IRELAND AND THE END OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE by HELEN O’SHEA : a review

IRELAND AND THE END OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE

HELEN O’SHEA

I.B.TAURIS 288 pp €89.00

Cyprus, an island slightly larger than Co. Cork, and with a population of just over half a million, became independent in 1960 after a short, nasty, guerrilla campaign. In four years several hundred British soldiers and locally employed Cypriots were killed, nine EOKA ( Cypriot Resistance) fighters were hanged with many more dying fighting up to 40,000 British soldiers.

A bad situation was made worse by British blunders and ineptitude. They sought initially to crush EOKA by savage repression (enforced by a military Governor), deported the inspirational Cypriot leader Archbishop Makarios to the Seychelles and flew the EOKA leaders to British prisons, where they teamed up with IRA prisoners. EOKA were even gifted their own Kevin Barry, 22 year old Michalis Karaolis, hanged amid protests in May 1956. As with Barry, the hanging of Karaolis proved a watershed, enflaming passions and compromising possibilities of a political solution.

The Cypriot insurgents drew inspiration from Ireland’s earlier struggle. The similarities are obvious, even if the ultimate aim of many was not independence but Enosis – union with Greece. Fears over this among the 20% Turkish minority led to bloody clashes with the Greek majority before and after independence and eventually to partition of the island and Turkey occupying the northern half.

Public sympathy in Ireland for the rebels was, unsurprisingly, considerable, particularly as Britain seemed to be repeating in Cyprus the mistakes made in Ireland a generation earlier. Yet ,as Dr O’Shea shows ,Irish involvement was not one-sided, the complicated situation reflecting Ireland’s relatively recent separation from Britain.

The British Empire may have been in decline but its bureaucracy and military still held many high ranking Irish, including the head of the Foreign Office, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, an early advocate of the partition of Cyprus. On Cyprus, Chief Justice Hallinan, who sentenced Karaolis to death, was from Cork, while the Attorney-General, James Henry, who refused clemency to all nine who were hanged, was the son of Denis Henry, Irish Attorney –General when twenty four IRA members were executed between 1919 and 1921.

Many other Irish were involved at various levels in the British judiciary and administration plus hundreds in the army. These included Brigadier Butler from Rathgar, and a number of other senior officers , while several Irish regiments served tours of duty during the “Emergency.” Not surprisingly many Irish ordinary soldiers served, having emigrated during the decade after 1945; some were casualties, some were decorated.

Moreover, this was the 1950’s, the Cold War at its most frigid, with Cyprus regarded as key to Britain’s defence of the eastern Mediterranean. Ireland, staunchly Catholic and anti-Communist, while not in NATO, was firmly in the western camp. This led to a certain wariness , for example from the Catholic Church, in support for the Cypriot cause. At the political level also there were factors at play. While committed to supporting the principle of self-determination at the UN, Ireland, a new member, was still preoccupied with Irish Partition ( the “sore thumb ”policy). There was caution about attacking Britain’s State of Emergency in Cyprus and alleged human rights abuses , when Ireland herself had a State of Emergency (including internment) to deal with the IRA border campaign. There was a delicate balance to be struck. “ Sympathy was free but a UN vote could be costly.”

01/02/15

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