Behind every flashpoint in Ireland on the road to the Irish Civil War, every bit of violence taking place in isolated areas or the more eye-catching combat in urban centres, the situation in Northern Ireland still caught people’s attention. The violence taking place under the watch of James Craig’s government remained just about the only thing that pro and anti-Treaty people could agree upon in terms of condemning, and in many cases doing plenty more than that. In May of 1922, even as he was trying desperately to keep the Dail and the IRA as unified as they could be, Michael Collins attempted to enact a major combined offensive into Northern Ireland, the goal of which was nothing short of the destruction of Craig’s government: for a variety of reasons it wouldn’t work, and its failure served as preamble for the larger conflagration to come.
Just what exactly the plan was for the Northern Offensive remains difficult to grasp, so reliant as we are on oral reports. The general idea seems to have been for all IRA units in the North to embark on operations on the same day, with the apparent aim of overwhelming the RIC, USC and any other forces who opposed them, a sort of Easter Rising writ large on a provincial basis, while units from the other side of the border would move in to support and relieve. Beyond that, there are conflicting accounts, between those who thought the offensive was to consist of an intensification of guerrilla struggle, to those who thought the IRA was going to march on Belfast, to those who thought they were there to provoke the British military into a counter-strike back into the 26 counties. This lack of concrete plan or strategic objectives for IRA personnel to direct themselves with was a fatal weakness, and reflected the chaos that was occurring within IRA ranks at the time. Rare in history have been the occasions when a divided army has been able to successfully launch a combined attack on an outside enemy. Men like Collins, and Liam Lynch who was also heavily involved, appear to have placed an emphasis more on just getting such an offensive going, than the minute details needed to make it a success.
Just getting anything going was challenge enough, especially in terms of arms. Collins had plenty of guns being delivered by the British government, but using them in the planned offensive was risky, owing to the possibility of serial numbers on the weapons – or an abundance rifles with sawn off numbers – being traced back to Dublin. To ward against this, an agreement was made with anti-Treaty leaders who wanted to take the fight into the North: Collins would trade some of the weapons they have received from the British for anti-Treaty guns, specifically in Lynch’s 1st Southern Division, so every side maintained their supply of arms, but Executive forces would be free to advance into the North without any worries of making the provisional government look bad. All along the border, anti-Treaty units received these guns, in the full realisation they would more than likely be shooting at the people giving them with the same guns before too long. Even the Four Courts garrison was involved in this exchange.
Getting those weapons in the hands of people who needed them, working out operational details, finding the time for planning in-between the periods various flashpoints and negotiations with Belfast, meant that even settling on a start date for the offensive was difficult, and it still isn’t clear. Initially early May was a general time for the operation to start, with instructions to all IRA units in the North to prepare for active duty within two weeks of the 21st April. But ongoing talks with Craig, arms shortages, along with the thousand other distractions, pushed the start date back to mid-May, and it would seem that sometime between the 19th and 22nd May was the chosen time if one is to get specific. Even with that though, it’s hard to differentiate between IRA operations in May, in terms of what was, and what was not, part of the offensive. Countermanding orders complicated things, and did not reach some units, so some elements of the Northern IRA were initiating hostilities while others were not.
It might be easiest to first discuss the activities of the five Northern Divisions in sequence. The 1st Northern Division, based largely in Donegal, would take little part in the offensive: during those events they were mostly shooting at each other. Of all the Divisions in the north, the 1st was probably the most riven by discord, with anti-Treaty reinforcements from Munster exacerbating an already tense situation in the area. In truth there was really two seperate 1st Northern Divisions, one pro-Treaty, one anti, and neither was liable to be too friendly with the other. National Army held up anti-Treaty soldiers, Executives commandeered civilians cars and buildings and pro-Treaty commanders were disinclined to share arms meant for the offensive.
In May, at several points, members of the IRA engaged with provisional government forces, and there both military and civilian fatalities as a result. The most notable incident was when a convoy or National Army troops entered the village of Newtowncunningham on the 4th May, to find IRA men lining either side of the road. The encounter came a few hours after anti-Treaty men robbing a bank in nearby Buncrana had been fired upon by provisional government troops: there were several casualties, and two deaths, including a 9-year-old child caught in the crossfire. Who started the resulting fight in Newtowncunningham is disputed, with either side claiming later that the other fired first, but when it was over a few minutes later with the convoy making its exit, three pro-Treaty soldiers had been wounded fatally, and several more injured.
