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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

XIII – The Push to Civil War

In the months that followed, British Army garrisons were evacuated. They were taken over by local units of the IRA whose positions on the Treaty were as mixed as they were unpredictable. Throughout the spring of 1922 the provisional government, subsidised by the London government, existed side-by-side with the revolutionary Dail. Day by day it strained every nerve to impose its fragile authority on the Dail, in which the pro-Treaty majority remained permanently slender. In the countryside, nervy skirmishing occurred between opposing IRA units. It was clear that something needed to be done very quickly if a slide into open conflict was to be avoided.

Treaty and anti-Treaty members of the IRA met and decided that only an Army Convention could have authority to restore unity, since the main body of the IRA still recognised the authority of Army GHQ, over that of the Dail or the provisional government. Officers, many of them IRB men, tended to favour the Treaty position, but the vast majority of the army rank and file – possibly 80 per cent of them – opposed it. It was even possible, therefore, that the planned Convention might tip the scales in favour of the republican, anti-Treaty position.

This was a risk the provisional government under Griffith was not prepared to take. Less than two weeks before the date fixed for the Convention, the government banned it. The Provisional Government’s Minister of Defence declared there was no guarantee “that if this Convention was held there would not be set up a body regarding itself as a military government not responsible to the people”.80

The country seethed with every kind of initiative aimed at closing the widening breach between the two sides. Collins and a number of others representing the opposing factions made desperate efforts to block the apparently inevitable slide into civil war. They proposed and agreed to an electoral pact. This was denounced by the British, and Treaty supporters were forced to back down at the last moment.

In these crucial months, there is no doubt that, as one observer has commented, “the prime mover of reaction in Ireland was the British government. Their reiterated determination not to tolerate a Republic in Ireland was the fundamental cause of the division among Irishmen. These were being urged unwillingly towards civil war when quite modest concessions from Britain would have restored a working harmony. British imperialism was bent on stamping out the last spark of revolt”,81 and as long as the British “insisted on driving home every nail of the Treaty there was no possibility of a coalition government”.82

Griffith, too, resisted any notion of mediation between the sides, and held stubbornly to the proposal to fight and get it over with. He saw, one writer has said, that “trouble was brewing, and believed that the sooner it came to the boil, the sooner could the gas be turned off under the pot”.83 “We are now a government”, he told a delegation from the Dublin Lord Mayor’s Committee seeking a way to bridge the rift that widened daily, and “we have to keep law and order”.84

The British offered his government “such military assistance as it might require”.85 They knew their Griffith. His meetings with the southern Unionists and businessmen, his repeated assurances that there would be no Bolshevism in Ireland, and that the interests of investors would be safeguarded, convinced them that, in words to be used 50 years later about the liberation struggle in Africa (but which could well be used also of Soviet and Russian leaders in the period leading up to and during the overthrow of socialism) here was a trustworthy native “likely to seize and hold the reins of power”.86 They knew that the provisional government he headed provided England with a guarantee of an easy neo-colonialist solution to the problems created by Irish separatist and republican pressures.

Next Section: XIV – Civil War a Class War
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  1. Younger. C. (1968) Ireland’s Civil War. London, Muller. p.241.
  2. Greaves, C.D. (1971) Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution. London, Lawrence and Wishart. p.302.
  3. Younger. loc.cit. p.303.
  4. idem. p.243.
  5. Colum, Padair. Ourselves Alone. p.369.
  6. Macardle, D. loc.cit. p.767.
  7. Arrighi, G. and Saul, J .S. (1969) Nationalism and Revolution in Sub-Saharan Africa. p.I44. in Socialist Register 1969. London, Merlin Press.

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