In the month of June, the final confluence leading to the start of the Irish Civil War began. Looking back from a century removed it might seem like a somewhat strange and sudden deterioration: after all, at the start of the month there appeared to be an agreement on a political solution, ahead of the election due to take place mid-month. From that, the chances of an easing of military tensions and a normilisation of the provisional government’s position seemed possible. But instead the election, and the Pact that had made it possible, proved to be just more reasons why the outbreak of sustained hostilities proved inevitable.
British pressure on the provisional government was only increasing day-by-day. David Lloyd George’s government was very unhappy about the Pact, which they saw as being too conciliatory to the anti-Treaty faction, while men like Winston Churchill were overseeing the invasion of southern territory. The cabinet still thought the Treaty could be upheld, but there was increasingly detailed discussion of military alternatives if it fell apart. There were still plenty of British troops in Ireland, and not just in the North: a number of barracks remained in British hands. It would not be too difficult for the British Army to establish itself, in force, in Ireland again, though where things would go from there was another question entirely: precisely the reason why Lloyd George was loathe to consider it.
Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins were in London in late May, to sell Lloyd George on the Pact – something Griffith did with the greatest reluctance it would seem, with his relationship with Collins hanging by a thread over the issue – and to present the draft form of the Irish Free State Constitution. This was something Collins and a committee had been hard at work on, having come up with several different versions in an effort to placate anti-Treaty opinion, each longer than the last. Collins had been dangling the possibility of a republican constitution that could undercut the more Imperial provisions of the Treaty, and thus prove a basis for political unity. What was first presented to the British cabinet was that republican-themed document, that expressed the primacy of the Irish peoples sovereignty, had little space for the role of the Crown in the Free State government, or many of the standard trappings of the Commonwealth. Naturally, Lloyd George and his supporters were unimpressed, and soon had a list of demanded changes speeding its way to Collins and his delegation.
Things got heated over the following few days, as what was essentially a replay of the Treaty negotiations played out. The British insisted on a greater role for the Crown in the constitution and on more of a role for the Commonwealth. The Irish brought up what they say as a pogrom of Northern Catholics being carried out by the Craig government, with London’s acquiescence if not outright support (throughout all of this period, there was a daily bloodletting in Belfast, with sectarian killings never letting up). Churchill gave speeches in Parliament openly declaring that the British military would intervene in the event of any kind of republican government taking shape. Such pressures took their toll: Collins was in a morose mood at the time, and expressed a sentiment in a private meeting with Churchill that he did not have long left to live. In the end, the Irish would feel they had no choice but to give in to many of the British demands when it came to the constitution, in order to get Lloyd George’s approval and avoid any possibility of a fresh military intervention in Ireland. Over the following weeks it was extensively re-drafted, as major figures in the provisional government shuttled back and forth to London.
While that political drama was going on with the provisional government, the anti-Treaty faction was having a crisis all of its own. It must be remembered that there were wings to that entity too, with sub-factions not all that gung-ho about the prospect of civil war, set against those who were happy to start shooting any day. Efforts to find unity with the pro-Treaty side only produced more rancour: when a committee constituting of Liam Lynch and Ernie O’Malley among others presented a proposal to split key government and military positions between the two sides to the Four Courts garrison, there was a resoundingly negative response. Rory O’Connor continued to act occasionally as if he was the sole spokesman for the entire anti-Treaty IRA, such as in an interview given to the press late in May, where he claimed that his side controlled the vast majority of arms in Ireland, that they were preparing for an invasion of the North, and that no parliament could express the popular will. Such statements undermined the Army unity efforts significantly as more and more pro-Treaty officers began to view them as an unfeasible arrangement.
The election campaign was just another reason for the anti-Treaty IRA to divide. Some thought that the Pact should be supported and that anti-Treaty candidates should accept the possibility of being re-elected without challenge from elsewhere in Sinn Fein (or at least have the chance to compete just with Labour and Farmers Party candidates). Others thought that the election was undermining the position of the Republic, and that taking part in it, or even allowing it to be held at all, was a recognition of the Treaty and the Free State. A week or so into June a number of major anti-Treaty figures, including Tom Hales, would resign from the IRA Executive over the issue of whether the IRA should be actively attempting to stop the election from taking place (these resignations allowed for Tom Barry’s elevation to the Executive, which would be crucial in terms of the Civil War’s conclusion, nine or so months later).
On the 14th of June, things came to a head. The majority of the Executive choose to reject any of Lynch’s proposals for Army unity as agreed in negotiations with the National Army, and further ordered all such negotiations to cease. They then issued a statement that the IRA would take all actions necessary “to maintain the Republic against British aggression” and would not take the offensive themselves against “Beggars Bush troops”: essentially daring the provisional government to try and stop them when they choose to attack the British military. When a proposal at another convention by Tom Barry to give a 72 hour ultimatem to British forces to leave Ireland was defeated, the more outwardly militant faction walked out. Lynch, and his not inconsiderable amount of troops in the 1st Southern Division, became sundered with the rest of the anti-Treaty movement: a split within a split. The rest of the Executive, now with Belfast O/C Joe McKelvey as the Chief of Staff, immediately began to consider a resumption of hostilities against British forces left in Ireland, though it is unclear how far along such plans went.
