RIC reprisals, summer 1920

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Letters, Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 17

Sir,

—One of the joys of historical research is to discover an unknown document that appears to validate (or discredit) some widely cherished yet hitherto unproven speculation. Such a document is the report submitted to Dublin Castle by Brigadier-General Cyril (not ‘Cecil’) Prescott-Decie, divisional commissioner of the RIC in Limerick, on 1 June 1920. On 23 October 1972, when I first saw the ‘newly discovered letter’ so proudly unveiled in your last issue (HI 17.2, March/April 2009) by Gabriel Doherty and John Borgonovo, I too was bowled over by its apparent candour and revelation of a ‘new policy and plan’ for ‘the stamping out of terrorism by secret murder’. Surely, this was a missing link—but in what chain?
Shortly afterwards, I learned to my chagrin that Michael Collins had intercepted and viewed the letter 52 years earlier. It had been widely if selectively quoted, as proof of an official policy of assassination, in post-revolutionary classics such as Piaras Béaslaí’s Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland (1926) and Dan Breen’s My Fight for Irish Freedom (revised and enlarged edition only, 1964). In 1974, Tom Bowden (who had also ‘discovered’ the letter in Dublin Castle) cited it as evidence ‘that this alleged assassination of republicans was more than an IRA propaganda exercise’. Unlike Béaslaí and Breen, he inserted a comma after ‘the stamping out of terrorism’, thus neatly rebalancing the ambiguity as to which side was committing ‘secret murder’. In the absence of that comma, the case for attributing ‘secret murder’ to terrorists rather than policemen seemed overwhelming. It was scarcely credible that any senior executive, when submitting an official memorandum, would have described killings by the forces of the Crown as ‘murder’.
In my own study of revolutionary Clare, Politics and Irish Life, 1913–1921 (1977), and in The Two Irelands, 1912–1939 (1998), I pointed out that the ‘new policy’ could not have been retaliatory reprisals, as Decie had added (in a passage omitted by Béaslaí, Breen and Bowden) that ‘I still am of opinion that instant retaliation is the only course for this’. Since Lloyd George had proposed economic sanctions against communities fostering terrorism at a ministerial conference on the preceding day (31 May), it was just conceivable that Decie was referring to rumours about the disruption of fairs, markets and railways and the imposition of punitive rates. Yet such measures rested with civil servants rather than policemen, and lay outside his purview as a divisional commissioner.
The most likely ‘new policy’, as Doherty and Borgonovo observe, was that set out by Col. Gerald Smyth, Decie’s counterpart in south Munster, when giving a pep talk to the police at Listowel on 19 June 1920. Even in the most lurid version of his remarks, as reported by constables who resigned in protest (or perhaps for other reasons), Smyth did not advocate either ‘secret murder’ or the premeditated assassination of known terrorists. Instead, he promised that the normal restrictions on use of firearms would be relaxed so that a police patrol, when observing a civilian suspected of intent to attack the patrol, could fire first after one warning and expect immunity from punishment if the victim turned out to be innocent. Far from being a policy or plan for secret murder, let alone reprisals, Smyth’s strategy was to pre-empt surprise attacks on the police by unidentified assailants.
Though heartily in favour of pre-emptive shooting-to-kill and also economic sanctions (he specialised in creameries), Decie did not believe that the ‘secret murder’ by terrorists of ‘loyal people’ (alias ‘informers’) would be stopped by shooting suspicious-looking civilians at possible ambush sites. Admittedly, as General Macready observed, Decie was wild and violent in both expression and conduct: his favourite recreations included pig-sticking, and his aggression made him a prime target for assassination, ineptly attempted by a Limerick flying column on 27 November 1920. After his indignant resignation in protest against the government’s decision to negotiate with terrorists ‘when the Crown forces were on the point of definitely settling the murder gang’, Decie threw his demonic energy behind the Ulster Unionist cause and organised a ‘Southern boycott’ in reprisal against the republican ‘Belfast boycott’. Clearly, he was no wimp; yet neither was he demonstrably an advocate of liquidating his opponents through secret murder squads.
In September 1921, with characteristic lack of discretion, he declared his views on reprisals in a letter to the press, admitting (or boasting) that they had been carried out under his orders but without higher sanction. This remarkable letter appeared, for example, in the Armagh Guardian on 23 September. Decie explained that the law had become ‘useless’ as a result of ‘reprisals’ by Sinn Féin:

‘Under these circumstances the Crown forces, in this case principally the RIC, took counter-reprisals. This was the only possible method by which they could save their own lives and property and the lives of loyalists. These counter-reprisals were held up as showing the want of discipline of the police. No such thing! Reprisals in my division were done under my directions, not because I liked it, but because it was the only way. They had the desired result.’

As a disaffected former official, it would have been in Decie’s interest to claim higher authority for his actions. Instead, he testified that ‘I never approved of taking these measures without official sanction, and only did so on absolute necessity. I asked for martial law so that every punishment (or reprisal) considered necessary might be done officially.’
These documents indicate that the ‘new policy and plan’ floated in June 1920 involved neither violent reprisals nor planned assassinations, for which historians have yet to prove the existence of any central control or strategy. Like their many predecessors, Doherty and Borgonovo have failed after all to uncover evidence ‘that directly links assassination reprisals to Dublin Castle’; nor have they shown that ‘the word—nay, the very concept of—“reprisal” needs to be fundamentally revised’. By forcing an implausible interpretation on intractable evidence, and ignoring all past attempts to contextualise the same evidence, they have done a disservice to readers of History Ireland. What is the moral for historians in the first flush of discovery? Calm down, read widely, think clearly; then, if you must, publish.
DAVID FITZPATRICK
Trinity College
Dublin 2

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