From the moment that the Irish Civil War started, there were men and women trying to get it to stop. Their motivations varied from person to person and background to background: there were politicians who despised the use of physical force as a means of gaining objectives, there were republicans who did not believe that the anti-Treaty side could win a military victory, there were clergy who came at the quandary from a religious perspective and there were those who still thought the Treaty rift could be healed ahead of a renewed assault on the powers that be in Northern Ireland. It could be argued that Michael Collins had died in the process of attempting some manner of reconciliation, and that effort did not die with him. In this entry, I want to talk the time to discuss some of these peace moves as they were attempted later in 1922, and why they did not succeed.
First, we should take a moment to discuss political developments, on both sides of the divide. Collins had successfully managed to prorogue the sitting of a new legislature owing to the ongoing military situation, but his death removed the major obstacle for this and the Dail sat for the first time in a while on the 5th September. W.T. Cosgrave’s accession to the political leadership was confirmed, and the business of government, even if in many parts of the country it was being done at the barrel of a gun, could progress. The sitting of the Third Dail and the dismissal of the Second offered the pro-Treaty cause a greater sense of legitimacy, especially when the press, at Cosgrave’s insistence, referred to the provisional government from then on as the “National Government” (I’ll continue to use the former sobriquet however).
Reflective of the complicated constitutional situation, the Third Dail sort of doubled as a “Provisional Parliament” under the terms of the Treaty, and would adopt the Constitution of the Irish Free State in late October. It also passed the Public Safety Bill, which legalised military courts, that would have the power to impose draconian sentences, up to and including execution, for enemy combatants. Republicans mostly boycotted the sitting, refusing to recognise it as a lawful assembly, and the most opposition that pro-Treaty Sinn Fein had came from a rump minority of the Labour and Farmer Party’s. They objected to the Public Safety Bill as a precursor for military dictatorship, and there were plenty in both political and military circles who felt uneasy at how Richard Mulcahy was now for many people the final arbiter when it came to life and death,
On the anti-Treaty side, a consistent issue had been the lack of a political wing to enunciate their aspect of the argument, with the faction almost entirely military led. Plenty of high-profile leaders wanted some form of political entity to be set-up, with suggestions that anti-Treaty TD’s should form an assembly, elect a new President and present the case for a republican democratic programme. Lynch resisted such calls, deeming them to be fantasy in the face of the military situation, and he would further be hesitant to even call meetings of the Army Executive. Even major anti-Treaty political figures like Eamon de Valera were opposed to the formation of a republican government from September onwards, deeming such an entity to be beyond maintaining if it was enacted. De Valera was conscious of the need for military support for any political entity, and that the anti-Treaty faction did not have the support of the majority of the people.
In the end de Valera was persuaded to form something of a republican government, that came into being after a belated meeting of the Army Executive in late October, perhaps influenced by the beginning of the Third Dail in earnest. The affair, dubbed an “Emergency Government” by de Valera, held meetings where it declared a revocation of the Treaty, but was mostly a pageantry of the mind: de Valera led a cabinet that included people who were not even in the country or were in prison. It was dominated by members of the Army Executive, merely underlining the reality of who was really in charge of the anti-Treaty movement. De Valera took little responsibility for its workings, and as what was essentially an internal government-in-exile, this political wing served merely to paper over cracks in the divide between civil and military in the anti-Treaty faction.
But at least the formation of such things took peace initiatives one step forward. These had been a little all over the place in the early months of the conflict, with local deputations of citizens and republicans occasionally presenting suggested terms to the provisional government. One such project, from the Cork-based “Peoples Rights Association”, suggested peace on the basis of republican arms being placed in the charge of a neutral committee, opposition to the Treaty continuing on a purely non-violent level and an amnesty for the entire IRA. The pro-Treaty side had little desire, or need, to engage with such suggested compromises, that had the fundamental problem of leaving the anti-Treaty faction viable and undefeated, at least totally. At the same time, high ranking leaders of the provisional government could occasionally show signs of bending. After Collins’ death some suggested that disbandment of IRA units without disarming could possibly be acceptable.
Facilitated by a member of the clergy, Richard Mulcahy met with de Valera in early September. It was a pointless affair, mired in unnecessary secrecy: Mulcahy refused to budge from any position that involved acceptance of the Treaty by its opponents, which de Valera refused to contemplate. Mulcahy would record that de Valera felt the anti-Treaty movement was too dominated by diehards like Rory O’Connor for any acceptance of the Treaty to form a basis for peace talks, while de Valera would state that the occasion convinced him there was no longer any possibility of compromise between the two sides.
