Policy Papers

‘Troubled compensation:’ awarding pensions after political conflict in Ireland

Marie Coleman |

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Executive Summary

  • Plans in the Stormont House Agreement to award pensions to victims of the Northern Ireland Troubles could benefit from examining a similar scheme of compensation for conflict-related injury introduced by the government of independent Ireland in the 1920s after the Irish War of Independence and Civil War.
  • The failure to define pension eligibility clearly was the biggest failing with the Irish military service pensions, resulting in the application of contradictory assessment criteria. This generated intense resentment among veterans and probably denied benefits to those who should have received them.
  • This failure to define eligibility was a product of the hasty political rationale for the legislation in response to the army mutiny of 1924. The resultant partisan nature of the legislation, aimed at placating supporters of the government, delayed reconciliation after the civil war.
  • The overly bureaucratic nature of the pensions process led to numerous legal challenges, exacerbated disgruntlement among veterans and damaged the public perception of veterans as clamouring for monetary reward.
  • Pensions awarded for disability were based on a sliding scale which placed a monetary value on wounds. Clear medical evidence, including documentary evidence and medical assessments were required which often proved problematic when a time lapse was involved.
  • Particular difficulty was encountered in assessing psychiatric trauma resulting from conflict, especially when it occurred much later in life.
  • A compensation culture emerged as other groups lobbied for compensation resulting in a much greater financial liability to the state.

Post-revolution compensation in independent Ireland

The Stormont House Agreement of December 2014, which addresses the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, includes a plan to award pensions to up to 350 severely injured victims of the Troubles. This is not the first occasion on which monetary compensation in the wake of revolutionary violence has been introduced on the island of Ireland. Following the Irish revolution of 1916-1923 the first government of independent Ireland introduced a variety of compensation schemes for those injured or bereaved and for those whose careers were interrupted by taking part in the military campaign for independence from Britain.

As part of its decade of centenaries, commemorating the events of the 1910s and early 1920s that led to the partition of Ireland and independence for southern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland’s Military Archives has begun a process of releasing electronically the Military Service Pensions Collection. This is a massive archive, comprising up to 350,000 files that includes pensions awarded to veterans of the independence campaign and the dependants of many who were killed during the years of the Irish revolution from the Easter Rising of 1916 to the end of the Irish Civil War in 1923. In addition to the files relating to individual applicants and pensioners, it includes administrative files which explain the rationale behind the various forms of compensation involved. The release of this valuable archive allows historians to examine the most comprehensive form of post-conflict compensation introduced to date in modern Irish history and many of the trends identified in the study of this system will help to inform policy makers in Northern Ireland as they formulate the Troubles-related pension scheme.

The need for clear eligibility criteria

The Army Pensions Act of 1923 provided pensions for soldiers of the new Irish Army who had been wounded or disabled during the Civil War (1922-23) against the anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA), and for the widows and children of soldiers who died during that conflict. Additionally, members of stated organisations (principally the Irish Volunteers/IRA and Irish Citizen Army) who had been injured during the revolution between 1916 and 1921 could also apply for pensions and gratuities. The rationale for this legislation was clear enough as the Irish state had an obligation to the soldiers of its army who had been injured in the defence of the state.

The Military Service Pensions Act, was enacted the following year, 1924, to provide service pensions for those who had served in named revolutionary organisations between 1916 and 1921 and also in the Irish Army during the Civil War. There were a number of unusual features to this legislation. The idea of pensions solely for service in a guerrilla conflict of relatively short duration was and remains an unusual form of post-conflict compensation. A clear definition of what constituted ‘military service’ was never set out in the original act, nor in any of the amending or supplementary acts that were introduced up to 1964, nor the various statutory instruments governing their implementation. In 1924 it was defined vaguely as ‘active service in any rank’, subsequently amended in 1934 to ‘rendering active service’, without any sense of what active service in the context of a guerrilla campaign entailed. It was left to the pension adjudication panel (a Board of Assessors from 1924 to 1934 and a Referee and four-person Advisory Committee thereafter) to determine what these terms translated into in practice when adjudicating claims. This definition was to vary quite considerably over the course of the 34 years from 1924 to 1958 during which claims were made.

In 1924 successful applicants needed to convince the Board of Assessors that they had taken part in ‘acts of war’, such as attacking enemy positions, destroying enemy property, the acquisition of arms, and intelligence or training activities. In the 1930s one Referee expected applicants to have been involved in one major engagement during the War of Independence, a position effectively reversed by one of his successors in the 1940s. A much more liberal interpretation was applied by the Referee, Eugene Sheehy, in the 1950s, who relied heavily on an opinion of Lord Justice Denning in the British Court of Appeal relating to the validity of an unattested RAF pilot’s will. Service personnel ‘in actual military service’ were exempt from the legal requirements governing validity of wills and Denning interpreted ‘in actual military service’ very widely to include those who had been called up and were awaiting deployment as well as many in auxiliary services.

