Sunday, 29 September 2013

Sturgis and the War of Independence

The Last Days of Dublin Castle. Ed: Michael Hopkins.

This review was written on December 13th 2003

This is some writing I did on holiday in Cyprus on the 25 May 2001 while staying with Paddy and Valerie Hogan at their villa in Paphos. Intensely warm, perfect weather, nice villa overlooking a fine pool. Since leaving Dublin on 20 May I have been reading The Last Days of Dublin Castle edited by Michael Hopkinson. Having read the first half of the book, I wrote the following commentary:

The Last Days of Dublin Castle contains the diaries of Mark Sturgis, who was a senior official (to some extent without portfolio) in Dublin Castle between July 1920 and January 1922. It is the first work I have read from the British point of view about this critical period and it provides me with a few important insights into the history of the War of Independence leading up to the Truce and the ratification of the Treaty.

I was astonished by the incompetence of the British during this time, with widespread indecision, disagreement and jealousy between the military and administrative officials in Dublin, and their colleagues and political chiefs in London. This circumstance in the British administration had two serious consequences.

Firstly, genuine peace feelings from both sides commenced in October 1920 and continued with various degrees of intensity right up to the actual truce on 11 July 1921. The final six months of the War of Independence were the most violent and bloody of the War which compounded the bitterness between the IRA and the British. Furthermore, and significant in relation to the ensuing Civil War, the delay in arranging a truce compounded the differences between those among the IRA and Sinn Féin who were willing to compromise on the constitutional question (and who were supported by the great majority of the Southern Irish population) and the intractable group who were rigidly committed to the republic. There is no doubt that the views of the latter hardened during the last few months of the War.

Patrick Joseph Clune
A major factor in the failure to reach a truce in November 1920 (the Clune initiative) was Lloyd George’s refusal to treat with the Irish without full decommissioning of arms, clearly an unacceptable condition for the Irish and one taken against the advice of some of Lloyd George’s own advisors in Dublin and elsewhere. Yet a truce was arranged eight months later without any reference to the question of decommissioning and despite further deterioration in the bitterness of the conflict.

There is no doubt that the Irish leaders, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins (de Valera was in America at the time), would have agreed a truce in November 1920 if Lloyd George had not insisted on decommissioning and if he was not so deluded as to think that ‘he had murder by the throat’.

Mark Sturgis, bottom right.
There was a second important issue which prolonged the war. It strengthened the hand of the IRA and delayed the truce. The three elements in the British administration were, firstly, in Ireland, the Lord Lieutenant and his advisors and the administrative staff in the Castle; secondly, the police, the RIC,  including the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries, and, thirdly, the army. These three forces were frequently in conflict about policy and strategies, and conflict was exacerbated by the veto of Westminster over the views and policies of the Irish satrap. No doubt the more liberal members of Lloyd George’s cabinet must have been all the time looking over their shoulders at the Tories and the more implacable opponents of Irish self-rule, while Lloyd George had adopted a much less liberal attitude to Irish aspirations after 1916 compared to his strong support of the Irish in his earlier years.

Sturgis refers frequently to the adverse effects of the divisions between the police, headed by Tudor, and the army, headed by Macready, and between them and the administration and the politicians. Neville Macready. head of the British army in Ireland, in his Annals of an active Life (vol 2, p 521 and elsewhere) refers to the conflict between the army and the police represented by the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries. Poor communication, jealousy, rugged individualism and personal animosity were forces which contributed to the incompetence and impotence of a divided authority.

My father, Richard Mulcahy, who was the head of the IRA during the War of Independence, often said to me that, if the British Army had been given full authority and adequate resources under the leadership of Macready, it would have been impossible to continue the guerrilla campaign and an early end of the war would have been inevitable, to the disadvantage of the separatist movement. He stated that the IRA campaign would have lasted a week if the British Army had taken over full control.

