From Church & State: Autumn 2006

Robin Bury's Faulty Witness

(Part One of a series on the Irish Distress Committee)

Robin Bury of the Reform Society has claimed that there was "a sectarian campaign against Protestants in west Cork in April 1922", adding that "the British forces had left long before April 1922" (letter replying to an article by Niall Meehan on The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Irish Examiner 10.07.06). He rejects the idea that the people killed were "informers or members of some loyalist underground", but takes the killings to represent a deliberate ethnic cleansing carried out against Protestants by republicans. In support of his thesis he cites a series of disconnected quotations without a context, and adduces the reports of the Irish Distress Committee, an English institution.

A major oddity of Mr. Bury's letter is that he quotes in support of his argument "the Presbyterian journal The Witness" of 17th June 1921—eleven months before the events under discussion. This paper alleges: "the plight of the Protestants in the South and West is sad in the extreme…" There follows a catalogue of the intimidation of "the small Protestant minority", the usual sad sequence of 'ethnic cleansing'. The list ends with a bit of Protestant triumphalism about the "industry and character" of the prosperous farmers who are "fair game" for "lawless men who have learned the use of the revolver". The motive for these acts is "sheer covetousness" and also "personal dislike". (The Witness was "Printed and Published by John B. O'Neill" in Belfast. It was not in any way the official product of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and, by the standards of the time, was fairly moderate in tone.)

I wonder whether Mr. Bury has examined The Witness himself? The quotation cited in his letter to the Examiner runs together two different articles from The Witness, though he does not indicate it. More to the point, neither The Witness nor other Belfast papers report any particular anti-Protestant violence in the 'Free State' area in June 1922.

Mr. Bury further displays his learning when he mentions the Irish Distress Committee which, he says, "was established in London to provide help to those who had fled and those who had stayed and been persecuted". They were "almost all Protestants, though also members of the RIC". Is Mr. Bury saying that the Protestants who needed help were also members of the Royal Irish Constabulary? Or is he suggesting that members of the RIC were assisted as well as Protestants? The point is of some significance as his essential argument is that the IRA was sectarian and targetted Protestants indiscriminately on account of their religion. But the RIC was 90+% Catholic. If the RIC was attacked, that suggests that the motive of the Volunteers was political rather than sectarian. And, in fact, research has shown that the Irish Distress Committee helped more Catholics than it did Protestants. One of the most prominent Catholics that it assisted was D.D. Sheehan, the former collaborator of Canon Sheehan in the All For Ireland League and activist in the Land and Labour Association. Sheehan was later heavily implicated in recruiting cannonfodder for the Front in the Great War.

Robin Bury invited Niall Meehan to "study the 3,143 files" in the British National Archives and to draw his own conclusions "about the evidence of murder and persecution of Protestants". The implication of this challenge is that Mr. Bury himself has done so, and is providing an accurate account of what is in those files.

Unable to reconcile Mr. Bury's conclusions with my own knowledge of the facts, I have determined to take up his challenge and have started what will be a lengthy investigation of the doings of the Irish Distress Committee. Readers of Church & State will be kept informed of my researches.

The Irish Distress Committee was established in response to agitations by various groupings. It was later called the Irish Grants Committee. The most powerful of the pressure groups was the Southern Irish Loyalists' Relief Association, which had the Duke of Northumberland as President and the Marquess of Salisbury as Secretary. The only 'Mister' on its list was Neville Chamberlain. The Duke of Northumberland's son, Lord Eustace Percy MP was later made Chair of the Irish Distress/Grants Committee.

So far I have read some of the Distress Committee files and have read a number of the Books of Minutes prepared by the officials who serviced the Committee.
There were four members of the Committee, which was established in May 1922. Lionel Curtis of Lord Milner's Kindergarten and Round Table group drew up the terms of reference of the Committee and attended its first few meetings. The terms of reference were:

"(a) To investigate applications by or on behalf of persons ordinarily resident in Ireland who for reasons of personal safety have come to Great Britain and are represented to be in urgent need of assistance.

"(b) To furnish the Irish Office with reports on the adequacy or otherwise of their reasons for leaving their homes, and so to enable the Irish Office to make detailed representations to the Provisional Government to secure their return to their homes at the earliest possible moment.

"(c) To authorise the Irish Office in cases of proved necessity to advance money sufficient for immediate needs.

"(d) To advise the Government from time to time on any further steps which may owing to the further development of the situation, be required to deal with the problems of Refugees from Ireland."

It will be noted that there is no suggestion that it is particularly Protestants who are in need of assistance and that there is an assumption that people have been temporarily displaced.

