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Arms Dumps and the IRA, 1923-32

John Horgan examines the attempts by the new Irish Free State government to disarm the IRA at the end of the civil war in 1923 and the way in which the issue of the IRA arms dumps rumbled on in Irish politics for the next ten years. 

Although it ended hostilities between Ireland and Britain, the signing of the Treaty between the British Government and the emissaries of the Dail (the embryo Irish Parliament) in 1921 was the prelude to a bitter civil war. The fighting broke out in 1922 between the government of the newly-formed Irish Free State, in which Michael Collins was a central figure, and members of the Irish Republican Army opposed to the Treaty, under the political leadership of Eamon de Valera.

Between 700 and 2,000 people were killed (no reliable figures have ever been compiled) during the conflict which ended in May 1923, when de Valera gave his followers the order to dump their arms. The IRA went into the shadows, still fully armed. What took place in May 1923 was a cease-fire, not an unambiguous end to hostilities: no cease-fire is irreversible, after all, for as long as any of the protagonists retain their weapons. The members of the IRA, still loyal to an increasingly phantasmagorical concept of the State, were told to conceal those weapons rather than surrender them, on the grounds that they might be needed again. No decommissioning ever took place.

The Sinn Fein political party, of which de Valera was the leader, was outside the new Dail: those of its members who had been successful in the general election refused to take the oath of allegiance to the new State because it was not the Republic for which they had been fighting. As a result the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA became the centre of a controversy about decommissioning paramilitary weapons (although the word was not part of the political vocabulary of the day) which lasted in one form or another for almost a decade. The controversy eerily prefigured other, more recent and still current, disputes about political and constitutional developments in Northern Ireland, the political accountability of militant Republicanism, and the calibre of political leadership.

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