In Northern Ireland there were continual breaches of the Truce by ‘unauthorised loyalist paramilitary forces’. The predominantly Protestant, Unionists government of Northern Ireland supported polices which discriminated against Catholics in which, along with violence against Catholics, led many to suggest the presence of an agenda by an Anglo-ascendancy to drive those of indigenous Irish descent out of the northeast counties.
At the same time London was stepping up pressure on the Provisional Government to take aggressive military action against anti-Treaty units in the south.
In March, Collins met Sir James Craig, Prime Minister for Northern Ireland, in London. They signed an agreement declaring peace in the north which promised cooperation between Catholics and Protestants in policing and security, a generous budget for restoring Catholics to homes which had been destroyed, and many other measures.
The day after the agreement was published, violence erupted again. A policeman was shot dead in Belfast and in reprisal, police entered Catholic homes nearby and shot residents in their beds, including children. There was no response to Collins’s demands for an inquiry. He and his Cabinet warned that they would deem the agreement broken unless Craig took action.
In his continual correspondence with Churchill over violence in the north, Collins protested repeatedly that such breaches of the Truce threatened to invalidate the Treaty entirely. The prospect of a renewal of the war with England was imminent. The prospect was real enough that on 3 June 1922, Churchill presented to the Committee of Imperial Defence his plans ‘to protect Ulster from invasion by the South.’
Throughout the early months of 1922, Collins had been sending IRA units to the border and sending arms and money to the northern units of the IRA. Collins joined other IRB and IRA leadership in developing secret plans to launch a clandestine guerrilla war in the northeast. Some British arms that had been surrendered to the Provisional government in Dublin were turned over by Collins to IRA units in the north. In May–June 1922 Collins and IRA Chief of Staff Liam Lynch organised an offensive including both pro- and anti-Treaty IRA units along the border area. Because of this, most northern IRA units supported Collins and 524 individual volunteers came south to join the National Army in the Irish Civil War.
Collins, with the support of Griffith and the Cabinet, kept up a ‘three-tier strategy of public, political and military pressure’ regarding northern outrages. Negotiations with the London and Belfast governments continued, with numerous promises made and broken along the lines of the March 1922 Agreement. Within days of a public commitment by Dublin not to send troops into the northeast, Churchill sent 1,000 British troops into a village called Pettigo that straddled the border between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. The troops shelled the village and fired on Free State troops, killing three. On 5 June a group of B-Specials sprayed the Mater Hospital in Belfast with machine gun fire. Collins’s demands for a full, joint inquiry were flatly refused by Churchill.
In the midst of all this, Civil War in the south broke out and put Collins’s plans for the north on hold. A Derry volunteer, Thomas J Kelly, spoke to Michael Collins at a meeting of officers where the pro-treaty leader personally reassured northern officers that ‘he still had the six county problem very much in the front of his mind.’ He told us that with the civil war on his hands he couldn’t do all he wished to do for the north, so for the time being he was calling off military action and resuming the political talks with Craig.’
‘If, he said, the political weapon against the northern government failed, the Treaty could go to hell. He’d break that Treaty rather than let the north down. I was present when Collins said that’ Mr Kelly added: ‘The fact that these two northern divisions were wholly in the six counties area and that these were the only two divisions that were pro-Collins would prove that they believed Michael Collins when he said it was his intention to help the north to the utmost.’
He was killed before he could pursue his plans for the north any further.
Letter addressed to Sir James Craig, written by Michael Collins