It will be found that at this time the military were pressing more and more for permission to make the matter a military job.  Our whole tactics at the time were directed to keeping the struggle at a police level (1)

------evacuated police barracks and tax offices were chosen for burning at Easter 1920 in order to demonstrate that the Volunteers were attacking the British Administration and not the British Army.  They were, he said, not in a position to challenge the British Army (2)

----we have not been able to drive the enemy from anything but from a fairly good-sized police barracks (3).

Sturgis refers frequently to the urgent need to unify all the elements of the British authority in Ireland. It is clear that he was strongly of the opinion that, if the British hoped to defeat the IRA, the answer was a military one with nationwide martial law and with full military control of the police. Despite the pro-military view of Sturgis, shared with other members of  the British establishment, two battalions of  the army were transferred to England in April 1921 at the height of the War, one from Dublin and one from Belfast, in anticipation of a general strike by miners and other worker in England.

Black and Tans
Sturgis would have Lloyd George come out with clear and generous terms of a settlement, such as Dominion status, the basis of which, if Ireland were to refuse a truce and negotiations, would lead to all out war and to the alienation of Sinn Fein by international and much of national public opinion in Ireland. Certainly, it is clear that, if the military with adequate resources were to take control of the situation with full support from Westminster, the reprisals on the British side would have been much fewer and the war might have finished earlier and with less bitterness. A British army in full control would be obliged to adhere to the international code of war and would have prevented the all-too-common atrocities of the Black and Tans and the natural responses of the IRA.

Of course, Lloyd George and his cabinet colleagues refused to admit to the Americans and the outside world that the disturbances in Ireland constituted a war and therefore they may have been reluctant to leave control of the police and the administration to the military. The role of Westminster was also seriously affected by the grossly inaccurate reports supplied by the Irish Secretary, Sir Hamar Greenwood, such as the charge that the IRA was responsible for the burning of Cork City, a charge which was hardly credible to the British and later denied by Macready.

Somebody on the British side, when discussing self government for the Irish, protested that the Irish would be unable to govern themselves. His companion replied ‘Neither can the British’. The story of the British administration in Ireland during the War of Independence is a striking confirmation of this riposte

Asquith is mentioned in the diaries from time to time. He was a dove who approved a more active and conciliatory approach by the British Government, and who thought that the failure of the Clune truce was a big opportunity missed

Sturgis had been Asquith’s private secretary. He was seconded to the Irish Office after Asquith had retired as prime minister. He was wealthy and a prominent social light, closely connected with the establishment, passionate about racing, enjoyed Jammets and the Shelbourne, and enjoyed Ireland and the Irish with a hedonistic streak despite the stresses of his eighteen months in Dublin Castle. It is clear from the diaries that he had a sense of realism and a vision that a reasonable settlement must come, that the British government, with better understanding in Westminster and with generosity, had it within its power to reach agreement which should have satisfied both nations and which should have been achieved before 1921. Whilst agreement and a settlement did come to pass with the Treaty ratification, divisions within the British establishment in Westminster and incompetence in Dublin and London ensured that agreement was only reached when the seeds of our civil war had been sown.

I was half way through the diaries when I wrote the above commentary. I added the following remarks after I had completed the book.

I was intrigued by Father O’Flanagan’s contributions to the continued attempts to arrange a truce from late 1920 onwards. I had been under the impression that O’Flanagan invoked the disapproval of the Sinn Fein and IRA leaders when he intervened during the Clune negotiations because of his ‘premature’ and his ‘unauthorised’ intervention with Lloyd George. I was surprised therefore to find that he continued being involved in truce negotiations for most of the time up to the end of the War, and that he appeared to have the approval of de Valera and others in continuing these informal negotiations. It is clear also at the time that Father O’Flanagan was in favour of a reasonable settlement, such as Dominion status, and yet, when it came to the Treaty settlement, he was one of its most ardent and vociferous opponents. And O’Flanagan was not by any means the only person who bitterly opposed the Treaty and yet who appeared to be satisfied with Dominion settlement during the later months of the War.

