Former Prime Minister John Bruton reflects on Irish history during the civil wars.
Ireland will soon commemorate a conflict that took place between 1919 and 1923. It is customary to refer to the conflict between 1919 and 1921 as the War of Independence and that between 1922 and 1923 as the Civil War. In fact, both were civil wars.
In the 1919 to 1921 war, the initial victims were Irish members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Irish members of the judiciary. The first police victims were RIC Constables James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell, killed at Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary on January 21, 1919. Both were Irish-born Catholics, as were many RIC victims. The first magistrate to die was James Charles Milling, a Mayo native, shot through the front window of his home in Westport in March 1919. He was a member of the Church of Ireland and is buried in the Holy Trinity Cemetery in Westport. These Irishmen had supported the then-existing legal order as they saw it, and paid the ultimate sacrifice in so doing.
LOOKING THROUGH HISTORY
The tragedy of these conflicts is reflected in two books I recently read. One is The Irish War of Independence by Michael Hopkinson, and the other is The Redmonds and Waterford: A Political Dynasty, 1891-1952 by Pat McCarthy.
Hopkinson’s book shows how the threat of the introduction of conscription in Ireland, in March 1918, radicalized Irish opinion and laid the foundation for the Sinn Fein electoral victory over the Irish Parliamentary Party nine months later in the general election, which took place when the Great War was over.
Sinn Fein won the election on a manifesto of abstaining from Westminster and seeking recognition for Irish independence in the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference. The manifesto claimed that “the right of a nation to sovereign independence rests on immutable natural law and cannot be made the subject of compromise.”
This rejection of compromise was reckless. It made conflict of some kind inevitable. But the Sinn Fein manifesto did not seek an explicit mandate for armed insurrection, although it did speak of the “use of any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection.” It is hard to argue that, by voting for Sinn Fein in 1918, the Irish people gave a clear democratic mandate for the waging of war.
From the beginning, the preferred Irish Republican Army (IRA) tactic was the shooting of policemen — whether armed or not, whether on or off duty — and of magistrates. Policemen and magistrates were, and still are, the executors of state authority in every locality. Killing them was designed to undermine that authority.
Hopkinson claims that both Arthur Griffith and Eamon de Valera were opposed to the shooting of policemen and would have preferred more conventional warfare. But their policy of appealing to the Versailles Peace Conference yielded no results, despite de Valera’s efforts to rouse opinion in the US.
The struggle was evenly balanced. Despite many IRA successes, by July 1921, there were 4,500 IRA internees, compared to around 2,000 active in the field. Shortage of ammunition was a problem for the IRA. Shortage of manpower was a problem for the authorities. The British had other military priorities, in places like Egypt.
The possibility of partition had been a main reason for the rejection — by Sinn Fein and wider nationalist opinion — of the Home Rule policy of John Redmond in the 1916 to 1918 period. But when it came to negotiating a truce to end the hostilities in 1921, partition was no longer so central. Hopkinson claims that David Lloyd George was told through intermediaries that “the Dail [Irish parliament] would accept the exclusion of the six counties provided that fiscal autonomy was granted to the twenty six.”
This is, in fact, how things turned out. Ireland got fiscal independence but partition remains. The key issue in fiscal independence was the ability to impose tariffs. One of the perceived inadequacies of the Home Rule proposal had been that a Home Rule Ireland would have remained in the UK Customs Union and would not have been able to impose tariffs on British goods. Fiscal autonomy, under the treaty of 1921, enabled the free state to impose tariffs.
When the war began in January 1919, Home Rule was on the statute book, but remained unimplemented because of differences over the exclusion of some Ulster counties. But Northern Ireland had not been created and partition had not been formalized.
That happened in 1920 when the UK Parliament passed a new Government of Ireland Act, creating two Irish Home Rule parliaments in place of one: a Parliament for Ulster, which became Stormont, and another for the rest of Ireland, which was boycotted by Sinn Fein and was stillborn.
This is where the theme of Pat McCarthy’s book on the Redmonds intersects with Michael Hopkinson’s book on the civil wars. When the new Government of Ireland Act, setting up Stormont, came before Parliament in London, there were very few Irish Nationalist MPs there to oppose or amend it. This is because the constituencies in southern Ireland had elected Sinn Fein MPs, who declined to take their seats.
There was one exception: Captain Willie Redmond, who had defeated the Sinn Fein candidate and won his father John’s old seat in Waterford City. Along with T.P. O’Connor, who represented a Liverpool constituency, Patrick Donnelly (Armagh South), Joe Devlin (Belfast West), Edward Kelly (East Donegal), Jeremiah McVeagh (South Down) and Thomas Harbison (Tyrone NE), Redmond was there to speak against the Government of Ireland Act.
But this small Nationalist Party in Westminster did not have the votes to insist on amendments that might have protected the minority in Northern Ireland from what were to be the discriminatory excesses of the Unionist-dominated Stormont Parliament.
McCarthy’s book explains how it came about that a city in the southeast of Ireland could resist the Sinn Fein tide that swept over the rest of the south in December 1918. It was due to a devotion to John Redmond in Waterford City that lasted long after his death. Redmond had protected the economic interests of Waterford City, bringing it funds for housing and building bridges. He forged an alliance with the local pig buyers association and the trade unions. Like Redmond, Waterford City had remained loyal to Charles Stewart Parnell unlike most of rural Ireland, and this Parnellism added to Redmond’s appeal in Waterford.
After 1922, Captain Willie Redmond was elected to Dail Eireann and founded his own party, the short-lived National League. He was later re-elected as a TD for Cumann na nGaedhael, a political party, in 1932. He died later that year and his young widow, Bridget Redmond, continued to represent Waterford City in the Dail as a TD for Fine Gael until she died at a young age in 1952, just after having got her largest ever vote in the 1951 election.
Because it is concerned with a particular family and locality, McCarthy’s book is full of human interest. But it is also a serious and balanced work of history. Hopkinson’s narrative and analysis of the war of 1919 to 1921 is necessarily more superficial, but it is well worth reading too.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Support Fair Observer
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs
on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This
doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.
Will you support FO’s journalism?
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.