Prescott-Decie letter

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 17

‘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 . . .’

Sir,

—Prof. David Fitzpatrick has performed a service for your readers in his response (HI 17.3, May/June 2009) to our article on the subject of the letter by Brigadier-General Prescott-Decie, for in drawing attention to previous writings on the matter overlooked by us—specifically his own—he has merely served to reinforce our original interpretation. He offers three arguments as to why our reading of the words above is wrong. We examine these in turn and show them to be flawed; critique his alternative interpretation; and conclude with general comments on his methodology.
Punctuation. Prof. Fitzpatrick states that the absence of a comma between the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘by’ in the quotation above creates an ‘overwhelming’ case for attributing the policy of ‘secret murder’ to the IRA rather than the RIC. On the contrary; given the juxtaposition of this sentence with the following one (‘I am still . . .’), it is the case for attributing the policy to the RIC that is overwhelming. At the risk of repeating ourselves, the plain sense of the two sentences taken together is that Prescott-Decie had been informed by General Tudor of a new policy (‘secret murder’), which was designed to stamp out terrorism, but he contended that a different line of action—‘instant retaliation’—was more likely to succeed. The punctuation of the first sentence is irrelevant to this plain meaning.
Phraseology. Prof. Fitzpatrick states that it is ‘scarcely credible’ that a figure such as Prescott-Decie would have used the phrase ‘murder’ to describe killings by Crown forces. His logic appears to be that even if a policy of state-sanctioned murder had existed, the word itself would not have been used by the brigadier-general in his letter. Its very presence, therefore, proves the policy did not exist. The rationale employed would appear to be that of the ‘appalling vista’, that is, the words are so incriminating that, ipso facto, they cannot be true, and their plain meaning can thus be eliminated. Well is it said that from a false premise any absurdity can validly follow.
Sanction. Prof. Fitzpatrick appears to argue that had a policy of government-sanctioned secret murder existed, Prescott-Decie would surely have revealed it in his communications to the press following his resignation. In so doing he shows a greater ignorance of the law in Ireland as it stood in the summer of 1920 than that manifested by Prescott-Decie himself, for had the latter made public the existence of such a policy he would (presumably) have found himself in the dock. No government had or has the power to authorise its agents to commit murder, secretly or otherwise; and no agent who implemented such a policy would have been indemnified against a charge of murder simply because he was ‘following orders’ or had ‘higher authority for his actions’. Prescott-Decie presumably knew this, which is why he sought the introduction of martial law, for, by the testimony of his superiors, he honestly, but mistakenly, thought that this framework afforded just such legal protection.
Prof. Fitzpatrick believes that Prescott-Decie’s letter refers to a ‘strategy to pre-empt surprise attacks on the police by unidentified assailants’, as outlined by Colonel Smyth in his speech to the RIC in Listowel (Freeman’s Journal, 10 July 1920). We leave it to your readers to decide whether such delicate phraseology adequately conveys the full venom of Smyth’s words (uttered in the presence of Tudor), notably his incitement to his subordinates to throw selected residents in the vicinity of IRA actions ‘into the gutter’ (hopefully to die there, and ‘the more the merrier’); to undertake military-style ambushes in the locality; and to kill, with impunity, as many as possible in those ambushes. It is, however, his asides both to the ‘most lurid’ version of Smyth’s talk and to possible ‘other reasons’ for the resignation of the Listowel constables in response to it that are more telling, for they infer that he believes that the Freeman’s report of what transpired that day was inaccurate. The British government was aware of the problem of contradicting the sworn testimony of its own policemen, trained by it in the art of recording verbatim speech, whose testimony in such matters had for decades been relied upon without question by its own courts. It therefore concocted a (mercifully transparent) whispering campaign, the thrust of which was that the constables involved (experienced policemen all) had wilfully misrepresented Smyth’s words for nefarious and selfish purposes. With such a coin did that government repay the most hard-pressed of its servants; on such shifting sands are Prof. Fitzpatrick’s argument founded.
To conclude, we stand over our original interpretation of the letter, which is based on the plain meaning of its crucial sentences. Prof. Fitzpatrick suggests a diametrically opposed analysis, one that requires misreading of punctuation, circular argument, non sequitur, ignorance of the law, and a willingness to endorse post-facto government misinformation. We once again leave it to your readers to judge the merits of the respective positions.

