Forgotten chronologies

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2017), Letters, Volume 25

Sir,—Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc’s article (HI 25.3, May/June 2017) places emphasis on ‘the geography of IRA executions’ in the War of Independence, but he overlooks the more significant factor of their chronology. May I suggest that if he viewed each of these occurrences against the backdrop of political events nationally he would find that these flashpoints of violence coincided with episodes of intense British coercion, seeking to suppress the Sinn Féin policy of consolidating Dáil Éireann’s national authority over local government (particularly policing). He might also consider that the execution of spies and informers was not at any time a policy or a procedure of the executive of the Irish Volunteers. Instead, as was noted in David Fitzpatrick’s article on Ernest Blythe in the same issue, it was, ‘in times of war’, a procedure of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), which operated within the Irish Volunteers with a view to creating an Irish republican army. These are significant issues of context but none is more significant than chronology. The issue of discipline can also be understood chronologically in light of the struggle to implement the policy of swearing allegiance to a central authority from August 1919 onwards. Even many TDs were initially reluctant to take this step (first demanded by Arthur Griffith), as Dáil minutes of the day show, but the policy was eventually implemented across the board in the wake of the local government elections of 1920, and it was a significant one. As Ó Ruairc noted, this administrative question was the context of the intelligence war. However, it was also the basis of the ‘truce’ arrangements from July 1921 onwards. This is why the violence reached its peak in the months running up to the negotiation of the compromise of the joint-policing liaison arrangement with the RIC in the early summer of 1921 and why the issues of conflicting allegiances and maintaining the ‘truce’ became so complicated during 1922 whilst efforts were made to institutionalise a new army and police force in conjunction with the operations of central and local government.

Ever since Fitzpatrick’s study of Clare (a model for Peter Hart’s work), studies of the Irish Revolution have tended to focus on localities and individuals (frequently viewed in isolation) rather than on the governmental context or the fortunes of Dáil Éireann. I wonder whether Fitzpatrick’s article on Ernest Blythe, like his previous study of Harry Boland, suffers from a similar shortcoming, or else a tendency to seek an explanation for all behaviour in the dynamics (real or imagined) of a fraternity? As a native of Lisburn who embraced Irish nationalism more fully upon moving to Dublin, Blythe’s early career paralleled that of George Russell (who became a champion of full Irish fiscal autonomy by 1919) and (Robert) Lindsay Crawford, who was (on his own admission) a member of the Imperial Grand Orange Lodge society before he formed the Independent Orange Order and, as editor of the Toronto Statesman and leader of the Irish Self-Determination League of Canada, became a champion of Dáil Éireann from 1919 onwards. Crawford’s testimony of his own experience of the Orange Order in Ulster was printed in two issues of Young Ireland during January 1920. Perhaps the true enigma of Blythe’s career lies in his repeated claim that partition was religious in motive, which does seem to reflect the official Orange as well as Buckingham Palace Conference view, whereas contemporaries like Russell and Crawford, in keeping with the official line of Dáil Éireann and their own personal conviction, totally dismissed this idea. Like many contemporaries, Russell and Crawford (who would see his hope of an Irish–Canadian trade agreement crushed) were disappointed in Blythe’s performance as finance minister during the 1920s and do not appear to have considered him effective in exercising any kind of autonomy.—Yours etc.,

OWEN McGEE

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