June 5, 2013

Finest Hour 143, Summer 2009

Page 50

Churchill Proceedings – Churchill and the Anglo-Irish War 1919-1922

Cogadh na saoirse, the Irish war of independence, was the unfortunate culmination of Britain’s 700-year attempt to find a constitutional relationship with Ireland that made sense to both sides.

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By Alan J. Ward

Dr. Ward is Class of 1935 Professor of Government Emeritus at the College of William and Mary. His four works on Irish History include The Easter Rising, 1916: Revolution and Irish Nationalism (1980, 2nd ed. 2003) and The Irish Constitutional Tradition: Responsible Government and Modern Ireland, 1782-1992 (1994). Our thanks to Professor Warren F. Kimball for editing this paper.

Until 1800, Great Britain and Ireland shared a crown but had separate parliaments. With the Union of 1801, the two parliaments were merged and this should have led to the substantial political integration of the two countries; but by an extraordinary oversight, the new relationship between Britain and Ireland was not defined precisely.

Some elements of the old order persisted along with Ireland’s new representation at Westminster: the Irish Executive, which had represented the Crown in Ireland before the Union, continued. A Lord Lieutenant resided in Dublin in vice-regal pomp, with responsibility for law and order. The senior minister for Ireland, the Chief Secretary, sat in the Cabinet in London, but his under and assistant-secretaries presided over a rambling Irish administration in Dublin Castle which included thirty-six independent Irish government departments.1 Wales and Scotland were certainly not governed in this way after their unions.

Order in Ireland was the responsibility of two police forces, the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police. There was also a 100,000-strong military contingent in 1919, primarily a reserve force of recruits in training for operations elsewhere. Only about ten percent were available for operations in Ireland when the Anglo-Irish War began in 1919.2 Thereafter, the army never had sufficient men or equipment to crush the enemy and its military intelligence was woefully inadequate.

The police were similarly unprepared for the kind of conflict that emerged in 1919. The responsible British Cabinet and Irish Executive were never properly integrated with the police and military into a single command. Lines of authority were always blurred, and multiple intelligence services were extremely inefficient.

At the end of World War I, Churchill had no significant voice in Irish affairs, but in January 1919 he entered the Cabinet as Minister for War, and was responsible for the British garrison in Ireland and the Irish police. Moving to head the Colonial Office in 1921, he remained in the Cabinet, and was part of the team that negotiated and signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty which ended the war in December 1921.

The Cabinet was woefully ignorant about Irish affairs. No one, including Churchill, intuitively understood the Irish or really appreciated what had been happening there since the Easter Rising of 1916. Within two years the Catholic or Nationalist parts of the country had steadily fallen under the control of a republican political organization Sinn Fein (“Ourselves Alone”), which won seventy-three of Ireland’s 104 seats in the House of Commons in the December 1918 UK general election. The remaining seats were won by Protestant Unionists.

Sinn Fein boycotted Parliament after the election and, on 21 January 1919 established a renegade Irish Parliament in Dublin, called Dáil Éireann, which appointed an Executive. As its first act, Dáil Éireann affirmed that an Irish Republic had been declared in Dublin on 24 April 1916, the first day of the Easter Rising. The Dáil was suppressed by the UK government but it managed to create an Irish executive and a parallel system of government departments and courts, and in the 1920-21 local elections, Sinn Fein won control of every town, county and rural council in the Catholic-majority regions.3

Parallel to Sinn Fein’s growing influence, from January 1919, was an Anglo-Irish War, which started with sporadic acts of republican violence against the Irish police. An Irish Republican Army was created out of several militias, secretly commanded by Michael Collins, then only 29. Churchill would come to know Collins extremely well in 1921-22, but thought of him as Minister for Finance in the Dáil Éireann Executive, and later as Chairman of the Free State Provisional Government formed to implement the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Churchill never appreciated Collins’ secret role as commander of the IRA, which operated independently of Dáil Éireann until a faction of the IRA became the Irish Free State army in 1922.4

There were no major battles in the Anglo-Irish War, but the IRA’s hit and run attacks and selective assassinations of police and informers were difficult to contain. The war accelerated in 1920 when outlying police barracks were abandoned as indefensible, and the court system in Ireland was paralyzed by jury tampering and jury bias.5 Built on a long tradition of rebellion and agrarian outrage in Ireland, the IRA’s guerrilla tactics had considerable popular support. It could not defeat the British militarily, but the British could not defeat the IRA without a substantial commitment of military and police power.

