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IRA offered to decommission in 1923

(by Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune)

The belief that the IRA has never in its history offered to decommission its arms and explosives has played a major role in shaping attitudes towards the current decommissioning controversy and in particular the view that the Provisional IRA cannot break historical precedent by agreeing to disarm.

The two examples that are always cited as restricting the Provos' freedom of movement are the decision by the anti-Treaty IRA leadership on May 24th, 1923 to end the civil war with an order to cease fire and "dump arms" and a similar instruction by the IRA in 1962 to end its ill-fated campaign begun in 1956.

It is often said that were the Provisional IRA to go beyond the republican "tradition" as represented by these precedents then it would leave itself open to accusations of surrender of a type never before levelled at any Republican group.

However, a neglected part of the historical record shows that there is a precedent of a different kind. This was set by Eamon de Valera and the anti-Treaty IRA leadership a few days before the 1923 cease fire order when, in a set of proposals designed to bring the civil war to an end on more beneficial terms, the political leader of the anti-Treaty forces offered major concessions on IRA arms.

He and the IRA recognised the right of the government to hold all weapons in the state and, in an uncanny echo of the present day, made a detailed offer to decommission to the lawful government in return for political concessions.

The origin of de Valera's proposals lay in a set of military reverses suffered at the end of 1922 and the beginning of 1923 by the IRA in its fight against the pro-Treaty government led by W T Cosgrave. The IRA Executive met in secret to discuss how to end the war and debated peace proposals tabled by de Valera.

According to Dorothy Macardle's account in The Irish Republic these were based on three principles which Cosgrave's cabinet were asked to recognise: that the right of the Irish people to sovereign independence was inalienable; that the people of Ireland were "the ultimate court of appeal in questions of national expediency and policy" and lastly that no-one subscribing to these principles should "be debarred by any test or oath" from taking part in the new state's political life.

The IRA Executive narrowly rejected de Valera's ideas but when a few months later the IRA's Chief of Staff Liam Lynch was killed and other IRA leaders were captured and executed, de Valera's proposals were revived.

The Executive reconvened in April and agreed that if the Cosgrave government accepted de Valera's principles they in turn would accept majority rule in what was about to become the officially partitioned Free State. At the end of April de Valera issued a proclamation offering a peace deal based on his three principles and the IRA accompanied this with an order suspending offensive military actions.

Shortly thereafter talks began with the Cosgrave government when two Senators, Andrew Jameson and James Douglas were given permission to open a dialogue with de Valera. A central feature of Cosgrave's response to de Valera's proclamation was the demand that IRA arms be "delivered into the effectual custody" of the Free State authorities.

A note added: "The arrangements for the delivery of the arms and the place of their deposit would be made with as much consideration as possible for the feelings of those concerned".

Negotiations started in early May. By the 7th, de Valera had prepared a document which the Senators forwarded to Cosgrave. It accepted the principle of majority rule but asked Cosgrave not to bar Sinn Féin TD's who refused to swear the oath of allegiance to the British Crown which had divided the Republican forces when the Treaty was signed.

De Valera's response to the demand for the surrender of IRA arms was startling.

He first of all accepted the principle that in effect the Irish government was the only lawful authority allowed to hold arms. His document read: "That....the people are entitled to have all lethal weapons within the country in the effective custody and control of the Executive Government responsible to the people through their representatives."

But he didn't stop there and went on to make a detailed decommissioning proposal, one incidentally which can be seen as a model for other conflict resolution situations, most recently in El Salvador where a decommissioning scheme remarkably similar to the one outlined by de Valera in 1923 was overseen by the United Nations.

De Valera proposed a general election to be held in September that year but until then "effective control of lethal weapons shall be secured by: i) the strict supervision of all arms in the Free State forces and their auxilliaries. ii) Assigning to the Republican forces at least one suitable building in each province to be used by them as barracks and arsenals where Republican arms shall be stored, sealed up and defended by a specially pledged Republican guard - these arms to be disposed of after the elections by re-issue to their present holders or in such manner as may secure the consent of the Government then elected".

According to Macardle the IRA Army Council passed the details of the proposal on to IRA members in prison and detention camps and it "met with no opposition from them".

Cosgrave refused the offer not because of what it had to say about decommissioning but because he would not budge on the issue of the oath of allegiance to the Crown.

Nevertheless there is no doubt that had he accepted de Valera's proposal IRA weapons would in all likelihood have been decommissioned in a manner approved by the new Free State government elected in September that year. The reference to returning arms "to their present holders" would surely only have been an option had the new government reneged on the overall deal.

The proposal was an audacious if doomed attempt by De Valera and the IRA leadership to win at the negotiating table what they had lost in the battle field and it may also have been de Valera's way of edging the IRA into a ceasefire. But the episode showed that if the IRA leadership got the right political price the weapons would be given up.

The truth was that de Valera was negotiating from a position of weakness. The IRA recognised this by the end of May when the Executive authorised the "dump arms" order and de Valera in his famous Legion of the Rearguard speech conceded defeat. "Military victory must be allowed to rest for the moment with those who have destroyed the Republic", he said. A few days later he told a US journalist: "The war, so far as we are concerned, is finished".

There are modern day resonances in all this for Gerry Adams and the Provisional IRA Army Council. The importance of the episode is that it demonstrates that the IRA has in the past had a much more pragmatic attitude to arms than is often assumed.

And the order to "dump arms" - recently canvassed as one option today's IRA leadership would consider along with a declaration that their own war is over - was, like the similar ending to the 1956-62 campaign, the action of a defeated army.