We have looked at the situation in Northern Ireland from a slightly more general perspective in the early months of 1922, with the new state struggling to define its relationship to the provisional government, and violence being a frequent result. But there was also plenty of internal violence as well. The city of Belfast, that had been a pivotal focal point of sectarian bloodshed since the summer of 1920, showed no signs of any kind of stability becoming manifest and, indeed, was going in the opposite direction if anything. The Spring of 1922 was to be a particularly bloody time, when the situation in the city began to weigh heavily on the nascent political arrangements between Northern Ireland and the provisional government in the south.
Members of Belfast’s Catholic and Protestant communities were dying almost daily at this time. British military forces were caught in the middle, and sometimes liable to be victims themselves: RIC and USC forces were also targets, when they weren’t committing some of the killings themselves. The Treaty, and the de facto recognition of Northern Ireland that came with it, meant that the IRA’s role in Belfast had been eroded, and they now largely resumed their place as an unrecognised non-state actor, at least in the eyes of the Northern Irish government. They hadn’t vanished however, if anything they had seen a surge in recruitment during the truce period, and still maintained a presence, attempting to ward off attacks on Catholic areas.
Events like that discussed in the last entry easily set off recriminations, attacks and counter-attacks in Belfast, with the rioting between the 12th and 15th February especially bad, with at least 27 people killed. The raids of IRA, pro and anti-Treaty, over the border nearly always set off additional violence in Belfast, but it really didn’t take much. Hospitals were full of gun-shot victims, taken there in ambulances that were frequently fired upon. There were so many that it was no problem for Volunteers to seek treatment for such wounds, since they just blended in with the growing crowd.
On the 22nd of February Michael Collins authorised the creation of a special force, dubbed the “Belfast City Guard”. To consist of 70 men from the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, these were to be full-time soldiers tasked especially with protecting the city’s Catholic areas from attack from unionists, be they civilian or constabulary. The activities of this group, similar in many respects to Dublin’s Squad in terms of their organisation, status and special assignment, are not especially noteworthy, but what is noteworthy is the fact that Collins set them up at all. Collins was the named leader of the provisional government in the south it must be remembered, an organisation that explicitly recognised Northern Ireland as a legitimate political entity, but here Collins was arranging the creation of an armed militia unit to act under his overall authority in the capital of that political entity. It shows that Collins, whatever about his turn towards becoming a political leader, was not all that far removed from the person he had been only a year before.
March began much as the previous months. A Catholic was shot dead on a tram on the 3rd, a Protestant in Albert Street on the 5th, four more on the 6th, a day that also saw military patrols briefly engaged with unionists. This was preamble to the 10th when, according to some historians, a new phase of IRA operations in the city began. That day two members of the Belfast RIC were shot dead while on patrol, while three Protestant civilians in other parts of the city were also killed. Soldiers, ex-soldiers, police and USC were all killed in the days that followed, while loyalist civilians hit back. Homemade bombs, often flung into crowds of people or into homes, were becoming a staple of the violence. By the 16th, Ministers in the Northern Irish Parliament were happy to declare that the new state was engaged in a war with the IRA.
While this war seethed on the streets of Belfast, relations between north and south were still on tenterhooks. The next major incident was perhaps not as obvious as the hostage-taking of February, but was still another blow to the idea that the provisional government and Northern Ireland could co-exist peacefully. On the 18th March, a force of Specials took over St Marys Hall on Belfast’s Bank Street. The Hall was a major part of the IRA’s structure in the city, and contained copious amounts of documents detailing the names and locations of various IRA personnel in the North, as well as a cache of arms. Many historians have pointed to the takeover of the Hall and the capture of the papers there as doing a huge amount of damage to the northern IRA in the short and medium term, as they were not as capable of operating without notice.
The act outraged Collins and the provisional government, who felt it a breach of the still nominally existent truce. Over the following week several attacks on RIC and Specials throughout Ulster took place, in Tyrone, Armagh and other places, with many fatalities: these attacks have been placed at the feet of Collins, as retaliatory strikes meant to avenge the capture of St Mary’s and again demonstrate that the IRA was far from a cowed force in Ulster. They provoked their own retaliations from loyalist communities.
