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The British Military Dilemma in Ireland: Occupation Politics, 1886-1914.

The 1914 refusal by British troops to fire on Irish loyalists, known as the Curragh Mutiny, was the culmination of years of conflict and mistrust among the British military, the War Office in London and the British-supported bureaucracy at Dublin Castle. Elizabeth Muenger, in her detailed and well-researched book, The British Military Dilemma in Ireland: Occupation Politics, 1886-1914, attempts to explain the development of these tensions through an examination of the interrelationship of many social, political and security facets of the British military presence in Ireland.

Muenger contends that the Curragh incident was the result of a variety of broad factors, including the imperialistic bent of the British military, the intransigence of the deeply entrenched Dublin bureaucracy and the rapid social transformation occurring around the turn of the nineteenth century in both Britain and Ireland. Specifically, the author notes that there were four primary causes of the crisis. The first was the inclusion of Ulster under the home rule bill, a position vehemently opposed by the city's Protestant majority. Second was the question of whether the army would respond to an order to force a portion of the population to accept coercion from Great Britain: "The army was in the position of being the executors of what was at best an unpopular dictum, leveled at fellow Britons, whose only offense was living in Ulster." A third factor was Dublin Castle's mistrust of the military and the attendant lack of communication between the two groups. A final contribution to the crisis was the military's own suspicion of both the British Liberals, who had come to power in 1905, and the politicians at Dublin Castle.

The home rule bill, which permitted representation of the Irish in their own parliament - rather than in London, as had been the case since 1798 - was a hotly contested issue that would determine the ultimate political control of Ireland. The 1914 passage of the bill by the British House of Commons was critical to the military's role in Northern Ireland. The bill would likely push the Protestants, a minority group in Northern Ireland, to open conflict with the Catholics, thus involving the British military. Its passage forced the prime minister and the War Office in London to deal with aggressive and hostile Catholic Nationalist and Protestant Unionist populations who were receiving smuggled armaments from both Loyalist sympathizers in England and pro-separatist gun merchants on the Continent. Catholic hostility was rooted in a long-repressed nationalist drive, and Protestants found cause for aggression in their fear of Catholic militancy. This issue forced the military into what had been a solely political fray between the Nationalists and Unionists and put them at risk of being called upon to use force against the Unionist portion of the population to accept banishment from Great Britain.

Muenger argues that the military's relationship with Dublin Castle, the central bureaucracy of the Crown in Ireland, was critical in the development of tensions in occupied Ireland. This was due to Dublin Castle's predominantly Anglo-Irish Protestant minority staff and thus pro-England stance in the face of Ireland's Catholic majority. Dublin Castle was trapped in a "policy of coercion made by the British government to keep forces in Ireland to carry out orders against disorder, but the wish to conciliate limited their willingness to use force." Ultimately, Dublin Castle was caught in a quandary in which a show of support for the government in London would represent an implicit betrayal of the Irish Catholic majority's needs.

Furthermore, the British army lacked a coherent rationale for its presence in Northern Ireland. The military was instead under the illusion of continuous conflict, perpetuating the political belief that it was necessary to quarter a large number of troops in Ireland. This posture was in response to the fear of a repetition of the violent incidents that had occurred during the 1798 agrarian uprisings. Furthermore, London endorsed the idea that troops were only to be used when the constabulary failed. Taken together, the result was that the army had no clearly defined job. Indeed, its own role was contingent on a failure by the civil administration to keep order.

The military also suffered from impatience with the civilian bureaucracy. As Major General William Molyneux noted in his book Campaigning in South Africa and Egypt, "soldiers built empires for statesmen to pull down."(1) This view was reflected in numerous military autobiographies of the day. An ignorance of and intolerance toward the civilian government led to problems and handicapped the army's relationship with both the War Office in London and the civil administration in Ireland. The British military command traditionally viewed itself as unnecessarily tethered to the political whims of Whitehall, not only in its situation in Ireland but also in India and other colonies as well. The continuous conflict created an inbred distrust between the civilian and military branches, often resulting in a failure to communicate between the parties. According to Molyneux, "the division existing between the civil and military sides in the War Office ... was an active agent in producing the faults that came out of it."

The author further demonstrates the War Office's difficulties in making decisions and taking prompt action by highlighting its handling of the Irish National Reserve. As international tensions grew in the early portion of the twentieth century, the problem of defending Ireland from both internal and external threats became more significant. The attempted solution was the creation of a system of reserves. The project was ultimately dismantled, and England lost an opportunity to improve the relationship between the two countries by creating a system that would have given the Irish partial responsibility for their home defense.

In 1910, when the idea of national reserves originally arose, Dublin Castle was anticipating the passage of British legislation such as the Wyndham Land Act of 1903 and the Birrell Education Act of 1908. The former made it possible for tenant farmers to purchase lands from their landlords via government grants and subsidies, and the latter created a system of Catholic universities. Both were seen as steps toward warmer Anglo-Irish relations. The passage of the home rule bill, however, scuttled the National Reserve plan.

Colonel J.E.B. Seely, secretary of war, and Augustine Birrell, the Crown-appointed chief secretary in Ireland, had privately decided that the Reserve plan would only add to the tension that was rising in Ulster, where the Unionists were planning a resistance against union with Catholic Ireland. The Unionists had been relatively quiet, with home rule only a distant threat. With the introduction of the third home rule bill in April 1912, however, they became increasingly militant under the direction of Sir Edward Carlson. With the enactment of the bill, the Unionists declared that, codified or not, they would resist inclusion under home rule by force, if necessary. In light of these threats, Seely decided to scrap the Reserve plan, believing that it would only add to the tensions already mounting in the wake of the formation of vigilante groups in Ulster and Southern Ireland.

The scope of Muenger's book is extremely narrow, in both the nature of the material and the period of time it examines. In spite of its exact parameters, however, it is well-written and extensively researched, citing specific regimental histories as well as a wide array of personal correspondence between politicians, civilians and military figures. Muenger examines in extraordinary detail the class structure of the military; the grueling entry requirements for acceptance into the officer corps; the role of the officer corps in upper class English society; the military's relationship with the villages and towns in which it was stationed; and the social habits of its soldiers.

This book is clearly not for everyone. Muenger is a command historian and an assistant professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy; the book is designed for readers well-versed in Irish history as well as Anglo-Irish diplomatic relations. It requires a strong interest in the relationship between an occupying military force and the country in which it is stationed. Yet her analysis is thorough, and she utilizes a wide range of social and political histories to support her arguments. In the end, Muenger is successful in supporting her argument that blame for the Curragh mutiny could not be laid at the feet of a single actor. It was instead the responsibility of several different and conflicting chains of command, operating in a sharply divided country that was itself struggling to define its identity.
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Author:Garfield, Jed H.
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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