Smoking gun? British government policy and RIC reprisals, summer 1920

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2009), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 17

RIC constables c. 1920. The Prescott-Decie letter suggests the involvement in murderous reprisals of such regular, Irish-born members of the RIC and not just their Black-and-Tan and Auxiliary counterparts, and the commencement of reprisals months earlier than commonly believed. (Garda Archives)

RIC constables c. 1920. The Prescott-Decie letter suggests the involvement in murderous reprisals of such regular, Irish-born members of the RIC and not just their Black-and-Tan and Auxiliary counterparts, and the commencement of reprisals months earlier than commonly believed. (Garda Archives)

On 17 April 1920, a coroner’s jury investigating the shooting of Cork lord mayor (and IRA brigade commander) Tomás MacCurtain issued its famous finding of ‘wilful murder’ against Prime Minister David Lloyd George and top civil and police officials in Ireland. The verdict provoked a predictable response from, amongst others, the Irish Times, which mocked it as ‘a novel stroke of Celtic fantasy’ that certain Irish people would accept only because they were ‘blinded by political passion and prejudice’ and willing to attribute to the RIC ‘the spirit of revenge which would dominate their own furious minds if they walked in hourly peril of the assassin’s pistol’.
One wonders, however, whether the leader-writer would have been quite so dismissive had he been privy to a secret letter (opposite page) written only a few weeks later by one of the most senior officers of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and addressed to one of the most influential civil servants in Dublin Castle, which frankly debated the merits of a ‘new policy’ of official ‘secret murder’ of the regime’s opponents. The letter reveals a disturbing policy of assassination sanctioned by the highest level of the British government in Ireland. As such, we believe, it must lead to a fundamental reappraisal of the approach adopted by that government in this, one of the most sensitive aspects of the entire Irish War of Independence.

The traditional view
The traditional view of 1919–21 attributes British reprisals in Ireland to drink-fuelled and war-traumatised Black-and-Tans or Auxiliaries, who, outraged by cowardly assaults on their comrades, wreaked their vengeance on local civilians and were facilitated by superiors who looked the other way. According to this assessment, the growing incidence of ‘unauthorised’ reprisals in the autumn and early winter of 1920–1 forced the government to officially sanction the policy in December 1920, only to abandon it the following June in the face of mounting public criticism. By contrast, while attention has been paid to police attacks on property, there has been far less focus on the assassinations of republican activists that frequently accompanied RIC arson reprisals.
Some historians have noted disturbing testimony from high-ranking government officials that indicated explicit encouragement of such a policy. Dublin Castle senior civil servant Mark Sturgis reports that his superior, Under-Secretary Andy Cope, preferred the assassination of IRA gunmen to arson, as ‘to shoot a known bad man . . . is morally much more defensible than this stupid blind work’. On a different occasion Sturgis quotes Cope as saying that ‘The RIC are not out of hand but are systematically led to reprise by their officers’. A senior British civil servant claimed that Prime Minister David Lloyd George ‘strongly defended the murder reprisals’. Furthermore, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson attended a meeting with Winston Churchill and a member of the staff of Major-General Hugh Tudor (of whom more anon), during which planned police assassinations of targeted Irish republicans were discussed, with Churchill remarking that on this matter Tudor ‘could rely on LG [Lloyd George] to back him’. Most damagingly, in early July 1920 Sir Henry Wilson recorded that Lloyd George not alone believed that such an assassination policy existed (a belief that Wilson described as ‘ridiculous’) but that ‘he was gloating over this and hugging it to his heart as a remedy for the disgraceful state of Ireland’.
Up to now no evidence has been found that directly links assassination reprisals to Dublin Castle. The newly discovered letter, however, provides just such a link in the chain of authorisation so memorably condemned by the MacCurtain jury. The letter, of 1 June 1920, from Brigadier-General Cecil Prescott-Decie, then a divisional commissioner of the RIC, to John Taylor, the assistant under-secretary in Dublin Castle (a noted hawk on security matters who had consistently opposed concessions to nationalist opinion), challenges many of the assumptions concerning British policy in Ireland during 1920–1. It suggests the involvement in murderous reprisals of regular, Irish-born members of the RIC and not just their Black-and-Tan counterparts, and the commencement of reprisals months earlier than commonly believed. Indeed, the proactive rather than reactive nature of the policy and its explicit ‘top-down’ sanction by top officials in the ‘Irish government’ bring into question whether the word—nay, the very concept of—‘reprisal’ needs to be fundamentally revised.