—Yours etc.,
GABRIEL DOHERTY and JOHN BORGONOVO
Department of History
UCC

Sir,

—In his lengthy dissertation on the 1920 Prescott-Decie letter (HI17.3, May/June 2009), David Fitzpatrick suggested that researchersshould ‘calm down, read widely, think clearly, then, if you must,publish’. Prof. Fitzpatrick might address a passage from his The TwoIrelands (1998): ‘Adulterers, homosexuals, tinkers, beggars,ex-servicemen, Protestants: these were the many dangerous andpotentially lethal labels for Ireland’s inhabitants in therevolutionary period’. Unfortunately, no citation accompanied thisobservation, unlike in relation to the book’s discussion ofPrescott-Decie.
Nine years earlier, in The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland (ed.Roy Foster, 1989), Prof. Fitzpatrick noted that, despite a minority ofsouthern unionist ‘diehards’ supporting Ulster unionist separatism,‘few attacks on southern Protestants were reported during the“Troubles”, though many vacant houses were burned’. No sign here ofopposition to followers in the footsteps of Charles Stuart Parnelland/or Oscar Wilde, while Protestants, including ‘diehards’, werereported as, for the most part, unmolested. Prof. Fitzpatrick appearsto have changed his mind in the interim, perhaps on the basis ofextrapolating from a 1992 Ph.D thesis that he supervised, published asThe IRA and its Enemies (1998) by Peter Hart. Hart referred to the IRAtargeting ‘deviants’. While documentary evidence was thin, to say theleast, Hart had a stab at providing some, Fitzpatrick none.
There is continuity, of a sort. On page 237 of The IRA at War (2003),Hart alleged ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Protestants, while on page 246 therewas, apparently, none. Fitzpatrick contradicted himself over nineyears, his pupil over nine pages. Evidential insouciance of this kindseems to be accepted. Perhaps a trained professional historian mightelucidate.
There are further documentary oddities. Prof. Fitzpatrick was the CorkUniversity Press ‘Irish Narratives Series’ editor. As part of theseries, the British Record of the Rebellion in the Sixth DivisionalArea, edited by Peter Hart as British Intelligence in Ireland, 1920–21,was published in 2002. There were documented minor excisions, whetherby Hart or Fitzpatrick (or both) was not clear. What is clear (as notedby Brian Murphy in 2005) is that a long section on ‘The People’ wasexcluded without informing readers. It contained sneering references tothe ‘inferior’ Irish but did not accuse the IRA of sectarianism. Thispotentially undermined Hart and Fitzpatrick’s argument. Is that why itwas not documented?
Included, however, was a sentence on British appraisal of loyalistinformers near Bandon who, it was acknowledged, were targeted by theIRA. The sentence was inexplicably excluded from Hart’s 1998 book,which did include a previous sentence that it qualified. Hart gave animpression that Protestant farmers in the Bandon area were notinforming, whereas the British in fact stated the opposite. Prof.Fitzpatrick may not have been familiar with this source to the extentdemonstrated on Prescott-Decie. Otherwise, presumably, he would havedirected a correction during supervision of this research.
In 1978 Prof. Fitzpatrick famously declared, ‘Let statistics be used asa hammer for shattering Irish self-deception’. This attemptedcorrelation of Irish republicanism with violence, rustic boredom andrural idiocy contained no mention of Protestant, spouse-cheating orhomosexual victims. That imaginative construct arrived later. Either ithas a documentary basis or aspirant TCD historians were on a wild goosechase during the 1990s.
In mentioning Troubled History, a 10th anniversary critique of PeterHart’s The IRA and its Enemies (2008) by Brian Murphy and the presentwriter, Joost Augusteijn suggested that Hart has taken seriouscriticism too lightly (HI 17.1, Jan./Feb. 2009). Perhaps his supervisorcould show good example by addressing the issues. Hammer away, butfirst, ‘calm down, read widely, think clearly, then (please do)publish’.

—Yours etc.,
NIALL MEEHAN
Faculty Head, Journalism & Media
Griffith College

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