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The Black and Tans

In 1920, the British government attempted to solve the Irish question by passing legislation to partition Ireland and grant it limited self-government. It believed – wrongly - that this would satisfy the majority of Irish nationalists.

Meanwhile, the government had responded to the Irish Republican Army's developing physical force campaign with repression, but underestimated how difficult it would be to defeat the volunteers. London regarded their actions as terrorism, not war, and so relied mainly on the police force to restore order. It considered that to deploy troops in peacetime would arouse criticism in Britain. Gradually the level of its coercion in Ireland increased but this policy was self-defeating. It proved unable to suppress the IRA, alienated Irish opinion and the British public came to regard it as excessive and unacceptable.

From the outset, the IRA campaign was mainly directed against the Royal Irish Constabulary. As a result conviction rates, recruitment levels and morale fell sharply. The British government initiated changes which transformed the force into an auxiliary army by equipping it with motor vehicles, rockets, bombs and shotguns.

By January 1920, England felt compelled to take more drastic action. It launched a recruitment drive to attract ex-soldiers to join a new force, soon nicknamed the ‘Black and Tans' owing to its distinctive uniforms.

The Black and Tans eventually numbered about 10,000 and quickly acquired an unenviable reputation for poor discipline. Owing to the urgent need for men, selection procedures had been increasingly relaxed. Some of those who enlisted had been brutalised by war. Almost all were ignorant of Ireland and they were hastily and badly trained. Moreover, they were attached to scattered barracks, mainly in the south west, under no effective control from police or army officers.

The IRA campaign intensified. By June 1920 55 policemen had been killed, 16 barracks destroyed and hundreds abandoned. The government responded in July 1920 by establishing a second force, the Auxiliaries. These were better paid and recruited mainly from demobilised army officers. Eventually 1,900 men were enlisted, divided into 15 heavily armed and mobile companies, and deployed in the ten Irish counties where the IRA was most active.

Like the Black and Tans, the Auxiliaries were ill-trained for guerrilla warfare and knew little of Ireland. Though under nominal police control, they generally operated independently and established a reputation for drunkenness and brutality. Meanwhile, troop numbers in Ireland were steadily increased and their powers extended. In August 1920 they were empowered to intern citizens without trial and to court martial those suspected of political offences.

Despite these reinforcements, police frustration and the strain resulting from the persistence and virulence of the IRA campaign led to ‘unofficial reprisals'. These ranged from assaults on IRA suspects and supporters to the sacking of towns such as Limerick and Balbriggan. The reprisals were condoned by police officers and ignored by the government because they helped sustain the force's fragile morale and facilitated intelligence gathering. The price was the alienation of public opinion, both in Ireland and in Britain.

The worst reprisals occurred during the peak of terror and counter terror in October 1920. On 21 November, another "Bloody Sunday", IRA agents gunned down 19 suspected Army intelligence officers in Dublin. Later that day Auxiliaries, who were despatched to a football match at Croke Park to search for wanted men, fired indiscriminately into the crowd, causing 12 deaths and wounding 65. On 9 December, two lorries transporting Auxiliaries were ambushed by an IRA ‘flying column' in County Cork, killing all but one of the occupants. Two days later their Auxiliary colleagues, along with Black and Tans, entered Cork and sacked and burned part of the city centre. The British government declared martial law over much of south-west Ireland. Later it sanctioned ‘official reprisals'. If an IRA ‘outrage' occurred, troops were given authority to blow up the property of those suspected of involvement.

By mid 1921 the British government had become more amenable to a political settlement with the IRA. In two and a half years, over 1,300 people had died in the conflict (550 of them troops and police), yet military victory still seemed a remote prospect. The British public would not accept further repressive measures thought necessary to achieve it, became increasingly critical of those already taken, and demanded peace.

The unifying effect of having Protestants among the leaders of the Easter Rising was undone by the Black and Tans. The struggle for freedom in Ireland polarised once more along religious lines, leading to a further 80 years of distrust and often hatred. With the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 a real chance of peace emerged, but some splinter groups on both sides are so hardened to terrorism that outbreaks of violence continue even in 2005. A group calling itself the "Real IRA" makes sporadic attempts to renew hostilities from the Catholic side, and the Orange Order is deliberately provocative by insisting on routing its annual marches through Catholic areas.






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