Thus far, we have really only talked about the British side of the Irish War of Independence in a distant manner, discussing them merely as a target for the IRA and as the enemy of “the Republic”. In this entry, I wanted to take the time to offer some commentary on that British perspective, and how they reacted, politically and militarily, to the ever-growing violence in Ireland in 1919. That year brought difficulties to the British but it was not yet the maelstrom that would emerge in 1920: it is interesting to look back and inquire as to what was done, or not done as the case may be, to stop what was happening, and how the reactions formed.
To understand Prime Minister’s David Lloyd George’s approach to Ireland in 1919, we need to consider the parliamentary arithmetic after the election of December 1918. With the Conservatives ascendant to the extreme and Irish representation in Westminster dominated by Unionists, it was only natural, in some ways at least, that Lloyd George would skew to a less conciliatory line in Ireland than he might otherwise have done. Government policy in Ireland was also effected by the Prime Minister and others’ absence in Paris for a large stretch of 1919.
That necessity meant that the Irish question was deferred at the highest office for too long in 1919, while Sinn Fein, the Dail and the IRA consolidated their growing control of large parts of the country. The British administration in Dublin was left looking hapless and uncoordinated, whatever about John French’s bombastic pronouncements. Despite the increasingly obvious malaise Lloyd George was happy, in the first half of the year, to give French and Dublin Castle a free hand, a laissiz faire policy that allowed the collective punishment of communities after events like Soloheadbeg, mass arrests in hundreds of raids and the proscription of nationalist or republican organisations, the last meant to cripple Sinn Fein and the Dail, but which really only ended up making them stronger. Catholic officials in the Castle were increasingly frozen out, and those of a more sectarian bent, in Dublin and London, got more control than they should have had.
The main force of British authority in Ireland, the police, were in a constant state of reaction and contraction throughout 1919. The mixture of intimidation from the IRA, sympathy for the republican cause, and the lack of support from higher-ups, accelerated what was, essentially, a disintegration of the RIC. Between retirements, deaths, injuries and just constables refusing to do their jobs as they were supposed to do them, the RIC saw its manpower and ability to apply force severely diminished, and with seemingly no support coming from elsewhere. The answer was to retreat, with hundreds of barracks deserted, and the remainder greater fortified, awaiting the storm that was to come. The situation was mirrored, though not quite to the same extent, with the DMP in the capital, with the destruction of G Division just the most eye-catching sign of its decreased effectiveness.
As a strategy, it was poor but perhaps inevitable, allowing the IRA and “the Republic” to gain legitimacy at a frightening rate, and tangible control of huge swaths of Ireland. French’s hardline approach, wherein he wanted to declare full martial law in Munster and other places, was prevented by an immediate lack of soldiers, owing to ongoing troop demobilisation after World War One. There were other reasons such an approach was not considered at that time: there was still a great reluctance to fully admit what was happening, and the result was an over-reliance on a barely holding together police force. French himself, as late as December 1919, enunciated the view that the violence would peter out, as the majority of the Irish population did not support it. That may have been true at the start of the year, maybe, but not so much by the end. The thoughts of some military minds, that an all-out mass assault on the IRA, by police and regular forces, should be undertaken without cessation, was not contemplated yet.
Politically, in London, when Ireland was the topic for discussion, the issue came back to Home Rule, the policy that Lloyd George continued to cling to as a solution, just with the tricky issue of the north to sort out. The fact that nationalist Ireland had now long moved past the idea of Home Rule as the final answer to its own question did not seem to matter much. The British government was more concerned with a final settlement that would satisfy Ulster Unionists, with the apparent expectation from some that the rest of Ireland would fall into line once given what had been deferred in 1914.
The idea of an all-Ireland Home Rule was now definitively abandoned: when Lloyd George began moves to implement Home Rule in September 1919, through a committee dominated by those of a Conservative and Unionist persuasion, it was on the basis of two parliaments, one in Belfast and one in Dublin. The only real questions to be fought over was, first, how big the northern area would be, whether it would be the entirety of the province of Ulster, or just its majority Protestant areas, as the Ulster Unionists preferred and second, whether those six counties should just be retained under London rule.
Many of those involved in the politicking may have firmly believed that the implementation of Home Rule in Ireland’s three southern provinces, with the accompanying withdrawal of British authority in “domestic” matters, may have been enough to satisfy nationalists. They were, of course, wrong. What the Easter Rising had started could not now be so easily stopped. “The Republic” was not an imaginary concept anymore, and people were already killing and dying for it. Home Rule seemed a pathetic solution to those people now. But the British cabinet seemed not to care too much.
The result was the “Government of Ireland Act”, sometimes known as the Fourth Home Rule Bill, which would be up for debate and readings for much of 1920. It proposed the establishment of “Northern Ireland” and “Southern Ireland” with separate parliaments, and a “Council of Ireland” between them that could work towards reunification. London would retain control of military matters, foreign affairs and other key symbols of sovereignty. By the time it would be implemented it was already long obsolete, at least in the south, and in the months of wrangling to come few would have thought it likely to be a success. But it was the best that London could come up with, unwilling as they were to contemplate complete separation.
Thus, some were able to frame the British response as one of increased security on the ground and constitutional reform in the higher arena. But both were failures, in the first instance because the security situation was floundering, and in the second instance because the idea being introduced was stillborn. 1919 was a year where the British allowed their position in Ireland to stagnate, slowing sinking in republican quicksand.
1920 was going to bring a change to British strategy. Even before then there was a recognition, albeit a neutered one, that the RIC and what minimal military resources there were in Ireland, were not enough to combat the IRA. As Westminster largely wasted its time discussing Home Rule, the RIC was looking at the issue of demobilised soldiers as an opportunity.
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