But it was not the end of such meetings, which happened with surprising regularity throughout the country, often facilitated by members of the clergy. Old comrades on either side of the divide sought each other out clandestinely, to discuss the possibilities of a republican stand down and what it would take for such a thing to happen. In Cork especially, such contacts were frequent: Emmet Dalton and Tom Ennis had a somewhat productive meeting with a recently escaped Tom Barry and Liam Deasy in this period, aided by Deasy’s firm belief that continued military resistance by the IRA was pointless. These discussions would include suggestions that both armies disband, that a new independent Army Executive be formed and that some new military force would agree to be the “servant of the government” only insofar as it helped to maintain general law and order. Of course such proposals would never be acceptable to Dublin, though some National Army officers thought enough of them they were prepared to resign their posts to try and force them through.
The problem was that too many other people did not share the sentiment that a compromise with the pro-Treaty faction was desirable at that time, not least Liam Lynch. He viewed the Dalton/Ennis peace feelers as a sign of wavering pro-Treaty resolve on account of republican successes after the end of the conventional Civil War, and wanted to push on and make the wavering turn into something closer to a political capitulation. When contacted by Mary McSwiney on the topic of accepting “external association” (it should have been a sign of how desperate the situation was that the Treaty debate firebrand was even thinking about such a thing more seriously) Lynch rejecting her, stating simply that they should instead “see the thing through”. Just what the end goal of such a “thing” was remained elusive.
When the result of discussions were put to the IRA Executive in October, Lynch professed enthusiasm for what Deasy and Barry had been able to press the provisional government on, and suggested that all it would take for the war to be finished would be a new constitution that would “destroy the Treaty”. Naturally, the provisional government was not interested in such an outcome. Both sides were approaching the problem with a similar attitude, namely that they had no need to make such radical compromises with the other as they were in the supreme military situation. Lynch seems to have firmly believed that the war was now developing in the IRA’s favour, perhaps overly influenced by events like that at Ballina and Clifden. If so, he was blind to the inherent weaknesses of the republican position that were only being deferred, not eliminated, and to the constant strengths of his adversaries.
There were other peace efforts throughout the rest of the year, some spearheaded by the so-called “Neutral IRA” of Florence O’Donoghue and Sean O’Hegarty. While the majority of this semi-official entity – O’Donoghue claimed it had 20’000 members, but this seems unlikely – had republican sympathies, they either saw no point to continued violence or felt it was actively counter-productive. They attempted to arrange short-term truces between the two sides for the purpose of more organised political negotiating, but these never came to fruition, with the Neutral IRA only really trying its hardest when the military situation had already swung decisively back in the pro-Treaty sides favour, in late 1922 and early 1923.
And that really was the crux of the matter. Negotiations and political settlements for any war require that both sides have a fundamental willingness to end the conflict at that point in time, either because they feel they can no longer improve their position through continued military action or because they feel the cost of such improvement is too much to bear. The provisional government, despite the impact of the anti-Treaty guerrilla offensive, were nowhere near that poin,. The Civil War was a struggle, yes, but it was not one where the political and military leadership of the faction was so beset that some form of climbdown would be acceptable.
On the other side, while plenty were filled with foreboding with the idea of continuing the conflict, its key leadership, especially Liam Lynch, seemed to still firmly believe that they could either achieve military victory, or inflict enough punishment on their enemy that they could gain a political settlement to their advantage. Lynch and those like him were blind to what was happening: for every stand-out success the IRA was able to achieve in one place, they were losing men, equipment and most importantly public support in numerous other places. They were inflicting punishment yes, but it was an effort they were not in a position to maintain indefinitely. Some people on both sides realised this: it meant the National Army was less inclined to give in to peace demands. Until Lynch, more and more identified as the leader of a “war” sub-faction with the anti-Treaty IRA opposed to a “peace” faction, could be convinced that the IRA were better off bending – or until he was no longer in charge – the war would continue.
Before we return to the larger picture of the conflict, and the ways in which the provisional government countered those aforementioned anti-Treaty successes, I want to take the opportunity to look at a specific moment of this period in greater detail. The Civil War was so full of minor operations that it is not possible to discuss them all, or even a majority of them, but I think a more singular focus for one entry would be worth doing. The event is an engagement between the two sides, little known about today but indicative of where the opposing forces were at the time, that took place just inside Co Kildare in early December 1922. It would end with a total pro-Treaty victory, and point the way to the continuing weakness of the IRA.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.