Having spent a good bit of time looking at the day-to-day elements of the Irish War of Independence up to the summer months of 1920, now is a good moment to turn away temporarily and look at the higher level. Decisions were to be taken in July and August in 1920 that would be pivotal to the future course of the war, as well as its final outcome. They revolved around the British leadership: what they wanted to achieve in the struggle, and how they were going to get those achievements.
All military action must be tied to a political goal. The political goal of the British was not, as some may popularly remember, to maintain the status quo in Ireland, that is complete political control from Westminster, with an appointed executive to run things from Dublin. The Government of Ireland Bill was still winding its way through the legislative process, feeling in Ireland be damned, and this was meant to establish two competing Parliaments, in Dublin and Belfast, for new self-governing entities. This was the political solution that David Lloyd George nominally wanted, even if even he must have realised that it was a solution that could not possibly work the way he wanted.
So many in Ireland, on the societal, political and military level, wanted nothing to do with Loyd George’s “Southern Ireland”, not anymore anyway. The British military effort was a poorly directed thing, but which seemed to have as its goal the crushing of the IRA so as to eliminate republican pretensions: essentially to browbeat the island into accepting the quasi-Home Rule that was being offered (along with partition). But a big question remained over how military action was being tied to the political goal, with widespread disagreement at the highest levels.
On the 23rd July the first full-scale meeting occurred where both the British cabinet and Irish executive were present, to discuss the situation in Ireland and how best to proceed: James Craig was also present as a representative of Irish unionists, though naturally no one was invited to represent Irish nationalists. It came only a short time after a sub-committee of Lloyd George’s cabinet recommended the introduction of martial law in Ireland, and after scathing reports on the inability of the Irish government to actually govern, which had led to an influx of new faces to Dublin Castle (all the while, French became more and more of a non-factor). For the contingent from the Irish administration, the meeting was an opportunity to state their case for more direction, resources and general support from London. For the denizens of Westminster, it was an opportunity to try and better grasp the situation in Ireland, and come up with solutions military, legislative and social to try and once again settle the “Irish question”.
In the course of this conference two distinct camps were to emerge. One, subsequently dubbed the “conciliation” faction, favoured a negotiated political solution that would attempt to undermine both the support that Sinn Fein had, and the momentum of the IRA. They called for the introduction of an expanded Home Rule, akin to the Dominion status held by Canada and others, in the hope being that this measure of self-government would be enough to satisfy, in the short-term at least, the wants of Ireland’s nationalists. High ranking figures counted themselves on this side, including people you might not expect, like Nevil Macready and Hamar Greenwood.
The other faction, that we might call the “coercion” camp, took the opposite tack. They wanted to escalate things militarily and crush the rebellion by force, through the introduction of more Regular Army resources, continuing recruitment for elements like the Black and Tans, Auxiliaries and, in just a few months, the Ulster Special Constabulary, and an increasing commitment to the policies of reprisal and collective punishment. Hugh Tudor – who voiced a desire to introduce public flogging for crimes in Ireland – and Winston Churchill were among the most fervent voices for coercion with Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, going as far as to make the suggestion that Protestant civilians in the north should be armed wholesale and then spread throughout the entire island: thankfully cooler heads prevailed on such a plan, which was typical of the kind of scheme Churchill would come up with at every stage in his career. Lloyd George held to a more neutral line, conscious of the unpopularity of the British position in Ireland, but still expressing concern at the lack of judicial punishment given the number of deaths: in other environments he would express sentiments much closer to the “coercion” line.
The conciliators pressed for negotiation on the basis of offering Dominion status for Ireland: the coercion camp were horrified at the idea, seeing any climb-down from their policies and the soon-to-be-implemented Government of Ireland Bill as a victory for Sinn Fein and “murder”. Ultimately, the question was one of whether Britain was going to go on a full war footing in Ireland or not, and whether certain individuals involved at that level were willing to acknowledge that a long term solution would require cooperation from the Irish people themselves. Without that, all of their discussions were just empty rhetoric. The conference broke up without firm victory for either side, just commitments for the continuation of both the Government of Ireland Bill and coercion policies: going down the middle line simply meant that the problem had not been solved, only deferred, as more than one Cabinet member remarked at the time.
It remained the case that the British military effort, through regulars, the RIC, the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries, was failing to support the political goal. Churchill, Tudor and others still thought that a requisite show of force could end militant Irish republicanism, but failed to recognise that every reprisal and atrocity merely inflamed public opinion against the British administration, and made them less likely to accept a partitioned Home Rule forced on them at the point of a gun. It had not been a decade since the majority of Ireland was prepared to row in behind Home Rule, so it is possible that a conciliatory approach may have been able to turn the tide.
But the war, the heavy-handed aftermath of the Easter Rising, the Conscription Crisis and then the quasi-approval for reprisals, they had all combined to form the present situation, where Britain’s designated solution for 26 counties was already a lame duck. Moreover, the British approach continued to lack a unified command in terms of the police and military, hopelessly diluting either sides’ effectiveness. This is important to remember as we move forward, that the British political strategy for the war was based around a fundamentally unsound picture of what the political endgame would be, and an equally unsound military strategy.
The other major outcome of this conference was the remade commitment, already pretty much in place, that the north-east Ulster would not be subject to any All-Ireland Home Rule solution. Instead, it was to enjoy the benefits of the Government of Ireland Act, and would be allowed a part of future negotiations between the British and nationalists as its own player. Maintenance of British military interests in Ireland and the self-determination of unionists remained key platforms in Britain’s approach, as outlined to President Wilson around the same time, and leading unionists in Ulster were already taking advantage of this intention, calling for a separate executive figures to be appointed for the six counties and the creation of their own elements of the police force, as previously discussed. In essence, men like Craig, wanted a unionist dominated Northern Ireland up, running and existent as soon as possible, before nationalists or their armed elements could do anything about it. Lloyd George was inclined to let this happen.
In the immediate weeks and months after these meetings, things appeared to be going more in the direction of the British, leading those of the coercion faction to crow about impeding victory. Funding to local councils that backed Sinn Fein were strangled, more troops were sent to Ireland and the “Restoration of Order in Ireland” Act, introduced in August, was, in the spirit of the middle ground, a quasi-martial law by another name, establishing the primacy of courts martial over trial by jury, and allowing the military to replace coroner’s inquests with their own proceedings. For a time, the deaths of IRA personnel and the conviction of others increased, swelling those held in internment facilities or deported. But it was, as we know now, a false dawn for the British, who would be rudely awakened by events towards the end of the year.
For now, the war continue its pattern of small-scale ambushes and attacks. In the next entry we will return to that aspect of the war, with a move to the far west of the country, and the conflict in County Mayo.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.