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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 31November 1993

Class Struggle and National Liberation

Counter-revolution in Ireland


by Erna Bennett

V – Preparations for Compromise

The English government, believing that victory was almost within its grasp, interpreted Irish peace feelers as growing signs of weakness. All that was needed, they felt, was one last assault on what they called the “Sinn Fein murder gang”. But such a plan was not a simple matter for the English government and ruling class in 1921.

Its military advisers estimated that something like 100,000 troops supported by a corresponding weight of armour would be needed to do the job, but how could these be diverted to Ireland when troops and tanks were needed to deal with striking miners in the South Wales coalfields, and when social unrest in the very heart of the empire had awakened the spectre of “red trench mortars on the roof of the Ritz”?38 Faced by their own domestic social crisis of unprecedented gravity, the London government’s plans for repressive measures in Ireland had to be tempered with discretion.

This, of course, did not prevent the extension of existing measures or the more aggressive deployment of their existing forces. At the same time, however, peace moves were covertly encouraged. London found a suitable emissary in the person of the Australian Archbishop Clune of Perth. While he was exploring the reactions of Griffith, president of Sinn Fein, and Michael Collins, the IRA’s legendary director of intelligence, to the notion of peace talks, London extended the application of the death penalty, and declared martial law in most of the province of Munster. British troops sacked Cork city. A few days later, martial law was extended to part of the province of Leinster. Behind the scenes, however, “British officials ... were encouraged to make contact with the republican leaders”.39

Griffith thought the British proposals so discretely conveyed by Archbishop Clune seemed “to require no surrender of principle on Ireland’s part”.40 Collins, however, suspected that the English prime minister “was trying with under-the-counter peace offers to tempt any Irish leader who might be weakening to break away from the others”,41 and he made it clear that he did not believe there was a particle of sincerity behind these manoeuvres.

In Collins’ view, they merely showed “a great desire on the part of the British to have the public believe that they desired peace. It is our business to prevent them from continuing this deception”.42 And yet no less a person than Eamon de Valera, the president of the Dail, believed that the morale of the Irish people was weakening, and urged a delaying policy rather than a more aggressive one, with an easing off of attacks on the enemy.43

Suggestions have been made by many historians, among them Dorothy Macardle in her authoritative study on the independence struggle, that the IRA, its “active force ... greatly reduced by captures” and critically short of ammunition,44 was weakening, and that the British were assuming the initiative. This view is not supported by the records, which show a marked rise in the number of IRA attacks and in casualties inflicted on British forces in the months leading up to the truce, after the elimination of the core of the British military intelligence network in Collins’ purge of November 1920.45

Collins’ known plans for an increase in IRA activity, subsequently frustrated by the truce, also conflict with the suggestion that the republican forces were near the point of exhaustion which is often expressed by supporters of the compromise which brought the Irish revolution to an end. Collins’ view, moreover, suggests that at least as late as July 1921 when the truce came into effect, he was not a member of the compromise party that was then emerging on the Irish side, whatever might have been his position subsequently.

The compromise party had its nerve centre elsewhere, among employers and in the church, and the press avidly took up their refrain. According to O’Malley and other contemporary observers, “the daily papers, always hostile to Irish independence, had prepared the way for defection”. After the truce “they hinted that a renewal of the fighting would be impossible, that England would grant a sufficient measure of freedom. There were long leaders and articles on dominion home rule and on Canadian status. Slowly the strength of the national resistance was being undermined”.46

Here, in the press and among those for whom it spoke, was that part of the Irish people whose “morale”, to use de Valera’s words, “was weakening”, as was his own in the face of a revolution that, for him, had gone far enough. Not least among those calling for peace was an “Irish Businessmen’s Conciliation Committee”, which numbered among its members some of the most powerful of Ireland’s new bourgeoisie.

While Britain’s would-be friends in Ireland, implacably opposed to the demands for social change that accompanied the struggle for national independence, pressed for negotiations, the British government was increasingly harassed by hostile public opinion both in England and elsewhere calling for an end to the repressive war in Ireland. How to end that war in such a way that would not loosen England’s hold on Ireland was the problem that deeply bothered the English ruling class.

The government of London worked hard to produce a Bill which eventually became law as the “Government of Ireland Act 1920”. It divided Ireland into two distinct legislative parts, and for this reason it also became known as the Partition Act. One of the two new states created by this Act would be based on six of the nine counties of Ulster; it would be governed by the loyalist, Unionist counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie of the north-east.

Here, in what was to be known as “Northern Ireland”, Britain saw a guarantee of a new permanent garrison on Irish soil with its future headquarters in Belfast.

The partitioning of Ireland made it possible to enforce British law in the northeast – by force in the teeth of popular opposition, if necessary.

The May 1921 elections gave Sinn Fein an even more decisive victory than it had won in November 1918, but “it was not by elections that this matter was going to be settled”. These elections, held under the Partition Act, gave the British government a greater tactical advantage than was realised at the time. "The Partition Act, by establishing a separate government for the Six-County area, created a fait accompli which elections and electorates were powerless to overthrow”.47

Some have suggested that it was obviously important to the northern Unionists that their government and parliament should be in existence before negotiations on ending hostilities began.48 Others have pointed out that partition “aimed not so much at protecting the anti-Home-Rule minority of Northern Ireland as at creating an insurmountable and permanent barrier to Irish unity ... The forces of reaction in Britain ... might be unable to dominate, but they could still hope to wreck.”49

In any case, the birth of Britain’s new garrison in the northeast raised scarcely a murmur among Dail peace lobbyists against this further step in the dismemberment of the Irish revolution. Britain’s hold on Ireland was now secure, guaranteed by a loyal and politically stable Unionist garrison in the country's industrial north-east. Negotiations on ending hostilities could now begin.

Next Section: VI – Consolidating the Compromise
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  1. Greaves’ Liffm Mellows. p.242.
  2. Lyons, F.S.L. (1973) Ireland since the Famine. London. Collins Fontana. p.424.
  3. Younger, C. (1972) A State of Disunion: Four Studies. London. Frederick Muller. p.56.
  4. Younger, C. lrish Civil War. p.120.
  5. Gallagher, F. (1965) The Anglo-1rish Treaty. Hutchinson. p.25.
  6. Reports of Dail Eireann. 25 January 1921, pp.240, 241.
  7. Macardle, D. The Irish Republic, Chapter 47, but see, in particular, pp.477, 478. See also pp. 626, 627.
  8. Bowden, (1977) The Breakdown of Public Security: The Case of Ireland 1916-1921 and Palestine 1936-1939. London. Sage. p.134.
  9. O'Malley. E. The Singing Flame. p.40.
  10. Macardle. loc.cit. p.2713.
  11. Meenan, J. (1970) The Irish Economy since 1922. Liverpool University Press.
  12. Harrison, H. (1939) The Neutrality of Ireland. London. p.95.

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