During our podcast episodes on the Irish War for Independence, we focus on the IRA’s tactics and perspective. Today, we’ll be focusing on the British response and the different military and law enforcement groups they employed against the IRA and the Dail.
England and the Home Rule Bill
Up until 1916, the British government’s approach to Ireland was disdainful disinterest. While Gladstone tied the Liberal party to the concept of Home Rule back in 1880 because he seemed to have believed it was true to Liberal principles, it felt more like an albatross around the neck of Prime Minister Henry Asquith. According to Ronan Fanning in his book Fatal Path, Asquith was an imperial Liberal and disliked the idea of Home Rule as much as the Ulster Unionists. Yet, it was a promise he could not break away from, because by 1910, the Liberals had lost their parliamentary majority in the House of Commons and needed the support of John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party. Redmond pressed Asquith’s feet to the flames and promised to support the Liberal agenda only if Home Rule was passed, ignoring the desires of the Northern Unionists. Asquith delayed as long as he could, making many backbreaking promises to the Irish, to members within his own cabinet, and the British people. However his strategy fell apart when in 1911, the Parliament Act of 1911 replaced the House of Lord’s unlimited veto with one that would only last two years. This mean that any bill that passed through the House could only be blocked for two years by the Lord. The House passed Third Home Rule bill in 1912 by a majority of 10 votes. It created a bicameral Irish Parliament in Dublin, eliminated Dublin Castle, and allowed a number of MPs to continue sitting in the British Parliament. The Lords vetoed it. The bill was brought before the House again in 1913, it passed, but once more the Lords vetoed it. In 1914, it passed the House the final time and the Lords were bypassed, and it was sent for Royal Assent.
Then World War I erupted.
The implementation of the Home Rule Bill was postponed, the James Craig and Sir Edward Carson created the Ulster Volunteers to violently resist Home Rule sparking the creation of the Irish Volunteers, and John Redmond toured Ireland, encouraging young Irish men to fight for the British Empire. Everything came to a head in 1916 with Easter Rising and the creation of the IRA and Sinn Fein in 1917-1918. By 1919, Ireland was in a state of war.
Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC)
In 1919, Ireland was ruled by the British government and military forces located in Dublin Castle. Led by the Lord Lieutenant, Lord French, and the Chief Secretary, Ian McPherson, Dublin Castle’s primary role was to keep law and order within Ireland. This was usually maintained at the expense of the working class, Catholics. From the 1820s up to 1919, the Castle employed the services of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in their quest for colonial order. The RICs were a quasi-military outfit with a central command and were known as the eyes and ears of the Castle. It is estimated that, from 1816-1922, the RIC employed 85,000 men at its height and were majority Irishmen (many of them were stationed outside of their home counties to avoid reprisals and intimidation).(2014,Townshend) They were mostly farmer sons who took the job for the steady paycheck and prestige. They were armed with cavalry carbines and were responsible for spying on the people of Irish to discover plots of rebellion. (2014, Townshend) While the British thought they were the most effective force they had on hand, Easter Rising would prove that they were not as efficient as they could be and that, British intelligence in general, was lacking when it came to Emerald Ilse.
The RIC’s effectiveness was further eroded by Sinn Fein’s ostracization campaign. Sinn Fein declared that all RIC should be shunned from daily society and treated as traitors to the Irish cause (to learn more check out our Episode 3-Ireland 1917-1918: Resurrecting a Rebellion). By 1919, the IRA targeted RIC barracks, driving them from the Irish countryside into the bigger, more fortified barracks. Recruitment dropped, intelligence dried up, and RIC officers were targeted by the IRA and the Squad. Morale plummeted and the British government grew concerned over the “Irish situation”. Then in 1920, the IRA burned down 400 barracks and several income tax offices. There was a military force in Ireland of about 20,000 troops, but the British refused to acknowledge the conflict as a guerilla war. As Lloyd George himself said, “you do not declare war against rebels”. This made a military response impossible, politically-despite what Lord French believed. (2013, Townshend)
Asquith was replaced by David Lloyd George in the 1916 election and he was a very different man from Asquith. He created a coalition government with some Liberal and Conservative support and saw British through World War I. He treated Ireland roughly, tried to force conscription on the Ireland (which sparked the 1918 conscription crisis that wiped out the Irish Parliamentary party and skyrocketed Sinn Fein to political power) and loss any goodwill from the Irish people by trying to force solutions to the Home Rule problem during the 1917-1918 Irish Convention. Lloyd George was exasperated and annoyed by the IRA in 1919, but he wasn’t going to be chased out of the island by a handful of rebellious young men. He sent Lord French to Ireland to act as a military governor in 1919, but also kept his hands tied by refusing to grant him the ability to unleash martial law all over the island. Lloyd George claimed to be a Home Ruler, but he would not ‘coerce’ Ulster into accepting Home Rule and he could not anger the Conservatives who made up his coalition government-unless he’d lose the prime minister seat.
