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Irish Land War: How militarised policing emerged with Special Infantry Corps...

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    Irish Land War: How militarised policing emerged with Special Infantry Corps to tackle unrest

    Irish Independent
    Story by Jack Kavanagh

    During the initial months of the Civil War, the focus of the nascent provisional government was mainly on defeating the anti-Treaty IRA and stabilising the new State.

    However, by December 1922, the rising levels of agrarian unrest were concurrently a pressing issue. The opportunity for land seizures increased as the RIC was disbanded and crown forces withdrew.

    While the precise involvement of anti-Treaty IRA personnel in fostering and/or direct involvement in land seizures needs to be more fully explored, their participation is often directly referenced in Free State contemporary sources and it would appear that the Free State government viewed this as a new phase in republican attempts to undermine the State.

    Of course, not every person involved in agrarian unrest was an anti-Treatyite, although it is possible there were a number of alliances of convenience between local IRA volunteers and striking agricultural labourers.

    Throughout 1922 and early 1923, two key Free State ministers, Kevin O’Higgins (Home Affairs) and Patrick Hogan (Agriculture), began to push for greater military involvement in policing agrarian unrest. O’Higgins summed up these difficulties in a typically robust way: “As the first sign of a crumbling civilisation, the bailiff… has failed and the system of impounding livestock, pending auction for recovery of a decree has utterly broken down.”

    Hogan was more apocalyptic and intimated that the escalating agrarian unrest was tantamount to a new “land war”.

    By early 1923, the Free State government undertook a twin-track approach to deal with this new threat. First came the establishment in January of a new bespoke branch of the military: the Special Infantry Corps (SIC). Among its duties, the SIC was established to take over enforcement of court decrees relating to land and agricultural issues. The second was through legislation, including the 1923 Land Act.

    Underlying the perceived need for a new type of quasi-gendarme branch of the military was the inability of the unarmed Civic Guard to cope with the levels of unrest across the country. The SIC operated until November 1923. During the 11 months it was in operation, approximately 3,000-4,000 men served within 12 battalions and a border unit. There were attempts to ensure that SIC personnel were not from the locality they were being sent to, as it was felt that local sympathies would be a deterrent to effectiveness.

    The SIC was commanded by Colonel Patrick Dalton, formerly of the Railway Protection and Salvage Corps. Its central headquarters were at Portobello Barracks in Dublin. It was designed as a highly mobile unit, using a mixture of Crossley Tenders and other vehicles when available and each battalion contained a Lewis Gun section.

    The typical duties of the SIC involved stopping illegal grazing, livestock seizures in lieu of currency, poitín raids, strikebreaking, and the collection of rental arrears.

    The inability of the Civic Guard to enforce court judgments meant that the SIC was filling a vacuum created by the failure of the policing system. A typical example of its duties occurred in June 1923 when the SIC was requested by the Dublin County Sheriff’s Office to aid it in recouping a sum of £143 from a tenant who had lost a court case. The tenant had threatened the bailiffs and had claimed to be an anti-Treaty IRA leader in the area. The SIC sent a force of 12 men to escort the bailiffs.

    Upon finding that the tenant was absent, they seized livestock, machinery and other farm equipment to the value of the judgment. This type of action was intended to consolidate the authority of the Free State.

    While relatively unglamorous in the wider context of the Civil War, the enforcement of court orders was fundamental to the long-term stability of the Free State. In this respect, the SIC had some degree of success; Kevin O’Higgins reflected in his testimony to the Army Inquiry Committee in 1924 that the SIC had been successful in “stamping out agrarian anarchy and other serious abuses”.

    In many respects, the SIC represented a European-style approach wherein a militarised gendarme was created to bolster local police forces.

    Similar agencies existed in Spain, Italy and France, and it is worth noting that labour and agrarian unrest were widespread across post-war Europe and that the case of Ireland is part of this larger phenomenon, albeit with regional characteristics.​

    Jack Kavanagh is a PhD graduate of Maynooth University

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  • #2
    Rather the same tactics as used by the ADRIC (Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary) in the years before.