Gayblack Canadian Man

Foreign Policy Analysis
British Policy in Ireland 1918-1921

British Policy in Ireland 1918-1921

We’ll begin this episode with a truism that
may actually surprise some of you. The British policy between 1918-1921 was not to revert
Ireland to the status quo. Certain realities on the ground had, by 1921 at least, been
conceded. In many ways, British policy in Ireland was extremely muddled and inconsistent. Let us first consider the position of the
British Empire in 1919/1920. The British army had just participated in one of the most awful
wars in human history. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died, 30-50000 of whom were Irish.
Britain was fighting wars in Afghanistan, it faced unrest in India and Egypt and a war
with Turkey seemed possible. Irish people looking at this period obviously think that
Ireland was the main issue, but for many British people, politicians included, Ireland was
not always the most pressing question or problem that they faced. The IRA campaign, up until
1920, was almost exclusively aimed at the police, the RIC.1 The native Irish police
would gradually lose numbers due to the IRA campaign against them as well as the boycott
policy, which devastated their morale. The British would introduce thousands of ex-British
army soldiers and officers in the form of the Black & Tans and the Auxiliaries. Near
the end of the war, the British army in Ireland conducted a surge, reinforcing several areas
with fresh troops in an attempt to squeeze the IRA in order to bring them to the negotiating
table.2 So, let’s have a look at the British policy
in Ireland from the very beginning, looking first at the political situation. Politics The 1918 general election brought about a
Sinn Féin landslide in Ireland and transformed politics on the island. Sinn Féin were radical
Republicans, determined to create an independent Irish Republic and went on to form a revolutionary
government, Dáil Éireann. It was almost as impactful in Britain. Lloyd George’s coalition
won a huge majority – 478 seats out of 707 – but the Liberal party had split on the
issue of staying in the coalition. This led to a lopsided parliamentary balance of power,
with the conservative party, traditionally much more hardline on Ireland, holding 335
seats to the coalition liberals 133. The conservatives were happy to remain loyal to Lloyd George,
a liberal, and made no attempt to overturn his government. But their leader, Andrew Bonar
Law, a hardline unionist, could have collapsed the government at any time he wished. For
this reason George was restricted in the Irish policy that he was able to implement, not
daring to do anything that would not command conservative support. One other significant change was that by the
time the first world war ended, british conservative opinion had moved significantly on the question
of Home Rule. Whereas the conservative party helped precipitate a constitutional crisis
on the eve of the first world war over Home Rule, they now seemed to be perfectly content
with accepting it on the condition that Ulster be protected.3 In other words, the entire
British establishment had moved to the idea of Home Rule in Ireland, with two parliaments.
One, in Dublin, the other in Belfast. As to whether the Ulster parliament would contain
4, or 6, or 9 counties, was still to be determined. What had been completely and utterly ruled
out was: -An Irish Republic – they would never countenance
something that would risk the break-up of the empire.
-an all-Ireland parliament4 – they were not going to try and convince protestant Ulster
to join a Catholic Dublin parliament. The tragedy of this story is that Home Rule
was no longer acceptable to a majority of Irish people. They had decisively shifted
their position by voting for the seperatist Sinn Féin party in 1918 and their military
wing – the Irish Volunteers, later the Irish Republican Army – were waging one of the
world’s first anti-colonial guerrila wars in the hopes of defeating the British Empire
and forcing them to recognise an independent 32 county Irish Republic. On the 22nd December 1919 Lloyd George presented
the Government of Ireland Act. This would lead to the creation of two parliaments on
the island, as discussed earlier. According to the historian Ronan Fanning, its first
purpose was to placate Ulster Unionists, it was never intended to satisfy Sinn Féin.
In fact, the entire British establishment knew that it would be rejected entirely by
the Irish Republicans. The Unionist stranglehold on the British government was so strong that
they organised and made sure that the mooted Ulster parliament would have an in-built and
artificial sectarian majority by excluding three majority catholic Ulster provinces from
the parliament, Donegal, Cavan, and my own native Monaghan. The Government of Ireland
bill slowly made its way through parliament and did not pass until the 23rd December 1920. Sinn Féin of course rejected the Government
of Ireland Act but did participate in the elections for it, and they went on to form
