History Military Politics

Ireland’s Great Betrayal

British troops pose with an Irish Tricolour captured from Pro-Treaty and Anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army units following the Battle of Pettigo and Belleek in late May and early June of 1922
British troops pose with an Irish Tricolour captured from Pro-Treaty and Anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army units following the Battle of Pettigo and Belleek in late May and early June of 1922

What date marks the end of Ireland’s War of Independence? It is a question more debated than you might think (along with the commencement of the struggle itself, with both Cork and Donegal claiming the “first shots” of the conflict in 1918, well ahead of the usual date of January 1919). If you were to follow the conventional narrative crafted by the post-partition elites in Dublin the hostilities ended with the Irish-British Truce of July 11th 1921, followed by the Irish-British Treaty of December 6th and the controversial ratification of the international agreement by Dáil Éireann on January 7th 1922. While many books point to the July ceasefire as the moment when the war stopped some historians prefer to look to the signing of the treaty in London, several months later.

Truth be told, despite the formal peace in the summer of 1921, the War of Independence went on unabated in some parts of the country for the rest of the year and well beyond that. Right up to the winter of 1922 the northern brigades of the Irish Republican Army, both Anti-Treaty and Pro-Treaty, continued to attack the British Occupation Forces as well as the Unionist terror factions in their areas. Both wings of the IRA (as well as the rarely discussed “Neutral IRA” led by General Frank Aiken and others) supported the resistance in what was to become the parastate of “Northern Ireland”, as the British colony on the island of Ireland was whittled down to the smallest defensible region in the north-east of the country. While the Irish Republican Army (formerly the Anti-Treaty IRA side) and its opponents in the Irish National Army (formerly the Pro-Treaty IRA side) moved towards civil war nationally both were active locally seeking to undermine British rule in the north. As well as pursuing separate operations the two militaries worked together to resist the authority of the new Unionist regime at Stormont and its London allies. The most dramatic instance of this was the Battle of Pettigo and Belleek in late May and early June of 1922 when Anti-Treaty and Pro-Treaty IRA units – the latter technically part of the breakaway Irish National or Free State Army – fought a sustained defence against a force of several hundred British troops and paramilitary police supported by artillery as they attacked by land and water.

Both wings of the IRA also sought recruits from the northern divisions, transferring Volunteers from units in Belfast and Derry to Anti- and Pro-Treaty formations elsewhere. The great irony of Ulstermen (and women) fighting in support of the 1921 Treaty on what was ultimately to emerge as the Nationalist rather than Republican side should not be forgotten. That they did so based upon promises and pledges that were soon to be broken by those in power in Dublin should not be forgotten either. The Irish Times has more on this, in particular the renewed campaign agreed by both wings of the Irish Republican Army in mid-1922, including those striving to remain unaligned to either:

“This joint-IRA offensive was envisioned as a full-scale invasion – a campaign of sweeping troop movements and “scorched earth” policies, culminating with an advance on Belfast.

Of course, things did not work out that way. The offensive commenced on May 19th, 1922, but quickly collapsed amid confusion and recrimination. Since then, its details have been obscured by a lack of documentary evidence and the conflicting testimonies of those who were involved. As a consequence, many questions surrounding the episode remain a source of speculation.

One of the more intriguing questions to emerge in recent years has concerned the role of Frank Aiken, commander of the IRA’s Fourth Northern Division, and later one of Ireland’s most prominent statesmen. Aiken was a key player in the planning of the offensive, and was widely reputed to be its chosen leader. His division – which operated in the borderlands of Armagh, south Down and north Louth – was one of the more active and organised IRA units in Ulster. As such, it was expected to play a crucial role in the attack. When the time came, however, Aiken and his men failed to commence their operations.

…Aiken – despite numerous claims to the contrary – was not in command of the offensive.

The confusion stems from Aiken’s position as chairman of the IRA’s Ulster Council. This shadowy body was established by Michael Collins in January 1922 to co-ordinate IRA activity in Northern Ireland. It was composed of the commanders of all those IRA divisions with an operational presence north of the border.

…the council’s most significant operation in the months that followed – the abduction of more than 40 unionists from the border areas of Tyrone and Fermanagh – was instigated by another member, Eoin O’Duffy, the pro-Treaty chief-of-staff, and sanctioned by Collins.

When the plans for an offensive were announced in April 1922, seemingly at Collins’s behest, the Ulster Council became central to its planning. Aiken, meanwhile, was twice offered the role of commanding the campaign, and on both occasions he refused. The pro-Treaty leadership refused to give him a free hand in the matter… He also appears to have been suspicious of their motives in proposing the initiative, particularly in light of the risk it posed to the Treaty settlement.

It did not help that his relationships with Collins, O’Duffy and Richard Mulcahy (the minister for defence) were becoming increasingly strained, mostly as a result of his neutral stance in the IRA split. Although his division remained nominally under the authority of the provisional government’s department for defence, Aiken had made it very clear that he could not be relied upon for support in any future confrontation with the anti-Treaty IRA.

