The Truce of 11th July, 1921

One of the worst consequences of Mr. Lloyd George's mistaking reasonableness in the Sinn Féin leaders for weakness was to accentuate the demand for a Republic. Up to that time, the talk of a Republic arose largely from the habit of putting demands higher than expectations, which the shiftiness of English party politicians had encouraged. In his interview with me in August 1922, Mr. De Valera made a statement which throws a flood of light upon the secret processes by which the Irish Revolution was turned from peaceful action to arms. "He said" (I quote from my own note of our conversation) "he had spent the last four years trying to keep the peace between Cathal Brugha, on what he might call the old Fenian side, and Arthur Griffith, representing the Constitutional Sinn Féiners. They were really two separate movements, and nothing except the pressure of the Black-and-Tan terror kept them together so long." That I believe to be profoundly the historic truth of the matter. Parnell had the same nearly superhuman task as between the two wings of his own movement; but not only did Parnell possess a supreme genius for command, but the captains he attracted from the old Fenian host were men of as weighty a political judgment as his own, and the actual physical force movement had declined into a small and beaten sect, while the original Sinn Féin intellectual group had almost disappeared when the men of the Easter Week Rising by an absurd accident were forced to inherit their name, and the ferocity with which Dublin Castle persecuted every form of open and advised action every month increased the secret predominance of the men of action.

Mr. Lloyd George's unlucky response perforce threw Mr. De Valera more and more into the hands of the more revolutionary of his counsellors. The Dáil was secretly assembled and the Republic solemnly proclaimed. A more serious matter still, the members were made to take an oath of allegiance to the Republic, and the difficulty of getting the young idealists who were the flower of the movement to break the oath by which they were thus consecrated to the service of the Republic as an organized reality became the most insurmountable of all the obstacles in the peace negotiations later on. When I commented to Mr. De Valera upon the unwisdom of thus prejudicing the ultimate issue by an engagement so notoriously sacred in Irish eyes, he answered (I again quote from my précis of our conversation), "that he was from the beginning opposed to any oath of any kind being taken. It was while he was in prison the first Dáil began by swearing allegiance to the Republic, and at the second Dáil they had to follow the precedent."

I did not myself take too tragic a view of Mr. Lloyd George's non possumus. It was impossible to know him without counting upon his readiness with a new set of opinions whenever the old set proved unworkable. I construed his letter as an order that the war must go on—until further orders. One of the brainiest of the Republican leaders, who afterwards became a Minister in the Cabinet of the First Dáil (Mr. Austin Stack) has more than once reminded me of my prognostication at the time: "If you can hold out for six months longer, you'll have a sporting offer from Lloyd George," and his own amused reply: "If you're a true prophet, that's all right; we can hold out for two years longer against man or devil."

Before the six months were over, the Prime Minister was wobbling, and the "sporting offer" if it had not already come was on the way. In the meantime, Sir Hamar Greenwood's desperadoes grew more frantic than ever. Fresh regiments were poured across from England, it was made death to be in possession of firearms (two men were actually hanged for the offence) and the war of reprisals from both sides month by month assumed a more bloody and inhuman aspect, while a third party to the quarrel made its appearance in the shape of bands of highwaymen (mostly demobilised soldiers of the British Army) who roamed the country, plundering individuals and Banks with impartial pistols. It is curious to remark that, for the Bank robbery campaign, as for the substitution of assassination for persuasion in the case of the Constabulary, it was the Black Cabinet in Dublin Castle who set the example. They directed one of their Resident Magistrates, Mr. Alan Bell, to hold a Star Chamber inquisition at the Castle, at which he took forcible possession of the most confidential books of the Munster and Leinster Bank and laid hands on £20,000 of their funds on the suspicion that they belonged to Sinn Féin depositors. The unfortunate magistrate was promptly taken out of a tramcar on his way to the Castle, and shot dead on the roadside, and the Bank robbery initiated by the Government was copied with interest on the other side, until armed raids on the Banks became everywhere a common incident in the anarchy.