The critical spring of 1920

The Prescott-Decie letter of 1 June 1920 can be found in Crime Special Branch Other Papers, Box 24, National Archives of Ireland. No related material accompanies the one-page document, which appears to have become separated from a larger administrative file and left behind during the evacuation of Dublin Castle in 1922. (NAI)

The Prescott-Decie letter of 1 June 1920 can be found in Crime Special Branch Other Papers, Box 24, National Archives of Ireland. No related material accompanies the one-page document, which appears to have become separated from a larger administrative file and left behind during the evacuation of Dublin Castle in 1922. (NAI)

The Prescott-Decie memo must be placed within the context of developments in the critical spring of 1920. In the year’s first months, Sinn Féin assumed control of elected municipal bodies across the country and created Dáil courts that stymied the British judicial system in Ireland. Simultaneously, IRA units launched an offensive against police patrols and posts, resulting in the systematic abandonment and destruction of vulnerable RIC barracks around the country. Further isolated by a social and economic boycott of the RIC and their families, police morale threatened to collapse. By May some rank-and-file constables were lobbying for military and civil reinforcements, while others advocated disarming the force entirely. Only a week before Prescott-Decie’s letter, RIC Inspector-General Smith reported the resignation and retirement of 250 constables during April alone, and openly confessed that if the present conditions continued the men under his command would run amok en masse.
Facing a rapidly deteriorating security situation, the British administration reorganised and recalibrated its approach to the new parameters of the Irish question. On the political front, the Government of Ireland Act began its almost year-long passage through Westminster. Administratively, March through May saw significant personnel changes in the upper echelons of the British political, military and police establishments in Ireland. New personnel arrived in Dublin Castle as John Anderson was appointed under-secretary and Sir Hamar Greenwood replaced Ian Macpherson as chief secretary. Within the security forces, Sir Neville Macready assumed the role of commander-in-chief of the British Army in Ireland, while T. J. Smith took over the position of inspector-general of the RIC and Major-General Hugh Tudor was appointed as the government’s adviser on policing matters. The Irish police became an even more militarised body, as constables received heavier weapons and equipment, and began to be reinforced by newly hired British military veterans enrolled into the force—soon known as the Black-and-Tans and Auxiliary cadets. During the same period, the RIC was reorganised into divisional areas, and high-ranking British Army officers were appointed to many of the commissioner posts, including the highly decorated Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Smith and Brigadier-General Cecil Prescott-Decie.

Brigadier-General Cecil Prescott-Decie

Prescott-Decie was a career officer with significant experience in various colonial conflicts in Africa before serving as a divisional artillery commander on the Western Front during the First World War. Appointed divisional commissioner for the Munster No. 1 area, with responsibility for three counties in North Munster, he took up his post in Limerick city, which was then a hotspot of republican activity. Amongst his military counterparts he had a reputation for a cavalier attitude towards the legal use of lethal force, being memorably condemned by General Macready for believing ‘that martial law means that he can kill anybody he sees walking along the road whose appearance may be distasteful to him’. As will be seen, however, even Prescott-Decie baulked at what was to be asked of him by the government (albeit on grounds of efficacy rather than morality).
Awake to the desperate state of the police in his area, Prescott-Decie wrote to Assistant Under-Secretary John Taylor on 1 June 1920. Amid a surging republican campaign, the brigadier reported the collapse of the British judiciary and desperation within the loyalist population. It was the sinking morale of his constables that worried him most, however. ‘The situation with the police themselves has been very ticklish,’ he wrote. ‘They have been very near throwing up the sponge.’ His men had been buoyed by a recent visit by General Tudor, but unless promised assistance arrived ‘the situation would be, I fear, beyond retrieving’. It was here that he made remarks that only make sense in the context of revised official government policy, as outlined by Tudor during his recent tour:

‘I have been told the new policy and plan and I am satisfied, though I doubt its ultimate success in the main particular—the stamping out of terrorism by secret murder. I still am of opinion that instant retaliation is the only course for this, and until it is stamped for good and all, the same situation is only likely to recur.’