The Cabinet long could not quite agree on what it faced in Ireland. Was the problem the Sinn Fein “murder gang” that could be routed by a determined police force? Or was Ireland in the grip of a war with broad support which could only be won by a major military operation?

The Cabinet could use the police to crush the “murder gang,” and then discuss political reforms. This was Churchill’s preference; he was considered one of the “hard” ministers, certainly among the Liberals, in Lloyd George’s coalition government. Or the Cabinet could suppress the rebels with police while simultaneously engaging the Sinn Fein moderates. The Cabinet adopted the latter strategy, but with no great confidence. It was not until the summer of 1921 that the Cabinet began to accept that Ireland was engaged in war against an organized army, and that the response had to be primarily military.

It was not clear that the Lloyd George Cabinet had the unity or even the time to decide what Britain faced in Ireland. The Prime Minister was engaged with the Paris peace settlement for most of 1919. As Minister for War, Churchill was supervising Britain’s postwar demobilization and the replacement of its armed forces, and also planning to mobilize the army against widespread labor unrest in Britain.6 He also forcefully urged Britain’s intervention in the Russian civil war, which continued until October 1919.7 Then, as Colonial Secretary from February 1921, Churchill found himself constructing a new Middle East in the League of Nations mandated territories that Britain and France had acquired from the Ottoman Empire.8

Ireland was an awful distraction. Churchill’s frustra tion was heard in Parliament, when he spoke about the incessant boundary arguments for the Irish Free State: “…as the deluge [of World War I] subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”9

The Lloyd George Cabinet was an uneasy coalition. The Prime Minister and Churchill were Liberals, whose party had proposed Home Rule with a Dublin Parliament under the Crown since 1886. In 1911 as Home Secretary, Churchill had supported “home rule all round,” a scheme to grant home rule to Ireland, Scotland and Wales.10 He introduced the second reading of the Third (purely Irish) Home Rule Bill in 1912. If the British and Empire interests were protected, Churchill had no objection to domestic self-government for Ireland.11

But the Coalition also included Tory Unionists who had opposed Home Rule thrice over the past three decades. (See Shannon and McMenamin on the origins of Home Rule in our previous issue. —Ed.) While many had come to accept some sort of Irish self-government, they were skeptical of Irish republicans. Some were political associates of “die-hard” Unionists, many from Protestant Ulster, who opposed Irish self-government in any form. Lloyd George had to balance these interests if his government was to survive. Churchill became his most important ally.

No fair review of the Coalition from its formation in December 1916 shows that it ever understood Irish complexities. It did not appreciate the extent to which Ireland turned towards Sinn Fein after 1916; this led to catastrophic Irish policies in 1918. Following the final German offensive of the war in March 1918, when, in Lloyd George’s words, the British Fifth Army in France “practically disappeared,” the Cabinet decided to conscript the only substantial body of men not yet drafted: 150,000 Irishmen. Churchill, then Minister for Munitions, supported the decision, but it went against almost all Irish advice, Nationalist and Unionist. Irish republicans, constitutional nationalists, labor unions and the Catholic Church united in massive opposition.

To try to ameliorate the unrest, the Cabinet decided to couple conscription with a limited Irish Home Rule measure, but this was rejected by both Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists, the two parties whose support was absolutely essential. To try to turn public opinion away from Sinn Fein, the government arrested seventy-three of its leaders for their alleged participation in a “German plot,” on insubstantial and very dated evidence. When the first Dáil Éireann met in January 1919, over half its sixty-nine members were still in prison.