The election campaign also reached its defining point on the same day as this second split. De Valera and Collins had actually campaigned together at points, and issued joint statements, encouraging people to go along with the Pact and re-elect the sitting deputies. These messages had a militant ring, warning people about the “dangers that threaten us”, which could only be warded off by the political representatives of the present “national resistance”. Such exhortations were needed, with Labour, the Farmers Party and a few independent candidates choosing to challenge in many constituencies, meaning that Sinn Fein, divided or not, was facing an actual competition in the polls for the first time since the 1918 vote. For the majority of that campaign, it seemed as if the Pact would be upheld, and many of the “non-panel” candidates, ie those not signed up the Pact, would report being the subject of intimidation from republican figures.
Collins spent part of the month in London dealing with the matter of the constitutional crises and other issues, like the violence in the North. On the night of the 13th he returned to Ireland, and the next day, while speaking in Cork, he appeared to suddenly repudiate the Pact, telling his listeners to vote for whatever representatives, panel or non-panel, that they thought best. The situation was confused when, the following day, he made a speech in another part of Cork where he appeared to once again endorse the Pact.
What was going on? It has been suggested that Collins’ first speech may have been a simple slip of the tongue, or was misinterpreted, and that he had never had any intention of breaking from the agreement with de Valera. Given that Collins appears to have never cleared up the matter fully himself while he was still alive, I don’t think this is credible. More likely that he had stepped fully into the shoes of an opportunistic politician at this point: he knew the Free State Constitution was about to be published, and knew that its wording would not be to the liking of republicans. Perhaps he even feared their reaction would be negative enough that they would break the Pact themselves, so he was just doing it first. The second speech, which took place in a more outwardly anti-Treaty area, may simply have been worded so as not to overtly offend the sensibilities of that particular audience.
The Free State Constitution was published in newspapers on the day that polls opened, June 16th. I will not go into a detailed examination of its wording as it is a lengthy enough document, with 83 total articles. Among the key elements were the first article, which affirmed Ireland’s membership of the Commonwealth along with the Crown’s role as the defined executive power (through an appointed Governor-General) and the oath of allegiance. The Irish people were still referred to as the ultimate source of all governmental power however. From a military perspective, the Constitution allowed for any acts of military forces during war to be placed above the “liberty of the person”, for special military courts to be called in certain circumstances and also insisted that the Free State could not be compelled to take part in any war against its will, barring invasion. In a more general sense the government set-up by the constitution was similar enough to the Dail, only with the addition of an upper house, the Seanad, which was mostly similar to the same institution today, and with a similar role to play in the legislature.
It suffices to say that it was not a republican constitution, and largely followed the dictates of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Most of the main points of opposition from the Treaty debates – the oath, the British monarchy’s role, a lack of direction over foreign policy – remained, and the military articles would have caused unease ahead of a possible civil war. Undoubtedly if the constitution had been published earlier it is likely that the Pact would never have been agreed: anti-Treaty participation in the institutions that it set-up would require a total repudiation of what they had stated as some of their most dearly held beliefs.
The election went ahead on the 16th June, thought it took over a week for the final results to be known. 124 “panel” candidates went forward, with 34 running unopposed, those split evenly between pro-and anti-Treaty. 51 other candidates, all of them pro-Treaty, also ran. The result, when it came, was a resounding victory for the pro-Treaty position. The Sinn Fein of Collins and Griffith returned 58 TDs, with Labour adding 17, Independents 9 and the Farmers Party 7, with the little remembered Businessman’s Party getting a single seat. Anti-Treaty Sinn Fein returned just 36 in comparison, with many notable lost seats: Ned Aylward, Margaret Pearse, Kathleen Clarke, Constance Markievicz, Liam Mellows and Seamus Robinson were among them. The pro-Treaty vote share hit over three-quarters of the counted ballots. But while they were the largest party, pro-Treaty Sinn Fein would have looked at the vote share of non-Sinn Fein parties – 40% – with some alarm. It was clear that the people of Ireland, when given additional options, were happy to take them in large measures, and plenty of Farmers Party and Labour candidates topped polls or came close.
Whatever about the intricacies of the vote, and accusations that people voted more out of fear than anything, it was hard to deny that it represented a popular approval of the direction Ireland was taking in terms of the provisional government, Irish Free State and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, enough that Dorthy McCardle would famously proclaim it to represent “the end of republicanism in Ireland” when writing later. Of course there were many constituencies where there were only panel candidates, but the sheer scale of votes cast in favour of those advocating a pro-Treaty position, many of them outside of Sinn Fein, speaks for itself. The result showed that the anti-Treaty faction faced a difficult task when it came to mobilising popular opinion to their cause, something that was going to be a critical factor in the months to come.
But the election alone was not going to propel both sides of the Treaty divide on the final steps to civil war. But that would come soon enough. Only 12 days after the holding of the election, fighting broke out in earnest between the National Army and the IRA. That final descent, and the events that precipitated it, will be the focus of the next entry.
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