The Politics of the Irish Civil War

The Politics of the Irish Civil War

The Politics of the Irish Civil War

The Politics of the Irish Civil War


Based on extensive archival research this book situates the Irish civil war in the general process of decolonization in the twentieth century, and explains why divisions over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 proved so formative in the development of the Irish state. Each chapter is devoted to aparticular aspect of the war and many new areas are explored. These include the role the doctrine of self-determination played in the Sinn Fein movement, the fate of numerous peace initiatives, the power struggle between de Valera and Liam Lynch within the IRA, and the impact of the civil war on thewider civil society. The last three chapters explore how the conflict has been interpreted by the actors themselves, as well as by historians. Combining perspectives drawn from history and politics, this book will interest not only students of Irish history, but also those interested in thecomparative study of civil wars.


It is a remarkable reflection on Irish political history in the twentieth century that the first substantive decision to be taken by an independent Irish parliament led to civil war. That war began on 28 June 1922 and ended on 30 April 1923. Over a thousand lives may have been lost in the conflict, but the records do not allow for a precise estimate. The material cost, in terms of damage to the infrastructure of the new state, was immense. At issue was the Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed on 6 December 1921, but supporters of the Treaty also believed that the military opposition to the settlement called into question the proper basis of social and political order in Irish society. Paradoxically, a point in Irish history that should have been seen as a triumph of national unity revealed the deep divisions within Irish nationalism and its capacity for internal discord. Indeed the protagonists could not even agree on how to characterize the events of 1922–3. Pro-treatyites often resented the appellation ‘civil war’, since they believed that it gave their opponents a degree of legitimacy their cause did not entitle them to. The fighting was merely a reassertion of law and order in the wake of a disorderly War of Independence. Anti-treatyites, in contrast, did not believe that independence had been achieved by the Treaty, and liked to describe the fighting as a continuation of the War of Independence against the British, which had begun in 1919. Neutrals accepted that it was a civil war, an avoidable and destructive conflict brought about by an irresponsible and embittered national leadership.


It is by now a truism in the comparative study of civil wars that not all such conflicts need have a public character. Kaldor outlines the typical features of the ‘new wars’ of the post-cold war era, which often blur the distinction between war, organized crime, and massive human rights violations. In these conflicts, the

D. Fitzpatrick, The Two Irelands, 1912–1939 (Oxford, New York, 1998), 134. For a higher figure see M. Hopkinson, ‘Civil War and Aftermath, 1922–4’, in J. R. Hill (ed.), A New History of Ireland volume 7, 1921–84 (Oxford, 2003), 54

E. Neeson, The Irish Civil War (Dublin, 1989), 222.

The Case of the Republic of Ireland, republican pamphlet issued in response to Bishops pastoral (UCD, de Valera Papers, 150/1653).

M. Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era (Cambridge, 2001), 2.

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