Ireland’s Wars: The Civil War That Wasn’t

Much of the political wrangling around Home Rule in the summer of 1914 was about whether Ulster would be part of the process at all. Early on and at different stages of the legislative process, opposition figures, and even supporters, were suggesting that part or all of Ulster would be excluded from Home Rule, either for a few years, or indefinitely. For many, it was the most logical solution to the issue. Of course, it was not the preference of Home Rule-supporting nationalists, not only because it was a division of the country, but because it would be seen as a surrender to Carson and the Ulster Volunteers’ show of force.

In late June, King George V invited representatives from both sides of the divide to Buckingham Palace for a conference, that took place over two days. The conference would break up without agreement, though it was considered a mostly productive discussion, insofar as a bare minimum of common ground was found and both parties agreed the discussions were civilized. But, when they finished, Ireland still seemed to be headed towards Civil War.

Then, on the 4th of August, Britain declared war on Germany, and the Irish political question was put on ice, nominally for the duration of the conflict.

For the moment, I’d like to discuss the Volunteer Crisis in terms of war, or rather the conflict that didn’t happen, the civil war that wasn’t. Reading historical accounts of the period, both those close by and those written today, it is practically taken as a given that the opposing volunteers were going to be shooting at each other soon, but for the sudden intervention of Germany’s invasion of Belgium.

This is something I have always had difficulty buying, and in a rare moment of counterfactual analysis for this series, I’d like to expand on why.

Firstly, let us consider the situation in Ireland in the event of the most likely legislative solution to the Home Rule crisis: Home Rule being instituted everywhere but part or all of Ulster. If this occurred, the Ulster Volunteers’ raison d’etre would have been largely fulfilled: they would have had no reason to launch any kind of foray southwards, or against the government, so we can logically discount offensive action from them in that event.

Would the Irish Volunteers then have attacked northward? Unlikely too, in my estimation. The Volunteers were supposed to be defensive, and if Home Rule was instituted on the basis of partition, then the local police and British Armed Forces would have been more than justified in stepping in and disarming the Irish Volunteers in the event that they attempted anything of the sort. The Volunteers, poorly armed if at all, would have been unable to resist as a conventional force, and such an action may well have resulted in the suspension of Home Rule after it all.

Secondly, let us consider instead the more volatile situation that would have occurred if Home Rule was instituted in the whole of the island, over the objections of the Unionists. In this situation, we can well imagine a more violent response from the Ulster Volunteers, who were armed, organised and committed. Government buildings may have been seized, a provisional government given more firm operation, armouries attacked. Ulster, or as much of it as the Ulster Volunteers would have been able to effectively control, would surely have made a military stand against Home Rule. The question then becomes about the response of the authorities, and of the Irish Volunteers.

As we have seen, the police and the Armed Forces had demonstrated that their commitment to implementing Home Rule by force was questionable at best, albeit maybe not as dire as has often been suggested. It should be remembered that leading officers of the Curragh mutiny had claimed that they would follow direct orders if they were given, and I would deem this even more likely once the Ulster Volunteers opened fire on police or soldiers guarding armouries and other vital points, thus surrendering the moral ground that so defined their movement (at least in their eyes). While better armed than the Irish Volunteers, the Ulster Volunteers would have been little better able to confront a full British military assault.

But let’s say that somehow the Ulster Volunteers were able to seize Ulster without a shot being fired, thus making the British authorities hesitant to engage in combat, or if the British military en masse refused to follow orders to enforce Home Rule. Then we look to the Volunteers. Would they have been capable of taking up what arms they had, marching north, and essentially invading a territory of people largely unsympathetic to their cause, and likely hostile to their presence? If the British Army put themselves in the middle, would the Irish Volunteers be willing to attempt to go through them?

We must also bear in mind other simple realities that both sets of Volunteers would have had to deal with. What weapons they had were either brought from home or obsolete, for the most part. Would Volunteer armies in the field be capable of supplying themselves with food and water? What of transport arrangements, in a country where motor vehicles were not yet as prevalent as they might have been, and where access to fuel would fast have become an issue? What of forage for horses? What of medical supplies in the event of fighting? What of ammunition stock once the initial supplies had been depleted, which would have happened very fast? What of communications and the chain-of-command, so easily muddled in the case of the Irish Volunteers a few years later?

And even if both sides came to blows along the border or elsewhere, how much would the British military have been willing to tolerate before stepping in with all of their advantages in men, arms and material?

Perhaps we can put it even more simply. The goal of the Irish Volunteers was to preserve Home Rule. This would not be accomplished by attacking the Ulster Volunteers, indeed it would endanger it. The goal of the Ulster Volunteers was to stop Home Rule. This would not be accomplished by attacking the Irish Volunteers. All-out conflict between the two had little to recommend it, and much to be risked by it.

Regardless, the much more likely solution would have been for Home Rule to be implemented in the south only, with all, or part of the north excluded. It is my own opinion that the IPP and the Irish Volunteers would have tolerated this, unhappily, while the IRB continued to work towards an almost inevitable republican insurrection.

The July Crisis in Europe, and the beginning of the First World War, interrupted everything, its eventual scale almost making a mockery of what was occurring in Ireland. Where one day the issue had been the most important topic in British politics, it suddenly only mattered insofar as it influenced recruitment to the army, an army that now set off for foreign fields.

Ireland’s Wars is going to take a short break while I draw up plans for what’s to come. The rest of the Irish revolutionary period after the summer of 1914 will come in time, but in the following weeks and probably months, I will turn my attention to the First World War and Irish involvement in it, from the well-known narratives of the western front, to lesser known portions of the conflict that Irish soldiers and Irish units fought in. It will be a suitable ending to the last mammoth section of this project, that of “the long nineteenth century”, which saw its conclusion in muddy trench-strewn fields where the experience of war changed so decisively. Until then.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Civil War That Wasn’t

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: 1920 In Belfast | Never Felt Better

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