that was not over, and the fact that the Dail had negotiated with them was a betrayal of their previous struggle. This last viewpoint was particularly prevalent in the regions where the fighting with the British had been the most violent and deadly. These kinds of dissenting views are held by military members in militaries all over the world, and generally they do not result in an armed revolt, but in this case the structure of power in Ireland during this period would contribute to the beginning of the Civil War. The Dail, and then later the Provisional Government, had very little real power over the IRA, and the IRA had never seen itself as fully subordinate to the political leaders in Dublin, this resulted in them being far more willing to break with those political leaders, leading to Civil War.

The Dail would ratify the treaty in January, and then they would form the Provisional Government which was created to bridge the gap between the Dail and the official government that would be created after the constitution was ratified. While many of the IRA members would never agree to the treaty, they did not immediately resort to mutiny or violence. There was instead of a period of tension, but generally non-violent tension between the two groups as the Constitution Committed started in on drafting the Irish constitution. This period would last for almost 6 months from January to June 1922. During this period, the pro-treaty members of the Dail knew that there was a large number of people that were against the treaty, but both sides still hoped that some sort of compromise would be reached. These attempts would be unsuccessful, and instead the divide would grow wider and even the pretense of unity would eventually fall apart. In anti-treaty areas, mainly in the Western Counties, pro-treaty supporters stopped attending IRA and Sinn Fein meetings. In pro-treaty areas, like in Dublin, anti-treaty members did the same. During this period the British leaders mostly stayed out of the situation. They still had a vested interest in the affairs in Ireland, but any actions by the British authorities would have just enflamed the situation. This policy of inaction was made far more difficult by the actions of Collins and the other IRA leaders due to their policies on Northern Ireland.

While the disagreements about some of the treaty’s contents in the south did not immediately lead to violence, in the north the violence never really ended. The northern question, other than the fact that Northern Ireland existed, had mostly been pushed into the future by the treaty due to the presence of the Border Commission which was to decide the specifics. This commission would have the power to adjust the border, but it did not have the power to change the fact that Northern Ireland existed, and would continue to exist within the United Kingdom. This did nothing to solve the biggest problems that would lead to violence in Northern Ireland. The core of the issue was that the Northern leaders believed that the southern leaders, both pro and anti-treaty southern leaders, were trying to destabilize the north. If they could do this then it was possible that the northern counties would be folded into the southern counties. To prevent this the presence and pervasiveness of security forces in the north were increased, especially in and around Belfast. As the leaders in Belfast attempted to increase their control, the violence of the Northern IRA increased, and in this violence they were in fact supported by the leaders in the south. They would be given men and weapons by the southern counties, and this when combined with the efforts of the Northern Ireland government to protect its position, resulted in greater violence both on the border and in Belfast.

While the violence on the ground was very real, there were official efforts to try and arrive at an understanding. These efforts would result in two agreements between Collins and Craig, the first one occurring on January 21st, 1922. These first agreement was mostly around the specifics of how the boundary issues would be resolved. While they would come to an agreement that looked like a compromise, with representatives of both sides agreeing to meet at a later date, at this later date the meeting in Dublin in February the first agreement would fall apart. This would then lead to more discussions, resulting in the second Craig-Collins Pact on March 30th. This agreement also involved Griffith, O’Higgins, and Churchill. This pact was much more complex, and represented the last comprehensive attempt to reconcile the views of the northern majority and the northern minority between the 1960s. Critically both sides agreed to release some prisoners, and Collins agreed to try and use his authority over the IRA to reduce the violence in the north. While the leaders would leave with this agreement, and it would officially be supported in both the north and the south, the results were not what was hoped. It quite like this explanation from Michael Hopkinson from Green Against Green – The Irish Civil War: A History of the Irish Civil War, 1922–1923 on why this second pact would ultimately fail “The agreement failed because it concerned itself with effects rather than causes; it did not, therefore, deal with partition or the possibility of the Catholic minority recognizing the Northern government.” Instead of reducing the violence, in the aftermath of the second Collins-Craig agreement violence would once again escalate.