The failure to define active service from the outset was the greatest failing in regard to the Irish military service pensions. It created a situation where varying, and often contradictory, definitions of service were applied at different times over a 34 year span resulting in applications being judged either more harshly or leniently depending on when an application was made and who the assessors were at the time. Not surprisingly this generated significant resentment among veterans who felt that their contribution was never adequately recognised. It may well have resulted in applicants being denied pensions which the legislators intended them to be entitled to.

Politicisation of compensation

The failure to define criteria in the first Military Service Pensions Act of 1924, and its unusual nature as a service-only form of compensation, lies in the haste with which the measure was introduced. It did not come about as a result of pressure from veterans themselves but was part of the Cumann na nGaedheal (the party that formed the first government of the Irish Free State) government’s response to the army mutiny of 1924. The Irish Army had increased greatly in size to defeat the guerrilla campaign of the anti-Treaty IRA during the Civil War. When this conflict ended a major programme of demobilisation and downgrading of ranks was introduced. A cohort within the army who were opposed to these measures issued an ultimatum to the government seeking to halt the process. While the government prevailed over the mutineers and the principle of civilian control over the army was firmly established, this dissent from within its own ranks was a serious shock and another potential threat to the security and democratic stability of the new state so soon after it had just seen off the threat of the IRA.

The Military Service Pensions Act was designed to mollify many of those who had been forced to leave the army when it was reduced in size. The stipulation that successful applicants had to have served in the army during the Civil War as well as in the preceding military campaign for independence was clear evidence of this. The latter stipulation also highlighted the clearly partisan nature of the legislation. The spoils were for the victors in the first Military Service Pensions Act. Those who served the state in a non-military capacity, remained neutral during the Civil War, and crucially those who had taken the anti-Treaty side were excluded from veterans’ benefits, regardless of their contribution to the campaign for independence before 1921. Women were also excluded (with one unusual exception) because Cumann na mBan, the women’s auxiliary of the IRA, was not listed as an eligible organisation. This was most likely due to the fact that this organisation was overwhelmingly opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The partisan nature of the legislation and the politicisation of post-conflict compensation exacerbated further the political split caused by the Treaty. It was not until Fianna Fáil, the political representative of many anti-Treaty republicans, gained power in the 1930s that pension eligibility was extended to republicans, women and neutrals in 1934. While this aided post-Civil War reconciliation, it had been delayed by the partisan nature of the initial legislation in 1924.

The composition of the adjudication panels was also based on political patronage. In regard to the Board of Assessors and the Referee’s Advisory Panel the appointees were supporters of the government in power at a particular time. Two members of the first board of assessors, Fionán Lynch and Eamon Duggan, were Cumann na nGaedheal TDs (members of parliament) and a third, Gearóid O’Sullivan, had been forced to resign as the army’s Quartermaster General over his handling of the army mutiny. When Fianna Fáil took power in the 1930s it appointed John McCoy, who had served closely with the Minister for Defence, Frank Aiken, during the War of Independence and Civil War, and a Fianna Fáil TD, Seamus Robinson, who had served in the anti-Treaty IRA during the Civil War.

The non-medical personnel of the Army Pensions Board, which assessed applications for disability pensions, was similarly constructed, with John McCoy serving simultaneously on that for a number of years. The partisan nature of these appointments created a sense that political influence, rather than actual service or proof of disability, was the key to obtaining a pension. It led to the farcical situation of Frank Aiken applying for a service pension under legislation that he as Minister for Defence had introduced, citing John McCoy as the person who could verify his claim, while McCoy held responsibility for adjudicating that claim by virtue of a position to which Aiken had appointed him. This blatant conflict of interest led to Aiken withdrawing the application although he re-applied successfully a number of years later when he was no longer in government.


