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Diarmaid Ferriter: Brexit ineptitude shows Anglo-Irish relations have come full circle

British politics today is poisoned by Brexiteers inept in the art of statecraft

A century on, the wheel of Anglo-Irish relations has turned full circle. On this day in 1922 Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera, representing the two sides of the divide in Sinn Féin over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, announced they had agreed an electoral pact.

A “National Coalition Panel” representing both sides would be put before the electorate to be rubber stamped by them “on the grounds that the national position requires the entrusting of the government of the country into the joint hands of those who have been the strength of the national situation during the last few years, without prejudice to their present respective positions”.

This was a desperate attempt to ensure that a general election would not be fought on the Treaty, part of the scrambling to avert the slide towards civil war and, as Collins saw it, a chance to present a united front to strengthen his position in dealing with his foes in the British government.

In response, there was outrage in London. It was a clear violation of the Treaty, it insisted, as every member of the Irish provisional government would have to be a supporter of the Treaty. Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill told Collins it was an "outrage" and informed his British cabinet colleagues that "the ministers of the Provisional Government live far too much in the narrow circle of their own associates". Then came the usual sweeping Churchillian damnation: "The Irish have a genius for conspiracy rather than government. The [Irish] government is feeble…expostulatory, the conspirators active, audacious, and utterly shameless."

Collins was duly summoned to London to explain himself. He ended up staying for a week, sucked back into the Anglo-Irish cauldron, insisting that there could not be an election without the pact and that order could not be ensured in its absence; that it would facilitate the bedding down of the Treaty. Britain reluctantly accepted this, but there was no trust and private insults flowed freely. Churchill, Collins insisted, was “insolent” and provocative.

This was also the period during which Lionel Curtis, the Colonial Office adviser on Irish affairs, had a chat with prime minister David Lloyd George about Collins. Curtis compared negotiating with him to "trying to write on water" to which Lloyd George replied, "shallow and agitated water". There was a deeper snobbery and condescension at work here; Curtis also saw Collins as "the corner boy in excelsis". Britain was more concerned, however, about the Constitution for the new state which they insisted had to conform to the stipulations of the Treaty and attempts by Collins to republicanise that constitution were firmly rejected, causing much humiliation.

Irish foreign policy in subsequent decades adapted, matured and in many respects excelled in establishing greater sovereignty

It is hardly surprising that Collins tried various tricks to stave off both internal and external pressures. As the historian FSL Lyons put it, the compromise represented by the Treaty and the status of Ireland within the Commonwealth was never fully resolved to Irish satisfaction as the Irish "had arrived at dominion status by…thwarted revolution. For them, such status represented not growth but arrested development, not fulfilment but frustration". This impatience was encapsulated in the title of David Harkness's classic 1969 book on the relationship between the British Commonwealth and the Irish Free State in the 1920s: The Restless Dominion.

Irish foreign policy in subsequent decades adapted, matured and in many respects excelled in establishing greater sovereignty, all the while managing the periodic episodes of tension and British indignation and the endurance of ignorance and neglect.

The foundations of the Irish approach were laid in the 1920s and solidified in the 1930s, meaning both sides of the Civil War divide played their part, helped by the influence of the gifted linguist, Joseph Walshe, the “founding father” of the Department of External Affairs who served as departmental secretary in 1922-46 and who, in one of his idealistic declarations, told de Valera as he entered government in 1932: “our international position will let the world and the people at home know that we are independent.” But the crucial point was that Walshe and his colleagues had a plan in place to reach that point and implemented it through a clever combination of diplomacy and defiance.

That was not without its difficulties and included an Anglo-Irish trade war in the 1930s, but what was not in doubt was the consistency and focus on display from the Irish strategists who had an end point in mind: a 1937 constitution which would make southern Ireland an independent republic in all but name.

Ironically, British politics today is poisoned by Brexiteers inept in the art of statecraft and foreign policy and with no real sense of where they are going, presided over by a prime minister of whom it would be much too kind to say negotiating with him is like trying to “write on water”. Rather, he exemplifies all that his hero Churchill castigated the Irish corner boys for.