There was a brief period of peace after the second pact was signed, but then the efforts by the Southern leaders, specifically Michael Collins, to support the Northern IRA increased. Collins would work with Liam Lynch to arrange for large numbers of weapons to be sent north, and volunteers were organized from southern IRA counties to be sent into the north. This new offensive would not prove to be successful, unlike in the south the Northern IRA had to try and exist in a territory where large numbers of the population were active hostile, and where the government forces were stronger, better organized, and more dedicated. These conditions made it difficult for the Northern IRA to reach the kind of critical mass that they had been able to achieve in the south during the Anglo-Irish war, which would have been required since the Northern IRA was using very similar tactics. However, these failures were not what would cause the northern IRA actions to fail to achieve their goals. Instead it would be the outbreak of the fighting in the south in June 1922. This fighting would cut off the flow of supplies and weapons from the south, as Southern leaders chose to pause men and supplies being sent north. This forced the northern groups to put a halt to most of their actions while the situation in the south was sorted out.

In early January 1922 several leaders from the IRA met and setup the IRA executive council. They confirmed that the army was not under the command of the Dail and that they only served it voluntarily. This independence would be maintained until after the fighting was over. The first anti-treaty military action would occur in April 1922, when on April 13th IRA Men took over the Four Courts building in Dublin. In the Four Courts, when action was ordered, the hope was that by capturing the Four Courts buildings the IRA would be able to demonstrate the failure of the Provisional Government. They were in some ways successful in this goal, and throughout the spring they would be able to occupy the buildings. This did this on the orders of the IRA Executive, which would function as the leadership for the anti-treaty forces for the duration of the fighting. However, much like during the Anglo-Irish conflict that preceded it, during the Civil War local military commanders had a lot of autonomy about what they were doing and when. The majority of the strength of the anti-treaty forces were in the rural areas, especially in Western Ireland, and in these areas central control was difficult. It was also in these areas that the anti-treaty units of the IRA were able to best take advantage of the fact that the British forces were quickly evacuated after the truce. This meant that they left behind barracks and supplies that the IRA units were able to capture and take advantage of. This was just one of the advantages that anti-treaty forces would have in the early stages of the civil war. The majority of the IRA units would fall on the anti-treaty side of the debate, and the pro-treaty forces of the Provisional Government were initially both outnumbered and were made of men were much less experience. However, the anti-treaty forces failed to properly capitalize on these advantages. First they would be reluctant to go directly into more fighting, which caused a delay in their actions during the early months of 1922. Then once the fighting began in earnest they were generally unable to coordinate their units which were spread around the country. This indecisiveness, especially during the months of April and May, provided the Provisional government the time necessary to organize and arm their new Free State Army.

The Free State Army was not without its problems, it was made up of a mixture of pro-treaty IRA veterans, veterans from the British Army, and then completely inexperienced volunteers. It would take time for these forces to be able to be made into any kind of coherent fighting force. All of the soldiers would also have to adapt to the new army in many ways, the new volunteers obviously had to be trained up, but the old IRA veterans were used to fighting in small unit militia like actions, and not as part of a state run army. The British Army veterans were more comfortable in this kind of environment, but they had to gain the trust of the IRA veterans. While the pro-treaty military leaders were trying to craft this mixture of men into a fighting force the provisional government was able to take advantage of two things to help strengthen their position. The first was that they were able to pin most of the disorder around the country on anti-treaty forces. The anti-treaty units already had a reputation for looting and forced requisitions, and so the Provisional Government was able to blame them for the worsening situation around the 26 counties. With so many of the civilians in Ireland very tired of the fighting this cause pro-treaty, or to be more accurate pro-order and pro-peace support for the Provisional Government to grow. The Provisional Government was also able to offer very generous terms to any anti-treaty IRA soldiers who surrendered themselves. All they had to do was sign an oath to not take up arms in the future, and then turn over their weapons. This allowed the Provisional Government to reduce the strength of the anti-treaty forces through political maneuvering, which was critical in the early stages before the Free State Army was ready to fight.