A very complex bureaucracy was put in place to adjudicate on both service and disability pensions. This included filling in a detailed application form outlining service during specific periods of the conflict. This was usually followed by an oral interview with the assessors or a medical examination in the case of disability pensions. Evidence was also sought from people who could verify the applicant’s claims. After 1934 this took the form of the old IRA brigades of 1919-21 reconstituting themselves as brigade committees and appointing verifying officers to assist the deliberations of the Referee and his committee. In the absence of adequate contemporary documentation, this evidence from contemporaries was crucial to the success of pension applications. In practice it played an important role in deserving cases receiving awards but was open to widespread manipulation and abuse. Some brigades were suspected of inflating the contribution of their former comrades. In other cases where an applicant took a different side to the majority of the local brigade during the Civil War, it was difficult for that applicant to find suitable referees to verify his service. This was a particular problem for the minority of the Irish Citizen Army who took the pro-Treaty side and served in the Irish Army. The majority of their former comrades, especially at officer level, had opposed the treaty and were unwilling to assist with pension applications. Applicants who were dissatisfied with the initial adjudication of their claims had a right to appeal but this was also a convoluted process, including more applications and oral interviews, that required them to produce new evidence that had not been available at the time of the initial application.

This long-drawn out process meant that there was a considerable time gap, often up to five years, between the application and the award of pension, although arrears were paid. This delay occasioned considerable disgruntlement among applicants, which was often exacerbated if the decision was not favourable. In a number of cases legal challenges were taken that went all the way to the Irish Supreme Court and in one case necessitated the introduction of amending legislation. The frustration of veterans with the process affected  their cooperation with the government’s official oral history of the conflict, the Bureau of Military History, which operated from 1947 to 1957. The pensioners’ attitude damaged their reputation among the civilian population which saw them as clamouring for monetary reward for supposedly voluntary service. This led to their patriotism being brought into question. The extent of the public backlash against the perceived money-grabbing of veterans led many of them to regret that such compensation schemes had ever been introduced.

Definitions of and evidence for conflict-related injury

Disability pensions awarded under the Army Pensions Acts were decided on a scale based on the nature of the disability in question. Rates of compensation were largely similar to those awarded to British soldiers injured during the First World War, on a scale from a one hundred percent disability (loss of two or more limbs) to twenty percent (loss of all toes on either foot). This scale was necessary but required imposing a hierarchy of injury.

The initial Army Pensions Act of 1923 dealt solely with physical wounds but by 1927 amending legislation had to be introduced to deal with the much more thorny issue of disease resulting from injuries received during the conflict, including psychiatric trauma. This proved to be a much more difficult issue to address, in the absence of contemporary medical documentation, the time lapse involved, the evolving nature of medical expertise on the issue and the problem of ascertaining the extent to which the illness was conflict-related or exacerbated by lifestyle or events in the intervening period.

In some instances the time lapse between when the wound was received and the assessment of it made it difficult to evaluate the extent of the damage, especially where contemporary medical evidence did not exist. This occurred in the case of Charles Dalton, who was examined by a doctor in 1940 for a gunshot wound to his left hand that he suffered in 1920. Dalton is also the best example to the problems associated with psychological trauma taking place many years after the events in question. At the time of his examination in 1940 he was a resident of a psychiatric hospital and deemed by psychiatrists to be permanently disabled due to the traumatic impact on his mental health of his experiences during the revolution.

The treaty split and Civil War of 1922-23 which divided former comrades of the independence campaign of 1916-21 raised the problem for the first government of the Irish Free State of how to compensate those of its former allies who had been wounded before 1921 but who subsequently became opponents and enemies of the state. Although injuries might have been suffered in the campaign against the British before 1921, the new Irish state was determined not to provide any monetary compensation to those who had taken up arms against the state in 1922, regardless of their legal entitlement to such an award. In 1925 Margaret Skinnider was denied a wound pension for a serious gunshot injury sustained during the Easter Rising on the dubious grounds that the term ‘soldier’ in the 1923 Army Pensions Act referred only to men, in spite of the fact that a separate statute, the Interpretation Act, considered such phrases to be gender neutral. It is much more likely that her gender was a convenient excuse to deny a pension to a prominent republican opponent of the government. Her situation was eventually rectified when Fianna Fáil passed amending legislation in 1932.

Revolutionary compensation culture

As more forms of compensation were introduced in post-revolutionary Ireland and eligibility for pensions extended, demands for compensation emerged from a variety of different sources. This resulted in the government paying considerably more money than was envisaged in 1923 or 1924. In addition to liability to the soldiers wounded in the Civil War, and service pensions introduced to placate internal dissent, the government was bound by Article 10 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty to pay the pensions of civil servants and former members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) after that force was disbanded in early 1922. These former servants of the Crown were given the option of transferring to the Northern Irish Civil Service or the Royal Ulster Constabulary, serving in the new civil service and police force of the Irish Free State, or retiring if neither of these options appealed.

