Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish War: Britains Counterinsurgency Failure

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Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish War

The jury at the inquest into his death returned a verdict of wilful murder against David Lloyd George the British Prime Minister and District Inspector Swanzy, among others. Swanzy was later tracked down and killed in Lisburn , County Antrim. This pattern of killings and reprisals escalated in the second half of and in Michael Collins was a driving force behind the independence movement.

Nominally the Minister of Finance in the republic's government and IRA Director of Intelligence, he was involved in providing funds and arms to the IRA units and in the selection of officers. Collins' charisma and organisational capability galvanised many who came in contact with him.

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He established what proved an effective network of spies among sympathetic members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police 's DMP G Division and other important branches of the British administration. The G Division men were a relatively small political division active in subverting the republican movement and were detested by the IRA as often they were used to identify volunteers, who would have been unknown to British soldiers or the later Black and Tans.

Collins set up the "Squad" , a group of men whose sole duty was to seek out and kill "G-men" and other British spies and agents. One spy who escaped with his life was F. Digby Hardy , who was exposed by Arthur Griffith before an "IRA" meeting, which in fact consisted of Irish and foreign journalists, and then advised to take the next boat out of Dublin. While the paper membership of the IRA, carried over from the Irish Volunteers , was over , men, Michael Collins estimated that only 15, were active in the IRA during the course of the war, with about 3, on active service at any time.

The IRA benefitted from the widespread help given to them by the general Irish population, who generally refused to pass information to the RIC and the British military and who often provided " safe houses " and provisions to IRA units "on the run". The proposal was immediately dismissed. The British increased the use of force; reluctant to deploy the regular British Army into the country in greater numbers, they set up two paramilitary police units to aid the RIC. Deployed to Ireland in March , most came from English and Scottish cities. While officially they were part of the RIC, in reality they were a paramilitary force.

After their deployment in March , they rapidly gained a reputation for drunkenness and ill discipline, that did more harm to the British government's moral authority in Ireland than any other group. In response to IRA actions, in the summer of , the Tans burned and sacked numerous small towns throughout Ireland, including Balbriggan , Trim , Templemore and others.

In July , another quasi-military police body, the Auxiliaries , consisting of 2, former British army officers, arrived in Ireland. The Auxiliary Division had a reputation just as bad as the Tans for their mistreatment of the civilian population but tended to be more effective and more willing to take on the IRA. The policy of reprisals, which involved public denunciation or denial and private approval, was famously satirised by Lord Hugh Cecil when he said: "It seems to be agreed that there is no such thing as reprisals but they are having a good effect.

It replaced the trial by jury by courts-martial by regulation for those areas where IRA activity was prevalent. This act has been interpreted by historians as a choice by Prime Minister David Lloyd George to put down the rebellion in Ireland rather than negotiate with the republican leadership. It was in this period that a mutiny broke out among the Connaught Rangers , stationed in India.


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Two were killed whilst trying to storm an armoury and one was later executed. A number of events dramatically escalated the conflict in late Then, on 21 November , there was a day of dramatic bloodshed in Dublin. In the early morning, Collins' Squad attempted to wipe out the leading British intelligence operatives in the capital. The Squad shot 19 people, killing 14 and wounding 5. These consisted of British Army officers, police officers and civilians.

Lessons in Counterinsurgency from the Anglo-Irish War - War on the Rocks

The dead included members of the Cairo Gang and a courts-martial officer, and were killed at different places around Dublin. Fourteen civilians were killed, including one of the players, Michael Hogan , and a further 65 people were wounded. The official account was that the three men were shot "while trying to escape", which was rejected by Irish nationalists, who were certain the men had been tortured then murdered.

These actions marked a significant escalation of the conflict.


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  • In response, Counties Cork, Kerry, Limerick, and Tipperary — all in the province of Munster — were put under martial law on 10 December under the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act ; this was followed on 5 January in the rest of Munster and in Counties Kilkenny and Wexford in the province of Leinster. On 11 December, the centre of Cork City was burnt out by the Black and Tans, who then shot at firefighters trying to tackle the blaze, in reprisal for an IRA ambush in the city on 11 December which killed one Auxiliary and wounded eleven.

