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|From: Irish Political Review: Articles|
|Date: July, 0001|
|By: Brendan Clifford|
Our Embarrassing Civil War. Brendan Clifford
|Our Embarrassing 'Civil War'
It was launched a hundred years ago. It lasted about ten months. It ended inconclusively. The Army that launched it won it, but did not know what to do with its victory. All the purposefulness of the nation lay with the Army that was beaten but that refused to acknowledge defeat.
The victorious Army "mustered and paraded/Until their banners faded", as was being said about the Volunteer Army of the would-be Irish national aristocracy in 1782 (as Wolfe Tone noted).
The defeated Army dumped arms with a view to digging them up again on another day and, in the meantime, it set about subverting the regime of the victorious Army by means of political agitation, but it was so successful in politics that it never got around to digging them up.
The defeated military force in the state quickly became the superior political force, while the victorious military force failed to make the transition from war to politics. That unique turn of events is the source of our embarrassment about it. It is a turn of events that could not have happened if what was begun by the shelling of the Four Courts on 28th June 1922 had been an authentic Civil War.
The Four Courts were subjected to artillery bombardment by an Irish Government set up on British authority six months earlier. The artillery for the bombardment was borrowed by that Irish Government (called the Provisional Government), from the British Army, which was still in Dublin six months after it had withdrawn. And that British Army was under orders by the British Government to return to action against the Republican forces who refused to recognise the authority of British Provisional Government in Ireland if that Provisional Government did not act against those republicans.
If the British Army had itself attacked the anti-Treaty Republicans in the Four Courts, that action would have undermined the credibility of the Provisional Government which Britain had set up in Dublin to act in its place against the Republican Army. The position of Michael Collins, the leader of the Provisional Government, would have been unsustainable, as the Provisional Government would be exposed as a façade on continuing British power in Ireland.
Collins had the choice of making war on the Four Courts Republicans with the Army Britain had given him or letting the British Army do the job itself.
The Four Courts Republicans reckoned that, if they were attacked by the British Army, Collins would have come under irresistible pressure to join them in opposing the British assault.
Collins, though obliged by his signature on the 'Treaty' and his position as head of a 26 Co. Government under the Crown, to recognise the legitimacy of the Northern Ireland system, was engaged in military action against Northern Ireland in May/June 1922, and he had enlisted the Four Courts Republicans as allies in this action. In this he acted under the double illusion that the British devolved Government in the Six Counties was a State, and that the British delegates with whom he had negotiated the Treaty had given him informal permission to act against it. But, when he invaded Northern Ireland, he found that the defending army there was not the Ulster Volunteer Force: it was the British Army.
He was still complicit, in late June, with the Four Courts Republicans in action against Northern Ireland when the British presented him with the choice of making war on the Four Courts, or delaying until the British did it themselves, in which case he would almost certainly have had to join the Four Courts rebels against his Provisional Government.
The Republican Army had never recognised the Provisional Government set up under the 'Treaty' as its Government. Its allegiance was pledged to the Dail Government set up in January 1919. The authority of the Dail Government was subverted in January 1922 when its pro-Treaty members met as the Parliament of Southern Ireland under the British 1920 Act, which the Dail had rejected, and appointed a Provisional Government, which Britain supplied with a regular Army, called the National Army.
Then, in March 1922, a convention of the Republican Army declared that it no longer considered itself subject to the authority of the Dail. It became an Army that was not subject to a civil authority.
The cry of "military dictatorship" went up. In fact, the Convention of the Republican Army did no more than acknowledge that the Government to which it had sworn allegiance no longer existed, its power having been transferred to the Provisional Government.
Through no fault of its own, it was an Army without a Government. And its existence was the most definite and tangible thing in the country. It was its military action that had brought the British Government to the negotiating table. It was the only Irish national power structure recognised by the British prior to the setting up of the Provisional Government. But for its activity, voting for independence could have gone on for ever without disturbing the British. The Truce of July 1921 was negotiated between the Army of the British State and the Republican Army, without any mention of the Dail Government.
In those matters the British Government never had any relationship with the Dail Government, and never recognised it. In order to have a Government in Ireland to make an Agreement with, it set up the Provisional Government with a body of TDs drawn from the Dail. And Collins made it clear to the Dail that his Provisional Government was the major power.
The Republican Convention took practical account of the altered status of the Dail. It was no longer the body to which it had declared allegiance, and therefore it no longer recognised its authority.
