In post-Treaty Ireland, the wave of violence in the north heralded the future
As we near the more controversial Civil War era on the Decade of Centenaries calendar, it is worth remembering how a series of almost forgotten events along the new Irish border and in Belfast in early 1922 prompted a resumption of widespread political violence in Ireland just months later all of Ireland threatened to sign the Anglo-Irish treaty.
The background to these events can be traced back to 14 January 1922 when senior officers of the Monaghan-based IRA’s 5th Northern Division were arrested outside of Dromore, Co Tyrone by the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC), the newly formed paramilitary police force of the northern state.
The group of IRA men traveled to Derry as part of the Monaghan Gaelic football team due to play in the Ulster Championship final.
However, the IRA used the guise of the finale to free three IRA men from Derry Prison who were sentenced to death and were to be hanged for the murder of a prison guard in a failed prison escape in December 1921.
Since the bitterness within the broader Republican family over the terms of the treaty, Michael Collins had made earnest attempts to reunite both the pro- and anti-treaty sides of the IRA.
The arrests of Tyrone and the planned hanging of the three IRA men in Derry caused consternation within the IRA ranks and offered Collins an opportunity to reunite both IRA factions around a common cause and against a common enemy.
Historian Robert Lynch claimed that in the early months of 1922, Collins played a careful balancing act as an outraged constitutional politician while secretly plotting to spread destruction and instability throughout the new northern state.
Between January and March 1922, Collins negotiated two separate and largely unsuccessful agreements with the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, James Craig, which covered a range of issues including the lifting of the boycott of Belfast-made goods, greater protection for Northern Catholics and bilateral agreements Discussions about the future of the Irish border.
At the same time that Collins was negotiating his first agreement with Craig, which was signed on 30 January 1922, he formed the Ulster Council, a secret body under IRB control with the aim of coordinating IRA activities along the border.
The council was a combination of pro and anti-treaty factions of the IRA, led by Frank Aiken with Sean MacEoin as his deputy.
While talks were ongoing with British authorities to commute Derry’s death sentences and release the “Monaghan footballers”, pro-contract IRA chief of staff Eoin O’Duffy was – to Collins’ knowledge – in an advanced stage of organizing the kidnapping of prominent figures Loyalists in Fermanagh and Tyrone through Ulster Council.
It was O’Duffy’s intention to use the captured Loyalists as a bargaining chip to prevent the hangings.
Unaware that Derry’s death sentences were being commuted earlier that day, IRA units from Monaghan, Leitrim and Longford conducted a series of separate raids across the border into Fermanagh and Tyrone on the night of 7 February 1922.
While the Tyrone raids were successful and kidnapped 42 Loyalists who were taken across the border to Monaghan, the IRA raiders in Fermanagh met stiff resistance from some of their kidnapping targets.
The presence of the IRA raiders in the area was quickly brought to the attention of the authorities and a swift action by the local USC led to the arrest of the IRA assault squad outside Enniskillen.
When Loyalist hostages were held captive in Monaghan, tension along the border immediately increased. Checkpoints were set up at key border crossings, and side roads were mined or ditched by police to restrict movement.
USC forces were deployed to border areas to reinforce local barracks and protect local Unionist communities from IRA raids.
One such unit, a party of 19 traveling by train from Newtownards to Enniskillen on the evening of 11 February, was at Clones station in Co Monaghan on the south side of the border awaiting a connecting train to Enniskillen.
Their presence was immediately reported to the local IRA, who went to the station to confront the police officers.
As local IRA commander Matt Fitzpatrick ran down the platform, he was killed when USC fired a shot from the Enniskillen train as it was about to depart from the station.
Fitzpatrick’s comrades opened fire on the train with a Thompson submachine gun, killing four USC men and wounding many others, including civilians. Only four USC men escaped injury in the firefight, but they were captured by the IRA and taken hostage.
At 6.30pm the train was finally allowed to leave Clones and when it arrived in Enniskillen, wagons covered in blood and bullet holes in them, word spread quickly and sectarian violence erupted across Ulster. Between February 13 and 15, a total of 27 Catholics and 16 Protestants were killed in the north. Among the dead were six children, killed when a bomb was dropped on a Catholic schoolyard on Weaver Street in Belfast.
After the children’s deaths, British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill said in the House of Commons: “This is the worst thing that has happened in Ireland in three years.”
Despite the shock and outrage that followed the killings, sectarian violence continued. Responding to the increasing levels of death and destruction, Bishop of Down and Connor Joseph MacRory blamed the violence in Belfast on “the doctrine of vicarious punishment whereby the Catholics of Belfast must suffer for the sins of their brethren elsewhere”.
The effects of the cross-border kidnappings and killings of the clone troopers threatened a major confrontation between north and south and a renewed flare-up of political violence across Ireland.
With an intensification of USC-IRA violence along the border, evacuations of British troops from the Free State were immediately suspended
In an attempt to de-escalate tensions, following the Dublin-London talks, the British released the Monaghan prisoners from Derry prison on 21 February and the IRA responded by releasing the captured loyalist hostages.
In the months that followed, Collins continued to support secret IRA operations against the new northern state to make partition impracticable.
His justification for this policy was not only to destabilize the northern state, but also to try to unite the divided IRA around a common cause and thus prevent a split in its ranks.
Despite his best efforts, Collins’ plan to reunite the IRA failed, and as sectarian violence continued in the North, both sides in the South slowly moved closer to unleashing more violence in a bloody civil war.
dr Patrick McGarty is Senior Lecturer at the Technical University of Münster. He is the author of Leitrim, The Irish Revolution 1912-23, published by Four Courts Press.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/centenaries/in-post-treaty-ireland-surge-of-violence-in-the-north-proved-a-sign-of-things-to-come-42328986.html In post-Treaty Ireland, the wave of violence in the north heralded the future