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‘The British were braced for failure.’ How the Anglo Irish Treaty of 1921 was negotiated

On the Treaty's centenary, Gretchen Friemann pieces together its creation

The signing of the Treaty in Downing Street in London in the early hours of December 6th 1921 changed the course of Anglo-Irish history. A hundred years later, one can argue the postmortem of that momentous event, which began almost immediately, remains a work in progress.

How decisive were the threats of war by David Lloyd George, the British prime minister? Had Michael Collins decided to sign before that climactic meeting? What if the rest of the Irish negotiators had sidelined Arthur Griffith, and repudiated his unilateral acceptance of the settlement? Should the Treaty be viewed as a diplomatic blunder of the first order or the culmination of profoundly complicated, challenging political negotiations that ultimately resulted in the best deal possible?

The final hours of the Treaty talks have been endlessly recounted over the past century, in books, in theatre and on the screen. In part, it is the momentousness of the occasion that fascinates. In essence, though, this is a human drama. For each of the actors, the stakes were enormous.

Lloyd George, one of the most gifted politicians of his age, could not have clung to power if the negotiations had failed. At this pivotal hour, he played his cards to perfection. He dealt first with Griffith, reminding him of a personal pledge he had made earlier in the conference – one that Griffith had, at the time, judged as inconsequential. But the chairman of the Irish delegation lacked clout. If a settlement was to be struck Lloyd George needed Collins’s assent. So when the two sets of negotiators reassembled in the Cabinet room in Downing Street after a break in the session, Lloyd George set to work.

The prime minister was back in pugilistic form. Impatiently, he demanded to know whether the “Irish were prepared to stand by this agreement whichever choice Ulster makes?”*

Griffith answered that he would, but he could not speak for his colleagues, and in a last-ditch effort to salvage the delegation’s badly damaged Ulster strategy, “said it was not fair to demand acceptance from them before [Sir James] Craig replied”. For some time, he clung desperately to this position, before Lloyd George cut him dead. “He said he had always taken it that Arthur Griffith spoke for the Delegation” and told them that they “were all Plenipotentiaries and that it was now a matter of peace or war”. Every delegate, he insisted, must “sign the document and recommend it or there was no agreement”.

With the art of a conjuror, he suddenly produced two letters, one of which was to be sent to Craig that evening. The first contained the Articles of Agreement and news of Sinn Féin’s acceptance of the terms; the second was a declaration of failure. It meant “war – and war within three days”. In the charged atmosphere, he told them they would have to choose “which of the two letters I am to send”, because a special train and destroyer were on standby, ready to carry one “or the other to Belfast”.

At this moment, Griffith capitulated. He would sign, he declared, rushing to add that “this was his personal pledge only”. But Lloyd George waved him away. If there was to be peace, the Irish delegation needed to offer “a united obligation”. He wanted their answer by 10pm, giving them just under three hours to decide whether or not to sign the Treaty.

Collins, who sat in silence throughout these exchanges, “rose looking as if he was going to shoot someone, preferably himself,” according to Churchill’s account, which describes how the British “went off . . . had some food and smoked, and discussed plans of campaign”. Outside, in the cold, as Childers and the three delegates clambered into a taxi, reporters bombarded them with questions: “Were they returning to Downing Street that night? ‘I don’t know,’ Collins replied. Has the Conference finished? ‘I don’t know that either,’ he answered.”

And yet within minutes Collins had made up his mind. On the way back to Hans Place, he declared that he would sign the Treaty, as Barton recalled in a later account. Up until this point, the rest of the delegation had been unaware of his intentions, but the shock disclosure meant that the final meeting would run along a familiar divide, with Collins, Griffith and Duggan on one side, and Childers, Barton and Gavan Duffy on the other.

They reassembled at 9pm in an atmosphere of profound anger, despair and panic. Griffith spoke first and, in his diary, Childers recorded how he argued “almost passionately for signing”, while Collins “said nothing”. Barton and Gavan Duffy, on the other hand, stood their ground. Unwilling to give up the fight, they “refused to sign”. A “long and hot argument” followed “all about war and committing our young men to die for nothing. What could [Gavan Duffy] get better? Etc etc.”

Much has been made of why the delegates failed to pick up the telephone and consult Dublin

At this precarious moment Barton turned to Childers, who reassured his cousin that it was a matter of “principle”, and in a somewhat surreal exchange, said he felt that “Molly [his American wife] was with us”. Molly Childers’s legendary charm usually exerted a tight hold over Barton. As one historian observed, their relationship “was so warm and passionate that it threatened to transgress the boundaries of Victorian propriety”. But if Childers hoped the mere mention of her name would be enough to stiffen Barton’s resolve, he was in for a rude shock. For, instead, his cousin declared, “Well I suppose I must sign.”