The Republican Army, through the action of its Government had, as a matter of fact, become an Army without a Government. It was an Army left behind by a Government which had subverted its own authority. And, as an independent Army, it set up its headquarters in the Four Courts.
It was an Army of citizen-soldiers—of citizens who had acted the part of soldiers when that was required in order to defend what they had done as citizens.
As citizens they had elected a Party to meet as a Parliament in Dublin and set up an independent Irish Government. That Party won three-quarters of the Irish constituencies. Its Deputies, elected in December 1918, met in Dublin as a Dail in January 1919 and set up a Government.
The Dail had not sought permission from Britain to do this. Britain had been deluging the world for four years with propaganda about the principle of national self-determination for which it was fighting its Great War. The Irish electorate took it at its word and mandated the setting up of an independent Irish Government.
The British response, as expressed by its chief propagandist in Ireland, Major Street, was that the Irish had taken leave of their senses due to the excitement of the time and were in need of being disciplined back into right thinking by the use of firm measures.
In response to those firm measures, the citizens who had voted to set up an independent Irish Government became soldiers in defence of it. As citizens they did enough to persuade the British to negotiate.
The outcome of the negotiations was that the Irish negotiating team were persuaded to act against the instructions of their Government, and on their own authority signed a deal (the 'Treaty') under which they were obliged to set up a British-sponsored Provisional Government—in place of the Dail Government which had appointed them.
The signers of the 'Treaty' got a bare majority in the Dail for their action. That bare majority then left the Dail and met elsewhere as the Parliament of Southern Ireland under the British Act of 1920 and appointed a Provisional Government to take the place of the Dail Government.
The Treatyites then returned to the Dail, where they joined the opponents of the Treaty, and did their best to pretend that everything was as it had been in before. But in fact everything had changed in substance, the change having been enacted by what might be called the three-card-trick method.
Both the Dail Government and the Volunteer Army that defended it had been established under British military occupation and harassment.
The Second Dail met openly under the Truce conditions won by the Army, and it set about regularising both the Government and the Army. The Volunteers were systematically commissioned as soldiers of the Republic. De Valera was re-elected as President of the Dail, with the clarification that he would be head of the Government with the freedom of action usually accorded to a head of Government.
The 'Treaty' document signed by Arthur Griffith and his negotiating team, and supported by a bare majority in the Dail, broke up the arrangements made by the Second Dail.
De Valera, in January 1922, resigned the position to which he had been elected in August, because that position had been revoked by the vote in support of the 'Treaty'. Griffith was elected in his place as President of the Dail, but not as head of the Government.
The Government now became the Provisional Government of the Parliament of Southern Ireland under the British 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which had been rejected comprehensively by the Dail.
The actual head of Government after the Dail submitted to Griffith's 'Treaty' manoeuvre was the Chairman of the Provisional Government, who was Michael Collins.
But the Volunteer Army of the Republic had not sworn allegiance to the Provisional Government under the Crown.
The Parliament of Southern Ireland met only once. At that one meeting—consisting of the pro-Treaty members of the Dail and the Unionists representing Trinity College—it appointed the Provisional Government, which then had powers transferred to it by the British Government.
Having met as the Parliament of Southern Ireland and set up the Provisional Government, the pro-Treaty members of the Dail returned to the Dail and joined the anti-Treaty TDs, and a semblance of Dail government was maintained.
But the Dail did not have the same powers after the setting up of the Provisional Government as it had before it.
And, while members of the Provisional Government attended the Dail and gave an appearance of transacting Government business in it, they sometimes had occasion to tell it that they commanded powers and resources which were not available to the Dail.
Also, the Trinity College Unionist elected representatives who had attended the Parliament of Southern Ireland did not thereafter attend the Dail.
Even though the Dail voted in support of the Treaty, and its Treatyite majority had met, along with the Trinity Unionists, as the Parliament of Southern Ireland, for the purpose of ratifying the 'Treaty' and receiving the powers it was conferring, and had then returned to the Dail, the Dail was still not the Irish party to the Treaty. It was only a supporter of the Treaty.
The Provisional Government, having a majority in the Dail, made use of it in governing, while knowing very well that it was not the source of its power.
Whitehall allowed this as an expedient but made sure that the Provisional Government never imagined that it was the Dail Government, but was a Government under orders.
And so it happened that the Irish Army was deprived of its Government, and that an attempt was made to subject it to Crown authority, and that it responded by asserting its independence.
It seems probable that, when Collins decided to set aside the Dail Government by signing the 'Treaty' in breach of its instructions, he assumed that he would take the bulk of the Volunteer Army with him, and that politicians on the whole were loudmouths and could be handled.
