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International Socialism, January 1976


John Newsinger

Revolt to Revolution


From International Socialism, No.85, January 1976, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Revolt to Revolution
Michael Elliott-Bateman, John Ellis, Tom Bowde
Manchester, £7.50

This is the second volume in a series on the fourth dimension of warfare, that is guerilla warfare and the various associated forms of political and military activity, to issue from the Military Studies Department at Manchester University.

According to one of the contributors, Michael Elliott-Bateman, we live in ‘the age of the guerilla’ where guerilla warfare has become ‘a main form of political violence’. This is of course not a new proposition but has been commonplace among right-wing military commentators for a good few years now. This particular book does not contribute anything of real interest on the subject with the one important exception of Tom Bowden’s discussion of the Black and Tan war. His contribution is worth nothing not just because of what he has to say about British counter-insurgency methods in Ireland but also because of the light he throws upon the whole political establishment.

In the aftermath of the 1916 rising in Dublin, British authority in Ireland progressively disintegrated. Popular sentiment rallied to Sinn Fein and to the alternative state that it established, while the Dublin Castle administration was crippled by the activity of the IRA. Quite deliberately the IRA set out to weaken and demoralise the police force, the RIC, by boycott, intimidation and assassination with special attention being given to eliminating the undercover ‘G’ squad of the Dublin police and the Special Crimes Branch. By 1920 the police force was a broken reed.

The Lloyd George government launched a counter-offensive in the spring of that year in an attempt to regain the initiative. The Dublin Castle administration was handed over to a team specially chosen to crush Sinn Fein and defeat the IRA. Effective ruler of the country was Sir John Anderson, Under-Secretary for Ireland, a ruthless civil servant and one of the most powerful men in Britain in the first half of this century – one of the ‘real rulers’ of the country as his biographer describes him. He was to go on to become Permanent Under-Secretary at the Home Office where he organised and controlled strike-breaking arrangements in 1926, Governor of Bengal in 1932, Home Secretary in 1940 and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1944-45. General Sir Nevil Macready, fresh from the post of Metropolitan Police Commissioner and his victory over the policeman’s union in 1919 became General Officer Commanding in Ireland and a new chief of intelligence, Colonel Sir Ormonde Winter was appointed.

At the suggestion of Winston Churchill, the Secretary for War, the battered RIC was reinforced by specially raised volunteer units recruited from demobilised servicemen that became known as the Black and Tans and by an Auxiliary Division made up entirely of ex-army officers. Alongside of this a special school to train secret agents for intelligence work in Ireland was set up in London and in ones and twos they began to cross over the Irish Channel for active service.

The depredations of the Black and Tans are well known but Bowden establishes beyond any doubt that the Dublin Castle Administration and the British government also carried out a policy of selective assassination of prominent republicans. He quotes from the Chief of the General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson’s diary that Lloyd George was ‘satisfied that a counter-murder association was the best answer to Sinn Fein murders.’

On 1 June 1920, C. Prescott Dene of Munster No.1 division RIC wrote to the Assistant Under-Secretary’s office that

‘I have been told the new policy and plan and I am satisfied, though I doubt its ultimate success in the main particular – the stamping out of terrorism by secret murder.’

Bowden establishes that in May 1920 there was one assassination for which the security forces were indisputably responsible, in June three, in July 15, in August 11, in September 18 and from the 1-18 November 23. Among those killed was Thomas MacCurtain, Lord Mayor of Cork.

Without doubt these measures put the IRA under a lot of pressure. Only the efficiency of IRA intelligence under Michael Collins enabled them to defeat this British offensive. On 21 November 1920, ‘Bloody Sunday’, Collins’ men carried out carefully co-ordinated raids in Dublin to kill or wound 13 British secret agents and to effectively smash Winter’s organisation. The British military effort did not recover from this blow.

The importance of Bowden’s research lies not just in the discussion of the methods that were used, but in the way it enables responsibility to be placed right at the top with Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, General Macready, Field Marshal Wilson and Sir John Anderson. There can be no doubt that if it had been necessary in 1926 or any other time these men would have been prepared to unleash a bloodbath on the working class without turning a hair. What they did in Ireland, they would have done in Britain without any hesitation.

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