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18 March 2004 Edition

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When the British military said no - The Curragh Mutiny

"The officers stationed at the Curragh are of the unanimous opinion that further information is essential before being called upon at short notice to take any decision regarding 'active operations' in Ulster. If, 'duty as ordered' involves active military operations against Ulster, then the following 65 officers here stationed would respectfully, and under protest, prefer to be dismissed."

- Memo to British War Office, 19 March 1914.

1914 promised much for Ireland. The third Home Rule Bill was soon to be enacted. For John Redmond it was a personal triumph. He had united the Irish Party after the disastrous Parnell split, and by 1915 he fully expected to be the Irish First Minister. But there were storm clouds gathering. Re-organised in the north-east of the country, Ulster unionism, with its new champion, Edward Carson, was flexing its political muscles. By exerting further pressure, they felt they could prevent Home Rule from being enforced in most, if not all of the Ulster counties.

Throughout 1913 an 'Ulster Volunteer Force' came into being. Organised through local Orange Lodges, this newly formed force gave militant support to Ulster Unionism. As yet, they were mostly unarmed, though this was a problem that would soon be rectified.

This was the situation facing the British authorities in March 1914, when the Secretary for War, Colonel Seely, received information that military arms depots at Armagh, Omagh, Carrickfergus and Enniskillen were likely to be raided for arms. A second rumour also reached the British; that a section of the Ulster Volunteers were planning to march on Dublin.

Until then, neither Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister, nor Birrell, Chief Secretary for Ireland, had any thought that Home Rule might result in armed resistance. Given the information they had received, they were now faced with such a possibility. The Liberals were in an awkward position. Like most British politicians, few were in any way committed to solving the 'Irish Question', but given their numbers at Westminster, they needed the support of the Irish Party to retain power. Their biggest problem was that if they had to face down the Unionists, they would have to use the army to do so, and the officer class in the British Army was to a man sympathetic to the unionist cause. They were the 'King's men', and to them all those Ulstermen who wished to remain under the rule of Westminster were likewise 'King's men', whereas Irish nationalists, who supported self-government, were regarded as 'disloyal'. For most senior officers, their duty bound them to fight against the King's enemies, not the king's loyal subjects.

On 16 March, Colonel Seely issued instructions to Sir Arthur Paget at the Curragh to send troops to protect the main four barracks in Ulster where arms and ammunition were stored. Paget`s reply was the first sign of any possible trouble.

He telegraphed the War Office the following message: "In present state of country... am of opinion that moving troops north would create excitement in Ulster and precipitate a crisis... for this reason... do not consider it justifiable to move troops... at present time."

In anyone's language this was gross insubordination, if not a prelude to mutiny.

Paget was summoned to London to answer for his inaction. In discussions with the War Office, he brought up the vexed question that some of his officers might be unwilling to participate in actions against the Ulster Volunteers. What was he to do about this? In the atmosphere that prevailed in spring 1914, he was given a straight answer. Officers living in Ulster could temporarily vanish. However, any other officers refusing to serve were to be dismissed. He also received assurances of naval support, if and when disturbances broke out. Only then would the army be sent into Ulster. He returned on the 20th and informed a number of officers, then living in Dublin, of the War Office position. All declared they would prefer dismissal to the 'coercion of Ulster'. The following day General Gough, Commander of the Curragh-based Cavalry Brigade, notified his superiors that he and 59 of his officers also chose dismissal from the army. The Curragh mutiny had started.

Gough was ordered to London to explain his position. General Haig, Commander-in-Chief at Aldershot, backed him up, as did Sir Henry Wilson. Haig warned the War Office to expect wholesale resignations unless a pledge was given that the Army would not be used against the Ulster Volunteers.

The Liberal government now lost its nerve. In an effort to ease tensions, it declared that there had been misunderstandings and that the officers misinterpreted the type of action intended in Ulster. A triumphant General Gough returned to the Curragh.

He brought with him a document from the War Office Secretary, Colonel Seely and the Imperial Chief of Staff Lord French, guaranteeing that British troops would not be used to enforce Home Rule.

For the Unionists it was a great victory. Though in a minority in parliament, they had forced the Liberal government to back down. As if to demonstrate how the political landscape had changed, the following month saw a mass importation of arms at Larne. No attempt was made to prevent the gun-running.

When called upon do their sworn duty, the British military had said no.

Now the Ulster Volunteers had introduced the gun into Irish politics.

The Curragh Mutiny took place 90 years ago this week.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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