Archive article from The Socialist Issue 447
The Irish Civil War 1922-1923
The Irish Civil War (28 June 1922 - 24 May 1923) was a conflict between those factions of the IRA for and against the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed on 6 December 1922. The treaty arose out of the Irish War of Independence between Britain and the IRA.
Neil Cafferky and Niall Mulholland
After the death of James Connolly in 1916, the Labour leaders gave the national and social liberation mantle to nationalist leaders, whose narrower agenda could not win northern Protestants. The potential for heightened class struggle from 1918 onwards - general strikes, land seizures, creation of 'soviets' - was lost, as the War of Independence began in earnest with the newly formed IRA and Sinn Fein at its head.
This was a largely rural guerilla struggle against British colonial brutality. Sinn Fein leaders were mainly from the middle and lower-middle classes, and wanted to become the rulers of new independent state. Most IRA fighters were urban workers and the rural poor. Many instinctively wanted social and national liberation.
War exhaustion, stalemate and fear that the aspirations of the masses would spill over to a struggle for social and economic liberation, led to both a section of republican leaders and the British to sign the 1921 Treaty.
Rather than creating a fully independent republic as favoured by most Irish nationalists, the Treaty created an Irish Free State that was still a dominion of the British Empire. Opponents of the treaty objected to the remaining link to Britain and to the loss of the six Northern counties. Nonetheless, Michael Collins, the republican leader who had led the negotiations argued the treaty gave Ireland, "the freedom to achieve freedom". The working class suffered a momentous blow as the island was partitioned into two sectarian, repressive states.
The split over the treaty was deeply personal. Many former comrades and even family members found themselves on opposing sides. Dáil Éireann (Irish Parliament) narrowly voted 64-57 in favour of the treaty in December 1921. A compromise proposing a republican constitution between the two sides was vetoed by the British government who threatened to invade if the treaty was not enforced in full.
Bitterly fought elections the following March saw the pro-Treaty Sinn Fein (political wing of the IRA) defeat anti-Treaty Sinn Fein by 239,193 to 133,864. 247,226 voted for other parties, mostly Labour, who all supported the Treaty.
That April, 200 anti-Treaty militants occupied the Four Courts in Dublin. A tense stand off ensued until the Free State's hand was forced due to British pressure. In June 1922 retired general, Henry Wilson, was assassinated in London. Churchill threatened to use British troops to attack the Four Courts.
Collins accepted the offer of British artillery and began the bombardment of the Four Courts provoking a week's street fighting that left 315 dead, 250 of them civilians. When the dust cleared Dublin was in Free State hands and the defeated IRA retreated to their rural heartlands. Around 3,500 combatants, mostly from the IRA, had lost their lives, along with an unknown number of civilian casualties, a greater number than in the War of Independence.
Superficially it would seem that arms from the British and the support of the Catholic Church carried the day for pro-Treaty Free State forces. However it was the failure of the IRA leadership to offer the poor farmers and workers a socialist solution that meant they were defeated by the more conservative Free State.
Ireland had experienced an extended revolutionary wave from 1913-1922. Unemployment was high and people were weary of the constant struggle that only seemed to promise an ephemeral Republic and further war with the British Empire.
Figures on the left, like IRA leader, Liam Mellowes, (who was executed by Pro-Treaty forces), fought against the Treaty and for real independence and socialism. But the Anti-Treaty forces were dominated by pro-capitalist leaders, like Eamonn DeVelera, who mainly wanted better terms with Britain. When DeVelera led a section of the defeated Anti-Treatyites into the Dail, in 1927, Sinn Fein and the IRA split.
The effects of the civil war last to the present day as the successors of the pro and anti-Treaty sides, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, continue to dominate Irish politics. Needless to say there is even less difference between them than between New Labour and the Tories. In fact it is often remarked, even in the mainstream Irish press, that the only effective opposition in the D‡il comes from Joe Higgins an MP of the Socialist Party's sister organisation in Ireland.
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