the so called ‘Second Dáil’, Dáil Éireann being the revolutionary parliament of the
Irish counter state. Now, let’s have a look at the British policy
of coercion in Ireland. Coercion The war against the British State picked up
pace in 1920 in Ireland. The ‘G’ Spy Division of the Dublin metropolitan police had been
succesfully targeted by the Dublin IRA and in particular the so-called ‘Squad’ set up
by Michael Collins for the purpose of eliminating British intelligence assets in and around
Dublin. There had been many attacks on the RIC, the Royal Irish Constabulary, by countryside
IRA units. This, along with the Dáil boycott campaign against the policeman, absolutely
devastated their morale and by the Autumn of 1919 most of the isolated rural police
stations had been abandoned. In December 1919 there was an assassination attempt on the
Viceroy, Lord French, which scared the cabinet in London. Their own propaganda about the
IRA being little more than an unrepresentative criminal element was becoming more and more
patently absurd. By the time the British establishment had gotten their head around their political
strategy, which had been designed exclusively for Northern Unionists, their security policy
was crumbling. British forces were struggling to provide even the semblance of political
stability that would be necessary in order to establish the Home Rule parliaments.5 In March 1920 General Nevil Macready became
the commanding officer in Ireland. He was appalled by the Dublin Castle administration
which prompted an extremely critical report by Warren Fisher, the head of the Civil Service.
This led to the appointment of a team of officials headed by John Anderson. Both Macready and
Anderson were very skeptical of there being a military solution to the Irish problem,
and were privately convinced that the British government must negotiate with Sinn Féin.
This was early 1920. However, events were beginning to take on
a life of their own. The government had invested resources in rebuilding their intelligence
and secret service operations. Another policy, which perhaps became one of the great public
relations disasters of all time, was the creation of the Black & Tans and later the auxiliaries.6
These were ex-servicemen recruited to serve as a special gendarmerie in order to plug
the hole in the ranks of the RIC, who had been resigning in record numbers due to the
IRA military campaign against them and the public hostility they faced due to the Dáil
organised boycott. There were about 1,400 RIC police barracks
across Ireland in 1919. In another video I quoted an article in the morning post where
they are referred to as the blockhouses of Imperial Rule in Ireland. One consequence
of the British belief that they were not engaged in a war was that the IRA were not considered
to be a legitimate military force, but instead a group of outlaws who, naturally, were to
be dealt with by the police force. The police in Ireland, with the exception of Dublin,
were armed with rifles and were a kind of gendarmerie. Although there were around 50,000
British troops in Ireland, they would very much take a back seat in the conflict, at
least until near the end.7 As the RIC numbers began to fall as a result
of military, political and social pressure, and new recruits were getting harder to attract
within Ireland, the government looked to Britain to fill the gap, where there was a large number
of unemployed Great War veterans with military skills and experience and would be far better
equipped to fight against the IRA than the RIC, whose average age was 35 and rising.8 War in Ireland British recruitment into the RIC started in
January 1920 and was slow at first, on average a few hundred per month between January and
June. It’s important to remember that these men were recruited into the RIC as a special
relief unit, they were not considered soldiers fighting a war but policemen imposing order
in a troubled country. The distinction is important, as it took the British state a
long time to recognise that they were effectively fighting a war in Ireland. A shortage of uniforms
led to them being clothed with a mix of military trousers with a policeman’s cap and belt.
They were quickly nicknamed ‘the Black & Tans’, probably named after a famous pack of foxhounds
in co. Tipperary.9 The Restoration of Order in Ireland Act, passed
on August 9th 1920, gave sweeping powers to the Dublin Castle administration. The criminal
courts, by now supplanted by the revolutionary Dáil courts, were to be replaced by military
courts martial. Coroner inquests were to replaced by military courts of inquiry. And it was
the counter-offensive, launched by the Black & Tans, in the autumn of 1920, that would
transform them from mere replacements for the ailing RIC into the scoundrels of Irish
folk memory and legend. Their numbers were rapidly growing – 1,100 joined in October
1920 alone. 10 By the end of the conflict about 13,000 Black & Tans had been recruited.
Many would resign, or would be dismissed, or would die in the conflict.11 Their numbers were spread unevenly across
