Policing in Ireland During the War of Independence Gerry OShea
Policing Ireland was a complex and challenging project during the War of Independence which lasted from January 1919 until July 1921 when a truce was declared between the leaders of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British Government.
While the British Army had a garrison of around 5o,ooo men in Ireland, prime minister David Lloyd-George stipulated that he wouldn’t dignify the IRA insurgency as a war and so he determined that dealing with it required strong police action, supported but not led by the military.
The police force was re-organized in 1836 with a clear command structure extending from county leadership to the top man headquartered in Dublin. This Irish blueprint for policing was used later across the British Empire. Every constable was trained to use a variety of arms. They had a membership of around 9,500 and lost 300 of their number to IRA bombs and bullets during the thirty-one months of the conflict.
For unclear and puzzling reasons the city of Dublin had its own police force and command structure, the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP). Unlike the RIC which was responsible for the remainder of the country, the members of the DMP were unarmed because, amazingly, the military planners felt that they were far more likely to encounter trouble in country areas. This policy continued during the War of Independence despite the clear evidence to the contrary after the Easter Rebellion in Dublin in 1916.
The detective branch of the DMP, known as the G Division, was targeted by the IRA leader, Michael Collins, and his specially-chosen team of hit-men and six G men were executed during the war, leading to a mood of heightened belligerence in Dublin. Members of the DMP lost all credibility with workers and their families because of their harsh treatment of trade unionists during the 1913 Lockout.
For the record, the new Free State government, which assumed power after the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922, maintained the country and city division of police power until 1925 when the two bodies – now both unarmed – were brought under one chief officer, the Garda Commissioner, in Dublin.
Prior to the commencement of the Irish struggle in 1919 for independence from Westminster, the local RIC men in each town were viewed favorably by most people. Apart from maintaining order, the local RIC barracks was also responsible for recording the census, collecting agricultural statistics and ensuring that the protocols for weights and measures were honored. Most of the ordinary Bobbies - as they were sometimes called after their founder Sir Robert Peel - were young Catholics who saw the uniform as a passage to status and respectability.
That describes one positive perspective on the police force. Another view was far less attractive because these men were enforcers of laws made in a foreign parliament by legislators who viewed the Irish in the words of a distinguished contemporary commentator as “primitive, uncivilized, superstitious, backward and slovenly.”
The police were called on to support clearing farms at the behest of landlords during the famine years, and during the Land War (1879 to 1881) they provided the strong arm, carrying batons and guns, in the many evictions of poor families, especially along the west coast.
The beginning of the war is generally dated from the killing of two policemen in Soloheadbeg in County Tipperary by an IRA unit led by Dan Breen and Sean Tracey. The attack was condemned locally by most people because the two constables - MacDonnell and OConnell - were well-liked and part of the Catholic community. Dan Breen saw them differently and had no hesitation in calling out all members of the RIC as “spies and hirelings.”
The top command structure of the police included some Catholics, but by 1919 the vast majority – over 90% - of county and regional commanders were English-born or from local Protestant communities. As the war progressed and police atrocities multiplied the people turned against a force that they no longer viewed as fair or impartial.
The British Government needed to supplement the numbers in the RIC which had to deal with many resignations of Catholic members who did not want to engage in battles with an armed Irish insurgency that had a high level of popular support. They recruited mostly ex-servicemen in mainland Britain and to improve flagging morale they raised the pay significantly of everyone wearing the police uniform in Ireland.
They hired over 10,000 men in this way who were fitted out with uniforms that were half RIC and half British Army, an apt metaphor for supposed policemen, who only got minimal training before being set loose on a population that quickly learned to fear and hate them. Their title, Black and Tans, lives on in infamy.
As the resignations of policemen continued in Ireland and the revolution gathered steam, Lloyd-George sent in another bunch of English recruits to support the struggling and demoralized RIC. These were enlisted from men who mostly served as part of a non-commissioned officer corps during the First World War. They were paid a princely wage of one pound a day, very attractive remuneration especially during the post-war recession that pervaded most of the cities in Great Britain.
Approximately 2000 men, called Auxiliaries, were hired and their harsh and indeed murderous tactics were worse than the Black and Tans. Their predictable response to IRA attacks involved reprisals that terrorized local communities.
The political leadership in Westminster had no problem with the over-the-top police response to the hit and run guerilla tactics of the IRA. Looting and revenge killings of suspected IRA men were part of the debauched tactics especially of the Black and Tans and Auxilaries. They had the most sophisticated weaponry in the world but they didn’t know how to counteract the surprise attacks by highly-motivated Irish forces armed with a few bombs and rifles.
In July 1920 a contingent of the Cork IRA executed the Munster Divisional Commissioner of the RIC, Gerald Bryce Ferguson Smith, in an exclusive club in Cork city. He put a target on his back when he encouraged the police in Listowel, County Kerry, to shoot any republican suspects on sight.
Sinn Fein had won a resounding victory in the 1918 Westminster election. Their declared policy centered on a republican form of government for the whole island, a demand that far exceeded the Home Rule parliament promoted by the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP).
The 1918 victory was not an endorsement of violence, but it inevitably led to loud calls for Lloyd-George to apply his rationale for fighting the First World War (1914 to 1918) to allow small nations to maintain their independence. Why not apply this principle to Ireland?
The IRA war with British forces developed its own momentum: ambush by insurgents followed by reprisals against the civilian population. For instance, the Auxiliaries lost sixteen men at the famous IRA ambush at Kilmichael, located about twenty miles west of Cork city, and were attacked again a few days afterwards in a major engagement at Dillon’s Cross closer to the city. Their response on December 11th 1920 in a dreadful display of frustration and indiscipline was to burn most of the buildings in the city’s commercial section.
On December 23rd, 1920, at the height of the IRA war in the south, the Government of Ireland Act was passed in Westminster. This set up a parliament for six of the nine Ulster counties in Belfast. The country was partitioned and the nationalist people had no say in the matter.
The RIC changed to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and in place of the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans another police group was formed, the Ulster Special Constabulary, better known as B Specials, to bolster the RUC in the north. This was a blatantly sectarian force that persecuted Catholics at every turn until they were disbanded in 1970 in the early years of the Troubles.
The RUC, while less obvious about their discriminatory practices, had low credibility with nationalists in the Six Counties. They too were shelved during the negotiations in 1998 that led to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) replaced the RUC and the new force is mandated to welcome members from the minority nationalist community – the most radical and far-reaching change introduced in the GFA.
So, in a small island with a population that barely exceeds half of the number living in New York City, naming all the police and military forces that have played significant roles in the Irish story over the last hundred years suggests correctly that we are dealing with a very turbulent period of history – RIC, Black and Tans, Auxiliaries, IRA, British Army, Gardai, RUC, B Specials and PSNI.Gerry OShea