As the situation steadily worsened, the Cabinet appointed Lord French to be Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in May 1918. Here was a general with absolutely no understanding of Irish nationalism, who wrote in October 1918:

Place [Irish conscripts] in suitable surrounding and they are just as easily roused into imperial enthusiasm as, in the contrary case, they are filled with hatred and anger by a few crafty sedition-mongers, or young priestly fanatics, amongst whom alone they live. Free them from the terrorism of the few self-seeking hotheads and the majority of them would make excellent soldiers.12

It was no surprise that in the December 1918 general election, Sinn Fein wiped out the Irish Parliamentary Party. But the Cabinet was unprepared, and nothing between then and the middle of 1921 suggests that it improved its understanding. It stumbled along, distracted by other matters, confused by contradictory advice and assessments from “advisers” in Ireland, and under intense pressure from the United States and Dominions to solve the Irish problem. But it was incapable of acting decisively.

Churchill shared in the malaise. As Secretary for War he had a role in Irish policy but his biographer writes that he wished to defer to the Lord Lieutenant and Irish Chief Secretary on most military matters, seeing the War Office’s job as to provide troops and equipment. However, he was not passive and his interventions, or mostly non-interventions, had serious effects.13

Churchill and most of the Cabinet shared the “murder gang” theory of the Irish war. If enemy thugs were engaged in selective terror, rather than a para-military organization fighting an insurgent war, there were several implications. First, there was no reason for Churchill to require the army to develop counter-insurgency tactics—and he did not. Late in 1920, Irish military leaders said, “There was no objective for operation, there was no defined theatre of war, there was no front line.”14 This describes what we now call insurgency warfare, which required a new strategic doctrine. Churchill did not recognize the need.

Second, if the conflict in Ireland was not a war but a criminal conspiracy, the lead agency should be the police, not the army. As Minister for War, Churchill opposed attempts to militarize the war and agreed with Lloyd George that Ireland was “a policeman’s job supported by the military and not vice versa.”15

The reality, however, is that the war was not simply a criminal conspiracy. It was a well organized guerrilla campaign, difficult to win without the military. The “murder gang” theory tied the Cabinet’s hands. It could not win a war so long as it denied it was fighting one. It was not until December 1920 that the Cabinet agreed to the Irish Command’s request for martial law—and then only in four, and later eight, counties. Incomplete martial law lasted only six months. Civil trials and the usual trappings of martial law—mass internment of suspects, internal passports or identification cards, press censorship—were impractical unless the whole country was covered. Unfortunately, Churchill had a poor relationship with the military commander in Ireland, General Sir Nevil Macready, who was appointed in 1920. Macready accused him of impetuosity and waywardness,16 and in his autobiography writes, “Mr. Churchill once told me he enjoyed taking risks. He ought assuredly to have enjoyed himself during the time he was responsible for Irish affairs at the Colonial Office.”17

Churchill would have preferred Field Marshal Sir William Robertson, but was talked into Macready’s appointment by Lord French.18 Macready had commanded the London Metropolitan Police and it was anticipated that he would support the integration of the military and the police under his command. But Macready refused the police assignment, believing that the reorganization of the police would take too much of his time.19

Churchill did not make integration a condition of Macready’s appointment, and without it the police and the military operated at cross purposes. The army saw its job as concentrating its forces to attack the enemy, largely in search and destroy missions; but the police dispersed its forces to protect outlying barracks.20 Having refused to command the police, Macready did not then work well with Churchill’s choice of Commander for both the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police, General Tudor, who was appointed in May 1920. Churchill himself worked well with Tudor.