Sir Samuel Hoare was the Chairman of the Committee, but was replaced by Lord Eustace Percy. The Secretary was Major A. Reid Jamieson. Mark Sturgis, who had some experience of Dublin Castle and was a civil servant in the Irish Office (which was superseded by the Colonial, then the Dominions Office), conducted a lot of the correspondence with officialdom. He served from the first meeting until April 1926. The fourth member was E.T. Crutchley.

The Distress Committee disbursed around £70,000, which it obtained from the British Treasury.

In March 1923 it was renamed the Irish Grants Committee, with new Terms of Reference, but remaining under the chairmanship of Lord Eustace Percy MP. The Terms of Reference were:

"To recommend to the Secretary of State for the Colonies what grants or loans should be made to refugees from Ireland and what advances should be made to claimants for compensation under the Criminal and Malicious Injuries Acts or other legislation for the time being in force in Ireland, and to advise the Secretary of State generally upon the position of such persons.

"That the Committee should be empowered to recommend the Secretary of State for the Colonies to authorise loans up to a limit of £1,000 in any one one case to claimants for compensation both in respect of the pre-truce and post-truce periods.

"That in cases where the Committee think it desirable to exceed this limit, the Treasury would send a representative to meet the Committee with the discretionary power either to approve the recommendation of the Committee or to reserve it for Treasury sanction.

"That in connexion with the following sub-heads on page 9 of the Estimates for Unclassified Services (Criminal Injuries (Ireland) Compensation etc. Estimate)
sub-head C. £ 3,000 (Pre-Truce damage)
sub-head D. £50,000 (Post-Truce damages)
sub-head E £25,000 (Refugees)
in the event of the provision under D and E proving insufficient arrangements will be made with the Treasury to render funds available from C."

These sums of money were provided from the British Treasury. The Committee also disbursed money from the Irish Exchequer.

The Irish Distress/Grants Committee appears to have been somewhat inefficient. One of its activities was to advance rent to landlords who had been unable to collect it from their farm tenants. But the landlords were no better at paying up than their tenants. Even after order had been re-established in Ireland, they failed to repay the loans they had received from the Irish Distress Committee. A sub-committee was established on foot of a recommendation of "the Minutes of September 23rd, 1925". It pointed out that advances of money "made on the security of arrears of rent due under the Irish Land Act of 1923" (a Free State enactment), had essentially, been reneged on. The sums in question were:

Advance made up to December 1925 £28, 520. 0. 0.
Recovered £2, 241. 5. 0.

The upshot of this and other matters was that the Committee was reorganised in 1926. The weekly meetings were suspended in April and re-started in October with different personnel, except for Jamieson. The new members of the Committee were Sir Alexander Wood Renton (Chairman), who had a medical background; Sir James Brunyate, who was from the India civil service; and Sir John Oakley. There were new terms of reference, which I hope to produce in a future article. The Committee queried elements of their new Terms of Reference.

In their first minutes (18th October 1926), Major Jamieson was appointed Contradictor, a Devil's Advocate to dispute the claims made. Examples of filled-in forms can be found in Kew PRO (PRO,CO 762/26).

The Distress/Grants Committee minutes were pasted into a ledger (PRO,CO 762/207). The reorganised Grant Committee's minutes are bound in four large volumes (CO 762/208 etc.).

In 1930 144 members of the Irish Loyalists Association, whose Hon. Secretary was W. M. Boland of Ballina, an ex-RIC man, signed a plea that the Irish Grants Committee be not disbanded. (They were coordinated by a Sligo Solicitor with the apt surname Argue.) (PRO, DO 35/343/3).

This second incarnation of the Irish Grants Committee had (according to a note dated "10.1.'30") paid out, "to March 1929" the sum of £1,386,664. 0. 0.
Many of these payments were in the form of straightforward hand-outs of four-figure sums, the lowest figure was £25, and it stands out from the rest. The Committee also "purchased" many "annuities": mostly in respect of sums like £250 and £500. To put this is context, this was a time of mass unemployment and Depression. A highly skilled worker would have had to work sixty hours a week—at least— to earn £5.

Much of this money went to people who were resident in Ireland. On 23rd January 1930 the Southern Irish Loyalists' Relief Association wrote to the Grants Committee, asking that it to destroy letters from the Free State which asked for money. This strange request was complied with. There may be a number of explanations for this, ranging from tax evasion to fraud. However, the suspicion that England was cultivating a Fifth Column really cannot be excluded.

There is a great deal more to be investigated and written about this matter.

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