It was enough that such engagements did not result in the Civil War starting then and there, and they made a mockery of any idea of the 1st Northern Division taking part in the offensive across the border. Aside from an aborted attack on a British Army camp just across the border at Burnfoot and a failed effort to take an RIC position at Molenan House in Derry, the anti-Treaty part of the 1st Northern did not contribute majorly to the offensive. The pro-Treaty side did even less.
The 2nd Northern Division, scattered across Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh, launched attacks on RIC and USC targets in the opening days of May, in places like Bellaghy, Draperstown and Coalisland. One Special was killed in Bellaghy, with three wounded. In addition, barracks’ in Cookstown and Ballyronan were attacked in Derry, with four RIC men killed between them. This was warfare akin to the War of Independence in many ways, but it was not some grand orchestrated uprising. In the following weeks the 2nd Northern Division instituted acts of sabotage against bridges and telegraph wire while more underhanded activities also took place: the killing of a teenaged member of the Specials in Castlecaufield, Tyrone, on the night of the 8th May. The young man was shot dead in his home, and the act provoked sectarian reprisals from the USC and other loyalists. Taken together, these actions were nothing especially noteworthy in the context of the larger Irish revolutionary period, or even just the violence occurring in other parts of Ulster at the time. Division leaders would later blame the lack of support from the neighbouring 1st Northern, when the lack of activity drew unfriendly eyes.
The 3rd Northern Division, based mostly around Belfast, was easily the most active of the units in the North. On the 17th a major operation attempted the takeover of the Musgrave Street RIC barracks: 22 Volunteers forced their way in, killing a constable in the process, but were forced to retreat in a hurry when RIC personnel got wise to their plan, opening up a sustained fire on the barracks from multiple directions. The IRA came away with nothing, having hoped to gain access to a large stash of rifles.
What followed is hard to distinguish from what had become the norm in Belfast, the IRA was just more involved than had been usual. Unionist homes and businesses were the targets of arson attacks, while Unionist civilians were frequent targets of bullets and bombs. Every attack drew its response, whether it was from the authorities, or from civilian groups. Sniper attacks never ceased, and violence was rarely off the streets for long. Any hopes that something akin to 1916 would take place were quickly put paid to, as the IRA were unable to make much headway in terms of constituting a genuine threat to the existence of Northern Ireland as an entity. But the intensification of IRA activity in May and beyond was enough for the Craig government to take advantage of a recently passed Special Powers Act, which allowed for the internment without trial of numerous people suspected of being members or associates of the IRA. Round-ups of such suspects filled prisons, with the HMS Argenta, a Royal Navy barge that had housed detainees during the War of Independence, filled to bursting in Belfast Lough, with hundreds of republican prisoners kept there in cramped and unsanitary conditions.
Frank Aiken’s 4th Northern Division, still based largely around Dundalk, played little to no part in the offensive, as did the 5th Northern Division based along the border further west. There is a dispute over why exactly, but it appears as if these units received orders from Beggars Bush to stand down their plans and to leave the operation to those units already within Northern Ireland. Aiken further claimed that his unit was not adequately armed for any attacking operations into Northern Ireland. Their inactivity provoked a bitter response from some who felt that the 2nd and 3rd Northern Divisions were left to their own devices, unable to properly square up to the Northern Ireland government due to lack of support. It’s easy to imagine that Collins has encouraged anti-Treaty units to commit to an attack and spared pro-Treaty ones at the last moment, as part of a Machiavellian plan ahead of the Civil War, but there were plenty of Volunteers from either side of the divide engaged with every division, so this idea doesn”t stand up under scrutiny.
It is difficult to offer a firm judgement on the Northern Offensive. Of course it was a failure: the Craig government was never in any danger, and IRA activities during the period did not undermine the Northern state any more than it was already undermined. Any notions of an advance on Belfast, if they were seriously held, were revealed as fantasy pretty quickly. Similarly, the idea of a cross-province series of attacks was also shown up as essentially impossible. Lack of arms, bad coordination and an inability to commit forces based around the border all meant that the offensive was doomed.
But there was one additional crisis partly engendered by the Northern Offensive that is worth considering. It was a clash on the bother between the North and South that was probably, until the final hours ahead of the Civil War properly, the closest that the War of Independence came to re-starting. The IRA and the British Army were about to start firing at each other again.
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