A Very British Civil War in Ireland

The aim of this post is to provide some background to my AVBCW project in Ireland, primarily Northern Ireland/Ulster. This is still a bit of a work in progress, but think I’ve got the general background worked out now.


For those unfamiliar with the world of “A Very British Civil War” it is an alternative history scenario, wherein King Edward VIII does not abdicate in 1936 causing Parliament and the CoE to take a huff with him, so he installs Oswald Mosley, of the British Union of Fascists, as Prime Minister. Many people consider this an affront to tea and crumpets and good British sense so England fractures into a staggering array of squabbling factions, Scotland declares independence, then fractures into a few squabbling factions itself, Wales implodes, the Cornish secede, Communists pop up everywhere, Prince Bertie invades at the head of a Canadian army, and Ireland annexes Ulster.

People's Front of Judea (PFJ) - Home | Facebook

Essentially it’s like if P.G. Wodehouse wrote the Spanish Civil War and peopled it with Dad’s Army and the People’s Front of Judea…

The Irish aspect of this always struck me as a bit dull. Given the zany antics of the rest of the British isles, it seemed a shame that Ireland was given such short shrift. Now to be fair Ireland has had its fair share of bloody internecine conflict through the real 20th Century, something I well know having grown up during the tail end of the euphemistically named “Troubles”, and still see the legacy of it all around, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t fun to be poked at lampooning stereotypes. I have no intention to cause anyone offence and the factions will be mostly fictional or heavily fictionalised versions of the history, and certainly not intended to be taken in any way seriously.

To that end, I’ve come up with a slightly altered version of the timeline. The events on the mainland proceed much as the standard narrative suggests, but there’s a few key divergences in Ireland. The primary one is a very different outcome to the Irish Civil War.

Real Irish History 1922 – 1937

In our timeline, after the Irish War of Independence, the British and Irish put together the Anglo-Irish Treaty that would make Ireland (excluding the 6 North Eastern counties) a Free State, though still nominally part of the British Commonwealth and still swearing allegiance to the monarchy. Those favouring the treaty saw it as a sensible stepping stone to full independence in future given how close they were to surrendering to the British at the end of the war, while those opposed felt it was giving into British demands and would accept nothing less than an all-island independent republic as declared during the Easter Rising.

When the treaty was ratified by a majority of just 7 votes in the Irish parliament, the Anti-Treaty members who had lost the vote walked out. Tensions continued to rise between the Anti and Pro treaty sides in the run up to the 1922 elections. Any attempts at reconciliation were scuppered by British insistence that the treaty terms must be followed to the letter and no republican constitution could be made. When the Pro-Treaty party won the elections, those tensions came to a head and violence broke out.

The Anti-Treaty forces consisted of around 12,000 men, mostly IRA veterans, while the Pro-Treaty forces numbered around 8000 former IRA and WW1 veterans. The AT forces held much of the south and west of the country, but despite the higher numbers and more land held, they were poorly equipped and uncoordinated. The PT forces, with arms, vehicles and equipment shipped over by the British, were able to grow the newly formed National Army into a much more effective fighting force and eventually overwhelm and defeat the AT forces, ending the conflict a year after it started. The Free State was formed and many of the Anti-Treaty politicians returned to parliament as a new political party, Fianna Fáil.

The conflict was bloody, as is often the case with a civil war, with many comrades from the War of Independence just a few years prior now bitter enemies. Atrocities were committed on both sides and indeed the legacy of the conflict still shapes much of the politics of Ireland to this day. Even the nominally independent Catholic Church took sides, supporting the treaty and refusing the sacraments to known Anti-Treaty IRA members.

All in all the conflict proved somewhat futile when in 1937 the Irish Parliament, now led by a resurgent Fianna Fáil, ratified a new republican constitution, with no mention of allegiance to the British monarchy and Irish independence was gained without British objection, much as the Pro-Treaty advocates had always claimed would be the case.