In insurgency warfare the forces of the state must have a huge advantage in numbers over the insurgents. The latter are free to roam, hit and run anywhere at any time, but state forces have to defend every possible target. The army and the police never had the capability to defend and respond. The Royal Irish Constabulary, operating outside Dublin, numbered just over 10,000 in January 1919 and 14,200, in June 1921,21 but it was never well trained for paramilitary operations. In June 1920 the army’s effective strength outside Dublin for anti-insurgency purposes was only about 8000 men.

Something had to be done to get more manpower into the field, and it was decided that it would be the police.22 Reinforcing the police rather than the army was driven by the “murder gang” theory. The Cabinet wanted to avoid militarizing the conflict; the IRA had to be defeated, but putting the whole country on a war footing would, it was thought, destroy any chance of a political settlement. The solution—to attach a number of auxiliary forces to the RIC—would have terribly damaging consequences to British prestige in Ireland and abroad.

Churchill has been credited with conceiving the auxiliary program, and he certainly approved it, but its parentage is confused.23 A Cabinet colleague, Walter Long, had suggested something of the kind in May 1919,24 but the RIC commander, General Byrne, doubted that auxiliaries could be controlled by the police code of discipline.25 He was absolutely correct, but doubts were later pushed aside. Churchill tells us that the government “decided—or, rather, drifted into a decision—to meet force with force, or, to be more exact, to meet terror with terror.”26

The first auxiliaries in the south comprised about 1200 former army officers whose assignment was counter-insurgency. The second were 8000 former soldiers from the ranks who came to be known as Black and Tans because of the uniforms they wore.27 When these two auxiliaries went into action in 1920, it quickly became clear that they lacked police or military discipline. They became notorious for unauthorized reprisals against the Irish civilian population, including shootings and the destruction of buildings.28 The Black and Tans aroused particular public enmity for their brutality: as Townshend writes, “The Cabinet’s belief that the Black and Tans, being nominally police, would be less offensive to public opinio than out-right military administration, was a monumental act of self-deception….”29

In September 1920 Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, discussed the Black and Tan reprisals in his diary: “Winston saw very little harm in this but it horrifies me.”30 The truth is probably less that Churchill saw little harm than that he had some sympathy with the Black and Tans, who were acting, he believed, under extreme provocation.31

In October 1920 the Cabinet ordered unofficial reprisals to end, but in November, at the request of the military, Churchill proposed a policy of official reprisals, which the Cabinet accepted in December. Houses, cooperative creameries and other buildings could now be destroyed under military supervision, after populations had been removed. The program lasted for five months. Churchill later wrote, “Where no witnesses would give evidence or could give it only at the peril of their lives, where no juries would convict, the ordinary processes of law were non-existent.” But official reprisals were no more welcomed than unofficial ones, and there were public relations disasters in Ireland, Britain and the United States.34

A third auxiliary force that Churchill approved was attached to the RIC in Ulster from October 1920. There were actually three Ulster forces, known as A, B and C “Specials,” approved by Churchill and the Cabinet at the insistence of Ulster Unionist leader Sir James Craig. “A Specials” were full-time police auxiliaries, “B Specials” were part-time and locally based, and “C Specials” for emergencies and intelligence gathering. Macready and the civilian leadership in Dublin Castle vehemently opposed the establishment of these forces because they would be exclusively Protestant—and so they proved to be.35 Over the next fifty years the “B Specials” in particular became associated with the worst kinds of anti-Catholic discrimination in Northern Ireland. Their disbandment became a central objective of the Northern Irish Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.36 Neither the Black and Tans nor the “B” Specials brought any credit to Churchill.

In late 1920, attempts were made by the Catholic Archbishop of Perth, Joseph Clune, to secure a truce with the IRA, but the time was inopportune. Michael Collins opposed a deal, arguing that what would get Ireland a limited political settlement would also get it a republic. Sinn Fein rejected Britain’s condition that the IRA should surrender its arms before talks could begin, and insisted on immunity for Irish leaders—something the Cabinet would not offer.37 Churchill was not a diehard opponent of a negotiated settlement, but he could see no responsible Irish negotiating partner. In any case, the military leaders in Ireland urged a continuation of the war.38 But the war worsened significantly, the political geography of Ireland had changed in a way that favored a settlement. The result was the Government of Ireland Act.

