As the Treaty split developed, it suggested to some in Britain that the settlement had been a mistake. The government was increasingly worried by the solidification of the anti-Treaty movement. In June 1922 Winston Churchill issued a dramatic public warning, speaking of 'scenes like those of the French revolution' in Ireland, and declaring that 'until somehow we find a means of putting an end to this state of affairs, our boast of civilisation in these islands is stultified'.

The means of what he had in mind certainly included a renewal of military operations. The fact that, as a War Office plan drawn up in October 1921 had shown, serious action would call for reinforcements on an impossible scale did not deter him. And as the split veered towards open conflict, the government looked anxiously for any sign that the Provisional Government might not stand up to the republicans or might indeed reunite with them.

Image - In June 1922 Winston Churchill, seen here emerging from Downing St with Lloyd George during the Treaty negotiations several months earlier, warned that 'scenes like those of the French revolution' might be seen in Ireland. Photo: Getty Images

In June 1922 Winston Churchill, seen here emerging from Downing St with Lloyd George during the Treaty negotiations several months earlier, warned that 'scenes like those of the French revolution' might be seen in Ireland. Photo: Getty Images

Heightened anxiety

The occupation of the Four Courts heightened this anxiety, although Churchill was at first persuaded by General Macready, the Commander-in-Chief in Ireland, that the Provisional Government was wise to ignore the challenge 'until public opinion is exasperated with the raiders'.

The electoral pact of May 1922 ignited a sharper spasm of alarm. Churchill, who became 'so disappointed with the situation that he wants to pull the whole plant out of the ground' as the Cabinet secretary noted - and reflecting rising diehard Tory anger - was increasingly at odds with the prime minister. In April he started talking of sending flying columns against the republicans – against the protest of Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the British Imperial General Staff, that they would merely be 'beating the air'.

In June he wanted to rack up the pressure on the Provisional Government, telling the Cabinet that

'when we begin to act, we must act like a sledgehammer', to 'cause bewilderment and consternation among the people in Southern Ireland'.

The effects of this 'shock and awe' approach could have been grim, as Lloyd George was acutely aware. When Churchill ordered troops to be sent to Belleek and Pettigo on the Northern Ireland border after they were seized by the IRA, the prime minister tried to rescind the order. He fumed that Churchill's erratic behaviour – like

'a chauffeur who apparently is perfectly sane and drives with great skill for months, then suddenly takes you over a precipice'- showed 'a strain of lunacy'.

Image - British soldiers in Belleek, Co Fermanagh, in June 1922. Photo: Getty Images

British soldiers in Belleek, Co Fermanagh, in June 1922. Photo: Getty Images

"A republic with a thin veneer"

But the prime minister himself took the lead in rejecting the draft Free State constitution, which Collins hoped would enshrine 'the essence of a Gaelic polity, without the trappings'. Lloyd George saw it as 'a republic with a thin veneer', and 'a complete evasion of the Treaty'.

A serious crisis blew up in late May and early June, with the Irish government repeatedly adjusting the constitution's provisions – on the authority of the Crown and the legal role of the Privy Council especially, as well as the concept of 'extern ministers' - to meet British requirements.

Lloyd George seemed ready to take this to the limit, saying on 26 May that 'the one thing on which the British government could fight was Allegiance to the King' ('on this they would get the whole British Empire behind them'). Churchill told parliament five days later that if 'a Republic' emerged, Britain would 'hold Dublin as one of the preliminary essential steps to military operations'. This British inflexibility on the constitution 'killed any hope of inducing the republicans to accept the Treaty peacefully', as the historian Joseph Curran put it.

The Cabinet became increasingly agitated by the Provisional Government's reluctance to take direct action against the IRA in the Four Courts. It agreed on 1 April that 'the British government could not allow the republican flag to fly in Ireland'. A point might come when, if the Irish government was unable to deal with the situation, 'the British government would have to do so'. Lloyd George himself talked of partial 'reconquest' if necessary.

Image - Henry Wilson, whose assassination triggered the attack on the Four Courts. Original Artwork: Photo by Russell & Sons. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Henry Wilson, whose assassination triggered the attack on the Four Courts. Original Artwork: Photo by Russell & Sons. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Attacking the Four Courts

The assassination of Sir Henry Wilson, the security advisor to the Northern Ireland government and former Chief of the Imperial General Staff, by two IRA men in London on 22 June unleashed a storm of Tory anger directed against Lloyd George and the Treaty, and the Cabinet summoned Macready to London next day to discuss his plan for a surprise attack on the Four Courts. It ordered him to go ahead on Sunday the 25th.

The Cabinet assumed that the assassins came from the Four Courts garrison, though Macready warned that direct action might produce a surge of public support for the republicans; and pointed out that most Irish people probably accepted Rory O'Connor's denial of any link with Wilson's killers. There were bound to be civilian casualties and Britain would be blamed for breaking the Truce.

He delayed the attack while his staff chief went to London to lay out their objections to the Cabinet, with support from the War Office. Churchill was left to deliver on 26 June a quasi-ultimatum to the Free State government (not a full ultimatum since it laid down no time limit). Failure to act would break the Treaty, and Britain would resume full freedom of action. The attack on the Four Courts followed two days later.

Image - The Four Courts ablaze, in June 1922

The Four Courts ablaze, in June 1922

To republicans, British compulsion was self-evident, though Collins and Mulcahy had effectively taken the decision before Churchill spoke - for the reasons any state would find compelling (as Griffith put it, 'we had either to go in or to abdicate'). Indeed, the British ultimatum could well have backfired (as Collins fumed, 'let Churchill come over and do his own dirty work').

The use of British artillery – 'English guns' in Dorothy Macardle's phrase - was central to the republican charge of British manipulation. Two 18-pounders were handed over, but the Free State troops lacked artillery training and had difficulty laying the guns, and a number of British gunners were drafted in. Two more guns soon followed, though the offer of a howitzer was turned down.

Churchill was keen to use air attacks to speed up the operation when it seemed to be stalling on the 29th, though the explosion of the garrison's ammunition store made the building indefensible and resolved this issue.

'All is changed'

Churchill's growing doubts about Collins's good faith evaporated as soon as 'blood flowed in the quarrel'; 'all is changed', he told him, and the provisional government's action would usher in 'a new phase far more hopeful than anything we have hitherto experienced'. He urged Collins to recruit a citizen army in Dublin, and told the Cabinet he would send 'up to 10,000 rifles' to support the Provisional Government.

He urged Macready to offer the National Army tanks, if they could use them, and when the Treasury predictably jibbed at expenses which could probably never be recovered, insisted that Britain 'avoid troubling them with details while the fighting goes on'. By late August, the National Army had received nine field guns, 27,000 rifles, 250 machine guns and 8,500 grenades.

Image - Michael Collins in 1922. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Michael Collins in 1922. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The government's worry about Collins's commitment to the Treaty is easy to understand, and it clearly aimed to prevent a peaceful resolution of the split. This is not to say that any minister, even Churchill, contemplated intervention in any but the most extreme circumstances. Churchill's remark to Collins – 'thank God you have got to manage it and not we' – buttressed the republican view that the Provisional Government were British stooges.

But a far-sighted view might be that it signposted a British mental withdrawal, beginning with the physical withdrawal of forces and becoming steadily more entrenched over the following decades, culminating in the abandonment of the 'Treaty ports' on the eve of the Second World War.

This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.