G2. In defence of Ireland: Irish military intelligence 1918–1945

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2010), Reviews, Volume 18

G2. In defence of Ireland: Irish military intelligence 1918–1945

Maurice Walsh
(Collins Press, €16.99)
ISBN 9781848890282


78_small_1274267984The secret world of the intelligence services is getting ever-increasing attention in a world that is confronted with many elusive threats. Although Ireland has had more than its fair share of subversive activity in the last century, the struggle that went on behind the scenes has received only limited attention. In the last decade interest in the history of intelligence has grown here as well. As part of this, Maurice Walsh, an Irish Army veteran, has made an attempt to uncover the story behind the Irish military intelligence service from the beginning of the War of Independence to the end of the Second World War. What became G2 was originally set up to deal with spies but after the creation of the Irish state in 1922 also had to contend with what can broadly be called subversion during the Civil War as well as the Emergency.
Walsh thus places the inception of G2 somewhat artificially in the Anglo-Irish War. Although having read some of the more important works on the period, the author unfortunately does not really engage with modern scholarship in this field. He still adheres to the discredited view that Michael Collins was a brilliant intelligence-gatherer and that the entire Irish population supported the IRA. In reality, Collins was largely dependent on people offering their services voluntarily, like DMP detective Ned Broy, whom it took months to be taken seriously by the IRA. Collins’s information was also often faulty, as was shown on Bloody Sunday when only a few of the fourteen men shot were British intelligence agents, and certainly not all were of the so-called Cairo Gang as Walsh asserts. It has also been shown that the IRA needed a good bit of intimidation to maintain the acquiescence of the population and that only a small section was willing to give it active support. The first part is therefore largely irrelevant.
The chapter on the interbellum also lacks substance. We do not learn much about the role of intelligence during the Civil War, when it certainly played a substantial role, and the material even becomes a bit tangential when, after the 1924 Army Mutiny, in which disappointed former IRA men in the Free State Army tried to force the government to implement Collins’s stepping-stone policy towards a republic, G2 was sidelined. Up to 1939 the whole branch consisted of two men. The real story therefore only begins with the advent of the Second World War. The outbreak of conflict in Europe coincided with an attempt by the IRA to get a united Ireland through a bombing campaign in Britain, which heightened the possibility of invasion by Britain. These developments made intelligence suddenly of prime importance, as spying and subversion became potential threats to the survival of the state.
Within the then unfolding story Walsh clearly has his heroes. Apart from Michael Collins these were Dan Bryan and Richard Hayes. After a long period as second-in-command, Bryan became the director of G2 during the war, while the academic Richard Hayes was central in decoding in particular German ciphers. In the author’s view Bryan was instrumental in the survival of the state. It is, however, questionable whether he really functioned so well. Bryan kept information from his co-workers and they kept it from him. It took a year before Bryan discovered that Hayes had cracked the German code because his second-in-command, Éamon de Buitléir, thought that Bryan was too pro-British. The ability of G2 to prepare the army was also shown to be deficient in the military exercises of 1942, and Bryan was censored afterwards.
Most worrying was Bryan’s attitude to democratic control. He was more concerned with preserving the public image of neutrality than with what Walsh calls ‘maintaining stifling legalistic boundaries’. With admiration the author describes how Bryan was quite willing to use illegal methods to obtain his goal. In this Walsh takes the position of a soldier who favours a strong army and is suspicious of politicians. The same attitude comes to the fore in his claim that the government was ‘determined to run down the army as quickly as possible’ after 1925, a policy which he describes as shameful. All failings of G2 are related back to this by arguing that they were the result of too few men and too little money.
There are also villains in this story. The unsubstantiated allegation that de Valera stole American money to start the Irish Press is mentioned, and some historians, like Theo Farrell and Peter Hart, are systematically contradicted without clear evidence. Apart from this partisanship the book would have benefited from a substantial amount of editing. It lacks coherence, as epitomised by the last chapter, which contains more or less relevant bits and pieces not yet dealt with elsewhere. It is inconsistently footnoted, some of the statements are not backed up and it assumes a lot of advance knowledge in readers. This is a pity because there are also positive signs. The memoirs of Richard Hayes and the original material contained in the Bryan papers contain many gems. If the author had concentrated more on the inner workings of G2 during the Emergency this could have been a good book. Instead we have only the occasional glimmer.  HI


Joost Augusteijn lectures in history at Leiden University.


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