In the aftermath of the sudden death of Arthur Griffith and the killing of Michael Collins, in August 1922, William T. Cosgrave becomes chairman of the provisional government. Cosgrave and his colleagues remain wedded to a ruthless military and political strategy that ensures, by May 1923, a decisive win over the Republicans and the end of the Irish Civil War. Cosgrave’s analysis is that “the executions have had a remarkable effect. It is a sad thing to say, but it is nevertheless the case.” He could also be chilling in his resolve: “I am not going to hesitate and if the country is to live and if we have to exterminate 10,000 republicans, the 3 millions of our people are bigger than the ten thousand.”
The Free State suspends executions and offers an amnesty in the hope that anti-treaty fighters will surrender. However, the war drags for another two months and witnesses at least twenty more official executions.
Several Republican leaders narrowly avoid execution. Ernie O’Malley, captured on November 4, 1922, is not executed because he is too badly wounded when taken prisoner to face a court-martial and possibly because the Free State is hesitant about executing an undisputed hero of the recent struggle against the British. Liam Deasy, captured in January 1923, avoids execution by signing a surrender document calling on the anti-treaty forces to lay down their arms.
The Anti-Treaty side calls a ceasefire on April 30, 1923 and orders their men to “dump arms,” ending the war on May 24. Nevertheless, executions of Republican prisoners continue after this time. Four Irish Republican Army (IRA) men are executed in May after the ceasefire order and the final two executions take place on November 20, months after the end of hostilities. It is not until November 1924 that a general amnesty is offered for any acts committed in the civil war.
In highlighting the severity of the Free State’s execution policy, however, it is important not to exaggerate its extent. The Free State takes over 12,000 Republicans prisoner during the war, of whom roughly 80, less than 1%, are executed. How those who are executed are chosen from the others captured in arms is unclear, however many more men are sentenced to the death penalty than are actually shot. This is intended to act as a deterrent to anti-Treaty fighters in the field, who know that their imprisoned comrades are likely to be executed if they kept up their armed campaign.
Perhaps this realism is also beginning to affect the republican self-declared “men of faith.” Dan Breen, who leads an IRA column in Tipperary during the Civil war, tells his fellow republicans, “In order to win this war you’ll need to kill 3 out of every 5 people in the country and it isn’t worth it.”