The Irish War of Independence came to an end, officially speaking, on the 11th July 1921, when a truce that was agreed between representatives of “the Republic” and the British government came into effect. I say “officially speaking” because in many ways the truce meant merely a reduction in violence and not a stop to it, and to a very large degree was flat-out ignored in the north, where the violence would only escalate in the truce period. Recognition of the truce as the end of the war is really another one of those historical conveniences that attempts to give distant conflicts a definitive endpoint for easier rationalisation: better I think to say that it was an event that marked a transitional period in the larger Irish Revolution, the end of the endorsed fighting between nationalists and the British administration, but not the end of the fighting.
The last time we seriously discussed the attempts to bring the War of Independence to a peaceful resolution was in regards the efforts of Archbishop Patrick Clune, which had fizzled out around the end of 1920/beginning of 1921. But the peace moves never really stopped being pursued by various people, often in the form of back channel dealings, even while the military effort was maintained and even ramped up. De Valera’s return from America, with Lloyd George’s orders that he was not to be arrested, brought fresh hopes that a moderate voice could be beneficial to arranging a ceasefire.
But it was still a long and bumpy road. Throughout the Spring of 1921 efforts were made, many of them prosecuted strongly by Hamar Greenwood’s socialite wife Margery, to get de Valera in the same room as the Unionists’ Edward Carson, as a prelude to direct talks with Lloyd George. Such efforts would frequently stumble on the intransigence of both sides, on preconditions to meetings and an unwillingness to meet unless actual results were promised. At this stage, there was a great deal of back-and-forth on what exactly each side would accept, and it should be said that a 32-county Republic was not listed among such options. Sticking points were to what extent a settlement would allow an Irish state to be autonomous, especially financially. Neither de Valera or Carson or James Craig or Lloyd George wanted to be the ones to make the first overt move. Such fencing provoked despair among those seeking peace, who were using every avenue available – members of the church, members of trade unions, contacts with Sinn Fein, even unionists in the north – as go-betweens.
In April a new effort made by Edward Stanley, the Lord Derby, got as far as a meeting with de Valera, but also produced no result. More developments that month and in May gave signs of hope: the long-past-due retirement of the irrelevant John French as Lord Lieutenant, replaced by Edmund Talbot, the Lord Fitzalan, a Catholic; a meeting, though without result, between de Valera and James Craig; and the May elections, all provoked louder calls for at least a temporary laying down of arms. But Lloyd George’s changeable attitude – in May he declared that his government had already been overly-generous in the Government of Ireland Act, and that previous compromises like prisoner releases had had no positive result – made things impossible.
It was late May and June that saw the change come. That month there was increasing acceptance from both the military and political leadership of the British side that the “coercion” policy was not fit for purpose. The Southern Ireland Parliament was still-born, and an expansion of the military effort, to the point of full martial law and a flooding of Ireland with troops, was seen as both too costly and unlikely to get the result needed. “All in or get out” was how one commentator put it, and Lloyd George was unwilling to become “all in” in Ireland. So the question swung back to how “get out” could be made acceptable.
Similarly, on the other side, a more focused effort had to be made. De Valera as a figurehead helped, as did, in a certain manner, the imprisonment of Griffith and MacNeill. But the Republic remained a disparate collection of figures, factions and organisations, many of them with very different outlooks and expectations. Die-hards wanted nothing more than a complete separation on a 32 county basis, others would have been satisfied with Dominion status, others somewhere in-between or something even lesser. And there was the divide in the military, between those who thought their units and areas were in a strong position to continue the fight, and those who felt they were barely clinging on, a difference in opinion that could go right down to neighboring companies. British reprisals as an official policy had been brought to a halt in June, and RIC deaths were at a height around the same time, but so were arrests of Volunteers. The declining influence of flying columns on the conflict was also evident around this time.
Some lamented how difficult it was to make peace with the “Shinners” when said party seemed to have no clear position to barter from. It was a problem that would find no solution to satisfy everyone long term, but even a short-term rapprochement seemed impossible at times. One of the rungs in that ladder was supplied by King George V, in a speech he gave in Belfast on the occasion of the first meeting of the Northern Ireland parliament. It had been drafted by South African Prime Minister Jam Smuts and then approved by Lloyd George; in it, the King called upon “all Irishmen…to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation” before expressing his “earnest desire” that in Southern Ireland “there may ere long take place a parallel to what is now passing in this Hall” before stating that “The future lies in the hands of My Irish people themselves.” While its impact has undoubtedly been exaggerated, the conciliatory tone of the speech was noteworthy, and it signified a change in British policy that many picked up on.
Smuts turned out to be a key player in what happened next. A veteran of the Boer War now turned international statesmen, he had played a key role in the Versailles Conference, and proved to be one of the most important intermediaries between the British and Irish governments. His experience with South Africa, a state that had emerged from a war with Britain and was now self-governing without separation from the Empire, made him a favourable figure in that regard, who could be trusted to represent the Imperial position while being able to sell Dominion status to de Valera. Tom Casement, brother of Roger, brought Smuts and de Valera together, but only after the embarrassing need to release de Valera from prison after he had been arrested on the same day of the King’s speech, against Lloyd George’s express orders.
