The Treaty won public support – but this could not stop the Civil War

Reflections on the Anglo-Irish Treaty 100 years after the Dáil vote

It has become a truism of Irish history that the Anglo-Irish Treaty "split Ireland from stem to stern" as one of its most redoubtable opponents, Cathal Brugha, put it.

In this familiar narrative, it pitted brother against brother, old comrades against each other and led to political enmities which persist in different forms to this day.

The narrow vote by Dáil Éireann in favour of the Treaty, 64-57, is often seen as conclusive evidence that the country was evenly divided, but to see it in those terms is a mistake.

It is more correct to state that the Treaty split the republican movement, Sinn Féin, the IRA and Cumann na mBan.

How representative was that movement of the Irish public? There has been a tendency to conflate its will with that of the Irish people 100 years ago.

Sinn Féin became the dominant force in Irish politics in the 1918 British general election in which it won 73 of the 105 seats in Ireland on a 46.9 per cent share of the vote. More pertinently it got 65 per cent of the vote in the 26 counties.

The first Dáil had democratic legitimacy and gave vital legitimacy, too, to the IRA’s campaign during the War of Independence. When British prime minister David Lloyd George invited Éamon de Valera for talks in London in July 1921 he did so on the basis that de Valera represented the majority opinion of nationalist Ireland at the time.

The second Dáil, which narrowly passed the Treaty, had no such democratic imprimatur. It was a one party assembly set up in May 1921 and none of its 125 Sinn Féin members faced election.

Only those from the party had a say in the passage of the Treaty. The splits in the cabinet, the bitter Dáil debates and the narrowness of its ratification on January 7th, 1922 gives a distorted view of how it was received in Ireland 100 years ago.

The Treaty was popular in all sections of civil society. In the hiatus between its signing on December 6th, 1921 in London and its ratification a month and a day later, every representative body with a stake in the outcome met to discuss the Treaty.

County and city councils, chambers of commerce, unions, farmers’ organisations, the Catholic Church and even southern Unionists were all in favour. So too were almost every Sinn Féin comhairle ceantair in the country, the grassroots of the party. Some sharply reminded their TDs of the mood in the country. The north and south Monaghan cumanns told Seán MacEntee, who made a forceful speech opposing the Treaty on the basis that it would do nothing to stop partition, that 99 per cent of the county was in favour of it. MacEntee voted against it anyway.

The local and national newspapers too were in favour at a time when they were the dominant means of mass communication. The Irish Times recommended the Treaty on the basis that it will “close a hideous era of strife and bloodshed and will open a new era of material and intellectual progress”.

The Cork Examiner warned TDs that those who vote no “will place their individual opinions against the concentrated judgment of the majority of the Irish people”. Those TDs who had argued in the Dáil against the Treaty “were arguing against public opinion and they know it”, the Freeman’s Journal noted.

Three days before the final vote was taken, the Irish Independent recognised that the country had been engaged in a serious discussion about the Treaty and those involved had all reached the same conclusion.

“Never was the country speaking through the elected and other bodies and organised meetings of the people so nearly unanimous on any great national issue. The country expects a decisive majority in favour of ratification.”

In their book The Treaty: Debating and Establishing the Irish State, Liam Weeks and Mícheál Ó Fathartaigh estimated that 328 public bodies voted to support the Treaty with just five declaring against.

The then president of Dáil Éireann Éamon de Valera promised to accept the Treaty if it was ratified, but did precisely the opposite and marched his followers out of the chamber, thus beginning the process that would lead to civil war just four months later. He then narrowly lost the vote to be re-elected president to Griffith who had the guts, unlike de Valera, to head the Irish delegation at the Treaty talks.

In March of that year de Valera made his infamous observation that the “majority had no right to do wrong”. This encapsulated the opposition by the anti-Treaty side. Many of those who had taken an oath to the Republic when they joined the IRA were contemptuous of the views of the public, who had taken no such oath, and had not shared in the risks of the War of Independence.

The occupation of the Four Courts, the seat of the judiciary in April 1922 by anti-Treaty militants, was intended as a calculated affront against the institutions of the fledging state.

The arguments that dominion status within the British Empire and the oath of allegiance to the British monarch was not the sovereign republic as envisaged in the 1916 Proclamation meant a lot to a small number of people, but little to most people.

The public concluded that the measure of freedom outlined by the Treaty was enough to be getting on with. They had endured seven years of conflict from 1914 on and wanted peace above all else, yet it is remarkable how the threat of war as articulated by David Lloyd George to the Irish delegates did not figure in the deliberations in civic society. They preferred to consider the Treaty on its own merits.

Republicans spent too much time arguing about the symbols of sovereignty and failed to address the real weakness of the Treaty which was Article 12 setting up a Boundary Commission.

The work was not done to ensure that this convoluted clause would repatriate to the Free State those majority nationalist communities along the Border.

In June 1922, the Irish public finally got an opportunity to pronounce on the Treaty in the Free State’s first general election. It amounted to a comprehensive defeat for the anti-Treaty Sinn Féin side led by de Valera. It got just 21.8 per cent of the vote.

That ought to have settled it, but the last of the votes had only been counted when Ulster Unionist MP and the former head of the British army, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson was shot dead on the steps of his London home on June 22nd, 1922. This precipitated a warning from the British Government that unless the Provisional Government dealt with anti-Treaty rebels occupying the Four Courts, the British military would be forced to act. The civil war began six days later.

Ten years after the start of the Civil War Éamon de Valera was elected Taoiseach and was able to dismantle all the objectionable articles of the Treaty peacefully and with the support of the public.

It was democracy for slow learners. Having learned his lessons, de Valera never forgot it and was as redoubtable a champion of Irish democracy as those he had fought against in the Civil War.

Ronan McGreevy is an Irish Times journalist. His book, Great Hatred: the Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP, will be published by Faber in May.