RIC constables drilling with fixed bayonets c. 1920. By late spring 1920 the RIC became an even more militarised body, with heavier weapons and equipment. (Garda Archives)

RIC constables drilling with fixed bayonets c. 1920. By late spring 1920 the RIC became an even more militarised body, with heavier weapons and equipment. (Garda Archives)

On its own, the imperfect syntax of the first sentence renders its meaning uncertain; in isolation, it could be construed as suggesting that ‘secret murder’ was the defining feature of ‘terrorism’ rather than the ‘new policy’ of the British government. But the second sentence—which counterpoints Prescott-Decie’s preferred line of action (‘instant retaliation’) to that endorsed by government—makes it clear that the ‘secret murder’ referred to was to be carried out by the RIC.
Here is indisputable evidence that Dublin Castle authorised an assassination campaign against its republican opponents. Though Black-and-Tans and Auxiliary cadets often perpetrated these killings (and the more frequent attempted killings), this statement pre-dates their substantial deployment in Ireland. Far from striking out of ill-disciplined rage, it would appear that the constabulary were simply implementing the cold-blooded direct orders of their superiors. While both republicans and British officials subsequently found it politically convenient to blame these assassinations on ‘foreign’ ex-soldiers, the truth is at once more complicated and more disturbing.

The ‘Listowel mutiny’
The sequel to the memo is instructive. Three weeks after Prescott-Decie’s report, his fellow Munster divisional commissioner, Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Smyth, delivered a pep talk to disgruntled police constables in Listowel, Co. Kerry. As his superior General Tudor looked on, Smyth urged his men to move aggressively against civilians and to shoot anyone whom they considered suspicious. His remarks echoed the sentiments expressed by Prescott-Decie:

‘You may make mistakes and innocent persons may be shot but that cannot be helped and you are bound to get the right parties some time. The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man.’

But Smyth’s speech aroused violent opposition from his constables, who evicted both Smyth and Tudor from their barracks and threatened to physically resist an attempt to arrest their spokesman, Constable Jeremiah Mee. When those constables told their stories to the Freeman’s Journal (an account verified by a number of those present), British politicians scrambled to refute the charges. As the Prescott-Decie memo shows, however, the denial of the ‘Listowel mutiny’ charges was a dissembling exercise by senior members of the British cabinet, displaying a cynical dishonesty that not only characterised its efforts in Ireland generally during 1920–1 but also drove its military leaders to distraction. The publication of his Listowel speech proved as fatal for Smyth as he had hoped its utterance would be for republicans in Kerry. A month later, on 17 July 1920, he was enjoying a drink in the smoking room of the Cork Conservative Club. Guided by a sympathetic porter, six IRA gunmen burst into the room and shot him dead, as the one-armed war veteran struggled to draw his pistol. Smyth’s assassination shook Dublin Castle and sparked anti-Catholic riots in his native Banbridge.

The Freeman’s Journal’s report on the ‘Listowel mutiny’, provoked by a pep talk by RIC Munster divisional commissioner Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Smyth, in the presence of his superior, General Tudor (below). According to Smith, ‘You may make mistakes and innocent persons may be shot but that cannot be helped’. (Freeman’s Journal, 10 July 1920, and Garda Archives)

The Freeman’s Journal’s report on the ‘Listowel mutiny’, provoked by a pep talk by RIC Munster divisional commissioner Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Smyth, in the presence of his superior, General Tudor (below). According to Smith, ‘You may make mistakes and innocent persons may be shot but that cannot be helped’. (Freeman’s Journal, 10 July 1920, and Garda Archives)

Prescott-Decie remained a leading figure in the RIC and in late 1920 was promoted to senior commissioner for Munster, effectively heading RIC efforts in the martial law area for the remainder of the conflict. After the war he became active in unionist politics, but was ultimately disgraced by his later involvement in the British fascist movement. As is the way of things, history has proved far kinder to the reputations of Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George, who secretly authorised, yet publicly denied, the policy so memorably outlined by Prescott-Decie in that fateful summer of 1920.

John Borgonovo and Gabriel Doherty lecture in history at University College Cork.


Further reading:

C. E. Calwell, Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: his life and diaries (London, 1927).

J. A. Gaughan, The memoirs of Constable Jeremiah Mee (Dublin, 1975).

M. Hopkinson, The Irish War of Independence (Dublin, 2002).

C. Townsend, The British campaign in Ireland, 1919–1921 (Oxford, 1975).

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