The Irish War of Independence and the retreat from stated objectives in spite of the precariousness of the British position

(This is reprinted with minimal editing from a section of a much longer piece of mine published in English and in Spanish a year ago https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/how-can-a-people-defeat-a-stronger-invader-or-occupying-power-2/)

 

Diarmuid Breatnach

The War of Independence 1919-1921 and retreat from stated objectives

Three years later (after the 1916 Rising), the nationalist revolutionaries returned to the armed struggle, this time without a workers’ militia or an effective socialist leadership as allies, and began a political struggle which was combined a little later with a rural guerilla war which soon spread into some urban areas (particularly the cities of Dublin and Cork). The political struggle mobilised thousands and also resulted in the majority of those elected in Ireland during the General Election (in the United Kingdom, of which Ireland was part) being of their party.

The struggle in Ireland and the British response to it was generating much interest and critical comment around the world and even in political and intellectual and artistic circles within Britain itself. In addition, many nationalist and socialist revolutionaries around the world were drawing inspiration from that fierce anti-colonial struggle so near to England, within the United Kingdom itself.

The dismantling by the nationalist forces, by threats and by armed action, of much of the control network of the colonial police force, which consequently dismantled much of their counter-insurgency intelligence service, led the British to set up two new special armed police forces to counter the Irish insurgency. Both these forces gained a very bad reputation not only among the nationalists but also among many British loyalists. The special paramilitary police forces resorted more and more to torture, murder and arson but nevertheless, in some areas of Ireland such as Dublin, Kerry and Cork, they had to be reinforced by British soldiers as they were largely not able to deal effectively with the insurgents, who were growing more resolute, experienced and confident with each passing week.

However, two-and-a-half years after the beginning of the guerrilla war, a majority of the Irish political leadership of the nationalist revolutionary movement settled for the partition of their country with Irish independence for one part of it within the British Commonwealth.

Much discussion has taken part around the events that led to this development. We are told that British Prime Minister Lloyd George blackmailed the negotiating delegation with threats of “immediate and terrible war” if they did not agree to the terms. The delegation were forced to answer without being allowed to consult their comrades at home. Some say that the President of the nationalist political party, De Valera, sent an allegedly inexperienced politically Michael Collins to the negotiations, knowing that he would end up accepting a bad deal from which De Valera could then distance himself. Michael Collins, in charge of supplying the guerrillas with arms, stated afterwards that he had only a few rounds of ammunition left to supply each fighter and that the IRA, the guerrilla army, could not fight the war Lloyd George threatened. He also said that the deal would be a stepping stone towards the full independence of a united Ireland in the near future. None of those reasons appear convincing to me.

How could the leadership of a movement at the height of their successes cave in like that? Of course, the British were threatening a worse war, but they had made threats before and the Irish had met them without fear. If the IRA were truly in a difficult situation with regard to ammunition (and I’m not sure that there is any evidence for that apart from Collins’ own statement), that would be a valid reason for a reduction in their military operations, not for accepting a deal far short of what they had fought for. The IRA was, after all, a volunteer guerrilla army, much of it of a part-time nature. It could be withdrawn from offensive operations and most of the fighters could melt back into the population or, if necessary, go “on the run”.

If the military supply situation of the Irish nationalists was indeed dire in the face of the superior arms and military experience of Britain, was that the only factor to be taken into account? An army needs more than arms and experience in order to wage war – there are other factors which affect its ability and effectiveness.

The precariousness of the British situation

In 1919, at the end of the War, the British, although on the victorious side, were in a precarious position. During the war itself there had been a serious mutiny in the army (during which NCOs and officers had been killed by privates) and as the soldiers were demobbed into civilian life and into their old social conditions there was widespread dissatisfaction. Industrial strikes had been forbidden during the War (although some had taken place nonetheless) and a virtual strike movement was now under way.

In 1918 and again in 1919, police went on strike in Britain. Also during 1919, the railway workers went on strike and so did others in a wave that had been building up since the previous year. In 1918 strikes had already cost 6 million working days. This increased to nearly 35 million in 1919, with a daily average of 100,000 workers on strike. Glasgow in 1921 saw a strike with a picket of 60,000 and pitched battles with the police. The local unit of the British Army was detained in barracks by its officers and units from further away were sent in with machine guns, a howitzer and tanks.

James Wolfe in his work Mutiny in United States and British Armed forces in the Twentieth Century(http://www.mellenpress.com/mellenpress.cfm?bookid=8271&pc=9) includes the following chapter headings:

Workers pass an overturned tram in London during the 1926 British General Strike. In general, goods travelled through Britain with authorisation from the workers or under police and troop protection.

Workers pass an overturned tram in London during the 1926 British General Strike. In much of the country no transport operated unless authorised by the local trade union council or under police and army escort.

