The Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Irish Civil War

The Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Irish Civil War


Drift towards the Civil War

In the late war against the British we had to put more or less unlimited powers into the hands of our soldiers-

Desmond FitzGerald3

The plain fact is that our civil services have simply played at governing a Republic, while the soldiers have not played at dying for it-

Richard Mulcahy, IRA Chief of Staff4

The Treaty split the Irish population. Its supporters saw it as a real achievement after the Anglo-Irish War, a chance for peace in a free country, and possibly a republic would come about slowly, peacefully. For its opponents it was a betrayal that destroyed the Republican dream. The Dail cabinet was split down the middle and thus unable to recommend a policy to the Dail on the Treaty. The Dail voted 64 to 57 in favour of it. Frequently during the Dail debates Griffith and Collins argued that the essential compromise with the British government had come with the decision to negotiate, and that a Republic had never been on the agenda. A return to war couldn't be justified for the difference between the Treaty and External Association, and anyway, the British government were no more likely to accept External Association any time in the future than the present. Collins spoke publicly of the Treaty as a stepping stone to achieve further freedom for Ireland; privately in IRB circles he hinted that the Treaty was a device for Ireland to build up its own army and eventually force Britain to hand over Northern Ireland.5 Tellingly, while upholding the Treaty terms as a government minister and later running the Free State army, Collins was also secretly arming IRA units in the North who were attacking police barracks in a flagrant violation of the Treaty. On March 16th 1922 a party of IRA men raiding into Northern Ireland were captured, and with them weapons passed on to them by Collins from the British government (who of course were unaware that the weapons would end up there).6 The IRA were forced to operate in the North to protect the minority Catholic population who were being driven out of their homes in certain areas by loyalist mobs, fearful of a potential Irish reunification.

Around the country, although clearly a divide, the majority favoured the Treaty. People were sick of war and wanted a return to normal life. Enthusiasm for the Treaty was much greater in more prosperous farming and business areas, which usually lay in the east of the country. There seemed to also be an inherent suspicion of a central government being set up in Dublin, be it British or Irish, by some people in Munster.7 The IRA became split between pro and anti-Treatyites, with the GHQ staff mainly pro-Treaty (with some notable exceptions), and most of the provincial commandants were anti-Treaty. The IRA men generally had little regard for Sinn Fein and politicians, and in fact if Michael Collins hadn't signed and supported the Treaty, it is likely that almost the entire IRA would have been against it. Even with his influence the majority of the army were still anti-Treaty. Richard Mulcahy, the new Minister of Defence having succeeded the anti-Treaty Cathal Brugha, promised that the IRA would remain loyal to the government. However, the army had never been in control of the civil authorities, and certainly no longer felt bound by the decisions of a government that swore allegiance to the English crown. Historian Tom Garvin describes the differences between the two sets of Sinn Feiners: many prominent pro-Treatyites such as Collins, Cosgrave and O'Higgins tended to be better at 'running things' (i.e. administration), whereas many prominent anti-Treatyites tended to be better at romantic republican notions or small-scale military action.8 In time, the administration of the Irish Free State would defeat the romantic notions of a republic clung to by the anti-Treatyites.

The situation was further complicated by the position of two governments in the new Irish Free State. The Provisional government was a temporary government led by Michael Collins as chairman and its main function was to act as a bridge between what had been and what would be, i.e. the Free State, which was to come into existence on December 6th 1922. The Dail government, in existence since January 1919, had not yet been dissolved, although its importance was obviously declining in the changing situation. For the ordinary citizen, having two governments overlapping like this was very confusing. Exactly who was in charge? Moreover, the Dail was no longer a constructive or unifying institution. Instead it became the national forum for political division.9 Political unity could not be preserved, which allowed the IRA to take centre stage.

On March 26th 1922 the Anti-Treaty IRA held an Army Convention, despite the Dail prohibiting it. A 16-man Executive was elected which was to be the army's supreme authority. Rory O'Connor announced to the press that they would not obey Arthur Griffith or his ministers and that they repudiated the Dail. The pro-Treaty IRA leaders viewed this as an attempt to set up a military dictatorship. Throughout the countryside, as British soldiers evacuated their army posts in concurrence with the terms of the Treaty, IRA brigades moved in to replace them. But these groups were not necessarily pro-Treatyites. This led to the ambiguous situation of anti-Treaty IRA men holding military and police strong posts in the provinces. In February, an anti-Treaty Tipperary IRA brigade raided a barracks in Clonmel which had been evacuated by British troops, and seized more than 300 rifles, 200,000 rounds of ammunition, two armoured cars, two armoured Lancia cars, ten ordinary Lancia cars and Crossley tenders and two others cars as well as seven machine-guns and hundreds of boxes of bombs.10 The fact that factions of the IRA, who repudiated both the Dail and the Treaty, had gained weapons through such raids was a huge worry to the government. The anti-Treatyites (or Irregulars as they became known as) were forced to turn to robbery to finance their military effort. On April 14th, Rory O'Connor and other Irregulars occupied the Four Courts and other strong points around Dublin. They issued a declaration declaring the Four Courts as the headquarters of the Republican government and refused to recognise the Provisional government. Several armed clashes had occurred around the country, resulting in eight deaths. How long could the Irish government allow such open defiance of it to occur before they would have to assert its authority?

The postponement of the general election didn't help matters either. The people weren't given their chance to voice their opinion on the matter, and a vote in support of the Treaty would have greatly strengthened the Dail and Provisional government's hand. In the next few months, politicians on both sides sought to influence the Irish population. Eamon DeValera set up his own anti-Treaty party, Cumann na Poblachta (League of the Republic) to campaign against the Treaty. DeValera's speeches included such comments as the Volunteers would have to wade through Irish blood (i.e. kill pro-Treaty IRA men) to achieve Irish independence.

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