De Valera seemed pliant on the issue of a Republic, though he insisted that negotiations would have to be preceded by a truce. Things moved quickly enough then: Griffith and MacNeill were released from prison, captured British figures were similarly released by the other side, Sinn Fein representatives agreed to meet with delegations from southern unionists and military leaders on both sides were told to start making arrangements for a truce, which was done over the course of four days in early July. Men who had been deadly enemies the day previously were suddenly meeting repeatedly, hammering out the most basic possible agreement acceptable to both sides. In the end, the terms that were agreed between Robert Barton and Eamon Duggan for the Dail (and by extension the IRA) and General Macready for the British on the 9th July were not all that different from those that had been proposed seven months earlier.
There were two distinct list of requirements to apply to either side. The British agreed to import no more soldiers, police or Auxiliaries into Ireland. Existing forces would make no “provocative display” of their strength. The truce would apply to all parts of the island equally, whether they were under martial law at the time or not. IRA Volunteers, their war material and lines of communication would not be pursued, nor observed by “secret agents”, and there was to be no interference with the movement of Irish civilians or military personnel (essentially an agreement to end curfews).
The Irish agreed to cease all attacks on Crown Forces and loyalist civilians. They too committed to make no provocative displays of their forces. They would not “interfere” with either government or private property. They committed to “discountenance” any attempt of their own side to do anything which could necessitate military intervention from the other side. The terms did not say anything about the IRA importation of arms. Some of the overall terms were disputed – papers would print different versions – but this is essentially what they came down to.
In essence, the truce agreement was a simple commitment from both sides to cease active military operations, at least those aimed at the other side. No ambushes, no raids, no assassinations, no reprisals, no bombings, no burnings. The last point for the Irish side was a unique recognition of the IRA’s position, and the likelihood that swaths of the organisation would not respond positively to the truce; the British put the enforcement of the truce, in that respect, purely on the heads of the IRA. It was, perhaps, also a preemptive acknowledgement that post-truce violence was likely, with the British preemptively trying to blame the IRA for it.
That was the military side of things. The political side was just as, if not more, important. The simple fact that a truce had been agreed at all was a huge victory for Sinn Fein and the IRA: it was a recognition from the British that they were more than just a “murder gang”, even if Lloyd George was careful to refer to de Valera only as a leader of “the great majority in Southern Ireland”. It was the fruition of the entire military strategy, to fight the British into a corner until negotiations, and thus recognition, became preferable to continuing the fight. De Valera was invited to London to talks directly with Lloyd George, which would take place later in the month, setting the stage for later negotiations, the subject of future entries.
A two day period was agreed between the signing of the truce and its implementation, to allow time for the news of its contents to be adequately communicated to IRA units across the country many of which were difficult to contact, being on the run. The news got a mixed response. Some celebrated, especially in Dublin. Others, especially in parts of Tipperary and Cork, were less enthusiastic, suspecting that the truce was temporary at best, or to the advantage of their enemies at worst. Plenty had cause to worry what would be the outcome of negotiations, that the Republic they had been fighting and dying for would now be traded away. As we have seen, many units continued operations for that two day period, or came up with ones on the fly. Crown Forces received the news mostly negatively, seeing the truce agreement as a defeat, but obeyed for the most part. And we have already discussed the reaction of loyalist/unionist elements in the north, which was a sign of things to come there.
That aforementioned divide between those who felt the IRA was on its last legs and those who felt the war could be extended for some time yet has never really gotten a satisfactory final judgement in history, and it is up to individual interpretation. Elements of the IRA were badly stretched at the time, especially active areas like Dublin and Limerick. Others remained well-organised and relatively well-supplied. It would be my opinion that the war could have been continued for a time based on the level of force deployment in July 1921, but a recourse to full martial law may have been a gamechanger, and may have necessitated at least a temporary pause in IRA operations, or a switch to predominant targeting of property in the form of bombings and burnings. However, it would not have really won the conflict for the British, merely extended the inevitable: Ireland, the 26 counties at least, had moved beyond them in terms of its political status.
One interested party who received news of the truce with wholehearted support was the people. The days leading up the announcement had been marked by large crowds assembling wherever talks were taking place: when it became public knowledge, a party atmosphere was often the result, with massed celebrations, the unfurling of tricolours, the odd firework and generally a joyous response. Beyond the feeling that Ireland had won the war by bringing the British to the table, it must be remembered that the Irish citizenry had been living in various shades of wartime for most of the period from 1914 to the summer of 1921, and exhaustion was certainly palpable: the idea that it would now all come to an end, and leave Ireland untangled with the British, would surely have made it all seem worth it for many. IRA men on the run came out of hiding and were acclaimed as heroes, British military personnel left the streets. It was a time that drew much comment on the perceived oddity of it, not least Ernie O’Malley, who received the news whole training Volunteers in the field: …”and so ended what we called the scrap; the people later on, the trouble and others, fond of labels, the Revolution”.
But of course, it was not to be an end. The exact status of Ireland in a settlement with Britain was very much up in the air, and just about the only absolute was that a Republic would not be the answer. But that recrimination was to come. For now, I want to follow in the footsteps of what I did for 1919 and 1920, and allow an entry to focus on some of the minor actions of the War of Independence in 1921, before moving onto a general summary. That comes next week.
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