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Clement Attlee meets representative of 10th Indian Division

Photocopy of reproduced image taken during the Irish War of Independence.

The End of the Irish War of Independence?

The Irish War of Independence was a guerrilla conflict fought between the Irish Republication Army (IRA) and the British forces made up of The British Army, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and its paramilitary forces. Having called for independence since the 1880s, the Irish Republication party, Sinn Fein, had declared an Irish Republic in 1918. Yet with the Ulster Unionists and the British government opposed to Irish self-government, violence broke out between the two sides in 1919.

Officially, the Irish War of Independence ended in July 1921 with a truce that came into effect the day after Belfast’s Bloody Sunday on 10th July. Protestant loyalists had attacked Catholic enclaves in Belfast in retaliation for an IRA ambush of a police raiding party. Sparking clashes and gun fights between Catholic republicans and loyalist Protestant police, over 17 people were killed, 100 injured and 200 houses badly damaged or destroyed. The next day, 11th July 1921, the truce that had previously been agreed between representatives of the Irish republic and the British government came into effect.

Despite this truce, violence continued in the north with ongoing conflicts between Protestant and Catholic communities, and clashes between the IRA and British forces. According to this letter from Lord Londonderry to Churchill, written in September 1921, the supposed truce signed 3 months earlier was nothing but a ‘farce’. Londonderry wrote that arms continued to be imported, that the ‘two populations’ Protestant and Catholic ‘are frightened to death of each other’ and that the presence of the military was needed to restore the confidence of both sides.

Highly critical of the British government’s stance, this letter warned that loyalists were alarmed at the British Government’s apparent willingness to ‘parlay with murders while they [Sinn Fein] are laying their plans for another murder campaign’. It asserts that in observing the current ‘truce’ while the opposing side do not, the British forces risk not acting until a situation is acute, by which time it would be too late to deescalate. It gives a fascinating insight into the complexities of the situation and the fear and anxieties felt by both sides of the conflict even after a supposed truce.  

In reality, violence continued and British troops did not leave until December 1922. Both Protestants and Catholics continued to be killed in IRA and loyalist offensives until the summer of 1922, with over 2,500 deaths caused by the conflict in total. 

See document:

CHAR 2/116/49-52: Letter from 7th Lord Londonderry Mountstewart to WSC