Pandemic permitting, 2021 will see massive centenary celebrations to mark 100 years of the existence of Northern Ireland, but republicans and even moderate nationalists have serious doubts as to whether this specific centenary in Irish history should be celebrated, commemorated, ‘rewritten’, or even ignored.
With the two big dates in the traditional marching season cancelled this year because of the pandemic - the Twelfth and Black Saturday - many in the pro-Union community and the Loyal Orders will be keen to stage major public events to celebrate Northern Ireland’s centenary.
Privately, the vast majority of republicans will want to snub such commemorations as it reminds them all too bluntly of partition. Republicans will probably want to take a revisionist approach to the creation of the Northern Ireland state with their own ‘spin’ on how the so-called ‘Orange statelet in Ireland’ has failed politically and economically.
Perhaps republicans will be more consumed with how they rewrite the history of one of the darkest periods in their own timeline - the notorious Irish Civil War which claimed over 1,000 dead from June 1922 to May 1923.
The previous War of Independence from 1919 to 1921 had established the IRA as a guerrilla force matched only in terms of brutality by the Black and Tans, hence among a section of republicanism the 1919-21 conflict is also known as the Tan War.
The War of Independence spawned the Anglo-Irish Treaty which partitioned Ireland, but also sowed the seeds of the Irish Civil War in which republican butchered republican in a manner which - as I’ve often maintained - made the Black and Tans look like a well-disciplined British Army regiment.
In January 1922, the Treaty was passed in the Dail by the narrowest of margins - 64 to 57. The Anti-Treaty supporters formed the Anti-Treaty IRA against the pro-Treaty Free State Army as Michael Collins, as head of the Free State forces, used his anti-British terrorist experience to good effect against his former IRA comrades.
The Free State military policy was more akin to an ethnic cleansing of Anti-Treaty IRA support throughout the 26 counties, especially in the west of Ireland.
Such Free State army ethnic cleansing and the creation of so-called ‘liberated zones’ was akin to the Provisional IRA’s border campaigns during the Troubles, especially the atrocities carried out by the Provos’ East Tyrone Brigade - particularly the unit led by Sinn Fein councillor Jim Lynagh - until its demise at Loughgall by the SAS in May 1987.
Perhaps the most notorious incident of the Irish Civil War occurred in March 1923 known as the Ballyseedy Massacre. Free State forces took nine IRA prisoners from the Kerry Number One Brigade and tied them to a landmine, which the Free Staters subsequently detonated, killing eight of the nine, with IRA man Stephen Fuller reportedly surviving to tell the tale of the massacre.
Indeed, those historians or republican spin doctors who prefer to paint a glorious picture of the Anti-Treaty IRA during the Civil War will be quick to point out the number of IRA men who were shot without trial by the Free Staters.
In number crunching terms, it can be suggested more IRA prisoners were executed by the Free Staters in the Civil War than were killed by the British in the previous Tan War. Collins implemented a ‘no nonsense, gloves off’ approach to the IRA, fuelling the view that it was Collins’ tactics against the IRA which inspired the military strategies of the SAS in Ireland during the Troubles, and especially the British forces crushing of the Mau Mau terrorist rebellion in Kenya from 1952-60.
Ironically, the Mau Mau rebellion overlapped with the IRA’s border campaign in Ireland from 1956-62, which was mainly contained because of the tactics used against republicans by the B Specials units of the RUC.
Even after Collins was killed at the Bealnablath ambush in August 1922, the Civil War continued for almost another year. However, while officially the Irish Civil War is accredited with ending in May 1923, the Anti-Treaty IRA kept up a sporadic terror campaign until at least November 1926 when two Gardai were murdered in separate attacks that month.
Bearing all this killing in mind, should Unionists mark the Irish Civil War given that it was predominantly a slaughtering match between republicans?
The answer is an emphatic ‘Yes’ as the Irish Civil War must be seen in the context of the then stability of the fledgling Northern Ireland state. Indeed, it was only the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 which prevented a potential earlier Irish Civil War between the pro-Union Ulster Volunteers on one side and the nationalist Irish Volunteers on the other during the Home Rule crisis in Ireland.
What Unionists need to remember was the potential impact on the future of Northern Ireland had the Dail vote on the Anglo-Irish Treaty been approved by a much wider margin, such as the massive majority of support which the 1998 Good Friday Agreement mustered on both sides of the Irish border in the two referenda.
If Collins had acquired such a degree of backing for the Treaty, his primary military thrust would not have been in having to defeat the Anti-Treaty IRA, but in organising a full-scale invasion of Northern Ireland by his Free State forces.
But then again, would Westminster have sat back and allowed Collins to invade the new Northern Ireland? If, militarily, an invasion of Northern Ireland would have sparked a second Tan War with the British Army, would Collins’ Plan B have been to allow the IRA to carry out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the border Unionist population, effectively driving Unionists into a two-county besieged state of Antrim and Down?
With Collins shot dead by fellow republicans around a year after the establishment of the fledgling Northern Ireland, all plans for a Northern invasion were put on hold or dumped in the military dustbin.
In reality, the Irish Civil War and especially the assassination of Collins in August 1922 gave the new Northern Ireland the much-needed political and military breathing spaces it urgently required to become a stabilised, Unionist-controlled state.
This is the main reason Unionists should be grateful for the Irish Civil War and should celebrate that conflict as it would the Somme or any of the other great battles of the Great War.
Okay, Unionists may point to the ethnic cleansing of the Southern Protestant and Unionist community in the 26 counties in the years after partition, but it could have been much worse for Unionism of any shade had the Dail Treaty vote been, for example, 110 to 11 in favour of the Treaty.
Indeed, had the Treaty vote gone the other way, namely the Dail voted against accepting the Treaty, would Collins and his colleagues sparked a second War of Independence against the United Kingdom with an even more heavier emphasis on an IRA campaign in the province of Ulster?
Whatever Unionism’s decision on the Irish Civil War atrocities and outcome, revisionists will still have a field day.
Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com