The Civil War and the consolidation of partition

Published in Editorial, Issue 4 (July/August 2022), Volume 30

editorBy the end of August 1922, the ‘conventional’ phase of the Civil War was over. Dublin and the country’s major towns were firmly in the hands of the Provisional Government’s ‘National Army’ (as it was now referred to in the mainstream press). Amphibious landings along the south and west coasts outflanked the short-lived anti-Treaty ‘Munster Republic’ (see pp 42–3). As a military conflict the Civil War was all but over, although it would drag on for another nine months in a squalid round of assassinations, reprisals and summary executions. While the soon-to-be-established Irish Free State would in time evolve into a fully sovereign republic, the other aspect of the Treaty settlement—partition—would endure for the following century.

Given its apparent ‘permanence’, it is easy to forget that matters were in a state of flux from the signing of the Treaty in December 1921 to the outbreak of the Civil War in June 1922. While Northern Ireland had been established in May 1921, the Treaty (not unlike the present Brexit/Protocol imbroglio) had been negotiated over the heads of Ulster unionists by the British government and plenipotentiaries representing ‘Ireland’. Interestingly, the British (in theory) conceded on the principal of unity, but with the proviso that Northern Ireland had the right to ‘opt out’ of the Irish Free State, which it duly did in December 1922.

While the British agreed to the formation of a Boundary Commission, which was expected to transfer substantial territory to the Free State, the Northern Ireland government adopted a ‘what-we-have-we-hold’ approach, backed up by the Ulster Volunteer Force, now rebranded as the Ulster Special Constabulary (numbering over 30,000 by mid-1922 and heavily armed). Michael Collins responded with a twin-track approach—negotiations with the Northern Ireland prime minister, James Craig, on the one hand (two ‘pacts’ in January and March 1922), and a combined pro- and anti-Treaty IRA ‘Northern Offensive’ planned for May on the other.

But was the latter ever serious or simply a ruse to keep the anti-Treaty IRA onside? And if events had not been overtaken by the outbreak of the Civil War, what would it have looked like? The two-week occupation (27 May–8 June) by a combined IRA/National Army force of the ‘Belleek/Pettigo triangle’ ( provides a clue: they were easily ejected by regular British forces armed with artillery. Not only was military defeat a possibility but also, given the decision of the British government to ‘arm the Protestants’ (USC), it might have sparked off along the border the type of communal conflict that had raged in Belfast for the previous two years. Yet would this malign scenario have been any worse than what actually happened—the outbreak of a bitter civil war in the South and the freezing of an even more bitter conflict in the North for another 50 years?

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