In my alternative timeline, things turn out a little differently…

Alternative Irish History 1922 – 1937

The British take umbrage at the attempts by the Pro-Treaty politicians to amend the treaty with a republican constitution to appease the Anti-Treaty side and when war breaks out are much less willing to provide supplies to the nascent National Army, though still do offer some begrudging support. As such, the Anti-Treaty forces are able to hold onto much of their territory and the war drags on for many years leading to deeply divided and embittered Ireland. The Pro-Treaty forces push south as far as Waterford and north around the borders of Ulster. Wary of the threat of the war spilling over, the British fortify the borders of Northern Ireland, absorbing Donegal into the state and creating a line of defence across the entire North. The Anti Treaty forces manage to seize the Pro-Treaty Co. Galway, connecting their south western territory to their north western territory. Exhausted by the conflict and lacking the resources to push into the enemy territories, both sides settle into an uneasy stalemate, fortifying the “T Line” that has divided them across the top and down the middle of Ireland.

Throughout the conflict, Communism International had come to see the Anti-Treaty side as allies in their movement. In our timeline they provided mostly moral support to “the struggling Irish national revolutionaries” and offered to “assist all efforts to organise the struggle to combat this terror and to help the Irish workers and peasants to victory”. In this alternative timeline, given the war dragged on for longer that a year, this support moved from the moral to the material, with equipment and vehicles flowing into the West to aid their fight. This, combined with the rejection by the Church and a longstanding hatred towards the Anglo-Irish landholding elite, leads the Anti-Treaty Irish to declare themselves the Citizens’ Republic of Ireland, a socialist republic with strong ties to Soviet Russia and Communism International. Dissenters and elites are suitably purged and the military is reformed among Soviet lines as the “Green Army of the CRI”. The Starry Plough, gold on a field of green, is officially adopted as the flag of the new Republic.

The flag of the Citizens’ Republic of Ireland

On the Pro-Treaty side, bitterness towards the British grows and though paying lip service to the treaty, division between them increases. Eoin O’Duffy and his proto-fascist Blueshirts are able to grow from strength to strength and become even more fascist in outlook. In our timeline they petered out in the early thirties, being subsumed into the Fine Gael political party. Here they come to be the dominant party in the Irish Free State (what was left of it) and their corporatist and militaristic rhetoric resonates with a people still at war and feeling surrounded and under threat. In 1932 Eoin O’Duffy becomes Taoiseach and declares that henceforth the Irish Free State would now be the fully independent Irish Social Republic. Having been in close contact with the Italian fascists for some time, the army is reorganised with Italian supplies as the National Guard and the new Republic takes as it’s flag the red St. Patrick cross on a field of blue.

The flag of the Irish Social Republic

When the Spanish Civil War breaks out, both sides are well positioned to assist the rival factions. In real history, Eoin O’Duffy raises an Irish Brigade to go off and fight for Franco, but in this timeline, given his position as head of state, he’s able to provide much assistance to the Spanish Nationalists throughout the war. Balancing this, and seeing an opportunity for a proxy war with their bitter rivals, the CRI send support to the Republicans. During the war, any time the two Irish sides met across the battlefield the fighting would become particularly intense, akin to the “Bad War” of the German Landsknechte and Swiss Pikemen of the 16th century. This pushed the war to its conclusion faster than in our timeline, finishing in the autumn of 1938.

The Nationalists are triumphant and, grateful for the Irish Social Republic’s support, agree to an alliance with O’Duffy, meaning Spanish Nationalist support flows into the nation, adding to the Italian support and bringing along with the grudging acknowledgement of Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, the defeated Republicans flock to the west of Ireland to take refuge with their socialist brothers in the Citizens’ Republic of Ireland, bolstering their ranks considerably and shifting the Soviet focus more directly to the British Isles.

In the meantime, the abdication crisis has kicked off in England and the British have pulled out of Northern Ireland to deal with the situation on the mainland. The Ulster Unionist government initially maintains control but without the full force of Britain behind them, other forces start to arise and new factions seize control.

A Verry N’orn Ayrush Civul Warr – Ulster 1937

The British withdrawal from Northern Ireland is pretty hasty given the state of affairs on the mainland. The Ulster Unionist government moves quickly to requisition whatever military hardware the British don’t carry off with them and immediately drafts the now disbanded provincial regiments of the Royal Ulster Rifles, the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers into a new military force, the Loyal Ulster Defenders and declares themselves the Loyal Democratic State of Northern Ireland. They are not yet clear just what it is they are loyal to, just that they are loyal in general. The former Rifles are deployed from their base in Ballymena to secure Belfast and the Parliament building at Stormont, while the former Fusiliers, operating out of their base in Omagh, attempt to re-secure the defensive lines along the North-South border.