If that had happened, formal difficulties relating to the status of the Dail Government would have been of little account. But that did not happen.
He won the Dail—which, as Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, he had never acknowledged as the sovereign authority—and he lost the Army. This was because the Army consisted of citizen soldiers acting in support of what they took to be the Constitution. (The Constitution was unwritten: it was composed of the set of power relationships that had been established by the fight for freedom and by the institutions implicated in that struggle, and confirmed by electoral mandate.)
Griffith tried to instigate a cult of Collins as "the man who had won the war". But, by then, Collins saw that the Army was slipping away from him and he couldn't understand how sensible men of action were aligning themselves with De Valera, the posturing pedant. And, by then, the argument being made for the 'Treaty' was that the War had not been won at all, and that nothing bigger than a moderate-sized police barracks had been taken.
He was greatly puzzled by the conduct of his close personal friend and senior Irish Republican Brotherhood colleague, Harry Boland, a man of action who knew how to get things done. He warned Boland that if he did not break free of the spell cast on him by De Valera he would be obliged to destroy him.
The Army men that he admired most were against him. If he was to carry though his project, he must destroy them. He was being urged by Griffith and put under pressure by Whitehall to get on with the job of destroying them, but he delayed and delayed until delay was no longer possible and he had to jump one way or the other.
The substance of the Volunteer Army was not the GHQ in the Four Courts but the companies formed by local initiative around the country. Although these companies had been combined formally into a Divisional structure, they remained autonomous. This may have led Collins to think that he could appease Whitehall by attacking the Four Courts and yet maintain peaceful relations with the Army in the country. It was a very great mistake.
His contribution to the War of Independence had been in Supply and Intelligence. He applied physical force only in the form of assassination. He commanded an Assassination Squad which killed British agents individually. Assassination is of course a necessary Counter-Intelligence part of war, but it is ancillary to military conflict. It does not of itself win war.
The British had been surprised by the effectiveness of Collins' counter to their Intelligence operations, but Intelligence in all its manifestations has been a specialist British activity since the time of Elizabeth. The loss of agents to Collins' activities would not have brought them to the negotiating table, and they would almost certainly have developed an Intelligence counter to Collins' operations.
And The Squad was not a socially representative body in the way that the Volunteer companies around the country were.
Collins carried The Squad with him. That went without saying. He did not carry Moylan, or Deasy, or Lynch. And, in the working out of the 'Civil War', the Squad outdid in the way of atrocity anything that the Auxiliaries had done.
It can be said that, when Collins launched the 'Civil War', he did not realise that that was what he was doing. He thought he was just appeasing the British to get them off his back. But Lynch, Deasy and Moylan took the assault on the Four Courts to be an assault on the Republican system which they were sworn to defend.
And Collins' purpose was to somehow fudge through a Free State which would re-establish the Republic which the British had made it necessary to dis-establish for the moment. He intended it to be an act of appeasement in the proper sense, not an act of collaboration such as the British engaged in with Nazi Germany a dozen years later and called Appeasement.
The British purpose was to divide and disable nationalist Ireland in the process of making a settlement with it. Arthur Griffith, at a meeting of the Irish Government three days before he signed the Treaty, said he was in favour of accepting the British terms as they stood. He agreed that acceptance of those terms would divide the country and agreed not to sign up for them without coming back to the Government for authority.
But he signed up. And he then seemed eager to get on with splitting the country, but was thwarted by Collins who insisted on delay.
De Valera had drawn up an alternative to the British document. Griffith expressed no enthusiasm for it. In the Dail 'Treaty' debate both Griffith and Collins made much of the act that De Valera's Document No. 2 differed little from the 'Treaty' they signed.
The 'little' difference was that it recognised the Crown as the head of an association of states on which the Irish state would be one—the Commonwealth—but not as head of the Irish state.
The great difference was that De Valera had got the support of the strong republicans, Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack, for this formulation, giving it purchase with the Army.
The 'Treaty' precipitated a split. Document No. 2, having the support of representative Army personnel, would have averted, or minimised, a split.
De Valera's purpose was to negotiate the difference with Britain down to the distinction between these two ways of recognising the Crown, making it difficult for the British to contemplate a declaration of war. And, in any eventuality, his object was to maintain a united Irish leadership in the face of whatever Britain threatened.