    Attempts at a truce in December were scuppered by Hamar Greenwood , who insisted on a surrender of IRA weapons first. During the following eight months until the Truce of July , there was a spiralling of the death toll in the conflict, with 1, people including the RIC police, army, IRA volunteers and civilians, being killed in the months between January and July alone.

    In addition, 4, IRA personnel or suspected sympathisers were interned in this time.

    Between 1 November and 7 June twenty-four men were executed by the British. Cornelius Murphy of Millstreet , Cork was shot in Cork city. On 28 February, six more were executed, again in Cork. Barry's men narrowly avoided being trapped by converging British columns and inflicted between ten and thirty killed on the British side. Twenty British soldiers were killed or injured, as well as two IRA men and three civilians. Most of the actions in the war were on a smaller scale than this, but the IRA did have other significant victories in ambushes, for example at Millstreet in Cork and at Scramogue in Roscommon, also in March and at Tourmakeady and Carowkennedy in Mayo in May and June.

    Equally common, however, were failed ambushes, the worst of which, for example at Mourneabbey, [ citation needed ] Upton and Clonmult in Cork in February , saw six, three, and twelve IRA men killed respectively and more captured. Fears of informers after such failed ambushes often led to a spate of IRA shootings of informers, real and imagined. The biggest single loss for the IRA, however, came in Dublin.

    Symbolically, this was intended to show that British rule in Ireland was untenable. However, from a military point of view, it was a heavy defeat in which five IRA men were killed and over eighty captured. However, it did not, as is sometimes claimed, cripple the IRA in Dublin. The Dublin Brigade carried out attacks in the city in May and 93 in June, showing a falloff in activity, but not a dramatic one.

    However, by July , most IRA units were chronically short of both weapons and ammunition, with over 3, prisoners interned. Still, many military historians have concluded that the IRA fought a largely successful and lethal guerrilla war, which forced the British government to conclude that the IRA could not be defeated militarily. A general election for the Parliament of Southern Ireland was held on 13 May.

    Under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act , the Parliament of Southern Ireland was therefore dissolved, and executive and legislative authority over Southern Ireland was effectively transferred to the Lord Lieutenant assisted by Crown appointees. Over the next two days 14—15 May , the IRA killed fifteen policemen. By the time of the truce, however, many republican leaders, including Michael Collins, were convinced that if the war went on for much longer, there was a chance that the IRA campaign as it was then organised could be brought to a standstill.

    Because of this, plans were drawn up to "bring the war to England". The IRA did take the campaign to the streets of Glasgow.

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    The units charged with these missions would more easily evade capture because England was not under, and British public opinion was unlikely to accept, martial law. These plans were abandoned because of the truce. The war of independence in Ireland ended with a truce on 11 July The conflict had reached a stalemate. Talks that had looked promising the previous year had petered out in December when David Lloyd George insisted that the IRA first surrender their arms. Fresh talks, after the Prime Minister had come under pressure from H. From the point of view of the British government, it appeared as if the IRA's guerrilla campaign would continue indefinitely, with spiralling costs in British casualties and in money.

    More importantly, the British government was facing severe criticism at home and abroad for the actions of British forces in Ireland. On 6 June , the British made their first conciliatory gesture, calling off the policy of house burnings as reprisals. It had been hard pressed by the deployment of more regular British soldiers to Ireland and by the lack of arms and ammunition.

    The King, who had made his unhappiness at the behaviour of the Black and Tans in Ireland well known to his government, was dissatisfied with the official speech prepared for him for the opening of the new Parliament of Northern Ireland , created as a result of the partition of Ireland.

    Smuts, a close friend of the King, suggested to him that the opportunity should be used to make an appeal for conciliation in Ireland.

    The King asked him to draft his ideas on paper. Smuts prepared this draft and gave copies to the King and to Lloyd George.