Ireland, and were concentrated in the South. By the Spring of 1921, 50% of the RIC in Tipperary
were British, double the number in quieter areas such as Wexford and Mayo. They were
not exactly a separate force – they worked alongside Irish men in the RIC. This is something
that is not often understood in Ireland. That is not to say that they were comrades in arms
exactly – RIC men were known to have reflected in later years that the Black & Tans were
rough, and had little knowledge of policing. They were notorious for their ferocity. A
famous example is the sack of Balbriggan, a village to the north of Dublin. A head constable
was killed and on the night of the 20th-21st of September 1920 the village was attacked
by Black & Tans from Gormonstown. Two local Republicans were bayoneted to death and a
factory set on fire, as well as thirty homes and shops.12 Another notorious example was
the burning of Cork city on the night of the 11-12th December 1920. It followed an IRA
ambush of an auxiliary patrol, which was the culmination of a month long campaign by the
IRA against the crown forces. Tensions were extremely high after the Kilmichael ambush,
which I’ll talk about later, which caused the death of 17 auxiliaries by a unit of the
Cork IRA. The burning of Cork caused significant damage to the city, 2,000 people lost their
jobs and it caused millions of pounds of damage to property.13 By the end of July 1920 recruitment into a
new, elite force began. General Tudor seemed to be concerned about the quality of the influx
of Black & Tans into Ireland. His solution was the creation of a temporary force of elite
ex-officers. They became known as the Auxiliary Division of the RIC. By the Spring of 1921
the auxiliaries had grown to about 1,500 men. Auxiliary companies were heavily armed with
light machine guns, repeating shotguns, along with revolvers and rifles. They were motorised,
with cars for the officers, Crossley tenders for the men and occasionally they even used
armoured cars. Like the Black & Tans, they took part in several reprisals against innocent
civilians.14 Reprisals, initially unofficial, later became
an official instrument of British policy. Winston Churchill, at this time the secretary
of state for war, was in favour of an official policy and according to General Henry Wilson,
was unbothered by the official policy of reprisal.15 Lloyd George was willing to have authorised
reprisals, as opposed to the officially unauthorised reprisals carried out by the Black & Tans,
but only once the US elections were over, not wanting to arouse the powerful Irish-American
lobby.16 This was a dirty war that the British state was fighting, and it led to dismay among
polite British society and condemnation from much of the western media. According to David Leeson, the main cause
of the reprisal strategy was QUOTE “Once the revolutionaries had subverted
the legal system across the south and west, making it impossible to prosecute captured
guerrillas, the police turned increasingly to vigilante violence in place of due process.”17
UNQUOTE The most spectacular reprisals, such as the
burning of Cork City or Balbriggan, got the majority of the public’s attention. But much
more pernicious, and much more damaging to whatever remained of the British image in
Ireland, was the low level and local grievances. Small groups of masked men would appear in
the middle of the night, they’d burn somebody’s house, they’d beat up the men and cut off
the hair of the women. Imagine this on a nationwide scale and imagine how this would effect someone
generally on the fence regarding the independence struggle. In rural areas co-operative creameries where
a common target for reprisals and this acted much like a collective fine for the entire
district, seeing as the dairy industry sustained huge parts of the country. From the autumn of 1920 there was an alarming
rise of extra-judicial killing. Captured volunteers were often shot after QUOTE ‘resisting arrest’
or QUOTE ‘trying to escape’. Certain republicans would be removed from their homes at night
and then shot, or in some cases killed in their homes. Police occasionally tried to
pin the blame on the IRA for these killings by pinning notes to their bodies indicating
that they were executed by the IRA. The IRA did kill so-called spies and informers, and
this is something I’ll certainly explore in a future video. Reprisals became official government policy
at the end of December 1920, when the British army’s military governors started imposing
them in districts under martial law. 18 By this stage, the British government believed
that their draconian policy of using the Black & Tans and official reprisals was working
and that the tide was turning against the IRA. Lloyd George famously declared on the
9th November 1920 that ‘We have murder by the throat’. Of course, the gods of fate have their own
ways of dealing with hubris like that. First came bloody Sunday, 21st November 1920, when
