Ireland’s Wars: Collins’ Northern Policy And The Clones Shootout

We have spent a good few entries recently discussing the larger geo-political/military situation in Ireland, between the furor around the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the growing split in the nationalist movement. While all of that was going on, the situation in the north of Ireland remained, to put it lightly, extremely volatile. There had been ongoing violence from the moment the truce was signed all the way up to the end of 1921, with flashpoints of rioting in August and November that had left dozens dead in Belfast alone, while the rest of Ulster vacillated between allegiance to the Republic and following the unionists into a new state. In the first few months of 1922 this violence began to carry a bit more of a political/military, rather than purely sectarian, aspect, as the new provisional government began to flex what muscle it had in relation to Northern Ireland.

1922 was only a few hours old when the first deaths in the North happened, and it very much a case of beginning as you mean to go on: the victims were two young civilians, 14-year-old Hugh Corr and 21-month-old Samuel Campbell, Campbell apparently killed by the ricocheting bullet that had hit Corr. Catholics, they were killed by a sniper on Belfast’s Nelson Street. Their deaths were really par for the course, just the latest in a seemingly endless string of attacks and counter-attacks being prosecuted by either side of the sectarian divide, happening throughout the North but concentrated heavily in Belfast. At least 16 more people would be killed in the city in the rest of January, the victims of snipers, bombs, fires and what we can easily describe as mob violence. On a few occasions gunmen simply called to the door of targets and shot them then and there.

The government seemed unable to wrest any kind of control back, despite the presence of British military personnel in the city. USC men could not be relied upon to properly police largely Catholic areas, something British officers noted in messages back to London, despairing at the idea of the Army having to deal with both republican gunmen and out-of-control unionist militia. They wanted unionist forces to deal with unionist criminals first-and-foremost, but this was never likely to be taken up by the new Northern Irish government, intent as they were on maintaining a unionist ascendancy at all levels.

On the 14th of January, things escalated dramatically when a number of players from a Monaghan gaelic football team were arrested in Tyrone, while travelling to play a match in Derry. One of them was Dan Hogan, brother of the Michael killed on Bloody Sunday, then the O/C of the 5th Northern Division. Papers found on Hogan indicated that he and others were using the match as a pretext or cover for the attempted jailbreak of three IRA Volunteers being housed, awaiting execution, in Derry, following a failed jail break attempt the previous month. The fate of the prisoners had been a cause of some unrest in the area, and it seems likely that Hogan’s mission was a GHQ-sanctioned one: Michael Collins and Eoin O’Duffy, the new Chief of Staff of the IRA, were taking a keen interest in it at any rate.

This sudden crisis provided an opportunity for Collins to implement an adversarial policy towards the North. Despite his negotiation and support for the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which was an explicitly pro-partition document, Collins had no intention of supporting the creation of a Northern Irish state. For him, partition was not something that was meant to be a long-term political solution, and almost from the moment that Collins returned from London he began working on ways to undermine Belfast. In early 1922 this meant a consolidation of resources in border counties, north and south, in preparation for continuing operations.

At the same time, the provisional government was left facing the thorny issue of what to do about the North politically. On the 21st of January Collins had met with James Craig and made a loose pact that the Belfast Boycott would end and that Craig seek to get Catholic workers expelled from their jobs during the pograms re-instated (something that, in the end, he was unable to accomplish, though the Boycott was ended), but presumably could come to no agreement on the issue of prisoners like Hogan. By the end of the month the provisional government has decided on a peaceful policy of non-recognition of Northern political powers, with Dublin to try and pay the wages of Catholic teachers and local government authorities in the North, while Sinn Fein TD’s refused to sit in its Parliament. They also insisted on the release of both the Monaghan footballers and the three Derry prisoners, but Craig was, for the moment, unmovable.

It was perhaps because of this perceived intransigence that Collins moved to undertake a more militant solution. On the night of the 7th/8th February, a large number of IRA Volunteers from Monaghan, Longford and Leitrim crossed the border at varying points in cars, to raid a wide swath of territory. The operation was nominally under the command of the “Ulster Council”, a sort of northern-focused off-shoot of the IRB, but in actuality it was the brainchild of Collins, O’Duffy and Richard Mulcayy, with Frank Aiken as a major directing force, so was an official incursion by any other name. No-one was killed that night, though some USC were wounded when their patrol was ambushed near Newtownbutler. At least forty people, prominent unionists and members of the “Specials” were kidnapped from their homes and brought back south, to serve as hostages against the safety and release of the IRA men held captive in the North. Some IRA personnel were also captured in the process.

By then the three Derry prisoners had had their death sentences commuted to 15 years imprisonment, but this wasn’t enough to take the air out of the balloon. Unionist reaction to the kidnappings was predictably furious. USC flooded into the border area where the kidnappings had taken place, with crossings turned into military posts and other methods of entering the North destroyed. Both sides exchanged potshots at each other, with a particular fulcrum of such incidents being the area around Clones. The town had become a major staging point/centre for the IRA operating near the border, but it was its train station that would cause the coming trouble.