So if Aiken was not in command of the offensive, who was? The available evidence – though sketchy – would suggest that the task fell to O’Duffy, as chief-of-staff of the provisional government forces. He had the final say on when the operations would commence, and it was on his authority that the original start date was later postponed to allow further time for preparation.

If this was the case, who then cancelled the Fourth Northern Division’s participation in the offensive? …it seems more likely that the division’s withdrawal from the offensive was related to a broader decision by the pro-Treaty leadership that there should be no fighting on or around the border. Having instigated the offensive for the dual purpose of securing the nominal loyalty of the northern IRA and promoting republican unity in the south through the lure of a common cause, they now sought to hide their complicity.

…was it the pro-Treaty leadership’s intention all along? Was the offensive simply a means of buying time ahead of a confrontation with the anti-Treaty IRA, and of decimating a now inconvenient IRA presence in the north?

…it is telling that Aiken and his Fourth Northern Division believed that an offensive was still in the offing right up until the provisional government attacked the Four Courts on June 28th, 1922. What is more, they were actively encouraged in this belief by figures such as Mulcahy and O’Duffy. If there was betrayal on the border in the spring of 1922, perhaps its origins were to be found in Dublin.”

Given that the Free State assault on the Four Courts was carried out with the support of the British Occupation Forces, both the withdrawing garrisons in the south and the embedded ones in the north, the conspiracy to betray the northern divisions of the Irish Republican Army and the community they represented had its origins both in Dublin and London.

The Great Betrayal indeed.

12 comments on “Ireland’s Great Betrayal

  1. ar an sliabh

    Love your blog! Lots of good stuff this month. Having to catch up from a spike in work. absolutely great article. Go raibh maith agat, mo chara. Keep them coming.


  2. john cronin

    I seem to remember Aiken was responsible for massacring large numbers of Protestant civilians in Armagh: something the Sionnach seems determined to airbrush out of the account.


    • John, by “…massacring large numbers of Protestant civilians” I presume you mean the six men killed in separate attacks in Altnaveigh and Lisdrumliska in mid-June 1922 following the rape by British paramilitary police officers of the pregnant wife of James McGuill (a Sinn Féin activist) and the murder of two Catholic men three days earlier? The murders of the six Protestants was carried out by a 20-strong unit of Volunteers from the Fourth Northern Division of the Irish Republican Army, then nominally part of Aiken’s ad hoc “Neutral IRA”, who left their barracks in Dundalk without permission or orders. Some of those who carried out the attacks knew or were related to the McGuill family and the Catholic victims mentioned earlier. It was a nasty and illegal affair but no evidence has been found pointing to General Frank Aiken’s responsibility for it. On the contrary, despite soon coming under attack by Free State forces, Aiken strove to maintain order both within the fractured army and the wider community, regardless of faith or loyalty.

      I don’t airbrush. I provide links to articles, original sources and the truth.

      Not the grossly exaggerated mythology of professional British apologists.


  3. seamus mallon

    great article,you mention the irony of nothern volunteers taking the freestate side in the civil war,i know ,my grandfather was a belfast man who was in the ica during 1916,was in the dublin asu during the tan war but who then joined the freestate army.i can never get my head around that one.


    • Similar history in my own family. Charlie Haughey’s father is course the most well-known example but there were many, many others.


      • seamus mallon

        could you expand on the story about haugheys father as im not familiar with that.


        • From County Derry, took part in War of Independence, joined Pro-Treaty breakaway faction of the Old IRA which became the Free State army in 1920s.


  4. These events had a great effect on the Northern Catholic community and deserve to be better remembered. Collins’ attempts to face down the Treaty and his failure in the face of Churchill’s determination to force it on him finished the Republican movement for generations – until August 1969.


    • Arguably true, Pat. The failure of the civil rights’ movement, reaction and counter-reaction, was the next great spur to insurrection. It was the failure to legislate for Home Rule, the Easter Rising and the Conscription Crisis rolled into one.


      • Collins made a significant speech to a large body of Republicans in Armagh in late 1921 basically saying he would prevent the birth of the six county entity. This gave people their only hope. He then proceeded to use the northern IRA as the instrument of his policy in attempting to unite the movement. The offensive in the north during 1922 was very much Collins’ project although many of the best anti-treaty men were drawn into it. The Irish News blamed irregulars for it but it was primarily Collins project backed up by the Treaty divisions in the Midlands. The problem came when the British turned the screw on Collins and he aborted his offensive. Frank Aiken did not show presumably because orders were countermanded and went to attend to local business. When Collins was killed his Free State colleagues just abandoned the North, culminating with the disaster of the Boundary Commission. This must have had a tremendously demoralising effect on the northern IRA and the overall effect on the community in the north, left to its fate, was catastrophic.


        • I suppose in some ways the 1922-25 period was the Irish Nakba (النكبة‎) especially for the northern community. It is something that the Dublin establishment continues to shy from. The betrayal and failure that the 1921 treaty and civil war represented. Then again no one in power is too keen to highlight the differences between those who fought 1916-21 and those who triumphed in 1922-23.


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