It is generally recognised nowadays that Great Britain got more of what they wanted from the Anglo-Irish Treaty than the Irish representatives did. In it was an essential recognition of partition, the inclusion of the Irish Free State inside the Commonwealth and the retaining of key naval bases; not written down but inherent to the document was a commitment for the new provisional government and future Free State to use its own military force to protect its articles from those who would want to tear them down. In essence, the British found a way to get out of most of Ireland while ensuring that its interests would be defended by the government in Dublin, in what was almost an inevitable civil conflict. In this entry I wish to examine the British perspective of the Irish Civil War in terms of their engagement, viewpoints and larger strategic goals, even as London tried, ever more, to disentangle themselves from what was happening over the Irish Sea. At that point I want to also give some time for the American perspective, an arena of conflict very different to what was happening in Ireland, but vital in many ways to determining an outcome.
As we have seen, the British government was not shy about giving material support to the provisional government. The National Army fought, to a very significant degree, with uniforms, artillery, vehicles and other equipment provided by the British military, and it was things like the armoured cars and heavy guns that were the vital difference between victory and defeat in many key clashes of the conventional phase. The British gave support in other ways as well, like how the coastal landings were aided by Royal Navy reports of minelaying. There is probably at least some truth in the notion that London was happy enough for their to be a war in Ireland where the more hardcore republican faction was whittled away in strength, as opposed to a total acceptance of the Treaty. But it is undeniable that London had a favoured side in the conflict, and that was the pro-Treaty side.
In November, following a general election that saw the divided Liberals of David Lloyd George reduced to the status of a third party, the Conservatives under Bonar Law were swept to power. Despite fears that a now unrestrained Tory government might turn their backs on previous agreements, Law soon signaled that his government, even if it was one that would not last a year, was fully behind the Anglo-Irish Treaty and its dictates. That meant a continued funnel of supplies for the National Army, though Law was careful not to go too far. With the provisional government just about able to fight its own corner and with Northern Ireland seemingly secured from nationalist threat, Law was free to focus on other, internal issues, and his tenure as Prime Minister is not especially well remembered for his Irish policies. Law, suffering from terminal throat cancer that would claim his life barely 12 months after he took office, would resign in May 1923. His successor was Stanley Baldwin, who would be in power only until the end of the year, and he largely stuck to the same policies. Neither man ever had an enormous amount of time for the issue of the Irish Civil War, happy for it to be somebody else’s problem.
The morass of the southern 26 counties, as so many in Britain would have viewed it, was already becoming something akin to a bad memory for British political circles. Tim Healy, a man mostly known for his role in the Parnellite splits that must have seemed like the stuff of centuries before, was appointed the first Governor-General of the Irish Free State: the fact that he was Kevin O’Higgins’ uncle probably didn’t hurt his application. Healy would stick largely to the ceremonial aspects of the office, rarely appearing in the standard uniform, beginning a series of holders of the post who had no special relevance to Irish politics.
British regulars remained in Ireland, especially in Dublin, for most of 1922. Their presence was nominally about securing installations that the provisional government was not yet ready to take control of, but in reality they were meant as a bulwark against republican success and the proclamation, or rather re-proclamation, of a republic. Such soldiers, largely confined to barracks, were the subject of repeated small scale attacks from IRA units, mostly in the form of sniping. Efforts to provoke the British Army into retaliatory action through such tactics failed to work, and the regulars remained in their barracks’ for the rest of the year. By the end of 1922, with the Civil War’s outcome looking more like a matter of when and not if the pro-Treaty side would succeed, the last British units were withdrawn: the very last departed Dublin in December 1922, not long after the coming into bring of the Irish Free State.
And what of the the war effort from Britain? The IRA in England, Wales and Scotland may not have collapsed to the same degree as occured in Northern Ireland, but it certainly suffered something of a disintegration following the signing of the Treaty and everything that came after. The political side of things in Britain, through Sinn Fen branches and the Irish Self-Determination League, also essentially collapsed after the Treaty had been signed, and never fully recovered. A combination of leading figures siding with Collins – most critically many of his London intelligence network – the pressure of British authorities and the lack of support from Ireland as the Civil War began to sap resources, all meant that militant republicans based in Britain found themselves with very little to do and very little to contribute to the anti-Treaty cause.
Liam Lynch placed great stock at times in the idea of taking the war to Great Britain, in the same manner as many had proposed towards the War of Independence, but it was never likely to prove possible: for many the same reason the elongation of the guerrilla struggle proved impossible in Ireland, the continuation of a war effort in Britain was similarly impossible. Lynch went as far as appointing a new OC for Britain in the form of Pa Murrey, a Cork column leader, who would later give the same complaint IRA officers in Ireland were making, which was that there was no clear direction or strategy for him to work off of. Lynch seemed to expect a war effort to spring into being in Britain despite republican weakness there, and Murray did not even know what form this was to take.
By March of 1923, and possibly with the aid of the Free State, British authorities were in a position to make a major statement, and arrested around 160 men who were members of or connected to the IRA or IRB. Many of them would be deported back to Ireland after a show of legal process, and there imprisoned by the Free State. The IRA in urban areas, like Manchester, ceased to exist. Lynch maintained the fantasy that such men could be replaced and an active organisation re-established, but the man was engaging in a pageantry of the mind while doing so. The IRA in Britain, by the time that the Civil War in Ireland was over, was a minuscule entity that had no ability to impact on the war over the Irish Sea.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the various nationalist organisations watched the unfolding situation with a mixture of horror and embarrassment. Membership of those organisations was on the wane, with the larger American opinion of the Treaty essentially favorable, and it was difficult for some of those not exactly gung-ho about the agreement to express so publically and retain support. Entities like the Clan na Gael were never going to favour the pro-Treaty side, but did not firmly come out in favour of the IRA either, with much gnashing of teeth over the idea of sending funds so that Irishmen could buy guns to kill other Irishmen.
IRA efforts to court American opinion, and get access to more financial resources from that avenue, had mixed success: numerous high publicity representatives travelled to America during the Civil War, not least Austin Stack and Countess Markievicz, but were rapidly caught up in the same in-fighting that had often blighted the nationalist movement in the United States for many years, and had been exacerbated hugely during de Valera’s visit there. In the end there would be no massive influx of cash from the United States, despite constant efforts to get such financial support: the Free State wouldn’t get it either, but they needed it far less than the republicans did. This in itself was vital in a lot of ways: the lack of adequate finances to get guns and other badly needed supplies was one of many factors in the collapse of the anti-Treaty war effort in 1923.
We are coming now to the final conclusion of the Irish Civil War. The IRA is beaten down, its ability to wage war severely impacted; many of its key leaders know this. In the Spring of 1923, more of those men began to express such opinions openly, leading to a series of fateful meetings of the Army Executive, at which the future of the movement was largely decided. Much revolved around the person of Liam Lynch, by now about the only man capable of holding the anti-Treaty cause together. Such a position was also a vulnerability, and the end of the Civil War through that vulnerability will be the subject of the next entry.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.