What did David Lloyd George mean by ‘immediate and terrible war’?

British prime minister’s threat is phrase most associated with Anglo-Irish Treaty talks

No phrase is more associated with the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations than the one reputedly used by British prime minister David Lloyd George on the last night of talks.

One hundred years ago today, on the night of December 5th, 1921, Lloyd George brandished two letters in front of the Irish delegation and warned them that a train was waiting at Euston Station and a destroyer at Holyhead to take one of the letters to Belfast to the Northern Ireland prime minister James Craig.

One letter stated that agreement had been reached between Great Britain and Irish Republic; the other stated that the talks had broken down.

In the latter case Lloyd George threatened there would be “immediate and terrible war”, “within three days” according to some accounts.

So what did Lloyd George mean by “immediate and terrible war”?

According to historian Dr Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid, papers in the UK National Archives in Kew reveal that it would have meant 85,000 additional ex-servicemen in Ireland, martial law across the whole of the 26 counties, press censorship, the imposition of passports between Britain and Ireland, a blockade of produce leaving Ireland and military courts of the type that led to the execution of 15 of the leaders of the Easter Rising.

For the last 100 years historians have speculated as to whether or not Lloyd George was bluffing. Certainly, the officer in charge of British forces in Ireland, Gen Sir Nevil Macready, thought as much, but critically the Irish delegates were not in a position to call him on it.

The threat of war convinced the most reluctant of signatories, Robert Barton, to sign the treaty. He surmised that, while his own instincts were to call Lloyd George's bluff, "but for the nation, without consultation, I dared not accept that responsibility". Another reluctant signatory, George Gavan Duffy, thought Lloyd George's bluff was a "monstrous iniquity", but he concluded: "We lost the Republic of Ireland in order to save the people of Ireland."

Alternative

Speaking at a seminar at the British ambassador’s residence in Dublin to mark the centenary of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Dr Nic Dháibhéid said the delegates were right to take the threat seriously, although Lloyd George had said privately that he would rather resign than coerce Ireland.

The alternative would have been a militarist Tory government under Andrew Bonar Law, an implacable opponent of Irish republicanism, she suggested.

She stated there was merit in the arguments voiced by the anti-treaty side that the threat of war made the treaty unacceptable. However, she said successive Irish governments were able to leverage that threat to dismantle the treaty.

“It was a powerful moral answer to the challenge of reneging on international treaty obligations; this treaty was illegitimate in the first place, there was no moral responsibility to adhere to it,” she said.

Former government adviser and junior minister Martin Mansergh said Lloyd George was privately doubtful that even military superiority could work in a country where the people were hostile to British forces.

A country conquered had to stay conquered, Mr Mansergh added. “A renewed trial of force was not plainsailing from a British point of view. If it had been, there would have been no truce.”

Historian Dr Sinead McCoole told the event that the British had also drawn up plans to reinvade Ireland in the event of a republican coup against the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State.

The plans are in War Office files at the UK National Archives in Kew.