Was the War of Independence necessary?

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2019), Letters, Volume 27

Sir,—I would largely concur with D.R. O’Connor Lysaght’s analysis of Labour’s dilemma during the War of Independence (Letters, HI 27.2, March/April 2019) and with Martin Mansergh’s observation (Platform, ibid.) that ‘A lot of historical commentary has been too binary, pitching constitutionalism against armed action’.

My main point (Platform, HI 27.1, Jan./Feb. 2019) was that other methods were available that might have been even more effective in the struggle for independence but the Dáil Éireann government chose to ignore them. D.R. O’Connor Lysaght correctly points to the failure of civil disobedience to inhibit British repression in India, but I believe it was a far more effective tactic in Ireland. Not alone were the Irish white and Christian but also they were citizens of the United Kingdom, a liberal middle-class urban democracy in which public opinion and the rule of law mattered.

Of course, as both your correspondents point out, the strong identification of Irish nationalists with a heroic, if largely mythical, military tradition was particularly strong among republican activists. There was almost an inevitability about the struggle for independence degenerating into political violence, as happened with similar nationalist and ethnic struggles across Europe. There was also the example nearer home of the Ulster Volunteer Force, which had demonstrated what a credible threat of physical force could do by its successful opposition to Home Rule.

Much of the non-violent resistance to British rule emanated from the Labour movement, most notably the munitions strike in 1920, but the operation of the Dáil Courts and the transfer of allegiance to Dáil Éireann by most local authorities were other important examples. Local authority officials, by and large, worked with the elected representatives, as did most members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. If the independence movement had encouraged similar disaffection in the RIC, would it not have been more productive than boycotting and shooting them?

The ‘War’ proved expensive in terms of loss of life, human suffering and damage to property. It proved counterproductive in terms of garnering support for the separatist cause in Britain, including the Labour movement. Most crucially, it destroyed any hope of reconciliation with Ulster unionists. On the other hand, the latter and the British government used IRA attacks as a justification for intensifying coercion and creating their own paramilitary forces, the Auxiliaries and B Specials.

Republican propagandists naturally portrayed the struggle for independence as one between David and Goliath, but Goliath had been fatally weakened by the First World War. The greatest security threat to British rule in Ireland in early 1919 wasn’t the Irish Volunteers or Dáil Éireann but the Belfast engineering workers who took over the city for four weeks in January and February, demanding a shorter working week.

The future minister for home affairs at Stormont, Dawson Bates, warned the British government to keep troops out of the city because if clashes occurred the situation would rapidly spin out of control. The army command agreed. As General Childs lamented, ‘Before the war we had a well disciplined and ignorant army, whereas now we have an army that is educated and ill-disciplined’. The troops also wanted to go home. Almost a million had been demobbed by the end of January 1919 and they were streaming home at the rate of 10,000 a day.

Yet the Belfast strike, which lasted twice as long as the Limerick Soviet and involved at least three times as many workers, remains virtually unknown in the South—another example of the partitionist mentality that still permeates popular history and many other aspects of Irish life.

I very much welcome D.R. O’Connor Lysaght’s agreement that the primacy of the military elements in the struggle for independence deprived us of the opportunity to build a more broadly based, egalitarian democracy with a more benign historical legacy than the one we inherited from a self-promoting warrior élite. Unfortunately, if the RTÉ’s The Irish Revolution is anything to go by, that remains a remote prospect.—Yours etc.,

PADRAIG YEATES

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