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Tension between unionist hearts and pockets as relevant today as 100 years ago

Diarmaid Ferriter: In 1921 many also thought trade would provide impetus for Irish unity

Britain’s Brexit minister David Frost: the Northern Ireland protocol needs to be urgently altered, partly because of substantial growth in trade between the North and South. Photograph: Paul Ellis

One hundred years ago today, Sinn Féin negotiators embarked on a voyage to London that would ultimately result in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty two months later, a decision with consequences that reverberate to this day. Contemporary media coverage captured the mix of anxiety, hope and expectation that accompanied the delegation; when crowds assembled at 10 Downing Street for the formal beginning of dialogue some voices asked “Shall we have a republic?” Others knelt and recited the rosary.

There was no chance of a republic, but the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, was clear in his objective: he reminded his colleagues during the negotiations “we are after a settlement”. Whether the weight of that desire could withstand the pressures the Irish delegates were under in relation to Ulster and the Irish relationship with the crown, and the strain generated by his position as head of a coalition government that contained both moderates and Tories described as “diehards” in relation to Ireland, remained a fraught question throughout.

The Irish delegates led by Arthur Griffith were poorly prepared and, unlike the British side, lacked an opening position paper. As the doyen of Anglo-Irish historical analysis, Nicholas Mansergh was later to note, “the basic paper at any conference is apt to determine the parameters of subsequent discussion . . . This was to prove no exception.”

While Griffith complained early on that the British side was “remarkably ignorant” about Northern Ireland, in Dublin, Sinn Féin president Éamon de Valera was still working on a strategy for the Ulster question, a reminder, not just of his controversial decision not to be part of the delegation, but the practical implications of that choice, and the tensions between those who travelled and those who remained at home were to increase.


Bullying and bluff

Bullying, brinkmanship and bluff all played their part in these negotiations. The historic accounts of the negotiations focus on a wide range of dilemmas and personalities, the blend of worldliness, inexperience and emotion, and the determination of James Craig, already installed as prime minister of the new Northern Ireland, to hold what he had. The ultimate outcome – dominion status within the empire for southern Ireland, with a deliberately vague promise of a future commission to examine the Border in Ireland – was not remotely the stuff of republican dreams but significant compromise had been inevitable if agreement was to be reached.

Some businesses have conveniently embraced North-South alternatives as geography trumps history when pockets are touched and supply chains choked

For all the focus on the difficulty presented by some form of allegiance to the crown, and the failure to agree on what was termed by Sinn Féin the “essential unity” of Ireland, financial questions were also at play, including the demand that a new Irish free state pay a share of the UK’s public debt. Lloyd George was prepared, towards the end, to abandon an insistence on free trade, despite such trade conditions being a part of British proposals since July. Instead he provisionally agreed “there would be freedom on both sides to impose any tariffs they liked”. This especially pleased Griffith, long an advocate of economic protectionism.

‘Natural circuits’

Lloyd George also reminded Michael Collins that Collins had “pointed out on a previous occasion that the North would be forced economically” to join southern Ireland. The prime minister had also tried this tactic with Craig, decrying a permanent partition that would involve “cutting the natural circuits of commercial activity” on the island. He may also have hoped unionist fears of having to pay their share of UK taxes would focus their minds on the negative consequences of a partitioned Irish economy; as he wrote to his personal secretary and mistress Frances Stevenson, unionists “have their hands on their hearts all the time, but if it comes to touching their pockets they quickly slap their hands in them”.

The tension between hearts and pockets remains relevant today. This week, David Frost, the UK’s Brexit minister, told the Conservative Party’s conference the Northern Ireland protocol needs to be urgently altered, partly because of substantial growth in trade between the North and South of Ireland. Given the difficulties of getting goods to Northern Ireland and the Republic from the rest of the UK, some businesses have conveniently embraced North-South alternatives as geography trumps history when pockets are touched and supply chains choked. The irony of Frost’s complaint is that, 100 years ago, it was this all-island market logic that some British politicians privately and enthusiastically argued would push North and South together, but to satisfy the political needs of 1921, there had to be a parallel public emphasis on the “heart” of the unionist cause.

Stephen Kelly of Manufacturing Northern Ireland also weighed in on this issue this week: “Trade is like water – it will find the path of least resistance.” The interesting question is the extent to which some of the assertions about economics running through the Treaty episode will, a century on, hollow out fanciful contentions about the post-Brexit “political integrity” of the UK.