Tension mounted in the stifling chamber of Earlsfort Terrace 100 years ago today as the debate on the Anglo-Irish Treaty came to an end and a vote was called. Journalists were on hand to capture the intensity of the atmosphere, the visages of the participants and the drama of the moment.
Michael Collins, reported the Irish Times correspondent, "for all his boisterous nonchalance, was worried and pale. The other members were nervous and ill at ease. Everything pointed to momentous events." There were some attempts at levity, but the laughter was nervous, as "one could see that the members were ready to clutch at any straw which would take their minds off their terrible responsibility".
Three of the speakers that day were from the Donegal constituency and between them they laid bare the different ways in which that responsibility had played out in the minds of many. Peter Ward had intended to vote against the Treaty but changed his mind, hoping the putative free state “would be a halfway house on the republican road”. Joseph O’Doherty would not contemplate compromise as an “out-and-out republican”. The third, Joseph McGinley, said his constituents were “sick of a paper republic and paper republicans. The Treaty gave him something solid and he was going to vote for it.”
The extent of the personal animus was apparent in the words of minister for defence Cathal Brugha, who lacerated supporters of the Treaty with his "dispassionate invective". In response, Arthur Griffith maintained that what was on offer was as good as was obtainable and it could no more be regarded as a final settlement than "our generation could be regarded as the final generation of mankind".
The vote was 64 to 57 in favour of ratification. Tears, anger, relief and appeals for public safety followed; the final utterance, as de Valera broke down, belonged to Brugha, who promised to ensure “discipline is kept in the army”. That was to be a task, however, beyond any minister or soldier.
The ways in which the Treaty debates and their outcome were reported were heavily influenced by the political preferences of the newspapers. The Irish Times correspondent hailed the pro-Treaty speakers, sniped at its opponents and declared that, with the vote in favour, “Ireland was saved”.
It became too convenient to characterise those on opposite sides as entrenched in their certainty and righteousness
The history wars of subsequent decades ensured that some of these biases endured. Seventy-five years after the Treaty’s ratification, political scientist Tom Garvin identified 1922 as the “birth of Irish democracy” and argued that “moderate and realistic” nation-builders had triumphed over militant republicans contemptuous of “democratic principles of legitimacy”. The pro-Treaty leaders were “unconditional democrats and they subsequently killed people for the nascent Irish democracy they saw menaced by the anti-Treatyites” who saw the Republic as a “transcendental, moral entity”.
Such a hero-and-villain school of interpretation is inadequate, a point underlined by historian David Fitzpatrick in 2011 when he wisely advised those commemorating the revolutionary period to "avoid the use of simplistic and exclusive dichotomies, or facile attributions of motive". His stance, I suspect, was strongly influenced by his years working on a biography of anti-Treatyite Harry Boland, who he characterised as "at once a dictator, an elitist, a populist and a democrat . . . whether we consider that he was driven by a laudable conviction in the inalienable rights of nations, or a grotesque delusion, the sincerity of his struggle cannot be impugned."
It became too convenient to characterise those on opposite sides as entrenched in their certainty and righteousness; to neglect the issue of British pressure and threats and ignore those who wavered in relation to the Treaty and opted out of the subsequent Civil War. In 2015, the historian Jimmy Wren traced the political progression of some veterans of the 1916 Rising. Of 572 people identified as active with the General Post Office garrison, the largest single portion, 41 per cent, were neutral during the Civil War.
Those caught up in the emotion of the Treaty divide did not always do justice to their own complexity, and one of the consequences of the propaganda that hardened was that the questions – and answers – became too conveniently short and polarised. The six female TDs in the Dáil voted against the Treaty; they, and other politicised women, were derided then and subsequently, with long-standing consequences for the quality and representativeness of our democracy. Consider the image offered by Treaty opponent Sheila Humphreys: "We were flattened. The tinted trappings of our fight were hanging like rags about us."
What we owe them all at this stage is recognition of the sincerity of their struggle. A hundred years on from the vote that allowed for the creation of the Free State, we also need to interrogate whether Kevin O’Higgins’s assertion during the Treaty debates was ultimately vindicated. He insisted: “The welfare of the people must take precedence over political creed and theories.”