The Black and Tans: British police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence

This photo of Black and Tans interrogating a Sinn Fein suspect was on the cover of DM Leeson's book.  Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
This photo of Black and Tans interrogating a Sinn Fein suspect was on the cover of DM Leeson’s book. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

Anyone familiar with 20th century Irish history will know of the notorious reputation of the Black and Tans, the British paramilitary organisation which fought against the IRA in Ireland’s War of Independence (1920-1921). The British Government equipped them as soldiers but pretended they were police so they could continue the charade there was no war in Ireland. Their distinctive uniform (dark police green mixed with army khaki) blurred the line between police and military and gave them their nickname. Irish historians paint the Tans as a violent, thuggish and murderous organisation whose members emptied British prisons before running riot in Ireland. However a book The Black and Tans by Canadian historian David Leeson questions this narrative.

Between 1920 and 1921, 10,000 British men, mostly First World War veterans, enlisted in the Royal Irish Constabulary. A second group of former war officers joined a temporary force called the Auxiliary Division (ADRIC). The Black and Tans were garrison troops defending strongpoints while the Auxiliary Division were mobile and offensive. Both the Tans and Auxiliaries quickly became known for undisciplined violence and their tactic of widespread reprisals which earned comparisons with other notorious paramilitary organisations such as Turkish bashi-bazouks and German Freikorps.

Leeson’s villains however are not the soldiers pretending to be policemen but their bumbling paymasters in London, the British Government – the “two-headed ass” of David Low’s cartoons. Prime Minister David Lloyd George insisted Ireland’s problem was a policing one. Despite being a Liberal, his Coalition was dominated by Conservatives and Unionists with little sympathy for Irish nationalism and could only offer, in Leeson’s words, “limited repression with limited concessions”.

Irish policy was the bane of British governments and Gladstone lost power twice over the Home Rule bill in 1886 and 1893. Tory and post-Gladstone Liberal governments showed no appetite to reintroduce Home Rule, but the Irish Party kept up the pressure till it re-gained the balance of power after the second election of 1910.

A Home Rule bill finally passed the House of Commons in 1912 and the House of Lords could only delay it to 1914. The Northern Irish Protestants demanded Ulster’s exclusion from the bill and civil war seemed inevitable until the First World War pushed the issue to one side. The republican Easter rising of 1916 was put down but the Irish public was dismayed by the heavy-handed British response. Opinions hardened on Catholic and Protestant sides with Sinn Fein and the Unionists dominating the 1918 election in Ireland. Herbert Asquith’s Liberals were also crushed; Lloyd George’s Coalition Unionists won 478 out of 707 seats. Lloyd George wouldn’t consider Ireland while the Paris peace negotiations went on in 1919 but Irish MPs refused to sit in Westminster. Rebels began a campaign against Irish police, killing 15 by year end.

The undeclared war escalated in 1920 as the army arrested Irish leaders. Lloyd George introduced a new bill splitting Ireland into two parliaments (a partition model later used in India). The rebels intensified their campaign and Dublin Castle released republican hunger-striking prisoners in an appeasement gesture. It didn’t work and police casualties increased; 28 died between April and June, 55 between July and September. Boycotts and strikes made Ireland ungovernable. Republicans built an alternative state holding their own courts, as the British system of assizes failed.

Police were demoralised and Dublin Castle asked for military intervention, saying only martial law or an agreement with Sinn Fein could end the crisis. Conservative and Unionist members of cabinet could not bring themselves to negotiate with the “murder gang” because, as Arthur Balfour wrote, “the disgrace would deepen to infamy”. Despite misgivings of Dublin officials the hawks prevailed and Sinn Fein was declared a criminal organisation. Parliament passed the Restoration of Order in Ireland bill, Lloyd George saying Ireland had to “sacrifice extravagant demands and too extravagant ideas.”