On 23 December 1920, the Government of Ireland Act received the royal assent.39 Lloyd George argued for it by asking: “…do we want peace or not? Are we to stamp out the very embers of rebellion or is the policy a double one to crush murder and make peace with moderates?”40 He endorsed the double policy and offered moderates home rule in the Government of Ireland Act.

This created two Home Rule parliaments in Ireland, one in Belfast for six counties of Northern Ireland, and one in Dublin for the twenty-six southern counties. Both parliaments were subordinate to Westminster Parliament, whose ultimate supremacy was explicitly stated.

The proposal had emerged from two 1919-20 Cabinet committees chaired by the Unionist Walter Long and dominated by hawks, one of whom was Churchill. It was an evolution of Churchill’s prewar proposal for “home rule all round,” what he mistakenly called federalism.41 Instead of Home Rule for each part of Britain, it proposed Home Rule for each part of Ireland, leaving regional parliaments elsewhere for later discussion. Dividing Ireland was meant to solve the problem without provoking civil war in Ulster. It was hoped that this would appease public opinion in the USA and the Dominions, which strongly supported Irish self-determination.

Northern Ireland Unionists were prepared to cooperate because they realized that a parliament that they would dominate was the surest way to ensure they would never have to join a Dublin parliament.42 Sinn Fein was prepared to cooperate, at least to the degree of holding elections to the southern parliament, because that would demonstrate their domination of Nationalist Ireland. In the elections, Unionists won forty of fifty-two seats in the north, Sinn Fein 124 of 128 seats in the south. The remaining four were elected by graduates of Trinity College, Dublin, a traditionally Protestant institution.

There was an element of fantasy in all this because, as the Government of Ireland Act was being signed into law, the IRA was rejecting a truce, and martial law was being introduced in four southern counties. Nor was there any chance that Sinn Fein would accept a subordinate Dublin parliament. There were few moderates left, if by moderate we mean people who would accept Home Rule as a final settlement. Even Dominion status, the virtual independence enjoyed by Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, was at the time unacceptable to Sinn Fein.

Offering Dominion status to the whole of Ireland would have provoked an explosion in Ulster, but partition changed the situation. Hitherto, Ireland was always treated as a whole and Unionists were asked to accept a Dublin parliament. Now the Unionists were secure in their own province. Yet, as late as the spring of 1921, plans were made to govern the south of Ireland from Britain as a Crown colony and to impose martial law should Sinn Fein refuse to accept a southern parliament.43 (This changed once the province of Northern Ireland was in being.)

By the summer of 1921, fighting had worsened and the two sides were in stalemate. The Cabinet finally recognized that the war could not be won without substantial military intervention, and in June it agreed to send an additional sixteen battalions to Ireland. Lloyd George still argued that the war was the job of the police, supported by the army—not the other way round. Churchill still believed the police were doing a better job in Ireland than the army.44 Both recognized the need to expand the war if victory was to be achieved, but Churchill thought that, as a moral gesture, the Cabinet should first offer “the widest measure of self-government to Ireland.”45

On 22 June 1921 King George V opened the Northern Ireland Parliament with a speech calling for reconciliation, and the Cabinet made the effort. The moment was right. The IRA knew it could not win a conventional war, and had no desire to fight an augmented British military. The British Cabinet had no desire for a costly total war, given so many other problems at home and abroad. Lloyd George had already brought Sinn Fein’s Eamon de Valera and the Unionist Sir James Craig together for secret meetings in May; on 24 June he publicly invited de Valera and Craig to talks.

After further negotiations the British Cabinet and the Dáil Éireann executive agreed on a truce to begin on 11 July 1921. There now began the tough negotiation that led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Irish Free State in 1921. Churchill was to be an extremely important player.


