Collins showed poor judgment in a barrage of crises

ANTI-TREATY candidates received less than 22% of the first preference votes in the general election of June 1922.

Collins showed poor judgment in  a barrage of crises

None of them topped the poll in any constituency.

Of the 65 pro-Treaty Sinn Féin candidates standing in the election, 58 were elected, while only 35 of the anti-Treaty people were successful. However, even that exaggerated the anti-Treaty support, because 16 of those were returned unopposed, largely due to intimidation. Where seats were contested, only 19 of 41 anti-Treaty candidates were elected, compared to 41 of 48 pro-Treaty Sinn Féin candidates.

Had the pro-Treaty Labour Party run more candidates, it would probably have surpassed the anti-Treaty Sinn Féin vote, seeing that the total vote of Labour’s 18 candidates was only 1,353 votes short of the combined total of the 41 anti-Treaty candidates who faced opposition.

Anti-treaty losers included Kathleen Clarke, the widow of Thomas Clarke of 1916 fame. She finished last of the seven candidates for the four seats in Mid-Dublin. Countess Markievicz finished over 800 votes behind the fourth and final successful candidate in her constituency, while Margaret Pearse — the mother of Patrick Pearse, failed to retain her seat in Co Dublin even though she was the only anti-Treaty candidate running in the six-seat constituency.

“The rejection of so many anti-Treaty candidates, in spite of the protection afforded to them by the panel,” could only be interpreted in one way, according to Collins: The Irish people were protesting against the anti-Treaty campaign of the past six months.

“We are hopelessly beaten, and if it weren’t for the Pact it would have been much worse,” Éamon de Valera admitted.

Yet those who called themselves republicans exhibited a perverse sense of republicanism by their refusal to accept the verdict of not only the people but even of the majority of their own colleagues.

Two days after the election, the anti-Treaty IRA held a convention at which it was proposed to give the British government 72 hours’ notice of their intention to terminate the truce. Although 12 of the 16-man executive supported the motion, chief of staff Liam Lynch and Cathal Brugha vigorously opposed the proposal, and it was narrowly defeated by 118 votes to 103.

Rory O’Connor and other hardliners refused to accept the decision. They returned to the Four Courts, where they locked out those who had voted against their motion.

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland a series of outrageous murders of Protestants were committed in the Newry area by the 4th Northern Division of the IRA under the command of Frank Aiken. Thomas Crozier, 67, and his wife, Elizabeth, were shot at Altnaveigh. She was hit in the arm and bled to death. John Heaslip and his 19-year-old son, Robert, were shot at Lisdrumliskea. Mrs Heaslip witnessed the raid and pleaded for mercy for her husband and son.

“Belfast Catholics got no mercy,” one of men replied before firing more shots into the two on the ground.

After William Lockhart was shot, his home was torched. As his 21-year-old son, James, was being escorted away with a young neighbour, they were told not to speak, but Lockhart’s mother followed pleading with the men. Lockhart turned to say something to his mother.

“You did not do what you were told,” one of the men said and shot the young man dead in front of his distraught mother. These murders provoked revulsion throughout the whole island, though this was overshadowed in the South by news of the election returns.

The already tense political climate in Ireland was further strained on June 22, 1922, by the assassination of Field Marshal Henry Wilson in London by two Londoners with strong Irish connections — Richard Dunne and Reginald O’Sullivan. Both were in their mid-20s, born and raised in London, and each had served and been wounded in the First World War, in which O’Sullivan lost a leg.

Each was living with his parents at the time, and both were members of the IRB. They were captured after a short chase. Documents found on them linked them to the IRA. “The ambiguous position of the Irish Republican Army can no longer be ignored by the British Government,” Lloyd George warned Collins. “Still less can Mr Rory O’Connor be permitted to remain with his followers and his arsenal in open rebellion in the heart of Dublin in possession of the Courts of Justice.”

The British assumed that the IRA executive at the Four Courts were behind the murder. Before the truce in June 1921, Dunne and O’Sullivan had reported to Rory O’Connor, who was in charge of IRA activities in England. But it was actually Collins who ordered the hit on Wilson, without telling his government colleagues.

Of course, there was no hard evidence that Collins was behind the murder, any more than there was firm evidence that he ordered the Squad to kill various detectives in 1919. History must rely on the word of people such as Liam Tobin, Frank Thornton, Joe Dolan, and Joe Sweeney.

“How do we stand about the shooting of Wilson?” Sweeney asked Collins within hours of the shooting.

“It was two of our men did it,” Collins replied, looking very pleased with himself.

When Liam Tobin told Richard Mulcahy that Collins was behind the killing, Mulcahy was so annoyed he threatened to resign. It was a reckless act that threatened to destroy everything. Collins had allowed his own weakness for intrigue and his turbulent nationalism to get the better of his judgement in a barrage of crises.

“Now you are supported by the declared will of the Irish people in favour of the treaty,” Lloyd George warned Collins, adding the British government felt that “they have a right to expect that the necessary action will be taken by your government without delay.” The British offered to furnish artillery for an attack on the Four Courts.

It was a virtual ultimatum, but the provisional government procrastinated. General Macready was therefore ordered to attack the Four Courts with British troops, but he feared that Churchill’s “feverish impetuosity” had led to this decision.

“Panic and a desire to do something, no matter what, by those whose ignorance of the Irish situation blinded them to possible results, was at the root of this scheme,” Macready noted. He concluded the proposal would be a mistake at that stage, so he sent his adjutant to London to argue that the British should give the provisional government more time to act.

“I have never ceased to congratulate myself on having been instrumental in staving off what would have been a disaster from every point of view,” Macready wrote in his memoirs.

While Macready was delaying in Dublin on June 27, Churchill was giving vent to his frustrations at Westminster. Forces from the Four Courts raided the car dealership of Harry Ferguson on Baggot St, Dublin, where they seized 16 cars to be used for an attack on Northern Ireland. Commandant Leo Henderson, director of the Belfast Boycott at the Four Courts, led the raid.

Troops of the provisional government surrounded the garage as the raid was in progress. They compelled the raiders to evacuate the building, and arrested Henderson.

At 11.15 that night Lt Genl JJ “Ginger” O’Connell was kidnapped in retaliation by forces from the Four Courts after he had seen his girlfriend home following a night at the theatre. He was held hostage for the release of Henderson and five men arrested in Drogheda the previous day.

Collins had already decided to attack the Four Courts, but the seizure of O’Connell made it much easier to press ahead with the assault. Those at the Four Courts were given an ultimatum at 3.40am to vacate the buildings by 4am, and when they had failed to do so by about 4.15am on June 28, the army of the provisional government began a bombardment with weapons provided by the British.

This was seen as the start of the Irish Civil War.

* For more pictures and commentary, click here

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