It has long been the case that the north of Ireland received a disproportionately little amount of attention in terms of historical study of the Irish revolutionary period. This seems especially strange in the context of the War of Independence, which saw its highest death toll occur in Ulster, with the fighting and violence there often treated as an entirely separate conflict to that fought in the rest of the country. To a certain extent this is not incorrect, but it has helped to fuel this quasi-ignoring of the north for the years between 1916 and 1923. But the Irish Civil War is different. This was a conflict that saw almost all of its major operations, events and deaths take place in the southern 26 countries, with the six counties up north relatively ignored. Why was this? In this short but important entry, we will try to answer that question.
One reason why the North was quiet during the Civil War, perhaps the key reason, was that the majority of the IRA, that portion of it that could be considered effective anyway, was almost entirely engaged in the south. Many Volunteers had left Northern Ireland to fight for either side in the south: for the anti-Treaty faction in the border areas, while several hundred northern Volunteers would be trained by the provisional government in the Curragh to form units that would fight in in Connacht and Kerry. Others had simply left the new country to avoid detention, their position now increasingly bereft in the face of an ever stronger state apparatus that was hostile to their very existence. Many of these took a neutral stance in the Civil War, unwilling to take up arms against former comrades. From a time when the IRA in Northern Ireland could consider itself fairly strong in terms of numbers, it was now essentially at its lowest ebb, a change of fortunes that was as rapid as it was calamitous.
There remained for a lengthy period a dream of initiating some new form of offensive in the north, one that could bring both sides of the Treaty divide together, but even while some still continued to push for this illusive dream, the truth is that the idea of military operations in Northern Ireland being the salvation of the IRA essentially died with Michael Collins. There simply wasn’t enough in the way of enthusiasm, solid foundations within Northern Ireland or possibility of success for such plans to go much further than the realm of talk. After Collins’ death, the official policy of the provisional government/Irish Free State as pursued by W.T. Cosgrave was to create some form of rapprochement with James Craig, and not to actively attempt to undermine his position. Any form of military offensive over the border, whether it would have been carried out by the National Army or by the IRA with government support, was now firmly put to the side. The Irish Free State was never likely to be the very best of friends with Northern Ireland, but for now it was committed to the existence of both states and the execution of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, especially regards the Boundary Commission and its work (though the later was continually delayed from doing anything, as long as the Civil War raged).
Cosgrave was careful to not go too far in trying to appease Belfast, but more and more Dublin no longer attempted to interfere with what was becoming a rampantly bigoted administration. Catholic teachers who refused to recognise the new government stopped being paid, IRA prisoners were the subject of flogging sentences and routine discrimination against the nationalist community – whether it was in warped employment standards, the banning of nationalist assemblies, the suspension of proportional representation at a local level to ensure unionist political domination or outright pograms – all marked Northern Ireland’s time during the Civil War. Some Ministers in Craig’s government even drew up plans for a military footing in country to forestall any possible attack from the south, one that was never going to come: Cosgrave’s attitude, despite his annoyance at Craig’s lack of compromise, was to nearly always turn the other cheek. It was to be a policy that may other leaders of the Irish Free State and its successors would take, whether they were willing to up front about it or not.
If the political side of the question was showcasing a refusal to square up to the unionist administration, then military operations by those already within Northern Ireland during the Civil War period were similarly stillborn. A small number of units did their best to remain active, but lacked men, guns, safehouses or financial support: the last becoming an especially big problem, with support from Dublin drying up. Ernie O’Malley, whose vast area of anti-Treaty command nominally included Northern Ireland at one point, despaired over what he saw as divisions and other units that essentially only existed on paper, and hopeless situations in the major cities. Fighting back against the various arms of the inherently pro-unionist government was largely impossible at the time, and it was all that the IRA could do to continue just existing. Things got so bad in terms of the lack of pro-active engagement that Eamon de Valera would openly espouse the idea of the IRA turning to civil disobedience tactics instead of military action, but these fell hugely short of what would have been required.
Northern Ireland was now, to some degree, going on its own path, but it will not be all that long before this series finds reason to travel to that side of the border again. For now, we will turn further east. It is impossible to offer something like a comprehensive appraisal of the Irish Civil War without discussing the great power that lay at the other side of the Irish Sea, which had a vested interest in the outcome of that conflict. In the next entry we will discuss the Irish Civil War from the British perspective, as they sought to insure a Free State victory, while also continuing efforts to disentangle themselves from most of the island.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.