Ireland’s Wars: Aims And Objectives For 1921

The Irish War of Independence was now entering its final year, though of course no one knew that at the time. There would be a new intensity to the conflict in the coming months, as things hurtled towards a political conclusion. Before we get into all of that, I thought it would be good to set the stage a bit, and outline a few important developments on that political front, before discussing just what it was, at this stage, both sides actually wanted to get out of the war. Suffice to say that it is a bit more complicated than a Republic and the status quo.

The first thing to note is the return, on the 23rd of December 1920, of Eamon de Valera to Ireland. His trip to the United States had been a mixed affair, one that undoubtedly helped raise a lot of money for the cause, and brought international attention to Ireland, but which had inflamed pre-existing divides in nationalist organisations over there. Now back, de Valera would bring that penchant for creating divides with him, in a political conflict with Michael Collins that would form a key part of the pre-Civil War jockeying for position just over a year later. It is said that de Valera’s very first meeting with cabinet members upon his return essentially involved him listening to Cathal Brugha complaining about Collins and not too long after he was calling for Collins to go to the United States to continue the work there. They may have been practical reasons for such a course, not least Collins’ experience with money-raising, but it smacked of attempting to neutralise a rival.

In terms of military matters, de Valera wasted little time in trying to exert his authority, addressing the Dail for the first time in January, then the cabinet where he called for the IRA to abandon its current tactics of ambush and guerrilla warfare, in the face of British labeling of such tactics as terrorist. Instead, he proposed “regular” military operations, the kind that would involve over 500 uniformed men at a time. Collins and other high-ranking members of the IRA were appalled, for obvious reasons, and de Valera was compelled to abandon, for the time being, such pretensions: a GHQ report in response to de Valera’s plan had it right, in defending guerrilla “flea bites” in comparison to regular army “blows to the air”.

Aside from sowing the seeds for a future conflict, de Valera’s return allowed for a greater emphasis to be placed on the nascent moves towards peace with Britain that had already begun in his absence (his insistence on more traditional military attacks were certainly connected). The first of these had been through Irish businessman Patrick Moylett who, at the behest of Arthur Griffith, met the staff of British Education Secretary H.A.L. Fisher in October of 1920, and several others in London (one of which was H.G. Wells, then employed as a foreign fact finder by Lloyd George: he recommended Moylett wait half a year and try again, when the Prime Minister would be more amenable to peace). These discussions seemed to bearing fruit, with suggestions that representatives of the Dail be sent to London to discuss terms while a ceasefire of sorts could be enacted in Ireland.

Things broke down after the dramatic events of November and subsequent arrest of Griffith: an arrest enacted by the military, and much to the annoyance of Lloyd George, who later instructed that de Valera should not suffer the same fate. More back channel talks in December, involving Australian Archbishop Patrick Clune – the uncle of Conor Clune, one of the three men killed “while trying to escape”at the end of Bloody Sunday – fell apart upon British insistence that the IRA disarm, as noted previously. Such backroom attempts would continue off and on for months, even as the military situation got ever more fractious.

We must now contemplate just what it was that each side wanted out of the war. First, we must consider Ireland. Here, it is vitally important to remember that “the Republic” remained a fluid ideal, that still constituted, to a large degree, all things to all men. Its followers included hardcore proponents of a completely sovereign 32-county republic, moderate nationalists who would have been satisfied with an enhanced version of the previously agreed Home Rule settlement (including partition), and more socialist-minded revolutionaries who wanted a total overhaul of political life in Ireland from top to bottom, especially regards land distribution and the extent of democracy.

The set-up of the Dail in early 1921, and its associated government functions, was not all that dissimilar to the British one, just without a monarchy and with Irish names on certain institutions. Many of the rank-and-file of the IRA, and higher officers too, were not fighting and dying with an expectation that the post-war settlements would be constitute such an Irish sheen to the pre-war status quo. But it remained totally in the air as to what the entire thing was for anyway. Nominally it was for a 32-county republic, but we must be mature enough to realise that many prominent nationalists knew, or would soon realise, that such an aim was an impossibility, and it did not fully come into their calculations. The only way such a settlement would happen would be for the the British – and unionist factions in the north – to be totally defeated militarily and expelled from the island. Despite IRA successes in the war up to that point, very few thought this a realistic possibility, and for good reason. Collins was one: it is reported that discussions with the British in late 1920 around a beefed-up Home Rule settlement met with his approval. In all such discussions, the possibility of a 32-county republic appears to have never even been raised as a serious point to debate.