All the while people continued to die in Belfast. On the 23rd one of the more infamous incidents took place when the home of the McMahon Family on the Antrim Road was raided by a non-descript gang of armed men. Their identity has never been firmly established, but they are likely to have been informal group working within the Belfast RIC who retaliated against the Catholic community for the deaths of RIC or USC personnel. The family’s father and six sons were herded into the living room and shot at close range: two of the sons survived. The McMahon raid is thought to be a response to the killing of two Specials in the city the previous night, but no adequate investigation was ever launched by the Craig government. Collins was outraged and arranged his own investigation that eventually, with the testimony of Catholic members of the Belfast RIC, named 12 constables involved in the alleged “murder-gang”.
London looked on the growing chaos with concern, fearful that the violence between nationalist/Catholic and unionist/Protestant communities could result in open warfare between Northern Ireland the provisional government, even as the latter was struggling with the anti-Treaty IRA. Churchill and others would have preferred that this struggle remain Dublin’s primary concern, and that there be no possibility of them being reconciled with the radical elements of the IRA in facing a common enemy across the border. Efforts were made by numerous individuals and groups to get Collins and Craig in the same room again. This happened towards the end of March, in London, where the second of the Pacts between the two men was agreed. This was a bit more detailed with the first: Craig committed to involving more Catholics in policing, to make greater efforts to stop police overreach and to ensure fair trials. Collins would use his influence to cease IRA attacks north of the border. Both men would see that prisoners and hostages still in custody would be released, and both governments committed to cooperate to restore peace.
Churchill crowed that the agreement amounted to a declaration of peace but it was hobbled almost immediately by the reaction from elements north and south. The anti-Treaty IRA had no time for such commitments, and within days of it being made had re-instituted the Belfast Boycott themselves. While much of the Northern IRA was pro-Treaty, especially in Belfast, the amount of anti-Treaty personnel there meant that Collins’ grip on the organisation was sometimes suspect. On the other side several members of Craig’s cabinet objected to the Pact and its concessions to Catholics in blunt terms, and the Prime Minister was not of a mind to face them down.
More immediately, the violence did not stop. As Craig and his government made preparations for the creation of a new police force – the future Royal Ulster Constabulary, which was supposed to recruit a third of its personnel from Catholic areas – a new atrocity inflamed tensions. On the last day of the month a member of the Specials was killed and another wounded in an attack on Belfast’s Short Strand. Seemingly in retaliation the largely Catholic Stanhope and Arnon Streets were raided in force by another gang of armed men not readily identifiable, but more than likely members of the local RIC. Several residents – four or five, depending on the account – were killed in the process as the men went door-to-door. The youngest victim was only seven. What became known as the “Arnon Street Massacre” put the second Collins/Craig Pact under unbearable pressure almost as soon as it had been made.
Over 60 people in the city had been killed in March, and the bloodletting continued into April, with additional IRA attacks on police in Tyrone, Armagh and other border counties. Craig refused to permit a joint inquiry into the Arnon Street killings as requested by Collins and when a committee set-up as part of the Pact to encourage conciliation was denied legal status it lapsed almost immediately. Collins, having made two agreements with Craig that had swiftly fell to pieces, now swung back decisively towards military action as the primary avenue of engagement in the North, something that was to the liking of Northern IRA leaders. Long before April was over, orders had been issued for IRA units north of the border to begin preparations for a larger offensive against the Northern Irish government. This offensive occupied much of Collins’ thinking in April, even as events in the south were escalating rapidly.
But before we get to that, we must, for one entry, go down to the other end of the country, to County Cork. Firmly in anti-Treaty territory, it was now to be the site of one of the most infamous group of killings of the Irish revolutionary period, whose potentially sectarian nature ties them to what was happening in Belfast. The small village of Dunmanway was about to forever earn its place in Irish history.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.
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