Griffith and Collins, whether deliberately or as a result of loss of control or through being hustled by the supreme World Power, signed, without warning, the document which Griffith had agreed would split the country. They split the country. And Collins found that assurances which he thought he had been given by his friend, Lord Birkenhead, could not be relied upon.
He invaded the North, and was stopped. He drew up a Republican-oriented Constitution for the Free State, and Whitehall tore it up. Then Britain insisted that an Election to give popular effect to the 'Treaty' must be held.
Collins then made a final attempt to stop the rot. He made an Election Pact with the Anti-Treaty Party, led by De Valera, under which the two parties would not contest the election against each other but would agree a division of seats (as the major British Parties had done in the 1918 Election in Britain itself), with the object of forming a Coalition Government in the new Parliament or Dail. The aim of the Pact was to reproduce the balance of the existing Dail and form a Coalition on a 6 to 4 basis, with the crucial Ministry of Defence being filled by consensus.
This Election Pact brought about a rift between Griffith and Collins. Griffith had already called an Election on the subject of the Treaty—effectively a plebiscite—and made a long speech in support of it. But Collins obliged him to revoke it, and instead to call an election to form a Government of national unity.
The Election Pact was approved by the Dail—which had become the Dail again with the approval of the Provisional Government!?
No attempt was made to confine the Election to the pro- and anti-Treaty Parties. Others were free to contest it—as in the British election of 1918. Nevertheless the Pact was condemned as undemocratic by Whitehall. It was also condemned as being illegal under the terms of the 'Treaty'—and as being undemocratic because it was in conflict with the 'Treaty'?!?
Collins and Griffith were called to London to be chastised.
Collins' Constitution for the Free State, intended to conciliate Republicans, was torn up. He returned to Ireland the day before the Election and made an equivocal speech in Cork City which some see as renouncing the Pact.
The Deputies returned in that election never assembled as a Parliament—whether as the 3rd Dail, or the 2nd Parliament of Southern Ireland, or the 1st Free State Dail.
Whitehall had its way before that could happen. It was arranged for the Provisional Government to launch a pre-emptive war against the Anti-Treaty headquarters (in the Four Courts)—a way which under British pressure pre-empted direct British action and so made the ensuing conflict an Irish war!
Two Professors wrote Centenary articles on the 1922 Election. Both of them suggested that the Election Pact was undemocratic and that Democracy survived in spite of it because of the action of the Labour Party and the Farmers' Party (who were not part of the arrangement).
It is a strange mode of reasoning. It leaves aside the action of cause and effect in that actual sequence of events in order to assert a moral sentiment which is thought to be expedient in the present situation.
Professor Eunan O'Halpin of Trinity College supplied the Independent with The 1922 Election: a milestone for Irish democracy, no thanks to Collins and De Valera.
As O'Halpin sees it, Whitehall was concerned about violence in Belfast and a drift towards civil war in the rest of the country and it insisted on the election about the 'Treaty', which was required by the 'Treaty, being held. The IRA had split, and had held a Convention "in defiance of the Provisional Government, and repudiated the 'Treaty'…"
Nevertheless—"Although bitterly split… Michael Collins and De Valera ought to avoid a definitive break that might quickly lead to armed conflict".
They made a Pact under which they undertook not to contest seats against each other, but leaving others free to enter the contest:
"The 1922 election was an important milestone… Credit belongs not to Collins or de Valera, who cynically set aside their differences to manufacture an agreed result, but this the Labour and Farmers and sundry spirited independents who ignored government disapproval and IRA intimidation and offered themselves to the electorate".
—and saved democracy?
But the Pact was not broken by Labour, nor the Farmers. They had nothing to do with it.
The Pact was an arrangement made by the two major Parties, leaving the marginal parties free to do as they pleased. And the purpose of the Pact was to ward off the war towards which Whitehall was driving the country.
De Valera and Collins "cynically" sought a way of getting over their difference and averting war. But Collins was summoned to Whitehall and humiliated. He came back a broken spirit. But the Pact was not revoked, though en element of uncertainty was injected into it at the eleventh hour.
The Election was held. The makings of the Coalition Government survived the disruptive interference of Whitehall. But the Parliament elected by the Election never met.
A Parliamentary election is not an Opinion Poll. Its purpose is to establish a representative decision-making body in the state. If the elected Parliament had met and the formation of the Coalition Government had begun, who can tell what the subsequent course of events would have been?
But, instead of an assembly of the elected Parliament, there was the 'Civil War' into which the Provisional Government was hustled by Whitehall.