4.2 The Army Mutinies of January/February 1919
4.3 The Val de Lievre Mutiny
4.4 Three Royal Air Force Mutinies January 1919
4.5 Mutiny in the Royal Marines – Russia,
February to June 1919
4.6 Naval Mutinies of 1919
4.7 Demobilization Riots 1918/1919
4.8 The Kinmel Park Camp Riots 1919
4.9 No “Land Fit For Heroes” – the Ex-servicemen’s Riot in Luton
4 4.10 Ongoing Unrest – Mid-1919 to Year’s End

 The British Government feared their police force would be insufficient against the British workers and was concerned about the reliability of their army if used in this way. There had already been demonstrations, riots and mutinies in the armed forces about delays in demobilisation (and also in being used against the Russian Bolshevik Revolution).

Elsewhere in the British Empire things were unstable too. The Arabs were outraged at Britain’s reneging on their promise to give them their freedom in exchange for fighting the Turks and rebellions were breaking out which would continue over the next few years. The British were also facing unrest in Palestine as they began to settle Jewish immigrants who were buying up Arab land there. An uprising took place in Mesopotamia (Iraq) against the British in 1918 and again in 1919. The Third Afghan War took place in 1919; Ghandi and his followers began their campaign of civil disobedience in 1920 while in 1921 the Malabar region of India rose up in armed revolt against British rule. Secret communiques (but now accessible) between such as Winston Churchill, Lloyd George and the Chief of Staff of the British armed forces reveal concerns about the reliability of their soldiers in the future against insurrections and industrial action in Britain and even whether, as servicemen demanded demobilisation, they would have enough soldiers left for the tasks facing them throughout the Empire.

The Irish nationalist revolutionaries in 1921were in a very strong position to continue their struggle until they had won independence and quite possibly even to be the catalyst for socialist revolution in Britain and the death of the British Empire. But they backed down and gave the Empire the breathing space it needed to deal with the various hotspots of rebellion elsewhere and to prepare for the showdown with British militant trade unionists that came with the General Strike of 1926. Instead, the Treatyites turned their guns on their erstwhile comrades in the vicious Civil War that broke out in 1922. The new state executed IRA prisoners (often without recourse to a trial) and repression continued even after it had defeated the IRA in the Civil War.

If the revolutionary Irish nationalist leaders were not aware of all the problems confronting the British Empire, they were certainly aware of many of them. The 1920 hunger strike and death of McSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, had caught international attention and Indian nationalists had made contact with the McSwiney family. The presence of large Irish working class communities in Britain, from London to GlaSgow, provided ample opportunity for keeping abreast of industrial disputes, even if the Irish nationalists did not care to open links with British militant trade unionists. Sylvia Pankhurst, member of the famous English suffragette family and a revolutionary communist, had letters published in The Irish Worker, newspaper of the IT&GWU. The presence of large numbers of Irish still in the British Army was another source of ready information.

Anti-Treaty cartoon, 1921, depicts Ireland being coerced by Michael Collins, representing the Free State Army, along with the Catholic Church, in the service of British Imperialism

Anti-Treaty cartoon, 1921, depicts Ireland being coerced by Michael Collins, representing the Free State Army, along with the Catholic Church, in the service of British Imperialism

The revolutionary Irish nationalist leaders were mostly of petite bourgeois background and had no programme of the expropriation of the large landowners and industrialists. They did not seek to represent the interests of the Irish workers—indeed at times sections of them demonstrated a hostility to workers, preventing landless Irish rural poor seizing large estates and to divide them among themselves. Historically the petite bourgeoisie has shown itself incapable of sustaining a revolution in its own class interests and in Ireland it was inevitable that the Irish nationalists would come to follow the interests of the Irish national bourgeoisie. The Irish socialists were too few and weak to offer another pole of attraction to the petite bourgeoisie. The Irish national bourgeoisie had not been a revolutionary class since their defeat in 1798 and were not to be so now. Originally, along with the Catholic Church with which they shared many interests in common, they had declined to support the revolutionary nationalists but decided to join with them when they saw an opportunity to improve their position and also what appeared to be an imminent defeat of the British.

In the face of the evident possibilities it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the section of revolutionary Irish nationalists who opted for the deal offered by Lloyd George did so because they preferred it to the alternatives. They preferred to settle for a slice rather than fight for the whole cake. And the Irish bourgeoisie would do well out of the deal, even if the majority of the population did not. The words of James Connolly that the working class were “the incorruptible heirs” of Ireland’s fight had a corollary – that the Irish bourgeoisie would always compromise the struggle. It is also possible that the alternative the nationalists feared was not so much “immediate and terrible war” but rather a possible Irish social revolution in which they would lose their privileges.

Irish Free State bombardment 4 Courts

Start of the Irish Civil War 1922: Irish Free State bombardment, with cannon on loan from the British Army, of the Republican HQ at the Four Courts, Dublin.

 

Another serious challenge to the Empire from Irish nationalist revolutionaries would not take place until nearly fifty years later, and it would be largely confined to the colony of the Six Counties.

end selected extract

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