“The problem is to devise a scheme that will not detract from Irish freedom… What may happen I am not able to judge [but] you should realize the difficulties that are in the way’ and the fact that the best people might legitimately differ on such a scheme. The worst thing that could happen would be that we should not be tolerant of honest differences of opinion.”
These words were spoken by Eamonn deValera at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in October 1921. This speech came soon after the preliminary negotiations on a treaty between Lloyd George and Eamonn de Valera in July of 1921. Even at this early stage the president of Sinn Fein knew there would be differences of opinion on articles of agreement for a treaty between Britain and Ireland. After his meeting with Lloyd George, Eamonn de Valera realized that he had the difficult task of preparing the Dail for compromise on issues contained in the treaty. As the primary negotiator at this stage he wanted to unite all the parties within the Dail and find a solution to assist Irish Republicanism. As a political strategist and diplomat, problems not only lay in the negotiations with the British but he would also have to conciliate his own nationalist ranks. However de Valeras long absences during the Anglo Irish War and Michel Collins dominance on the home front meant that de Valera would encounter problems assuming control of the nationalist ranks. Though de Valera conceived unity between the Dail and cabinet during the early phase of talks, the problems encountered within nationalist ranks were growing and leading to division. Records reveal that talks between Lloyd George and Eamonn de Valera only amounted to sparring sessions and the characters of each did not lend themselves to negotiations. The treaty that was signed by the delegation of December 1921 gave Irish nationalists as much as could have been expected Tragically this prompted a split in the Dail and after six months of debate Civil war erupted in Ireland.
In July 1921, Eamonn de Valera, Arthur Griffith, Erskine Childers, Robert Barton and Austin Stack traveled to London to commence talks with British government officials. Perhaps the most experienced of the delegates was Eamonn de Valera as he had gained valuable knowledge in political advocacy on his trips to America during the war for Irish independence. During treaty negotiations, Lloyd George stated from the beginning that Ireland would have to remain part of the Empire and that any agreement on Northern Ireland would first have to be met with approval from the Ulster Unionists.
De Valera was offered a dominion status for Ireland that would place Ireland in the same category as Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. However this offer of dominion status came with limitations such as the demand that the British Navy have continued access to Irish ports. Perhaps two of the most controversial limitations were that of an oath of allegiance to the British monarchy and that no attempt should be made to limit the authority of the Northern Parliament. This draft of the treaty did not meet with de Valera’s expectations as he wanted a thirty- two county republic and in no way was he compromising on this request. As talks were nearing a breakdown de Valera decided to return to Dublin in order to discuss with the Dail the terms that had been offered. However Arthur Griffith revealed a strong interest in the terms that had been offered at this early stage. On returning to Dublin the Dail refused outright the agreement offered even with the delegate warning of Lloyd George’s threat of an intensified armed conflict. On October 11 1921 negotiations resumed in London. This time de Valera remained in Dublin sending different delegates. De Valera’s reasoning behind this is not clear but some believe he was trying to appease the various element s within Sinn Fein. Griffith was chosen to represent the political group, Michael Collins the military and the I.R.B, Robert Barton, George Duffy and Erskine Childers were sent to keep a check on Collins and Griffith while representing de Valera’s interests.
On arriving in London the lack of unity among the Irish delegates was noticed by their British counterparts who exploited this fact. An important aspect for consideration is the powers given to the delegation by the Dail. They were to act as plenipotentiaries, that gave them the power to ‘negotiate and conclude’ a treaty with Britain. The Dail made it clear that under no circumstances were the delegates to sign a treaty without first conveying the final draft of terms and conditions back to the Dail in Dublin. Thought he delegates did not receive exact instructions on what to seek from Britain in a treaty they argued the points raised by de Valera of a thirty –two county republic. The British delegation was highly experienced having been in attendance at the Versailles treaty. They continued to argue that a dominion status be accepted. The oath of allegiance and the question of Northern Ireland were now becoming vague, as the Lloyd George believed that the acceptance of dominion status would exert pressure on the Unionists to accept a Dublin government. With no compromise being reached, sub committees were to be formed and minor issues were sorted out successfully but the question of Ulster and the national status for Ireland remained. Lloyd George knew that his position was precarious as the Unionists had the support of the Conservatives and as he was the head of a coalition government this placed him in a weak position to force Ulster into accepting self-governing in Ireland. The Prime minister proposed dominion status for twenty-six counties and theta boundary commission is established to draw a border between north and south. The partitioned northern counties would be so small that they would be uneconomic and would seek unity with the south. Failing to accept these terms would lead to renewed fighting and the resignation of Lloyd George leaving the delegates to negotiate with a conservative government and their Unionist allies. On December 3rd 1921 the Dail reviewed the terms in Dublin but the delegates returned to London on December the 4th without finalizing the agreement on the treaty. On December the 6th the Irish delegation in London under severe pressure from the British government signed the document. The treaty granted the thirty-two counties the same constitutional status as other dominion states. Three major ports were to remain at the disposal of the Royal Navy. A parliament established in Dublin would be known as the Irish Free State. The oath of allegiance was revised to the swearing of the upholding of the constitution. The Northern Ireland Parliament was given the option of opting out of this agreement and was given one month to decide after the ratification of the treaty by Westminster. On December the 6th 1922, one year after the treaty was signed, the Parliament in Stormont withdrew from the treaty arrangement and governed themselves by the 1920 government of Ireland Act. Though the treaty had been signed it lacked one important element, it was not a thirty-two county republic as requested by Eamonn de Valera.