National University Professor Diarmaid Ferriter's article (Irish Times, June 17) has the perverse title: "The Primacy Of The Ballot-box Was Affirmed In The 1922 Election"—by the election of a Parliament that never met!
Ferriter says that the Pact—
"infuriated many who regarded it as an assault on democracy. As historian Michael Laffan put it, critics of the pact saw it as 'an undemocratic conspiracy against the electorate', they believed that in the circumstances of 1922 the Treaty was the dominant question on which the people should pronounce.
"The logic, as outlined in the formal agreement, drenched in arrogance, was that 'the national position' required the state to be governed by 'those who have been the strength of the national situation during the last few years'. Its proponents argued that without it, violence would derail the election. But crucially, the pact allowed 'third parties' to contest seats, and the Labour Party, Independents and the Farmers' Party duly did, forcing a contest in 21 of the 28 constituencies…".
But if "the primacy of the ballot-box" was upheld by the election, then it was clearly the Election Pact—"drenched in arrogance" though it was—that upheld it!
The purpose of the Pact was to hold the conflict, which the 'Treaty' had generated, within the parameters of the Dail system, frayed though that system had become.
But the Election, because it was not allowed by the Griffith/Collins group to result in a meeting of the elected Parliament, did not in fact maintain the primacy of the ballot-box.
The voting passed off peacefully, but the thing voted for was swept away when Whitehall presented Collins with the choice of making war on his partner in the Pact, or else seeing the British Army take over from him.
Ferriter acknowledges that "The Sinn Fein coalition never came into being, as within two weeks the Civil War had started". And he says that "It is a tricky election to analyse given the pact". Nevertheless, he thinks it was "a reasonably reliable test of the electorate's feelings".
That would have been all very well if it had been a plebiscite on the 'Treaty', as Griffith wanted. It was not a plebiscite but the election of representatives with a mandate to form a Coalition Government.
The expression of opinion on a single point is different in kind from the election of representatives to deal with a very complicated situation. And what "reasonably reliable" knowledge can we have about a Parliamentary election whose elected Parliament never met?
The Provisional Government ruled by military force, unassisted by any Parliament, during July and August 1922 and, when a Dail finally assembled in September, the Speaker was unable to say exactly what it was.
Professor O'Halpin, in the interest of 'balance', adds a comment about Northern Ireland:
"The Northern premier, Sir James Craig, speaking as though he presided over a model new democracy rather than a majoritarian, sectarian bearpit, interpreted the election result as a vote for peace, with benefits for Northern Ireland. The British government welcomed what it saw as a vindication of the treaty that should strengthen the Provisional Government in dealing with IRA violence.
"London's patience finally snapped on June 22 with the assassination on his own doorstep by two London-born IRA men of Sir Henry Wilson… The British, perhaps wrongly, blamed the anti-treaty IRA. As Ronan McGreevy's new study, Great Hatred, reminds us, it is at least plausible that the pointless, counterproductive killing was ordered by Collins himself, whether before or after the truce…"
In fact, James Craig made no pretence that Northern Ireland was a "model democracy". The Northern Ireland entity was not set up in response to Ulster Unionist demands. When the Bill setting it up was published the Ulster Unionist leader, Carson, wrote against it. When it was introduced in Parliament, he spoke against it. The UUP wanted the Six Counties to be excluded from Irish legislation and to be governed simply within the British political system by the Westminster Government. Carson saw a system under which the Protestant community would have to govern the Catholic community in a devolved system as a very bad thing. But Whitehall had a use for Northern Ireland in its handling of Sinn Fein, and it gave the Ulster Unionists to understand that, if they did not agree to operate a Northern Ireland Government, they would come under the Dublin Government.
The evidence about Collins's responsibility for the assassination of General Henry Wilson must have become overwhelming if West-Brit apologist Ronan McGreevy now exonerates the Four Courts! General Macready, Commander of the British Army in Dublin at the time, was well-informed about what was going on and he did not believe it was the Four Courts that ordered it. But it was politically expedient that it should have been the Four Courts, and in that sense it was true that the Four Courts did it.
Whitehall needed Collins in order to bring about an Irish war against the IRA, and therefore it allowed him great latitude while it bided its time and waited for the decisive moment. It would not have done to brand him as an instigator of murder—not since he signed the 'Treaty'. (And it should be noted that General Wilson was shot by two ex-servicemen who had served in the British Army in the Great War.)
Whitehall was the most active and purposeful force in Irish affairs, North and South, in 1922. But that is something that our historians are obliged not to notice. They show how broadminded they are, and how freely they soar above insularity, by not noticing it.