If women's purses (even that of General Strickland's wife) were snatched in the public streets by the Black-and-Tans, still less were the ministers of religion spared, and the higher their station the more ferocious was the relish with which they were persecuted and murdered. Dr. Fogarty, the Bishop of Killaloe, was the only one of the Irish Bishops, since the death of Dr. O'Dwyer, who openly took his stand with Sinn Féin in its time of agony, but he was none the less an innocuous politician who had been up to a quite recent date a fervid admirer of the Parliamentary Party. The Bishop's palace at Ennis was raided in the middle of the night by an armed gang whose object, it can be charged upon unanswerable evidence, was to murder him. It came to my knowledge, upon the testimony of an actual eye-witness, that the Inspector of Constabulary, who commanded the Raiders, was shortly afterwards summoned to Dublin Castle to give a report of his expedition to his principal in chief command of the Auxiliaries. He related, with somewhat bumptious pride, the perfection of his arrangements, but "cursed his rotten luck that the old fox had given him the slip," and attributed to "some damned Catholic Peeler" the warning which had saved the Bishop's life. My information (which comes from a quarter not open to doubt) is that the Commandant, far from rebuking his subaltern's murderous zeal, followed him to the door when he was leaving, and took him by both hands with this shocking parting message: "Good bye, old chap. God bless you! Better luck next time!" And for months afterwards the hunted Bishop was "on the run" for his life in the mountains of Clare, like the most persecuted of his predecessors of the Penal Days.

Two other strokes of "frightfulness" which it was counted would mark the final subjugation of Sinn Féin, in reality put an end to the last possibility of breaking its spirit. One was the capture by a British warship on the high seas of Most Rev. Dr. Mannix, Archbishop of Melbourne, on his way to pay a last visit to his aged mother in his native country. The deportation to England of the Archbishop (admittedly the most powerful man in the Australian Commonwealth next to, if even next to, its Prime Minister, Mr. Hughes), and the paltry insolence of refusing him a last interview with his old Irish mother had the double effect of exhibiting the realities of the Irish situation to all civilized mankind in a way there could be no suppressing or falsifying, and of stirring up the spirit of resistance in Ireland to a pitch incomparably more passionate than could have been roused by the few public speeches it was the poor strategy of the British kidnappers to strangle.

A still more stupid offence against humanity was the slow torture to death of the young Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence Mac Swiney. He was seized during the ceremony of his inauguration in succession to his predecessor, Tomás Mac Curtain, who was called out of his bed at midnight by a band of Auxiliaries and murdered in the presence of his wife and children, and who, Sir Hamar Greenwood with a face of brass assured the House of Commons had been assassinated by his brother Sinn Féiners. Young Mac Swiney, once in the toils of these monsters of lying and foul-play, made the last protest that was open to him against the iniquity of his imprisonment by devoting himself to the slow torments of death by hunger. Day by day, week after week, the world kept watch outside Brixton Jail while the Irish idealist lay calmly looking into the eyes of death every hour of the day and of the night with a steadfastness outlasting that of Mutius Scaevola, whom History has made immortal for plunging only an arm into the flames. His jailors were as inexorable as Death, but, as the clumsiest experimentalist in human nature might have anticipated, it was the dead idealist who left Brixton Jail the victor, and not they. Sir Hamar Greenwood himself began to understand when an Archbishop and six Bishops with their mitres and croziers and in their purple robes, tramped through the streets of Cork before the coffin of Terence Mac Swiney.

By this time the sea-change was beginning to work in the Prime Minister. As the Commission of Inquiry from the Labour Party and the foremost publicists of the American and French Press swarmed over to see for themselves and published their experiences to a horrified world, Sir Hamar Greenwood's early manner as a professor of able-bodied mendacity could no longer yield much comfort to his Chief. The first indignant denial that there had ever been reprisals had to be given up for shambling admissions that reprisals—and no doubt reprehensible reprisals—there had been; the stories that the Mayors of Cork and Limerick had been murdered and a hundred towns and villages given to the flames by the Sinn Féiners themselves could no longer be got to pass the lying lips of the mythomaniacs, although they have never to this hour been honestly apologized for. But at least the reprisals, it was promised, were henceforth to be "official reprisals" carried out under responsible military authority. The more barbaric vengeances of the Black-and-Tans were without doubt discouraged, instead of being instigated, by humane and gallant soldiers like Sir Nevill Macready. It was not possible for such men to come to close quarters with those miscreants without being obliged to report that they had placed themselves outside the pale of civilization and that their deeds, far from diminishing the power of Sinn Féin, had maddened the country into a system of resistance so irresistible, so omnipresent and so ably conducted that no army could put it down without a general massacre of unarmed old men, women and children, which would make the name of England an astonishment and a hissing among civilized men.

