In the early 1920s the British Government were beginning to get rather desperate. Ireland was disintegrating, the ironclad control of the province which previous administrations exercised over the island was rapidly evaporating and it was only through the commission of atrocities on a regular basis, they believed, was the government of David Lloyd George able to prevent an all out war from erupting.
Ireland was not the only place in the British Empire which was threatening revolt. India had stirred from its slumbers and was beginning to agitate for increased sovereignty, the British were forced to keep ever growing numbers of soldiers there to both police it and to fend off attacks along their northern border with Afghanistan and Russia. British forces in Russia were forced to sue for a parley with the Soviets and negotiate a withdrawal of their forces there. British forces fighting in Turkey were in desperate need of reinforcements from units based in Palestine and those in Mesopotamia fared little better. This doesn’t even mention the forces employed in securing Britain itself and the rest of the Empire; an internal memorandum feared that despatching 8 additional battalions for service in Ireland would leave Britain grossly under-strength with only 29 battalions.
So the British formulated a plan whereby colonial loyalist forces would be issued with a leavening of arms and munitions (SMLE rifles & 500 rounds of .303 ammunition and Vickers machine guns with 10,000 rounds of ammunition each) in an attempt to allow the colonies provide militias to augment their own security and to reduce the burden on the British Armed Force, which were spread precariously thin.
The hawks in the Lloyd George Ministry (those of a conservative and more militant outlook) felt that this incremental increase in a loyalist’s right to protect himself and his family in the name of Britain should be extended to the Unionists of Ulster, which they felt would be under incredible danger, should the Sinn Féin rebels attempt to coerce Ulster into abandoning the Union. At a Cabinet meeting on the 23rd July 1920, they put forth their theories.
Winston Churchill [Secretary of State for War] enquired of Mr. WE Wylie [Legal Advisor to Dublin Castle] what he thought,
‘…would happen if the Protestants in the Six Counties were given weapons and were definitely charged with the duty of maintaining law and order and of policing the country? The object of such an arrangement would be the withdrawal of the troops from Ulster, and of a considerable number, if not all, the regular police.
Mr Wylie thought that such a policy would be disastrous, Sinn Fein would arm a more numerous and an equally efficient force. In Derry there were a large number of rifles, and every man had a revolver. There would be intense civil war, and in other parts, of Ulster, while there would not perhaps “be definite fighting, there would be guerilla warfare and continual assassination. In Belfast the Protestants would reduce the Catholics to.a state of terror. In Tyrone there would be an unceasing and unending civil war.
He could not conceive that his Majesty’s Government would allow this to take place.’
Lloyd George’s response was typically pragmatic.
‘The Prime Minister remarked that he was not thinking of such differentiation [between Loyalist and Rebels], but of releasing troops and police. If Ulster would police itself , 7 battalions and some 2,000 – 3,000 police would be released for use elsewhere.’
While the British government had never made a secret of the fact that they favoured the Loyalist communities over the Nationalist communities in the North of Ireland, this debate, coupled with the emerging policy of recruiting the Special Constabulary (including the infamous B-Specials) from Loyalist Communities, laid the seed for the bitter internecine conflict which consumed the North from the 1960s onwards.