Treaty vote split was as much about personality as it was about policy

Little divided the two sides in reality despite the bitterness of the ensuing split

Crowd at Earlsfort Terrace during treaty ratification meeting. Photograph: Irish Independent newspapers

The Irish political party system owes its origins to events that happened one hundred years ago this month. The three largest parties – Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – all claim a legacy back to a split that manifested in Dáil Éireann on January 7th 1922, when the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the foundation document of the Irish Free State, was narrowly approved, by 64 votes to 57.

This split fractured the omnipotent Sinn Féin party, which in a landslide victory in December 1918 had won 70 of 75 seats in the counties that were to later become the Irish state. Sinn Féin's pre-eminent position was further reinforced at the May 1921 elections, when it won every seat outside of the unionist enclave of Trinity College, with all its candidates elected unopposed.

Despite this dominance, Sinn Féin was far from the united body it portrayed to the outside world. Having begun life as an advocate of dual monarchy, the party post the 1916 Rising had become far more radical, and was divided between moderate and extreme republicans, free traders and protectionists, doves and hawks.

Those involved were not to know it at the time, but the choices made on that day were to shape Irish politics for the next century

Consequently, when the Anglo-Irish Treaty came before them in December 1921, it exposed a number of divisions within Sinn Féin, ultimately resulting in a bitter fracturing of the party.

READ MORE

While the long-term repercussion was the creation of factions that became the dominant parties of Irish politics, with Fine Gael being the inheritors of the pro-Treaty tradition and Fianna Fáil representing the anti-Treaty side, a more immediate and devastating consequence was a civil war that erupted less than six months after the decisive Dáil vote on January 7th.

The legacy of the civil war on Irish history and politics has been considerable. Aside from the short-term loss of life and destruction of infrastructure that ensued, it has had a longer-term impact, with civil war divisions continuing to be spoken of long after memories of the actual events have lapsed.

‘The split’ in the Dáil and Sinn Féin is what academics call a critical juncture in Irish history, when the future evolution of the political system was determined by this key event. The transcripts from proceedings of the Dáil on January 7th reveal the depth and bitterness of the divide that had rapidly manifested in a few weeks within Sinn Féin. Those involved were not to know it at the time, but the choices made on that day were to shape Irish politics for the next century.

By January 7th both politicians and the wider population were tired of the debate over the Treaty, which had dragged on since December 14th. The public mood seemed to be generally in favour of the settlement, a sentiment reinforced by external organisations.

It would be too simplistic to claim that the division in the Dáil was that between principled and pragmatist, between monarchist and republican

Hundreds of public bodies came out in favour of the Treaty, as did the Catholic Church and the main newspapers, including The Irish Times, Irish Independent and The Freeman's Journal.

Although the contemporary impression of the Treaty split is that of a clash between Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins, both men spoke relatively little on the day of the vote. The proceedings were instead dominated by Arthur Griffith and Cathal Brugha.

Brugha, in particular, used his opportunity to settle a number of scores, and launched a bitter tirade against a number of Treaty supporters, including his fellow cabinet members. He spoke for over an hour, which The Irish Times described as "the most remarkable performance that ever was in the councils of Dáil Éireann or, indeed, possibly in any other National Assembly in Christendom".

Brugha reserved particular attention for Michael Collins, claiming that “the

Press and the people put him into a position which he never held; he was made a romantic figure, a mystical character such as this person certainly is not”.

Describing Collins as “merely a subordinate in the Department of Defence”, that is, his subordinate, Brugha asked that since so many were in favour of the Treaty because Collins apparently led the IRA in many fights for the Republic, what Collins’s real position was in the IRA and how many fights he had taken part in? “Can it be authoritatively stated,” Brugha asked, “that he [Collins] ever fired a shot at any enemy of Ireland?”

Dan McCarthy, one of Collins’s de facto whips interrupted Brugha at one stage, with the assertion that “now we know the reason for the opposition to the Treaty”.

'The principle that I have stood on all my life is the principle of Ireland for the Irish people'

And that reason was personality. It would be too simplistic to claim that the division in the Dáil was that between principled and pragmatist, between monarchist and republican. An analysis of the debates, both quantitative and qualitative, reveals little that divided supporters and opponents of the Treaty.

Even the alternative Treaty, the so-called Document No 2 that de Valera introduced in the private sessions of the Dáil in the middle of December, was not greatly different to the version to which de Valera led the opposition. As Griffith said at the time, "Does all this quibble of words – because it is merely a quibble of words – mean that Ireland is asked to throw away this Treaty and go back to war?"

As chairman of the delegation that negotiated the Treaty, Griffith took it on himself to defend the agreement on January 7th, speaking more than any other TD. His main argument was that the nature of government delivered under the Treaty was not as important as Ireland getting its own government: “The principle that I have stood on all my life is the principle of Ireland for the Irish people. If I can get that with a Republic I will have a Republic; if I can get that with a monarchy I will have a monarchy. I will not sacrifice my country for a form of government.”

But Griffith could also not avoid the personality conflict that Brugha had stirred, if not sparked. He rejected Brugha’s request to reject the Treaty, “I have signed this Treaty; and the man or nation that dishonours it signature is dishonoured for ever,” and defended Collins’s name that Brugha had so earnestly attempted to sully. “If my name is to go down in history,” Griffith said, “I want it associated with Michael Collins.”

The bitterness of the exchanges in the Dáil might come as a shock to those expecting more from a parliament anointed with the privilege to debate the country’s future. But it also reveals the tensions the TDs had been under. Almost all of them had been imprisoned during the War of Independence, and the pressure of the situation came to boiling point in the Dáil debates over the Treaty. This explains why the split was to be so vituperative and so long-lasting.

At 4.10pm on the day of the decisive vote, Diarmuid O'Hegarty called a roll of TDs, with 122 being present. The three absent were Thomas Kelly, who was too ill to attend, Laurence Ginnell, who was overseas as the Dáil's South American envoy, and Frank Drohan, who resigned from the Dáil two days previously due to a conflict between his rejection of the Treaty and his constituents' support for it.

Each TD's name was announced and their vote recorded. As the representative for Armagh, 'Miceal O Coilean' was the first name called, and Collins, "with a faint smile on his face … pale and strangely calm", replied: "Is toil [it is a will]." Griffith and de Valera followed him, with most votes going "Is" or "Níl" in alternate fashion, such was the closeness of the divide.

De Valera immediately rose to his feet, announcing his intention to resign, and warning his opponents that 'the document will rise in judgement against you'

When all votes were in, the crowd that had been gathering on the university grounds where the debates were being held beat the Ceann Comhairle Eoin MacNeill to the count, with a huge cheer heard before MacNeill had the opportunity to solemnly announce:

“The result of the poll is sixty-four for approval and fifty-seven against. That is a majority of seven in favour of approval of the Treaty.’ It could hardly have been much closer; a swing of four TDs would have altered the result. De Valera immediately rose to his feet, announcing his intention to resign, and warning his opponents that “the document will rise in judgement against you.”

Before he left the Dáil, de Valera attempted to record his final verdict on the issue. “I would like my last word here to be this: we have had a glorious record for four years; it has been four years of magnificent discipline in our nation. The world is looking at us now…” At that point de Valera stopped, and no more words of his are recorded for that day. What follows instead in the Dáíl transcript is an observation: ‘The President [De Valera]here breaks down.”

Dr Liam Weeks of University College Cork and Dr Mícheál Ó Fathartaigh of Dublin Business School are coauthors of Birth of a State: The Anglo-Irish Treaty published by Irish Academic Press