By the spring of 1920 the Prime Minister who in July 1919 had mistaken for the white flag of a beaten man Mr. De Valera's offer of peace while he had still an undisputed power to enforce it, was casting about for negotiations upon more ignominious terms with Archbishop Clune, an Australian Prelate who, with the usual clumsiness of England's dealings with Ireland, was eagerly welcomed to Dublin Castle by way of administering another snub to his more authoritative colleague of Melbourne, all this time held in oose [sic — "close" or "loose"?] custody in London, far from his native land and from consultation with the Sinn Féin chiefs with whom his word was law. Was the voice of Wisdom, which sitteth by the throne, to be heard even then? The concessions announced to Archbishop Clune were, it is certain, the same in substance as those embodied in the Treaty signed in Downing Street in December, 1921, after eighteen further months of official brutalities which were wholly unavailing except that they most dangerously increased the power of the military chiefs of the I.R.A. as the arbiters between peace and war. It was to be "Canadian Home Rule" under precisely the same conditions of a Canada robbed of its richest province and coerced into an Imperial tribute, which was the best Mr. Griffith and General Collins could obtain for Ireland in the Treaty of Downing Street. The one difference of any moment between the two offers was that Mr. Lloyd George still held out for the surrender of their arms by the I.R.A. as an indispensable preliminary. For the sake of saving Sir Hamar Greenwood's face by this paltry satisfaction, the chance of an agreement then and there which the pur sang Republicans were not yet strong enough to forbid was once more madly sacrificed. Sir Hamar Greenwood's face was not saved, because the condition then insisted upon was after another year of wanton bloodshed ignominiously dropped. The only result British statesmanship had to show for itself was that it arrayed the entire Irish race at the back of the Irish Republican Army in their refusal to surrender the arms by which they had brought Mr. Lloyd George to reason, and by which alone they could make sure he would not undergo a further sea-change before the bargain was honestly through, if he found himself negotiating with a disarmed nation. Another of the few remaining books of the Cumaean Sibyl was cast to the winds.

On went the war with immeasurable loss of blood and credit on both sides, and with ever multiplying obstacles to that enduring peace which Ireland had gone on petitioning for until her soul was sick. It was the unsurrendered arms that in the long run did it. It would, of course, be nonsense to say the English armies were driven out of the country by the phantom levies of the I.R.A. The guerilla bands were nowhere able to meet in battle-array the exultant legions just returned from their dazzling victories on the Continent, but it is no less true that the I.R.A. achieved the still more amazing military feat of cutting up that tremendous English army of a hundred thousand men into helpless fragments, isolating them, torturing them and getting upon their nerves in small surprises by night and day until it grew to be the one desperate longing of that host of heroes to get their orders for England.

Heaven defend me from doing any wilful injustice to Mr. Lloyd George, if only because he is a cousin Celt in qualities and defects alike, and there is a call of the blood which thrilled the whole Celtic breed with pride at the sight of the dauntless little Welsh country practitioner bestriding the narrow world like a Colossus, as for memorable years he did. It will not do to dismiss him as "a turncoat from Home Rule," as did one of the Hibernian leaders who had been for years swinging an abject censer before his altar. If Mr. Lloyd George swopped Home Rule for Partition, so did Mr. Asquith and the rest of his "Home Rule Cabinet"; so did the Hibernian Party themselves, without a single exception. They were "turncoats" all, or none. My own conviction has been already avowed that had he occupied Mr. Asquith's place, with Mr. Asquith's majority, and did Parnell's spirit still animate the Irish Party, Mr. Lloyd George would have developed the clear sightedness and imagination to carry a great Home Rule Act without any serious dissent from Ulster. He would have understood the Irish aversion to Partition as he would have died on the slopes of shadowy Snow-don rather than submit, had the since Disestablished Church of Wales (a minority proportionately more considerable than that of Unionist Ulster in Ireland) proposed by way of compromise to cut up his own high-spirited little country into two provinces of Church-goers and Chapel-goers at eternal enmity. But now that "the Act on the Statute-book" with Ireland's own privity, was changed from a Home Rule Act to a Partition Act, Mr. Lloyd George, for whom there was no absolute truth in politics, but only a relative truth adjustable according to the reports of his Party whips, felt it a duty to try whether, as he was noisily assured from Dublin Castle, a Black-and-Tan settlement on that basis might not be the line of least resistance. The Black-and-Tans, the Whips now began to report, were not a success either in dragooning Ireland or in comforting the conscience of England, and the Prime Minister who had a faible for pushing his admiration for brave enemies to the length of despising friends down on their luck, frankly threw over his disreputable auxiliaries in Ireland and began to see an unexampled opportunity opening up before him of seeking an Irish victory in a precisely opposite direction, which was very likely more welcome to his heart of hearts.