Sturgis makes one rather interesting comment in 6 June 1921, referring to the American reaction to de Valera’s involvement in certain truce and peace activities. Sturgis states as follows

It seems that the Irish Americans, who got wind up when Craig and de Valera met during the Truce, wrote and wired that Dev and Sinn Féin were giving away ‘the Republican principle. They appeared to exert considerable pressure’ on the issue (P 185).

One wonders whether Dev’s prolonged stay in the United States might have been responsible for the intractable views of many Irish Americans on the question of the settlement, or did the American rather remote and unrealistic views on a settlement lead to a hardening of Dev’s outlook? Dev’s 19 months in America during the War of Independence, by referring so frequently during his many speeches to the Irish Republic might have had a deleterious effect on Irish American opinion.

Despite de Valera’s return from America at Christmas 1920, it is clear from the diaries that  one obstacle in arranging a truce was the difficulty of contacting de Valera and having him show some initiative in meeting with the British while many others on the nationalist side were active in seeking a truce. Dev remained an ephemeral figure despite the British perception that he was the leader of the separatist movement and that little could be achieved without his active input. This gave rise to Sturgis’s comment that

If we want to deal with England there’s L.G. - if we want to talk to Ulster there’s Craig or Carson, but when we want to talk to S.F. it’s a heterogeneous ‘collection’ of individuals ------ all over the place, and they severally, if they know their minds, which I doubt they certainly don’t, know each other and all fear to act off their own bat. (P188)

It is strange that Dev returned to Ireland unexpectedly just before Christmas 1920 and

Collins, centre, at the treaty negotiations.
 apparently after a tip off from a British diplomat in America that Lloyd  George was anxious for a settlement and yet it was to take another seven    months to arrange a truce. Nothing could be done without Dev on the issue despite the influence of such leaders as Griffith and Collins. Who did Dev speak to on the issue of a truce during these important seven months of the War? Did Childers have any role in the delay after he met Dev on the latter’s return from America?

When Lloyd George eventually wrote the letter inviting de Valera to London, which preceded the truce; it is interesting that it was Erskine Childers who was most opposed to the truce initiative. Sturgis stated on the 27 June 1921 when the truce was pending

The two sources from which alone this morning come shrieks of rage and suspicion are the Morning Post and Erskine Childers who agree from their poles asunder to regard the L.G. letter as a snare of the most traitorous description. (P194).

Sturgis describes an interview Loughnane had with Hugh Martin of the Daily News. In this interview, Richard Mulcahy’s name is associated with Cathal Brugha (Burgess) and Austin Stack as ‘The other extremists in favour of a war to the knife policy ----’. And in the same interview Mulcahy as chief of staff and Burgess as minister for defence are stated to be the persons directly in control of the IRA. He states that Childers, Burgess and Stack are not interested in any settlement ‘they do not hope for success but prefer to fight and fail ---’

Mulcahy may have been in control of the IRA but on the question of extremism his name could never be attached to those of Childers, Burgess and Stack.

Dublin Castle
I finished the Sturgis diaries while I was in Cyprus. I then turned to Lawrence Durrell’s book ‘Bitter Lemons’ about his time in Cyprus, and about Enosis and the end of British rule in the island. The incompetence of the administration there, its naive paternalistic approach to the Cypriot people and the poor understanding of the authorities in Westminster of the Cypriot situation reads like a repeat of the last days of Dublin Castle. It confirms why the complacency of those who are acting on behalf of a colonial power and who are governing an alien people, however paternalistic and benign the administration may be, provides the seeds of the power’s destruction. It is said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to relive it, an adage which certainly applies to the Tory dominated Westminster governments of the early twentieth century.

The earlier part of Durrell’s book, which deals with his setting up house in Cyprus, is over-sentimental and tedious, but the later chapters which deal with the worsening political situation in the island will be of interest to students of the history and demise of the British Empire.

(1)         (Annotation vol I, pp 144, 145)
(2)         (Tape 093 131A 125A)
(3)         (Dail debate on the Treaty, p 143)  

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