Paramilitary Units: the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries
The British Sent Macready and John Anderson to act as undersecretaries and rebuild the police force. However, when Macready arrived in Dublin, he gave up on the police instantly, creating a divide between the police and the paramilitary forces sent to Ireland to support them. The British lack of faith in the local police forces led to the creation of two paramilitary units: the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries.
The Black and Tans were first formed in January 1920 and consisted of mostly former British soldiers and officers who had fought in World War I. There is no evidence they came from criminal classes as has often been claimed. Given the situation in Ireland, the Black and Tans did not receive the proper training needed to handle a counterinsurgency and when they were thrown into Ireland they were thrown into a dangerous, confusing, and anxiety inducing situation. Their atrocities are well known, but seem to come from a lack of training as much as from a bloody thirsty hatred of all things Irish. An estimate of 10,000 men enlisted into the Black and Tans during the Irish War for Independence of which 42 percent were wounded and 24 percent killed. Most members of the Black and Tans were Protestant working class men who were either unskilled, semi-skilled, or manually skilled workers and received relatively high pay for the time. They were called Black and Tans because of their dark green and khaki uniforms. They were meant to serve as normal reinforcements for the RIC, but from the moment the British passed the Restoration Order of Ireland (which was a light version of martial law) their policing turning into brutality and extreme violence. They were responsible for many reprisals and tit-for-tat assassins that became popular in 1920. Once of their most famous attacks was the burning of 50 houses in Balbriggan and the killing of two suspected “Sinn Feiners” as retaliation against an IRA ambush in September 1920. They have also recently been connected with episodes of sexual harassment.
While the Black and Tans deserve their brutal reputation, the Auxiliaries were worse. The Auxiliaries was a paramilitary unit of the RIC created in July 1920, made up of British Officers. They were designed to act as a counterinsurgency unit, focusing on being a mobile strike and raiding force. Even though they were supposed to support the RIC, they were semi-independent of the local police, often acting on their own. This only exasperated the problems the British Government was facing in Ireland and helped contribute to intelligence failures and IRA victories. About 2,300 men served during the war and they were deployed into the southern and western regions of Ireland, where the fighting was heaviest. Even though they were better at collecting intelligence than the RIC or Black and Tans, they did not share this intelligence with their sister organizations. They were known for their brutality and arson and were responsible for the burning of Cork in 1920, the Croke Park massacre, and may have been responsible for the assassination of Cork Lord Mayor Tomas MacCurtain.
While the Black and Tans and RIC were meant to serve within a policing capacity, the Auxiliaries were meant to face the IRA head on. In late 1920 and early 1921, they would form their own flying columns and push the IRA back from the gains they made in 1920. However, like the Black and Tans, they suffered from lack of training, indiscipline, and fighting a counterinsurgency before counterinsurgency was trying understood. They were also drawn into the bloody tit-for-tat game of assassinations and reprisals but without an overarching strategy or better collaboration amongst the RIC, Auxiliaries, and Black and Tans they were killing for little reason other than that was what they were hired to do.
Truce and Disbanding
The Truce came as a shock to the British soldiers stationed in Ireland and they felt betrayed by their commanders and government. They were bitter that they had to keep law and order and behave during the truce period while the IRA prepared itself for a protracted war. They often complained that the IRA broke the Truce multiple times and should be punished. When the treaty was signed and the power was transferred from Imperial Britain to the Free Irish State, many men were on their way back home to Ireland or preparing to leave the bloody island for good. They would leave behind a long lasting legacy of brutality, colonialism, and a long list of unknown victims.
The Republic: the Fight for Irish Independence by Charles Townshend, 2014, Penguin Group
Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922 by Ronan Fanning, 2013, Faber & Faber
Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion by Charles Townshend, 2015, Penguin Group
Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish War: Britain’s Counterinsurgency Failure by J. B. E. Hitte, 2011, Potomac Books
A Nation and Not a Rabble: the Irish Revolution 1913-1923 by Diarmaid Ferriter, 2015, Profile Books