If he could not (in the pretty Black-and-Tan jargon of the day) "do in" Sinn Féin, he must e'en parley with it, and for that he had advantages unknown to any of his predecessors. To begin with, a King (it would be churlish to forget) whose yearning for an Irish appeasement was a factor of the first importance in mollifying the most ingrained English prejudices. Next, both Mr. Bonar Law and Sir E. Carson, who had made him Prime Minister, and made him their prisoner, were now removed from the active scene. That co-operation of English Parties, for which Gladstone sighed to no purpose was ready to his hand. Not altogether—may it sans immodesty be hinted?—without a share of influence from labours of our own for many an unregarded year, the hesitations of the Unionist Party in particular—of fine Elder Statesmen of the stamp of Mr. Walter Long, as well as of the rising hopes and brains-carriers of the Party like Mr. Austen Chamberlain and Mr. F. E. Smith (now Lord Birkenhead) and Lord Robert Cecil himself—had given way to bolder notions of Irish liberty. None but a pathetic handful of ancient Tory impossibilists any longer stood in the way.

On the Liberal side, Mr. Asquith, again at the head of his "Wee Free" following in the House of Commons, was arraigning the atrocity-mongers in Ireland with the noble eloquence which was always his, and was advocating, as with a father's pride, a most opulent measure of that Dominion Home Rule which he had quite overlooked in the days of his Premiership. The Labour Party were to a man for Ireland's deliverance, the more complete the better. The Irish Unionists outside the Six Counties, who might have been a political force of the first magnitude, had they asserted themselves before they were deserted by Sir E. Carson and contemptuously ignored by the Parliament of England, did at last find voice to claim kinship with the aspirations of their countrymen. The Anti-Partition organisations of Irish Conservatives of capacity and high integrity like Lord Midleton and Sir Horace Plunkett, late comers though they were into the vineyard, did bring a substantial accession of strength to Mr. Lloyd George in the daring change of front he was meditating.

That he did not enlist the aid of Sir James Craig as well was the capital mistake of the Prime Minister in his new peace negotiations. The Ulster leader was never an incorrigible enemy of a modus vivendi with his Southern countrymen. Like so many of the higher Orange type, if he was an irresponsible being for half a dozen mad "anniversary" days, he was for all the rest of the year a kindly neighbour, a fast friend, more honest of heart than complex in the convolutions of his brain matter, but in all things, flattering or otherwise, as irredeemably Irish as the granite ribs of Cave Hill. At this moment, Sir E. Carson had gone off to the House of Lords, throwing the squalling baby Parliament in Belfast on his hands under circumstances which could scarcely fail to try the temper of the deserted Covenanters. Sir James Craig had besides been mellowing down into a popular officer of the King's Household, and would, we may be sure, have found more congenial work in gratifying the King's dearest desire than he had ever found in qualifying to be one of His Majesty's Rebels. It would not have been difficult, with his good will, to enlarge the "National Council" of the Act of 1920 into some real bond of National Unity, such as would have made it the pride of Ulster to be represented in the National Parliament, while retaining in any desired measure the local liberties she enjoys in her Belfast assembly. That no objection would have come from the Sinn Féin side is made clear by President Cosgrave, who declares that had Ulster accepted the Treaty of Downing Street as it stood she would still be in possession of her particularist privileges in as ample a measure as the All-for-Ireland League had ever proposed.[48] Sir James Craig had already given proof by his perfectly courteous conversations with Mr. De Valera and Mr. Griffith that he was not averse to those more cordial understandings that nearly always follow personal contact.