Michael Collins aforementioned ‘Squad’ wiped out 14 Dublin intelligence officers. The British
then carried out on the same day one of the worst atrocities of the war and butchered
unarmed spectators at a GAA game in Croke Park. A week later, the IRA’s 3rd Cork Brigade
killed 17 Auxiliaries in Kilmichael. As Ronan Fanning wrote: QUOTE “These were pivotal moments in the
war against the IRA because they made nonsense of assumptions that the end was in sight.”19
UNQUOTE Peace? Lloyd George understood, secretly at least,
the necessity of talking to Sinn Féin. Tender peace feelers had already been established
with Arthur Griffith of Sinn Féin, seen by the British as something of a moderate. Griffith’s
go-between, Patrick Moylett, was initially concerned that the escalation would ruin any
hopes of a peaceful solution to the ongoing crisis. He was very surprised to see George’s
reaction to what happened, saying that ‘these men were soldiers and took a soldier’s risk’,
referring to the events of bloody sunday and Kilmichael.20 After these events there began a rather strange
shadow war in the British establishment between doves and hawks. The official policy of coercion
was confused somewhat with the prospect of negotiation, which all parties were aware
was potentially just around the corner. Many of the newer officials in Dublin Castle, such
as Alfred Cope, were no longer interested in crushing Sinn Féin but instead were eager
to open negotiations. John Anderson, the Dublin Castle official mentioned earlier described
George’s strategy as: QUOTE “Cracking the whip with one hand and
holding out the carrot in the other – he intends to show clearly that war on the gunmen
is á l’outrance and at the same time to encourage the peacemakers.”21 UNQUOTE For the first 6 months of 1921 the British
emphasis was on the creation of the 6 county Northern Ireland parliament. George knew that
he had to end the Ulster question before he could open negotiations with Sinn Féin. Here’s another Ronan Fanning quote who, by
the way, has written some great stuff on the British perspective in Ireland: QUOTE “So although the time was not ripe
for Lloyd George to drop the whip, neither did he discard the carrot.”22 UNQUOTE This strange position meant that the government
made no effort to arrest President Eamon de Valera, who had returned to Ireland after
his American mission. The British offered a kind of olive branch
by forcing the retirement of Lord French, who was seen as a hardliner and the personification
of the British coercion policy. He was replaced by Viscount Fitzalan, who was a critic of
the Black & Tans reprisals policy and also incidentally became the first Catholic Viscount
in centuries. Once the Northern Ireland parliament had been
established, it led to the withdrawal from London political life of Edward Carson, Andrew
Bonar Law and Walter Long, three extremely hardline Unionists. This allowed Lloyd George
a little more freedom of action. General Macready helped George with his pragmatic
and reasonable rhetorical question to cabinet ministers: QUOTE “Half-hearted coercion made the position
of the troops and police farcical… It must be all out or another policy… Does the Cabinet
realise what is involved? Will they go through with it? Will they begin to howl when they
hear of our shooting a hundred men in one week?”23 UNQUOTE This was Macready arguing against the expansion
of martial law in Ireland, intended to sway the cabinet away from the coercionist position.
It worked. Andy Cope, the Dublin Castle official, communicated to Patrick Moylett, Arthur Griffith’s
go-between, that QUOTE ‘we are willing to acknowledge that we are defeated’ UNQUOTE24
He was not admitting to being defeated militarily, but rather morally defeated in that the British
were not willing to recruit a huge army and wage all-out war in Ireland, which they theoretically
could have. The Northern Ireland parliament was opened
on the 22nd June and the King made a speech calling for conciliation. The truce which
ended the War of Independence took effect on the 11th July 1921 and this led to the
signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 6th December 1921. This treaty, which effectively granted
the southern 26 counties of Ireland the status of a dominion, was not the Republic that the
IRA revolutionaries had been fighting for, and would go on to cause the Irish Civil War
in 1922. But that is a story for another day. Thanks so much for watching!

8 comments on “British Policy in Ireland 1918-1921

  1. 🎶Come out ye Black and Tans, come out and fight me like a man!!!🎶

    Sorry…Had to get that out of my system. 😶

    Yeah…it seems Britain had bigger fish to fry in running their global empire, plus administering their new territorial gains from their victory in the Great War. Still…the new crisis in Ireland was not something they could afford to completely ignore.

  2. The RIC were Ireland’s real heroes.

    I dream of the day when Southern Ireland sees sense and rejoins the United Kingdom.

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