So, while IRA activity was going to continue, and indeed intensify in certain areas, this was not being done in the pursuit of pure military victory. Instead, it was a case of staying the course: of using the weapons of ambush, assassination and the provocation of reprisal to show the British position as equal parts weak and needlessly cruel in the eyes of national and international opinion. With every successful ambush, and every village and town that suffered collective punishments from the Black and Tans, the likelihood of a political settlement came more and more into view. But still, the desired political settlement remained somewhat nebulous: complete separation, Home Rule by a different name, a total overhaul of the Irish state. For many, that was a bridge to be crossed when it was come to, and not before, and it remained unclear how even the highest-ranking members of the Dail actually felt. Getting to that bridge, through a truce as a prelude to official negotiations, was the only thing worth caring about at the time. Such prevarication certainly contributed to the sense of betrayal many would feel a year later.

We must approach the British position with similar pragmatism. It is too simple to declare that their sole aim was to crush the Irish rebellion and maintain the pre-war status quo: we have already seen that this was not the case. Lloyd George’s government remained nominally committed to the idea of a partitioned Home Rule settlement, where British control could be maintained through self-governing parliaments in Belfast and Dublin, a final outcome that was not all that different to what had been proposed before the First World War upset everything (and, crucially, not all that different from what the final outcome of the War of Independence actually was).

Privately, Lloyd George and others were already starting to realise that this was not going to be quite enough. Events like Bloody Sunday and Kilmichael made a mockery of the hawks’ insistence that the war could be concluded solely by military means, allowing the British to do whatever they wished with the postbellum situation. While Britain moved forward wit the still-stated aim of crushing the IRA with the Crown Forces in Ireland, Lloyd George’s willingness to hear out the back channel approaches showed that he was already moving firmly into the “conciliation” camp of the cabinet. I have said it before, and will probably say it again, but the actual aim of the British government at this time was to resolve the situation in Ireland to a degree where self-government became realised under enough of a British aegis that they could claim they had not simply abandoned the country in the face of the IRA offensive, with the north of the country to get its own settlement separate to the rest. In many ways it could be compared to the not-too-distant situation in South Africa, where the men the British had fought in the final Boer War had then been co-opted into running the new imperial state.

To that end the Government of Ireland Bill was rushed ahead, so that the North of the country would have its own functioning self-government before any potential settlement with the southern nationalists. It became a point to claim that military activity in Ireland would have to be pressed so that free elections could be held for the entities to be created by the Government of Ireland Act, after which the possibility of negotiating with a more palatable representation of Ireland could emerge: those elections were set, after consultation with the military, for May 1921. This would become another fractious issue for Irish nationalist leadership, over whether they should contest the elections and how solidly they should do so.

So, as 1921 began both sides remained nominally committed to the armed struggle, but both sides were also in a muddle about what that armed struggle was supposed to be designed for. The Irish preached republicanism to anyone who would listen while high-ranking figures actively sought a more limited form of self-government, and the British openly encouraged a greater military effort to annihilate the Republic while happily moving forward with the already arranged partitioned parliaments, of which they knew the southern one would inevitably be dominated by the members of that same Republic. The paradoxes built and built: the seeds of the next war were already planted.

Now we must move back to the military affairs of the War of Independence. January 1921 was a month where official reprisals began in earnest, assassinations continued and ambushes continued to mount up. In Clare, only ten or so km’s north of Limerick City, the IRA and the RIC began the year as they would go on: with one side doing the attacking, and another doing the dying.

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

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9 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Aims And Objectives For 1921

  1. WorldbyStorm says:

    One of the most interesting aspects amongst many in the above is the reality that opinions within republicanism (if that’s not an incorrect term to apply to such a broad range of opinion) remained so unformed even at that stage. Small wonder later events in that context. Fascinating too how the British state knew that it too had to adapt while retaining as much power as possible.

    • WorldbyStorm says:

      Sorry, just to elaborate on that last point – sometimes I think there’s a view that the British were entirely reactive, and that maintaining the status quo ante was their only position, but as you demonstrate that clearly isn’t the case. I guess there’s also an argument that given HR had in a rhetorical way been part conceded already that there was a division within British political elites as to possible ways forward with some cleaving to that status quo ante and others realising that was impossible, and all points between that too.

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