To leave such a man out in the cold while "the murder gang" were being welcomed to Downing Street was to invite suspicion among Sir J. Craig's touchy lieges and indeed to give it full justification. Yet this was what actually happened. The Ministerial plan of campaign, I am afraid it will be found, was first to favour Sinn Féin by cheating "Ulster," and next when that portion of the programme broke down to cheat Sinn Féin by calling in "Ulster." While the Treaty of Downing Street was under discussion at the Dáil there was held a secret sitting at which full shorthand notes of the conversations between the British Ministers and the Sinn Féin delegates were communicated to the members under the strictest precautions as to secrecy. Members were not only specially pledged to regard the information as confidential, on pain of an instant renewal of hostilities by England, but measures were taken to prevent any written notes on the subject from being conveyed out of the chamber. Until the full official record, which must be still somewhere preserved, sees the light, the truth as to the most important Irish transaction for a century must still remain obscure and any enlightened judgment regarding the responsibilities for the Treaty and for the Civil War that followed must be postponed until the secret part of the story comes to be divulged. My own information on the subject—derived though it is from three separate participants in the Secret Session—can only be made public under every reserve.

There are some details, however, which are not to be doubted. The first is that the Ministerialists contrived to shift the discussions at the Conference from the straight issue of the Integrity of Ireland by leading the representatives of Sinn Féin to believe that the same end was to be more astutely attained by means of a Boundary Commission. That, I think, will be found to have been the cardinal error of the capable but inexperienced Irishmen who found themselves pitted against the most subtle intellects the Empire could select. They allowed the debates to be diverted from the supreme rights of Ireland as one indivisible Nation, on which nothing could defeat them, to paltrier controversies as to whether this or that county, barony or parish might not be swopped from the Protestant to the Catholic side of the frontier and so ensuring that what remained of "Northern Ireland" must in the nature of things follow. The notion came (my information goes) from the ingenious brain of Mr. Winston Churchill whose position as Colonial Secretary gave him a more commanding influence than ever in his ill-fated incursions into the affairs of Ireland. He, with the express authority of Mr. Lloyd George, conveyed to the Irish delegates an assurance that the Boundary Commission would be so arranged as to ensure the transfer to the Irish Free State of the counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh, the City of Derry and the important town of Newry, and that "Northern Ireland" thus virtually restricted to three counties, would find itself compelled to throw in its fortunes with the Free State. In one of his impulsive moments General Collins blurted out in a public speech the announcement upon Mr. Churchill's authority that, under the Boundary Commission stipulated for in the Treaty "vast territories" would be transferred from the Six Counties to the Free State. This was the first news of the arrangement which reached Sir James Craig. He promptly and indignantly announced that with a Boundary Commission of such a character he would have nothing to do. Mr. Churchill, when brought to book by a question in the House of Commons, denied that he had ever promised "to Mr. Michael Collins" the transfer of "vast territories" by means of the Boundary Commission. The reply was technically true, but was essentially false. It was not "to Mr. Michael Collins" he had given the promise; it was to Mr. Michael Collins' intermediary. How responsible Ministers could ever have hoped that such a transaction could be secretly carried through, behind the back of Sir James Craig, in violation of the solemn pledge given to him by the Imperial Parliament of the integrity of his territory under the Act of the previous year, passes comprehension; but, unless three different testimonies which have reached me from trustworthy sources are to be discredited, the promise was undoubtedly given, and was only violated when General Collins' incautious disclosure roused Ulster up in arms against the chicanery.

Two of the five Irish signatories of the Treaty declared they only signed it under duress. The duress was, it is true, gross and unwarrantable. They were threatened that unless they signed before a particular hour of the night of 5-6 December, without being allowed time to communicate with their principals in Dublin, the dogs of war would be instantly let loose in Ireland and the order passed to the Black-and-Tans to set on. The threat was reinforced by the melodramatic announcement that a Destroyer had steam up to carry the news of the signing or of the break-off on the same night to Sir James Craig in Belfast—the Sir James Craig who had been kept for a month in total darkness as to how the negotiations were going. It is impossible to believe that men of the superb courage of General Collins' and Arthur Griffith were daunted by stage craft of this kind. They must have known that, even had these particular negotiations for a Treaty broken down, the Truce would still be in existence, and could only be denounced after full time for deliberation in England and after every resource of diplomacy for negotiations in some new form had been exhausted. Terrific as was the risk of replunging Ireland into a sea of blood and terror, the very nature of the intimidation employed against them would have placed the sympathies of all civilized men on the side of Ireland if they declined to be hustled by such methods into consenting to part with one-fourth of the population and one-fifth of the territory of their nation.