Responsibility for keeping the Irish in check lay with the Irish Constabulary who policed all of Ireland except Dublin (which had its own Dublin Metropolitan Police). It earned the name Royal for its part suppressing the Fenian uprising of 1867. It had a force of 10,000 men, all Irish and mostly Catholic. It was armed and with ordinary crime rare in Ireland, its most important role was political surveillance. Unlike the more neutral DMC, the RIC were hated by Republicans who called them England’s Janissaries, “a force of traitors and spies”. When the War of Independence started, many quit the RIC angered at being forced to act as soldiers. Facing a manpower crisis, government minister Walter Long suggested some of the 167,000 British ex-servicemen receiving unemployment benefits might fit the gap. Their later criminal reputation was undeserved. Leeson found most were discharged with honour from the army and few had criminal records. The first Black and Tans arrived in Ireland in January 1920. A shortage of police clothing led to their mixed costumes which attracted great attention as they marched to their barracks.

Recruiting was slow but picked up with a substantial pay rise in June 1920. Numbers took off after September 1920 when police sacked the county Dublin town of Balbriggan. The sack was discussed in parliament and made national headlines and cinema reels. Despite the notoriety, the publicity alerted many ex-servicemen about employment with the RIC. The pay was good but conditions were hard and dangerous and they were shunned and resented by Irish police.

They had no love for ADRIC either. Auxiliaries were officially temporary cadets but paid as sergeants, a rank it might take decades for Irish police to reach. The division was Churchill’s idea to raise a “special emergency gendarmerie” of war veterans enlisted for one year. ADRIC’s leader Major General Henry Tudor said their role was to “crush the present campaign of outrage” using military tribunals, deporting prisoners, collective punishment and “a special penalty of flogging imposed for the cutting of girls’ hair and outrages against women”. ADRIC became known as Tudor’s Toughs and remained a separate force spending much of their time conducting raids, earning a more fearsome reputation than the Tans. When faced with resistance they lost restraint and committed atrocities which seemed to crush the IRA but in the longer term hardened republican resolve and turned the Irish against them.

As the struggle intensified, Ireland descended into a reign of terror. The guerrillas resorted to ambush and assassination which the Tans and Auxiliaries met with group reprisals and murder. Suspects and prisoners were summarily executed, homes and shops of IRA volunteer families and supporters were burned. In the 1921 summer an election was held according to the Government of Ireland Act for the House of Commons of southern Ireland (a separate election was held in the north). Republicans triumphed with Sinn Fein treating it as an election for a new revolutionary parliament. When elected members refused to take their seats in a House of Commons, London threatened to govern Ireland as a crown colony. On June 21, Lord Chancellor Birkenhead finally admitted Britain was at war in Ireland – a war it was determined to win.

The war was unpopular in England. King George V made a more conciliatory speech opening Belfast’s new parliament which was welcomed in Britain and Ireland. When republican leader de Valera indicated he might compromise, and with many of the hard-line Unionists finally out of cabinet, Lloyd George was persuaded to negotiate. A truce was arranged on July 8 coming into force three days later. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 6 kept Ulster separate and Ireland within the realm but Britain conceded the dominion status it fought resolutely against 12 months earlier.

While Ireland descended into its own self-inflicted horror of the Civil War, the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries went home to England (there were very few Scottish or Welsh in either force). Both forces entered the infamy of Irish history but they consisted of mostly ordinary men. The Auxiliaries behaved worse, but this Leeson says, was merely a privilege of rank. Their cruelties were overlooked by the British government anxious to pretend the insurgency was “a policeman’s job”.

Leeson compares how the British in Ireland behaved with Brazilian death squads of the 1964-1985 period. “Violence workers” were ordinary people trained to confine their violence against known or suspected enemies. However the margin of tolerated illegality was wide and helped insulate them from the impact of their crimes. Leeson says during the war Ireland was transformed into “a looking-glass world of crimes without criminals, police without laws, trials without judges or juries and sentences without appeal.” Lloyd George’s government must take most of the blame for turning Ireland, at least temporarily, into Devil’s Island.

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