On returning to Ireland the delegates were met with hostile criticism from extreme republican members of the Dail. However they did receive some support from the general public who wanted a cessation to hostilities. On December 14th the great debate on the treaty commenced which lasted until January 7th 1922. Eamonn de Valera announced he would not recommend acceptance of the treaty to the Dail and the people of Ireland. He criticized the delegation for signing without first consulting the Dail and believed they acted beyond their designated role. De Valera supported the idea of external association meaning that if the British government granted recognition to the republic, they would co –operate with Britain as long as Britain did not attempt to impose laws on Ireland. The extremists within the Dail still clung to the idea of a thirty-two county republic. Harry Boland stated that the treaty denied the recognition of an Irish Nation. Cathal Brugha claimed the treaty would not bring peace. The signing of the treaty was a decisive event in bringing about the Civil War. The document revealed the divisions in the philosophy and leadership of Sinn Fein that had been festering since 1917. Griffith argued that Ireland would have its own elected assembly to rule the country thus severing domination of Ireland by Britain. Collins believed the treaty represented a foundation to build upon and where further concessions could be gained. De Valera attempted to propose a ‘document No. 2’ that contained pars of the treaty as well as the partition clauses but still promoted the idea of external association. It received little support from either pro or anti treaty factions. Constance Markievicz and Liam mellows berated the signatories while others like Kevin O Higgins urged acceptance unless one has a reasonable prospect of achieving more. On January 7th 1922 the treaty was passed with a vote of 64 to 57. Another six months of debate were to take place before Civil War erupted.
Historical debate still rages to whether the treaty should have been accepted and civil war averted. The lack of a unified opinion possibly lay in the treaty’s content. If it had offered more or less the Dail may have reached a more conclusive and unanimous decision. The noted political historian Ronan Fanning believes the debate arising from the treaty on such matters as oaths and southern independence had taken place without due consideration on the question of the north. By overlooking this important point, the Unionists exploited the disarray in the south and consolidated their position with Parliament in Westminster. Threats issued by Lloyd George whether unfounded or not placed severe pressure on the inexperienced delegates that attended negotiations in London. Michael Collins knew the Irish Republican Army could not withstand an escalation or a prolonged armed conflict wit British crown forces. The signatories were salvaging the best terms and conditions they could hope for under difficult circumstances. The Dail debates revealed that the treaty offered enough to appease all ranks within Sinn Fein. Arthur Griffith put forward that the treaty represented a settlement that satisfied many. Michel Collins held the belief that it was a step to build from and that the withdrawal of British troops from Irish soil was an establishment of a national liberty. De Valera still clung to the belief of external association though he admitted there was little difference between his document and that of the treaty. P.S Hegarty believes de Valera suffered from wounded vanity having lost control of events. T Ryle Dwyer believes de Valera was driven to show that it was not Collins but de Valera who was leader. Ronan Fanning argues that de Valera opposed the treaty not because it was seen as a compromise but because it was not his compromise. He had not authorized the signing of the treaty thereby his authority was undermined as president of Ireland. This idea is supported by the fact that the will and personalities of de Valera and Collins dominated the Ard Fheis and treaty debates.
In conclusion the failure to agree on the treaty was to have a long and lasting effect on Ireland’s political status. The Civil War that erupted cost many lives and left much of the infrastructure in ruins. Relations with Northern Ireland were severely damaged. An atmosphere of distrust and dislike existed between the Free State and the Stormont Parliament. The Civil War itself left a long-standing legacy of bitterness that grew from decisions made during the treaty. Many Irish nationalists failed to see the treaty as a stepping-stone to Independence and a republic. Personal vendettas created during the Anglo Irish War and political jealousies fueled the disagreement leading to violence. It is perhaps Piaras Beaslai, captures the feeling and thoughts that echoed through the minds of the Dail members during the treaty debates and that finally led to the treaty’s acceptance.
‘One would think… that we were solemnly asked to choose between an independent republic and an associated Free State. What we are asked is to choose between the treaty on one hand, and, on the other hand, bloodshed, political and social chaos and the frustration of all our hope of a national regeneration.’
Written By Paul O’Brien