Monday, August 16, 2010

Interesting Random Piece of History 6

Not many people in Ireland like to talk about the 11 month post independence Civil War that occurred between July 1922 and May 1923. The reason being that nobody comes out of it looking good. Neither the irregulars (IRA) or the new Free State Army conducted themselves with particular distinction, especially in the closing weeks of the war. But even more than that, the war is politically uncomfortable for everybody, and I mean everybody. Fianna Fail, the party descended from the irregulars don't like to admit that their forefathers conducted a bloody campaign against fellow Irish man in which they frequently used terrorist tactics, namely the targeting of families of pro Free State officials. Fine Gael the party descended from the Free State Army and its party, Cumman na Gael do not like discussing the Civil war for two reasons. One, the Free State Government was guilty of engaging in state terrorism when they executed prisoners in retaliation for IRA attacks on Free Sate politicians. Secondly, as the movement responsible for crushing militant republicanism in the South in the Civil War, Fine Gael became natural leaders in their criticism of the Provisional IRA during the Northern Ireland troubles. To this day they are the most outspoken critics of dissident violence in the north. So it does not sit very well with Fine Gael, the self proclaimed "saviours of the state" that their hero Michael Collins fought a war after the truce but before the Civil War, against the Northern establishment and the British army in the six counties that would rival the later campaign of the Provisional IRA in its intensity.

The Civil War is also awkward for modern day Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein, the leaders of militant republicanism throughout the northern troubles would not like to admit some of the following facts. Although Sinn Fein historically would have more reason than most to see the Anglo Irish Treaty of 1921 as a sell out because it was the document that signed away the North this is not quite how it was seen by the northern IRA at the time. Many northern republicans to this day refer to southerners in a derogatory way as "Free Staters". But get this, during the 1919-1922 period the northern IRA adored Collins. He was, as mentioned already, very militant on the issue of the North. He continued to support, and indeed direct the IRA campaign in the six counties where the war against the British continued to rage even after the truce of July 1921. As a result many members of the Northern IRA came down south and actually joined the Free State Army. So next time you here a Sinn Fein activists refer to the "Free Staters" or complain about the passive south, remind him/her that many prominent members of the Free State Army, even those implicated in atrocities, were in fact IRA men from Belfast, Derry and Tyrone.

And this leads us on to today's random piece of interesting history which is about the circumstances (largely unknown except for historians) leading up to the firing of the first shot in the Civil War. When the Treaty was singed in December 1921 it became clear immediately that there were divisions. The IRA, quite naturally saw it as a sell out. They had after all sworn an allegiance to defend the Irish republic. Its leaders were now being asked, if they were to become members of the parliament to swear allegiance to the king. The treaty debates of January and February 1921 examined every possible scenario but ultimately would only make clear who was on what side. It was lining up as the Irish Republic versus the Irish Free State. In March 200 republicans seized the Four Courts buildings in central Dublin. The objective was to protest against the Free State sell out and to provoke a confrontation with the British who had not yet fully withdrawn in the hope of reuniting both factions. It did not work. The British did halt their evacuation as a challenge to Collins and the Provisional governments authority. This only made Collins more determined to stamp the authority of the Free State on the country.

If you want to get a sense of what the Treaty debates were about watch this exceptional scene from the movie The Wind that Shakes the Barley.


It is this scenario that led to one of the great and tragic ironic twists in Irish History. As negotiations were continuing (that may well have been successful) between Collns, the Provisional government and the anti treaty IRA whose leaders had barricaded themselves in the Four Courts an incident occurred in London that would have long lasting consequences for Ireland. On June 22nd a British Field Marshall named Sir Henry Hughes Wilson was assassinated by the IRA. Henry Wilson was a staunch Ulster Unionist, a conservative Party politician and an advisor to the new Northern Irish Government on security matters. He was a man many blamed for the increasing levels of sectarian violence aimed at catholics particularly in Belfast that saw hundreds, and some argue thousands of Catholic expelled from their homes. After his assassination the British decided they had enough of the instability in the south. It is believed that British Prime Minister Lloyd George and Secretary of state for the colonies Winston Churchill offered the Provisional Government in Dublin an ultimatum. Deal with the anti Treaty IRA (whom they assumed was responsible for the assassination) , or we will.

The Free State Army shelling the Four Courts in June 1922.

Churchill suggested to Collns that the RAF could bomb the Four Courts with planes containing Free State markers but flown by British pilots. Collins refused. Churchill offered the Provisional government artillery. Collins accepted. On the June 28th 1922 the Irish Civil war began when the New Free State army shelled the Four cCourts. The ironic twist I mentioned, history has almost certainly proved that the assassination of sir Henry Wilson was not carried out by the anti Treaty IRA. It was ordered by Collins who as discussed was hard line on the north.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Very interesting Ted. Keep it up!