‘At this moment, there is more ill-will within a victorious assembly than ever could be anywhere else but in the devil’s assembly. It cannot be fought against. The issues and persons are mixed to such an extent as to make discernibility an utter impossibility except for a few.’ –Michael Collins
Although the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 often carries the blame for the split among nationalists which brought about the Irish Civil War, history has shown that there was friction among those who pursued Irish independence long before then. However, it was the signing of the Truce and what happened afterwards that first exposed this animosity to the wider public and was the earliest indication of the potential for civil war – a war that left bitter divisions which have been felt across the island of Ireland ever since.
The War of Independence had begun in earnest with the shooting of two RIC officers by members of the IRA at Soloheadbeg on 21 January 1919, the same day as the first Dáil convened in Dublin. These men acted independently of the Dáil in this attack, and it would be over two years before the Dáil formally acknowledged the existence of a war with Britain. The war spread throughout the country during 1919 and 1920, as the IRA targeted the RIC and other figures of British control in violent attacks. The British authorities responded with an increased use of force, eventually deploying extra police forces in Ireland, the best-known of whom, the Black and Tans, became notorious for the savagery of their actions. Arbitrary, aggressive attacks on both Republicans and civilians caused public opinion to swing in favour of the IRA and its efforts.
Although many local commanders, particularly those in Munster, Mayo and Dublin city, believed their campaign to be following a successful path, the national campaign was a little more complicated for the IRA. Several attempted imports of weapons were scuppered, such as the 400-plus Thompson sub-machine guns that were impounded in New York, and units all over the country were running out of arms. The IRA in Dublin took a severe hit when 80 men were captured and several killed in an attack on the Custom House in May 1921, and its operations in the capital were severely curtailed as a result. Although the Republican forces had waged a lethal crusade – the violence on both sides intensified drastically from the end of 1920 – by the middle of 1921, many leaders believed that the army was disorganised and that its campaign was not sustainable. As Chief-of-Staff Richard Mulcahy stated to the Dáil, the IRA was incapable of driving the British ‘out of anything but a fairly good-sized police barracks’.
Over the course of the war, there had been some disharmony among those campaigning for a Republic. The British authorities’ banning of the Dáil during the war had meant that the nationalist movement could not rely on politics to achieve its objective. Although the Dáil took over where the British administration had been forced out, such as setting up its own system of courts and a republican police force in 1920, the IRA was left to be the driving force of the Nationalist movement. Many of its members resented the Dáil’s perceived inaction while they were fighting and losing men. At the same time, the localised nature of the guerilla war meant that many units across the country were isolated from the organisation’s leadership. They carried out independent operations and were critical of the inefficiencies at GHQ. Meanwhile, Dáil President Éamon de Valera did not agree with the IRA’s guerilla tactics. He believed that to be taken seriously as soldiers rather than as terrorists, traditional combat was necessary. All of these tensions would contribute to the conflict that broke out when Ireland established itself as a Free State.
By the middle of 1921 the War of Independence had reached a stalemate. While the IRA could go no further in its operations as they stood, Britain was engaged in war elsewhere fighting for Russia and its military arm the White Army against the Bolsheviks, fighting the Turks in Asia Minor and was still paying off debts from World War One. Decisive intervention in Ireland would put a strain on its army and its resources. Moreover British public opinion did not favour this sort of action, and the behaviour of the British forces sent to Ireland was causing increasing concern in Britain itself.
There had been truce talks between the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Arthur Griffith as early as the autumn of 1920. Initial talks convinced the British that the Republican war effort was waning, but an escalation of violence in Ireland around this time quickly proved that they had underestimated their enemy. Any early agreement was also precluded by British demands that the IRA be disarmed, that there could be no amnesty for major IRA leaders such as Dan Breen and Michael Collins, and that a Free State would have to contribute to Britain’s war debts. These demands were rejected by the Dáil.
Lloyd George met de Valera for talks in June 1921 as a last attempt to reach an agreement before imposing full martial law across Ireland. It was agreed that a truce would come into effect at noon on Monday 11 July, which was intended to end conflict, at least in the short-term, and allow further negotiations to take place for a permanent solution to the war. Given the chaos around the country, it took several days for the news to spread. News reached Galway only on Sunday the 10th, while Tom Barry supposedly found out about it from a newspaper. Although de Valera issued instructions to the IRA to cease all attacks and military manouevres, to prohibit the use of arms and to avoid any disturbances of the peace that might cause the British forces to intervene, these orders were interpreted differently by commanders in different areas. Some units in more active parts of the country believed that the Truce was just a temporary break from conflict, and continued recruiting and training Volunteers. Nor did attacks completely end, particularly in Munster.
By the time the Truce was declared, the discord amongst those in the nationalist movement had become clear, and was seen to be personal. Collins felt that he and fellow IRA leader Richard Mulcahy were being sidelined, now especially that IRA manouevres had been called off. ‘The cabinet was apparently split,’ noted fellow Sinn Féin member Robert Barton. Collins in particular did not get on with Cathal Brugha, whom he was known to argue fiercely with, and was critical of de Valera, who excluded Collins from the initial delegation sent to negotiate with the British government after the Truce. In turn, his disregard for de Valera’s leadership did not enamour Collins to several of his cabinet colleagues. The hostilities within Sinn Féin would only grow in the months following the Truce.
Within a year of the Truce being signed, war would once again break out in Ireland. Those who had worked together to achieve Irish independence turned on one another in an eleven-month conflict arguably bloodier and more bitter than that with the British. It was a war which would divide Irish society for generations.
Today marks the 96th anniversary of the Truce. While this act marked a major development for the nationalist movement, it was also the first juncture where the movement’s inner conflicts were highlighted, and the first signal of what was to come.