The Treaty at 80


The Treaty of 1921 repealed the union between Britain and the greater part of Ireland. One way of measuring its advance is to consider that the Government of Ireland Act of the preceding year had provided for two "Stormont status" parliaments.

An offer of dominion status, with a proviso copper-fastening partition, was placed on the table after the Truce of July, 1921. David Lloyd George ruled out an independent republic on Britain's "most vulnerable flank". Therefore, reflecting the realities of power and following a protracted bout of sparring with ╔amon de Valera, it was agreed to hold a conference to ascertain "how the association of Ireland with the community of nations known as the British Empire may be reconciled with Irish national aspirations". This formula already contained the seeds of compromise, as Michael Collins observed during the Treaty debate.

It is difficult to understand why de Valera insisted on sending Collins - for whom there had been a reward of £10,000, dead or alive - to London rather than lead the delegation himself. De Valera took his title as president of the abstract Republic extremely seriously. Realising that controversy was likely to arise over the terms of any possible agreement, he apparently hoped that if not directly involved in the negotiations, he could persuade doctrinaire republicans to accept his "external association" scheme. This ingenious idea envisaged recognition of Irish sovereignty in internal matters, in return for which Ireland would associate with the Commonwealth in external affairs and guarantee neutrality in time of war.

But it did not make sense for "the best player" to remain a non-playing captain in the biggest match his team was ever likely to play. Sir James Craig, by now Northern premier, always presented the unionist case himself in negotiations with the British. Lloyd George, with a far busier schedule, and also presiding over a potentially awkward cabinet, made sure to lead his team.

De Valera's blunder was less conspiracy than miscalculation, Joe Lee concludes in Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society. He staked everything on preserving Sinn FΘin unity through his external association alternative - Document No. 2. However, unbending republicans denounced it as emphatically as did the British, equally unable to grasp so sophisticated a constitutional concept.

On December 6th, faced after two months' negotiation with Lloyd George's ultimatum of "war within three days", the Irish delegation signed an agreement accepting dominion status. Collins had secured some final concessions on the wording of an oath of allegiance to the British monarch; and Clause 12 stipulated that, if the Northern parliament rejected inclusion in the Irish Free State, a boundary commission would be established to "determine in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions, the boundaries between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland". In the aftermath of civil war, this clause proved to be a cruel deception.

In a coalition dominated by Conservatives, Lloyd George could not, even if he had wanted, deliver Irish unity in the face of resistance by Ulster unionists. Arthur Griffith was bewitched into believing he could, though he merely reflected the nationalist proclivity for self-deception. De Valera, like Griffith and Collins, assumed the Boundary Commission would so emasculate the North that the rump would be forced into a united Ireland for economic self-preservation.

In reality, the question of partition occupied a subordinate role in Sinn FΘin thinking. The Dβil had ignored the implications of the 1920 Partition Act. It abandoned the Catholics of the six counties with the same egoism of the Ulster unionists who had broken their covenant with the Protestants of Cos Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan. Partition scarcely intruded into the treaty debate, so obsessed were deputies with the oath of allegiance.

A torrent of recrimination engulfed the signatories on their return to Dublin. De Valera was thunderstruck on learning the treaty had been signed. His biographer, Owen Dudley Edwards, believes that, given the depth of republican militarism, "the Civil War would have happened if he had supported the Treaty".

Nevertheless, it would not have had such a maiming effect on the nascent State. Even de Valera's admirer, Lord Longford, admitted in Peace by Ordeal that his letter repudiating the treaty spelt "the end of that national unity, that brotherhood in the quest of freedom, which had made the two years preceding not only the most revolutionary in Ireland's history, but in some ways the most glorious". Like Collins, de Valera groped for an accommodation, but in the end he fell between two stools.

On January 7th, 1922, Dβil ╔ireann approved the treaty by 64 votes to 57. Griffith replaced de Valera as Dβil president, but the real responsibility for launching the new State lay with the Provisional Government, established under the treaty, with Collins as chairman. He had no time to savour the satisfaction of taking over Dublin Castle, however, as Sinn FΘin split and the South descended into anarchy - thereby facilitating the consolidation of the Northern regime.

The sacrifices of the years since 1916, and popular acclaim during the truce, left most IRA units unprepared for compromise. Liam Mellows repudiated the right of the Dβil to accept the treaty, while Rory O'Connor threw down the gauntlet to the Provisional Government by seizing the Four Courts. Meetings were broken up, newspapers harassed, pro-treaty publications suppressed.

In Cork, dissident republicans, angered by the Belfast pogroms and seeking revenge for the shooting of a local volunteer, massacred 12 Protestants.

Pro-Treaty Sinn FΘin won an overwhelming electoral endorsement in June. The Civil War began when an ultimatum to vacate the Four Courts expired. Before surrendering, O'Connor's garrison destroyed the archives in the Public Record Office.

Michael Collins was assassinated in BΘalnablβth on August 22nd. Of all the tragic victims of the Civil War, Collins alone was irreplaceable. He had dominated the 1919-1921 guerrilla campaign and grew in political stature after the truce. He saw the treaty as "one of the finest chances we ever got in our history", and his insistence that it represented a stepping-stone to greater independence was vindicated. His final speeches suggest an ambition, unique among his colleagues in the Provisional Government, to create not only a new state but a new society. Moreover, his death deprived Northern Catholics of their most powerful defender.

In the South, it turned hearts to stone: 77 republicans were executed between November, 1922 and May, 1923. On May 24th, the hapless de Valera ordered his followers to end armed opposition to the treaty.

The following year, Seβn O'Casey implored in Juno and the Paycock: "Sacred Heart o' Jesus, take away our hearts o' stone, and give us hearts o' flesh. Take away this murdherin' hate, an' give us Thine own eternal love."

Luke Gibbons on the connection between Michael Collins and the film-maker, John Ford - Weekend 4