"This was a team they were sending over and they were leaving their ablest player in reserve." A century later, WT Cosgrave's complaint still has force. Why on earth did Éamon de Valera, the undisputed leader of Irish nationalism, not lead the delegation sent to London to negotiate Ireland's future relationship with Britain?
Historical opinion has largely sided with Cosgrave. De Valera’s decision not to go to London is widely seen as, at best, a mistake. At worst, it is blamed on cowardice or duplicity. The argument runs that de Valera knew negotiation meant compromise, and he didn’t want to be tainted by it. By refusing to lead the delegation himself, he was setting others up as scapegoats.
Naturally, de Valera rejected this interpretation. But a telling sign that he knew he was on rocky ground was the great lengths he went to in later life to defend his decision. His refusal to go to London was one of the issues, along with his role in the outbreak of the Civil War and his decision to take the oath in order to enter the Dáil in 1927, that he came back to again and again in discussion with colleagues, journalists and historians. On these issues he had, according to historian FSL Lyons, an “obsessive concern to set the record straight as he saw it”.
The arguments for de Valera to lead the delegation appeared compelling. He was the leading figure on the Irish side, so it made sense for him to captain the team if, as expected, British prime minister David Lloyd George led the British side. There was also the point, made by Cosgrave, that he had unrivalled experience as a negotiator, including his July talks with Lloyd George in London after the truce. He was the leader, he knew the ground, therefore he should head the delegation.
But de Valera did have good practical reasons not to go. If the delegates had to refer back to their president on major issues, they could deflect British pressure to come to an immediate agreement. That is why the plenipotentiaries – who were given full powers to negotiate and sign an agreement – were also instructed to refer back to Dublin before doing so. And, if the talks broke down, he could always make a last-minute intervention to save the day.
It was de Valera’s intention to be in constant contact with the delegation, “as close almost as if I were in London”. And yet, at the crucial point of the talks, he wasn’t even in Dublin, deciding instead to visit IRA units in Galway and Limerick. As it happens, the plenipotentiaries didn’t try to contact him before signing the Treaty, so his absence made no difference, but the decision nevertheless seems odd.
‘Symbol of the Republic’
But quite apart from practicalities, there were more fundamental reasons for de Valera not to go, as he explained to the Dáil in response to Cosgrave. He regarded himself, as president, as the “symbol of the Republic”. As such he should be kept in reserve, and “should not be compromised in any sense by any arrangements which it might be necessary for our plenipotentiaries to make”.
De Valera knew compromise was inevitable, but didn’t want to make those compromises himself. Was this simply cowardice, as his opponents claimed? Or did he have a better reason for refusing to get his hands dirty?
De Valera knew he would have a battle to persuade hardline Republicans, like Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack, to accept a compromise. And he believed he would be in a better position to do so if he wasn't tainted by the "London atmosphere".
And, in fact, he did manage to persuade Brugha to back a potential compromise, thanks to a sophisticated formula of his own invention.
His initial talks with Lloyd George in July showed that the British would not accept complete separation from the Crown; he was also well aware that a significant segment of the Dáil, of the Cabinet, and of the IRA, insisted on a Republic outside the Empire.
His hope of squaring this circle rested on his concept of "external association" – an idea which came to him one morning as he tied his shoelaces. Ireland would be outside the Commonwealth, but associated with it. Ever the mathematician, he explained the concept with the aid of a diagram, to the disgust of Michael Collins ('How could one argue with a man who was always drawing lines and circles to explain his position?").
But the idea did its job – at least in Dublin. In a concession de Valera regarded as “priceless”, Brugha signed a document in October specifying that as long as other matters were satisfactorily settled, “we are prepared to recommend to our people that the accepted head of Great Britain be recognised as the head of the new association”.
De Valera felt that as the “symbol of the Republic”, untainted by the compromises entailed in negotiations, he had a better chance of keeping Brugha and other hardline Republicans on board with this compromise, and avoiding a disastrous split in Sinn Féin and the IRA. Paradoxically, he believed the best way to ensure a deal was done was for him to stay away from the London talks.
There were just two problems with this strategy. The first was that the British had absolutely zero interest in external association. While Lloyd George had no personal problem with a touch of constructive ambiguity, he had to sell any deal to Tory die-hards who had less supple intellects.
The second problem was that none of the plenipotentiaries fully understood what de Valera had in mind – as Robert Barton recalled, they had "but a hazy conception" of what external association would look like. Had he gone to London, de Valera might not have been able to convince the British, but he could at least have done his idea justice in the negotiations.
De Valera remained stubbornly loyal to the concept of external association; it formed the main differences between the Treaty and the alternative he introduced during the Dáil debates, the so-called Document No 2, even though the hardline republicans it was designed to attract had, by that stage, given up on the idea (and the British still weren’t interested). He would eventually put it into practice under the Constitution he introduced in 1937.
But that was the future. To return to 1921, there may have been strong tactical and strategic reasons for de Valera not to go to London. But in the end, those reasons were trumped by the disadvantages caused by his absence. Cosgrave was right; the “ablest player” should not have been left in reserve.
David McCullagh is an author and RTÉ journalist