1. Alan J. Ward, The Irish Constitutional Tradition, 1782 to 1992 (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1994), 30-37.

2. Charles Townshend, The British Campaign in Ireland, 1919-1921 (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), 12.

3. Ibid., 67-8.

4. Ibid., 17.

5. Charles Townshend, Britain’s Civil Wars: Counterinsurgency in the Twentieth Century (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986), 56.

6. In 1921, after Churchill had left the War Office, four battalions of troops were withdrawn from Ireland because of industrial unrest in Britain at a time when the army could not mount major operations outside Dublin. See Townshend, The British Campaign in Ireland, 175.

7. Clifford Kinvig, Churchill’s Crusade: The British Invasion of Russia, 1918-1920 (New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2006).

8. See David Freeman, “Midwife to an Ungrateful Volcano,” Finest Hour 132, Spring 2006, 26-33.

9. Parliament, House of Commons, Hansard, 16 February 1922. Speech on the second reading of the Irish Free State Bill.

10. Winston Churchill, “Devolution,” 1 March, 1911, CAB 37/1045/ no.16, Public Records Office, London.

11. Robert Rhodes James, Churchill: A Study in Failure, 54.

12. Alan J. Ward, “Lloyd George and the 1918 Irish Conscription Crisis,” The Historical Journal 17:1 (March 1974), 125.

13. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill (London: Heinemann, 1975) IV:447.

14. Quoted by Townshend, The British Campaign in Ireland, 157.

15. Townshend, Britain’s Civil Wars, 61.

16. General Sir Nevil Macready, Annals of an Active Life (New York: George H. Doran, 1925), II: 662, 665.

17. Ibid., 654.

18. Macready, Annals, 425-26; Townshend, The British Campaign in Ireland, 73-74.

19. Townshend, The British Campaign in Ireland, 60.

20. Ibid., 28-30.

21. Ibid., 28, 211-14.

22. Ibid., 87.

23. Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins: The Man Who Made Ireland (London: Hutchinson, 1990), 127.

24. Townshend, The British Campaign in Ireland, 25.

25. Ibid., 30.

26. Rhodes James, Study in Failure, 163.

27. Townshend, The British Campaign in Ireland, 56.

28. Rhodes James, Study in Failure, 162-63.

29. Townshend, The British Campaign in Ireland, 104.

30. Ibid., 116.

31. Gilbert, 455.

32. Churchill, p.303; Townshend, The British Campaign in Ireland, 118-22, 149; Coogan, Michael Collins, 149-50.

33. Winston S. Churchill, The Aftermath (New York: Scribners, 1929), 301.

34. It is interesting that after the truce in June 1921, Churchill sent many of the southern auxiliaries to Palestine. Townshend, Britain’s Civil Wars, 91.

35. Macready, 488.

36. Coogan, Michael Collins, 335-37.

37. Coogan, Michael Collins, 192-95.

38. Gilbert, 470-71.

39. Alan J. Ward, The Irish Constitutional Tradition: Responsible Government and Modern Ireland 1782 to 1992, (Washington: The Catholic University Press, 1994), 107-10.

40. Townsend, The British Campaign in Ireland, 140.

41. Ward, The Irish Constitutional Tradition, 107. This was not federalism in the technical sense. A federation is a system of coordinate local and federal legislatures, neither of which can be amended or abolished by the other. Federalism as used by Long is now called devolution, which describes the creation of local legislatures to which the central parliament assigns certain powers. The legislatures themselves, and the powers, can both be withdrawn or amended by the central parliament.

42. In 1934 Craig said to the Northern Ireland House of Commons, “They still boast of Southern Ireland being a Catholic State. All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State.” Quoted by Jonathan Bardon, A History of Ulster (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1992), 538-39.

43, Townshend, The British Campaign in Ireland, 184. FINEST HOUR 143 / 55

44. Ibid.

45. Churchill, 306; Townshend, The British Campaign in Ireland, 184.

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