While the anti-treaty forces were hesitant to dive into real fighting, there were still leaders on both sides trying to avoid a civil war, right up until the very end. Both sides were concerned about the views of the people around the country who had by mid-192 experienced two years of constant fighting. These views led both sides, for a long time, to being open to discussions and these would occur between Collins and de Valera. de Valera had by this point moved fully into the anti-treaty camp after having been replaced by Griffith as the leader of the Dail. Key to these discussions was the push by pro-treaty leaders, including Collins, to put the treaty up for a vote of the people. They were so keen to do this because they knew that it would get the majority of the votes. This made the anti-treaty groups, represented by de Valera, adamant that a vote on the treaty, or a round about vote on the treaty, not be held. His preference was to keep the discussions within the leadership. Since the leaders of both the pro and anti-treaty groups were carryovers from Sinn Fein, de Valera wanted them to work together, just make sure that Sinn Fein got a large majority of any vote within the country, and then after that they could hash out their differences. They were unable to come to an agreement on this point, and pressure for elections was growing, especially from the British. The the surprise of everyone, on May 20th Collins and de Valera signed a pact that seemed to be an agreement from both sides that the Provisional Government, led by Sinn Fein, should continue to hold power. One of the key features of this pact was the agreement that pro-treaty and anti-treaty members of Sinn Fein would not run against each other in the coming election. They hoped that this would prevent the vote from becoming a referendum on the treaty and the constitution, then much as de Valera suggested Sinn Fein leadership would work out their differences after it was over. This was signed by Collins without having consulted with the other political leaders, and it would cause the relationship between Collins and the other Republican leaders like Griffith to break down. de Valera hoped that by signing the pact he would reassert his position as the leader of the anti-treaty Sinn Feign. However, by this point the anti-treaty group was much diminished in number, and this would lead de Valera leading the minority group. As it would turn out, the pact between Collins and de Valera mostly just functioned as a way to delay the start of hostilities for a few months, but it was almost perfectly engineered not to hold lasting value. It was dependent on everyone agreeing to the constitution that was being written, and given the divergence in viewpoints on critical issues facing the new country, it was almost impossible for that to happen.

While all of these discussions were ongoing, in the background the new constitution of Ireland was being written. It would take three month’s worth of work within the committee created for the purpose of drafting it, and it would be reworked several times. The committee had been told to not overly concern themselves with the exact requirements for the constitution as laid out by the treaty with the British, instead they should just focus on properly setting up a new Irish Republic. This resulted in the elimination of the oath to the British crown, a removal of the British judiciary as an avenue for appeals, and the omission of any discussion about the Crown’s executive authority. The goal of the republican leaders was to present this treaty, un-amended and unchanged to the Irish voters before the election. This, in the Republican Leader’s minds, would allow the voters to properly understand the best possible outcome of the treaty, hopefully leading to more support. If less palatable alterations had to be made to the constitution later, that was a problem for later. In London, when they found out the details of the treaty, Lloyd George was lets just say less than pleased. The British government told Griffith and Collins that they believed the new constitution had six major issues when it came to needing to comply with the agreements made in the Treaty. These six items included many of the things I mentioned earlier, the removal of the oath, no judicial powers in London, no actual power for the British government and no official recognition of Northern Ireland. These problems would not be fixed by the time of the election, but they did prevent the constitution from being published until the day before the election, June 15th. There was some debate at the time and after how much the publication of the constitution altered the course of the election. Many would claim that the people did not have time to read and understand the draft while others saying that just its basic outline changed many votes. The election would prove that there was a large majority for the pro-treaty members of the government. The pro-treaty members of the Sinn Fein would receive 58 seats, and the anti-treaty just 36. Critically, anti-treaty candidates would not win a single seat in a contested district with both a pro and anti-treaty candidate on the ballot. The final 34 seats were split among 3 smaller parties and Independents. After the votes were tallied, with the pro-treaty side able to easily form a majority in the new Dail without any of the anti-treaty members the anti-treaty members would begin a policy of abstention, and civil war appeared imminent.

After the results of the election British leaders generally had a sigh of relief, but then, Sir Henry Wilson was assassinated. Sir Henry Wilson, former Chief of the Imperial General Staff, had played a leading role in British efforts during the Anglo-Irish war, and this caused two IRA members, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan to assassinate him on his doorstep on June 22nd. The two IRA members then shot two policemen in their attempted escape before being captured. They were sentenced to death, and would be executed just a few weeks later. It isn’t exactly clear why the men were then and killed Wilson at this time, some sorties have them there under the direct orders of Collins who they had served under in the IRB before and during the First World War. However, Collins’ involvement is disputed. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination the British leaders began to put heavy pressure on the Provisional Government to bring the anti-treaty members of the IRA under control, and they suggested starting with those that were still occupying the Four Courts area. This pressure, along with a general desire not to see relations with the British deteriorate any further, would prompt the Irish Dail into action, and it would plunge Ireland into a the depths of Civil War.