Taking advantage of the dramatic reduction in military forces in the region, and the chaos that it is causing, the regional IRA forces, re-branded as the Irish Democratic Republic Army in opposition to the abandonment of the Republican ideals by the South, move from their low level guerrilla campaign to an all out uprising, seizing large swathes of territory in the western counties as well as instigating risings in the sympathetic Antrim Glens and West Belfast. In Omagh, they besiege the token force left at the St Lucia Barracks, leaving the government the difficult decision of whether or not to order the troops away from the border defences.

With socialist uprisings across England taking root and the socialist state of the CRI in the south, socialist and communist groups in the North had been growing from strength to strength in recent years. Many of the working class of Belfast, as well as areas of south-central N. Ireland had developed a strong socialist tradition, and while having many divergent viewpoints, a loose grouping of many different organisations, calling themselves the Socialist Workers of Ulster United, rise up in revolution, tacitly supported by the Soviets and the CRI influence. Riots and uprisings break out across Belfast as revolutionaries flood in from the surrounding regions to the southwest. The revolution coalesces on Stormont, besieging the government there and forcing them to begin a retreat out of the city with the aid of the former Royal Ulster Rifles to set up a government in exile at the newly built St Patrick’s Barracks in Ballymena.

In Co. Down a growing movement of radical protestants with fascist leanings had grown with close links to international fascist movements, especially in Germany. The popular Ulster Youth organisation, having run “educational” events and meetings for children and young people over the past decade had raised a generation of young men and women who were militant in their faith and outlook and well drilled and disciplined in military maneuvers and armaments. The parent organisation, the Ulster Protestant League, had been formed by a former army chaplain turned firebrand preacher, known as “The Big Man” Commander John Campbell, whose particular brand of populist preaching had seen many churches align with the UPL. Seeing the opportunity the chaos presented, the UPL quickly mobilised, with sympathetic factions in the Palace Barracks in Holywood opening the gates to the Commander, the UPL sets up their base of operations there. While appearing to be aligned with the fascist government in England and claiming “loyalty” to them, there are whispers that The Big Man has much different plans in mind.

The powerful southern states look at the fragmentation of the North as a key opportunity to gain an advantage over their rival, though for now, neither side is prepared to make the first move. The military buildup of recent years resulted in some very tempting targets in the northwest, especially the military airfields, and control of the region would give the owning side a clear means to encircle their enemy and move to unify the entire island.

And so it begins.


In a future post I’ll go into more details of the various factions, as well as some of the setup for the narrative campaign I’m planning. I’ve still a bit of thinking to do around that, as well as more details on the individual factions (e.g. who leads the CRI? A moderate de Valera trying to control a cadre of spittle mouthed communist die-hards? Or maybe a Citizens’ Council?). Also need to work out a mechanic for the ticking time bomb of southern involvement in the north, as that’ll kick things up a notch. I want the campaign mechanics to act as a narrative guide rather than be a hard set of rules to follow, just to keep a bit of randomness and interest. I plan to have a few variables within the wider campaign to trigger different outcomes, for instance having levels of resource, morale, and factionalism. These will likely be scales of 1-10 with different affects on point values, experience levels, and trigger new special events such as new factions spawning.

At this point I’ve only a few units made up for it, I plan to use Blitzkrieg Commander IV as the primary ruleset, though may look into others for variety in time. I know Bolt Action is very popular for squad-based combat so may suit some scenarios. The plan will be to start with a few small actions to get a feel for the rules, then start looking at dealing with the currently disputed areas, the Seige of Stormont and the Battles of Omagh and Armagh for a start, maybe some guerrilla conflicts in the Antrim Glens, and work out what the hell is going on around the Foyle!

I still don’t quite know what to call this project, I’d initially gone with A Very Northern Irish Civil War, but it’s gotten a bit more widespread, AVBCW in Ireland is too much of a mouthful, and A Very Irish Civil War doesn’t quite sound right. Given the main theatre initially is in and around N. Ireland, AVNICW will likely do for the time being.

Thanks for reading,

Matthew

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