Dual Command of the Army

As the king’s personal representative, the Lord Lieutenant combined the supreme civil and military authority. He was appointed ‘captain general and commander-in-chief of the forces of Ireland’. This designation reflected the inextricably intertwined nature of Ireland’s civil and military affairs. However, the Irish army had on its establishment a professional military commander-in-chief and many, but not all, viceroys lacked military experience. In 1783 Lord Temple declared that ‘the business of Ireland cannot exist under two masters.’

The inherent conflict of authority remained dormant until the last quarter of the century, when two factors exposed the administrative contradiction: the magnitude of the crises provoked by the American and French wars and the continual presence of an administrative viceroy, whose office was no longer a ‘mere pageant of state’ as it had been for most of the century.

Both quarrels were over the control, distribution and employment of the army, and – leaving aside personalities, which inevitably played a part – the fundamental conflict lay in the incompatibility of political expediency and military efficiency. William III and all the Hanoverian sovereigns were extremely interested in the organisation and efficiency of the army, and throughout the eighteenth century the royal scrutiny of all commissions and promotions was the chief brake on the political use of military appointments.

In 1769, following a considerable political struggle, the number of soldiers on the Irish military establishment was augmented to 15,000 with the assurance that, unless the Irish parliament so decreed, 12,000 soldiers would always remain in Ireland except during an extreme emergency. This not only was an attempt on the part of the Irish parliament to exert some control over the army, but also showed the British government’s desire to spread the burden of imperial defence.

After the Peace of Paris in 1763 confirmed Britain’s expanded empire, successive British administrations became concerned over the burden of defending their far-flung possessions. Before 1769, 2,000 of the troops of the Irish establishment could be stationed overseas for imperial defence, and in 1769 this was increased to 3,000.

Nevertheless, the king could, and did, use the forces on his Irish establishment in precisely the same way as he used other regiments of the British army. Because of its implications for defence and the maintenance of law and order, the Irish parliament was always very nervous of any large-scale withdrawal of forces from the country for service overseas.

Throughout the eighteenth century the attention of the Irish army was equally divided between the maintenance of civil order and the defence of the country against possible foreign invasion. The civil aspect of the army’s duties was clearly shown during the American war for when it was largely withdrawn the government could not replace it with mercenaries, as these would know neither the language nor the laws and customs of the country.

Instead it was forced to rely on the unpaid assistance of the Volunteers, whose knowledge of both language and country made them very effective peace-keepers, although they eventually demanded a high political price for their services. But under normal conditions many of the duties now undertaken by the police were done by the army, which was largely responsible for public tranquillity, tax collection and law enforcement; because of these duties it was stationed in barracks throughout the country, much to the detriment of professional military discipline. This dichotomy between the army’s civil and military function came to a head in 1774 and again in 1797.

In 1774 General Elliot was appointed commander-in-chief of the army in Ireland. Elliot was horrified at the position of the Chief Secretary, the Lord Lieutenant’s executive officer, and ‘in all departments whatever the only efficient minister’. Elliot resigned in 1775, declaring that ‘it cannot be supposed but that the man entrusted with the command of the army is more qualified for that employment, from his long experience in military duties, than most gentlemen in civil capacities.’ His military skill was later (1779-81) demonstrated in his brilliant and heroic defence of Gibraltar.

Lord Lieutenant Harcourt, on the other hand, knew that it was ‘absolutely impracticable to carry on government in a country where all the favours of the crown are scarcely sufficient to gratify the importunities of those who apply for them’.

Tranquillity was temporarily restored by a paper compromise: the roots of the quarrel were too deeply embedded in the nature of government for anything else. The commander-in-chief was given various marks of prestige and power, but the ultimate authority remained with the Lord Lieutenant, who was expected henceforth to defer to the military opinion of the commander-in-chief whenever possible, and in any case to transmit his views to the British ministers concerned. Military business continued to be transacted through the Chief Secretary’s office, but the office was reorganised so as to separate the civil and military business as far as practicable.

In 1797 the arrival of General Sir Ralph Abercromby led to what was essentially another instalment of the power struggle between the Lord Lieutenant and the commander-in-chief. Abercromby had been stationed in Ireland before and during the American war. He was horrified at both the professional condition of the army and at the defenceless state of a country already torn by civil disorder. He immediately endeavoured to rectify the situation by tightening the discipline of the army and regularising its participation in civil affairs. In this he acted with more haste than caution, and some of his orders ran directly contrary to those already given by the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Camden.

Abercromby wished to confine the use made of the army in quelling civil disturbances to situations similar to those envisaged in the British Riot Act of 1715. Although there were various acts concerned with armed risings and specific types of riot, Ireland did not have an equivalent of this famous act until 1787, when an act (27 Geo. III, c. 16) was passed that included the provisions of the British act and expanded them to the administration and acceptance of illegal oaths and the various concomitants of agrarian crime, such as force and intimidation.

Both Abercromby and the Irish Lord Chancellor, Lord Clare (0749), considered with some justification that ‘The country gentlemen and magistrates do not do their duty; they are timid and distrustful, and ruin the troops by calling on them upon every occasion to execute the law and to afford them personal protection.’ But the nerve of the country gentlemen, who were prominently represented in parliament, had snapped under the pressures of the 1790s; the viceroy, Lord Camden, had already bowed to their agitation and authorised the immediate interference of the army in any civil disturbance.

Abercromby, by the haste of his action on one side and the content of it on the other, had managed to anger both the Castle administration led by Lord Clare and the Irish gentry led by the equally formidable Speaker, John Foster (0805). His remarks on the state of the army, which Abercromby declared to be ‘in a state of licentiousness which must render it formidable to anyone but the enemy’, played straight into the hands of the parliamentary opposition headed by Lord Moira (1766).

Abercromby, whose reorganisation of the British army was to make a big contribution to the ultimate defeat of Napoleon, was left to apologise to the viceroy: ‘I beg leave to assure your Excellency,’ he wrote, ‘that I never was a political man.’ Realising the impossibility of reconciling duty and expediency, he resigned.

This quarrel lacked the bitterness of the earlier disagreement between Harcourt and Elliot,although it was similar in content. Both Camden and his Chief Secretary, Thomas Pelham (1650), were anxious to avoid a disruption of the administration in view of the recent Fitzwilliam débâcle and the unsettled state of the country; nevertheless, this dispute predictably ended, as the former one had done, in the resignation of both the principals.

Camden wrote to Pitt advising his recall, on the grounds that ‘this government has now become so intermixed with military Measures, which military measures are so connected with the politics of the Country that the Lord Lieutenant ought to be a Military Man & really to command that army of which he is nominally at the Head.’ Abercromby concurred with this view, commenting after his resignation that ‘the struggle had been in the first place whether I was to have the command of the army really or nominally.’ The Pitt administration accepted the realities of the situation and appointed Lord Cornwallis.