The 1924 Army mutiny resulted in important changes in the Cosgrave government which served to enhance the stability of the State for successive generations, writes Frank Bouchier-Hayes
Exactly 80 years ago tomorrow a document was handed to W.T. Cosgrave, president of the Free State Executive Council, in Government Buildings by a representative of the Irish Republican Army Organisation (IRAO), a group representing the views of disgruntled Army officers. It was clear from the note that a section of the Army was in revolt and thus began what has variously been described as the Army crisis, mutiny, or prelude to a coup d'état.
In particular, the document insisted that support for the Treaty had been given on the understanding that the government would strive to attain an Irish Republic, but that current government policy was "not reconcilable with the Irish people's acceptance of the Treaty". The statement was followed by an ultimatum to the government requiring that it take immediate steps to remove the Army Council and suspend Army demobilisation and reorganisation.
The signatories, Maj-Gen Liam Tobin and Col Charles Dalton, were former close associates of Michael Collins who felt that his ideals were being betrayed by the current administration. A reply was required to their ultimatum by midday on March 12th, 1924, setting the scene for the most dramatic crisis since the Civil War.
The IRAO had been set up in January 1923 following a series of meetings of senior officers and politicians convened by Liam Tobin to discuss alleged "pro-British tendencies" within the existing Army framework.
During June and July 1923 a series of conferences were held by IRAO members to bring to the attention of Cosgrave and Richard Mulcahy, minister for defence, their grievances, including the perception that they were being ostracised by Army headquarters staff, that ex-British army and post-Truce officers were being given preferential treatment, while pre-Truce IRA volunteers were being demoted, and that the Irish Republican Brotherhood determined staff retention and promotion within the Army.
Cosgrave decided on a policy of accommodation and Mulcahy readily agreed to meet representatives of the organisation at any time to discuss "matters which are considered vital to the progress of the Army on national lines, with a view to the complete independence of Ireland".
This conciliatory approach was largely determined by the imminence of a crucial election and to avoid any disruption which might detrimentally affect the result. A few months after the election, in October 1923, Mulcahy felt sufficiently confident to ignore a request by the organisation that certain officers not be demobilised.
A month later, more than 60 officers stationed at the Curragh refused to accept their demobilisation papers. Although they were removed and discharged without pay, the government did indicate, by acceding to a request by a sympathetic minister, Joe McGrath, about the functioning of a committee established to oversee demobilisation, that the IRAO wielded a certain amount of influence.
However, when the final details of the Army reorganisation came before the government in late February 1924, McGrath's sympathy with Tobin and other IRAO members was not enough to safeguard their positions. Almost all were either sacked or demoted.
Tobin and Dalton responded by issuing their ultimatum. Although McGrath strongly disapproved of this action, he nevertheless resigned from the government in protest at the way in which he felt the Department of Defence was handling Army affairs. The government also moved swiftly by ordering the arrest of Tobin and Dalton, while the Garda commissioner, Eoin O'Duffy, was given overall command of the Army. John Regan argues in his detailed study, The Irish Counter-Revolution 1921-1936, that the mutiny not only resurrected interrelated conflicts within the government, Army and Cumann na nGaedheal party which had been allowed to lie dormant during the Civil War in the face of the IRA threat, but also exposed a struggle between civil and military powers which took the identifiable form of a clash between Kevin O'Higgins, minister for home affairs (later justice) and vice-president of the Executive Council, and Richard Mulcahy, minister for defence.
The government adopted a conciliatory line towards the mutineers on March 12th. The IRAO responded by saying that its members merely wished to highlight administrative errors in Army structure, and accepted that its members were subject to unqualified civilian control.
However, events quickly took a turn for the worse when the Army under the instructions of Gearóid O'Sullivan, the adjutant general, and without seeking the consent of the government, raided Devlin's Hotel in Parnell Street, Dublin, on the night of March 18th-19th in the belief that a coup d'état was being planned there by IRAO members.
Although perhaps well-intentioned, this action nevertheless constituted a denial of the primacy of government in deciding such matters. As the president was absent through illness, O'Higgins acted quickly to reassert civil authority over military affairs.
Having first sought Cosgrave's agreement, O'Higgins rang Mulcahy, who resigned in protest as minister for defence on being told the government would require the resignation of the Army Council.
While it is fair to say that only a small number of officers were directly involved in the mutiny and that the disaffection they expressed was not found among the NCOs or enlisted men, Regan points out that the vice-president's strong and swift handling of the Army mutiny constituted "O'Higgins's declaration to the world that neither he nor the institutions of State would ever again take their stride from a soldier's boot".
It must also be recognised that such strength of purpose on O'Higgins's part was instrumental in laying the solid foundations for the stable democratic society that we continue to enjoy today.
Frank Bouchier-Hayes is a local historian.