The choice of peace or war, as the delegates saw it, then fell to Gavan Duffy, but as Pakenham observed, “his position was now impossible” and minutes later he, too, relented. In the 1950s, Barton gave a more graphic account of this last debate, describing it as “a most frightful battle” in which the “most terrific things were said to Gavan Duffy and to me by Collins and Griffith and Duggan. They called us murderers, stated that we would be hanged from lamp-posts, that we would destroy all that they had fought for.”

Much has been made of why the delegates failed to pick up the telephone and consult Dublin. Yet de Valera deliberately removed himself from the line of communication at the critical moment, and as Nicholas Mansergh highlighted, on the night in question, he “remained conspicuously remote and uncontactable”. In any case, Collins and Griffith were weary of the obstructionism in the Dáil cabinet, and likely concluded that to consult anyone back home would result in no settlement.

Why then did Barton, who was also a member of the cabinet, not alert his colleagues in Dublin? The answer to this question is less clear, though as Regan argues, even if another minister, such as Stack or Cosgrave, could have been located, the only decision they could refer to, in the absence of de Valera, was the one reached two days earlier. In other words, the delegates were still faced with the dilemma of whether to accept the Treaty or reject it and risk renewed war.

At 11.15pm, more than an hour over schedule, Griffith, Collins, Barton and Childers traipsed back into Downing Street to deliver their decision. In Churchill’s account, the British were braced for failure. They expected that no one other than Griffith “would agree, and what validity would his solitary signature pose?” Despite the tension, the “room rang with laughter” and Chamberlain recalled that the “talk was of the merriest”; an outburst of hilarity he attributed to the day’s “unrelieved strain”. “There is a limit”, he opined, “to human endurance”.

Childers experienced the next few hours as if in a waking nightmare. Dazed, he sat down in the hallway, while the others walked into the Cabinet room. After a “long pause”, or so it seemed to Churchill, Griffith announced: “Mr Prime Minister, the Delegation is willing to sign the agreements, but there are a few points of drafting which perhaps it would be convenient if I mentioned at once.”

And so with the “easiest of gestures,” Churchill wrote, “he carried the whole matter in to the region of minor detail”. Still, it took another two hours to hammer out the various amendments, in which time the British agreed that the office of the governor general could be renamed; the word “local” was also removed from the description of the new Irish state’s “military force” – redefining it, effectively, as a regular national army.

After a lengthy discussion, Lloyd George turned to Griffith and asked whether the Irish delegates were now prepared to “accept these Articles of Agreement”? Griffith replied: “We do.” Both sides then separated for an hour while the Treaty was retyped. During this time, Childers watched “Churchill in evening dress [move] up and down the lobby with his loping stoop [and] long strides”, a “huge cigar” protruding from his mouth “like a bowsprit”. He found himself repulsed by the minister’s “coarse, heavy jowls”, and thought him nothing but a “brutal” militarist.

At 10 minutes past two on the morning of December 6th (according to Chamberlain’s watch; Barton recorded it as 10 minutes later, at 2.20 am), the delegates returned to the cabinet room and signed the Treaty. Gripped by a fraternal spirit that would be sorely tested in the months and years ahead, they shook hands for the first time, then said goodbye.

Outside in the freezing fog, a large crowd of journalists were predicting the worst. They had spent most of the evening exchanging bets on the chances of a settlement, and, at first, the odds of failure heavily outstripped those of peace. But by “two o’clock evens were laid”. And when the “Sinn Féin delegates emerged looking much more cheerful than when they went in, it was realised that if a settlement had not been reached, any possibility of warfare was appreciably further off.” Yet Collins remained tight-lipped as he climbed into the car. Asked what the news was, he replied, “Not a word.”

It was only when Birkenhead appeared “in crumpled evening dress . . . smoking one of his . . . inseparable long cigars” that the situation became clear. He greeted “the political journalists whom he knew well”, then reassured the rest of the pack that the news was “good”.

Moments later, amid calls for an official statement, Churchill, “also with a big cigar”, emerged onto the Downing Street doorstep. “Sorry you’ve had such a long wait out here,” he said, before drawing Birkenhead into a “whispered conversation under the lamp”. Turning back to the reporters, and speaking in a voice that conveyed “so much more than . . . his prosaic words”, Churchill announced that an “agreement has, in fact, been reached”.

And with that the “press representatives promptly jumped into their waiting taxis for a sprint to Fleet-street”.

Gretchen Friemann is an Australian Dublin-based journalist. The Treaty is published by Merrion Press

*Quotes have been drawn from a variety of primary and secondary sources, including newspapers, meeting notes, diaries and first-hand accounts