It is more creditable to the moral courage of the Irish delegates, and I believe, truer to the facts, to conclude that their signatures were obtained, not so much under pressure of the threats of the Government, shameful though they were, as in reliance upon the promise of Mr. Winston Churchill and the Prime Minister that the Boundary Commission would result in the inevitable merger of the Six Counties in the Free State of Ireland. As it turned out, that promise had to be broken and the Boundary Commission reduced to a parochial business, if it is to be heard of any more; and the first violation of the Treaty, in its spirit if not in its letter, had to be charged against England. The root cause of thinking Irishmen's repugnance to the Treaty of Downing Street went deeper than the pedantic difference between genuine Canadian Home Rule and a Republic. Had the Sinn Féin leaders—those who unwisely remained in Dublin, as well as those who shouldered the responsibility in London—taken their stand from the start upon the impregnable rock of the integrity of their country, and all their efforts been bent to overcoming the apprehensions of Ulster, nothing could have resisted the tide of thanksgiving which would have borne the Treaty to victory in a country blent together with the high mission and inspiration of National Regeneration. Even if these particular negotiations had to be broken off upon the clear issue of "Ireland a Nation, and not two hostile States," we should have had a justification in the eyes of civilized mankind against which Black-and-Tan methods could never again have raised their blood-guilty hands.

For, whatever else may be doubtful, Black-and-Tannery was flatly and for ever beaten to the earth as an instrument of human government. And that, as I have already insisted, not by the valour of the young soldiers of Ireland alone, but by noble and enlightened co-operation from British lovers of freedom. A race of natural kindliness akin to weakness might, indeed, have been almost too effusive in forgetting all but the cheerfulness with which Mr. Lloyd George and his Ministers themselves gave up their prejudices and boasts of only a few months before, were it not that their change of heart was made manifest only after it became clear that the savagery of the Black-and-Tans was a failure as well as a crime—if not a crime because it was a failure. The game was up, at all events, in Ireland. The surrender of arms, on which the conversations with Archbishop Clune were broken off, had to be meekly given up. The Truce was proclaimed for the 11th July, 1921, as between two armies on an equal footing.

The last engagement of the war was a characteristic one. The Truce was to come into force at noon on July nth. At twenty minutes before noon a detachment of Black-and-Tans passing in caged lorries through the village of Castleisland, County Kerry, was attacked by a company of the I.R.A. and a fierce, and, I am sorry to say, deadly conflict ensued, in the brief war-minutes still remaining. When at twelve o'clock the first stroke of the Angelus Bell sounded from the village church-tower, the I.R.A. took off their caps and put up their guns. Not another shot was fired after the appointed hour in Castleisland or anywhere else through the country. That afternoon "the boys" scampered down from the hills into the towns "on a fortnight's furlough," as they modestly calculated, and celebrated their holiday in the half-schoolboy, half-fanatic spirit in which they had for two years maintained their war against an Empire still inebriated with the greatest military triumph in its history. They had their devout Requiem Masses for the fallen, their vast processions for the removal of the bodies of their dead comrades from the resting places in the bogs and mountains where they had found their temporary graves; they ordered the closing of the public houses with as stern a discipline as ever; but in the sweet summer evenings sang their "Soldier's Song" and danced their jigs around the bonfires with their sweethearts with the same frolic welcome with which they had for many a month of danger hailed the thunder or the sunshine—the ghastly wounds or the shouts of victory.

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The Irish Revolution

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William O'Brien was a County Cork M.P. who participated in the negotiations for Home Rule in Ireland. In this account, first published in 1923, he provides an insight into the politics and politicians of the time - John Redmond, John Dillon, Arthur Griffith, Sir Edward Carson, Bonar Law, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, etc. - and gives his analysis of the origins of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish Civil War. From his own perspective, O'Brien was very much anti-Partition, and was evidently frustrated at the failure to give adequate reassurance to the Northern Unionists.

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