The levels of compensation were initially laid down in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 and the Irish government had no option but to implement these. The disbanded RIC were among the most generously compensated, being allowed to add 12 years of service to their actual service for pension purposes. This was a recognition by the British government that they had borne the brunt of the IRA campaign during the War of Independence and remained in the force till disbandment in spite of intense pressure to resign. It also reflected a long-standing convention of providing generous compensation to the families of RIC men who died as a result of political violence in Ireland going back to the nineteenth century.

Having provided generous pensions for its former foes who had remained in the RIC throughout the War of Independence, the government could not be seen to be less generous to those RIC men who chose to leave the force in protest at the actions of the Crown forces in Ireland between 1916 and 1921, in particular those who did so in response to a direct appeal from the first Dáil after 1919. During the 1920s, 573 pensions were awarded to ex-RIC members who could prove that they resigned or were dismissed from the force between April 1916 and July 1921 because of their national sympathies. In the 1930s Fianna Fáil approved 50 additional pensions for those who had opposed the Treaty, although in an effort to reduce the drain on the Exchequer their pensions were not backdated to 1922 as those awarded during the 1920s had been.

The next group to demand its due from the government were the former members of the Connaught Rangers Regiment of the British Army who mutinied in India in 1920 stating their opposition to the nature of the British campaign in Ireland. One of the mutineers, Private James Daly, was executed and 61 others were imprisoned. The prisoners were released in early 1923 and returned to Ireland. In the summer of 1924, reacting to the introduction of the military service pensions, they began to lobby the government for similar pensions. Fearing the increasing financial liability of the various compensation schemes and the danger of setting a precedent that would lead to further demands from groups or individuals who felt their sacrifice merited remuneration also, the Cumann na nGaedheal government turned down their request. The Minister for Finance, Ernest Blythe, expressed his concern at what he saw as an emerging compensation culture: ‘It would be an impossible position if civilians who could prove they did sacrifice certain prospects or lost certain trade because of their efforts during the national struggle were to be compensated.’ Their campaign continued and in 1936 Fianna Fáil passed the Connaught Rangers Pensions Act which provided pensions and gratuities for 63 of the mutineers or their dependants.


Those responsible for drawing up the scheme to provide pensions for those injured during the Northern Ireland Troubles should look to the last occasion on which compensation was introduced after a period of political conflict in modern Irish history. The legislation should set out clearly and unambiguously who is eligible to apply and the assessment criteria, in order that both applicants and assessors understand the process properly. The process should be as transparent as possible to avoid the politicisation of compensation and the belief that it is a reward for political support.

The most problematic issues will be defining the types of injury covered, especially whether it will include psychological trauma as well as physical disablement; deciding what evidence will be required as proof of injury or disability; and establishing a timeframe within which applications can be made. Many of these injuries will have been suffered between 46 and 17 years ago (from approximately 1969 to 1998) so that the medical personnel who treated the patient might no longer be able to provide testimony, contemporary medical documents might not exist and a present-day medical examination might not be adequate to assess the seriousness of the injury when it occurred.

Policy makers should also take note of the possible reaction to the scheme. It is likely to result in many applications which will make it difficult to keep within the original plan to award 350 pensions. This will be especially so if psychological trauma is included, as a recent study has found that almost one-third of the population of Northern Ireland suffers from mental health problems associated with the Troubles and total estimates of the injured population vary between 8,383 and 100,000. This in turn raises the prospect that the claims of many applicants will be rejected, resulting in considerable distress and dissatisfaction, which also has the potential to create a negative image of Troubles’ victims within the wider community.

Further Reading

Anthony Babington, The devil to pay: The mutiny of the Connaught Rangers, India, July 1920 (London, Leo Cooper, 1991)

Marie Breen-Smyth, The needs of individuals and their families injured as a result of the Troubles in Northern Ireland (Surrey/Belfast, 2012)

Niamh Brennan, ‘Compensating the Royal Irish Constabulary, 1922-1932’, PaGes: Arts Postgraduate Research in Progress, vol. 2 (Dublin, University College Dublin, 1996) http://www.ucd.ie/pages/95/contents2.html

Marie Coleman, ‘Military service pensions for veterans of the Irish revolution (1916-23)’, War in History, 20: 2 (April, 2013), pp. 201-22

Caitriona Crowe (ed) Guide to the military service (1916-23) pensions collection (Dublin, Military Archives, 2012)

Diarmaid Ferriter, A nation, not a rabble: The Irish revolution, 1913-23 (London, Profile Books, 2015)

Siobhán O’Neill et al, Towards a better future: The trans-generational impact of the Troubles on mental health (Belfast, Commission for Victims and Survivors, 2015)


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