On the 11th February, a party of Specials took a trip from Newtownards to reinforce other USC units in Enniskillen. The route they took, by train, happened to cross the border for a time, as they met a connection at Clones: it was unclear if this was a deliberate provocation or a startlingly unwise, but not malicious, travelling choice. The Specials, all armed, had to wait for a time in Clones for their connecting train. Some of what surviving USC accounts call “suspicious looking young men” at the station probably informed the local IRA, if they weren’t IRA members themselves.

Nearby Volunteers, suitably enraged when they were informed of the arrival of the USC in their town, made their way to the station, led by battalion commandant Matt Fitzpatrick. We can’t be completely sure of his intentions, which could have been to arrest the Specials, or enact a more permanent solution to their presence south of the border. What happened when he, and his group of rapidly assembled Volunteers, arrived at the station is predictably disputed. The Enniskillen train was stopped from leaving, and firing broke out: IRA accounts claim Fitzpatrick was shot dead after calling on the Specials to surrender, the USC claim the IRA opened fire without provocation. Either way, Fitzpatrick was killed at the outset, and then an impromptu gunfight erupted through the train and on the platform.

The exchange of fire was confused, but did not last very long: the Specials were outnumbered, just about, and many of them were caught on the platforms without cover. Four members of their party were killed, and most of the others wounded before the situation was brought to some form of control: the IRA listed only Fitzpatrick as a casualty. Additional IRA personnel were reaching the station all the time, answering Fitzpatrick’s call, and so the Specials were obligated to throw down their guns (some claimed members of their party were killed in the act of doing so, or after, but this is unverifiable). Many civilians were caught in the crossfire also, though none were killed. The surviving USC were taken prisoner.

The aftermath did little credit to the IRA. Civilians on the train, those not hit, were ordered to carry the dead and wounded out of the train, before it was allowed to continue its journey. When it arrived into stops north of the border, the shattered carriages, blood-soaked interior and similarly blood-soaked passengers provoked outrage. IRA units from much of the surrounding area poured into Clones upon hearing of what had happened, perhaps in the mistaken belief that some manner of invasion was taking place. Something approximating martial law was implemented in the area, and a young girl was inadvertently killed that night by the IRA in Monaghan Town.

Clones was a vicious and chaotic encounter, a suitable example of the same viciousness and chaos that were the defining elements of what was happening in the north of Ireland. The USC should never have been in Clones, whether they intended to travel there or blundered over the border. The IRA should, perhaps, not have rushed to the confrontation, a sign of the spontaneous nature of the organisation that flew in the fact of higher direction. Whatever exactly happened at the train station, whoever fired first, it was an encounter that did not say much about either side from a military perspective: just an exchange of gunfire from two armed groups acting more on emotion than martial direction.

Unionists in the North and hawks in London were outraged: some legislators demanded a military re-conquest of the south. British military withdrawal was temporarily paused, but Craig was refused authorisation to send a large force of USC over the border to “rescue” the prisoners. Another bloody bout of sectarian violence and rioting took place in Belfast in the aftermath, with at least 27 people killed in the three days between the 12th and 15th of February. Things seemed dangerously poised, but Winston Churchill was more interested in maintaining whatever facade of stability that there was then escalating things back to the point of conflict. On the 16th February, at his behest, the British military arranged for the release of the gaelic footballers, and in response the IRA released most of their hostages: within a short enough time more would be released. On this occasion at least, things were allowed to de-escalate, and the manner in which the British military took the first step may have been important in allowing all sides to save some face.

Clones has become a surprisingly forgotten incident in the larger Irish revolutionary period, drowned out by the tidal wave of blood being shed in Belfast. While it appears likely that it was more of a chance encounter that an intentional confrontation, it was the inevitable result of Collins’ northern policy, which was fundamentally unsound. Collins seemed to think that Northern Ireland was an entity driven only by a Protestant community centred around parts of Belfast, and that they were able to exert their will only because of a British military presence. He thus seemed to think that an IRA operating a guerrilla struggle with a base in the south could overturn the Northern government, but the lack of a popular support base in the North for such an endevour made it very unlikely to ever succeed, not to mention the existence of the practically paramilitary counter-insurgent force that was the USC. Of course the Belfast government was similarly operating from an unsound position, in making the same mistake that the British had made repeatedly over the previous few years: thinking that any move they made would not immediately result in some manner of escalation from the other side.

Things in the North would get worse, not better. We have touched on it to some extent here, but in the next entry we must focus more singularly on the issue of Belfast, always the epicentre of violence in Northern Ireland at this time. In March of 1922 things would explode there once again: the manner in which it did so would give Collins’ Northern policy its next big test.

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

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6 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Collins’ Northern Policy And The Clones Shootout

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

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