The Treaty

Eleanor Hull
The Treaty

Meanwhile, Ulster politically was consolidating her position, and on June 22, 1921, the first Parliament of Northern Ireland was opened by the King in person. His speech on the occasion rose high above the local interests of the Northern province and was an appeal to the people of Ireland as a whole to compose their differences and work for the general good of the country.

“The eyes of the whole Empire,” he said with evident emotion, “are on Ireland to-day. … I speak from a full heart when I pray that my coming to Ireland to-day may prove to be the first step towards an end of strife amongst her people, whatever their race and creed.

“In that hope I appeal to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget, and to join in making for the land which they love a new era of peace, contentment and goodwill … May this historic gathering be the prelude of a day in which the Irish people, North and South, under one Parliament or two, as those Parliaments may themselves decide, shall work together in common love for Ireland upon the sure foundation of mutual justice and respect.”

The King’s speech, on such an historic occasion, could not be ignored. It expressed the intention of the Government to take fresh steps to ease the situation. On both sides the struggle was approaching a climax. The Sinn Féiners were gradually being driven out of their hiding-places and pressed back and their supplies of money and arms were becoming exhausted. On the other hand, Sir Nevil Macready was reporting that a change must be taken in hand before October, or he would need enormous supplies of new troops. The Government must “crush the rebels with iron and unstinted force or try to give them what they want.” A sudden and startling change of policy was the result of these consultations.

In May the whole power of the State was engaged to “hunt down the murder gang”; but in June it was resolved to leave no stone unturned to “make a lasting reconciliation with the Irish people.”[1]

In May, 1921, Lord FitzAlan succeeded Lord French as Viceroy and three days later Sir James Craig, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, taking his life in his hand, was conveyed by rebel drivers to meet Mr. de Valera in his unknown hiding place, to arrange terms of truce. Nothing came of the interview, but the speech of the King on June 22 gave a new opening and on June 24 an invitation from Mr. Lloyd George was received by Mr. de Valera and a similar one by Sir James Craig to a conference in London. On July 11, the invitation was accepted and Mr. de Valera met the Prime Minister in Downing Street. There was to be a cessation of hostilities as from July 11 during the continuance of the negotiations, with the release of all the Deputies of Dáil Éireann then in prison.

On July 20, proposals were handed to Mr. de Valera giving Ireland complete Dominion Home Rule, autonomous control of finance and taxation and of the police and military. Six conditions were attached, four of which dealt with naval and military aspects; one prohibited protective duties between the two islands, and one imposed on Ireland a share of the jointly contracted national debt.

Mr. De Valera showed himself impracticable, and the negotiations were more than once on the point of breaking down. On August 17 he concluded his speech in the Dáil with the words “We cannot, and we will not on behalf of the Nation, accept these terms.”

The Dáil to whom these words were addressed in no way represented the Irish people. It was almost entirely composed of Sinn Féin nominees, elected without a contest and almost exclusively from men who had taken an active part in the war or were in prison.

During the guerilla war no regular election had been possible and from this purely Sinn Féin parliament, sworn to allegiance to the Irish Republic, only one answer to the proposals of the English Government was to be expected. They almost unanimously confirmed the view of the President, who notified to the Prime Minister that the British proposals were rejected.

The famous letter delivered to the Prime Minister at Inverness, in which Mr. de Valera stated that “Our Nation has formally declared its independence, and recognises itself as a Sovereign State” was followed by hurried conferences and correspondence, which were ended on September 30 by the acceptance by Mr. de Valera of a renewed invitation to a conference in London.

It is significant that when the time to accept the invitation came, Mr. de Valera refused to go, as feeling it “beneath his dignity, as President of the Irish Republic, to leave his country,” and Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith became the leading figures in the delegation, with Messrs. Gavan Duffy, Duggan, Barton, and Erskine Childers in various capacities accompanying them.

Childers, who acted as Secretary to the delegation, brought with him the famous Document No. 2, with which Mr. de Valera wished to replace the actual Treaty. Collins says that it was drawn up by Childers, as he believed, purposely to defeat the objects of the delegation; in any case, it wasted days of precious time and was three times turned down by the Government and three times presented by Collins acting on instructions from the President, though sorely against his own will and judgment.[2]

The one thing that had been made plain to Mr. de Valera was that an Irish Republic would not be considered. The terms of the invitation were “to discuss terms of peace; to ascertain how the association of Ireland with the community of nations known as the British Empire may best be reconciled with Irish national aspirations.”

Mr. de Valera’s Document No. 2, puts the preamble in a different form. “That, for purposes of common concern, Ireland shall be associated with the States of the British Commonwealth, viz.: the Kingdom of Great Britain, the Dominion of Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia, the Dominion of New Zealand, and the Union of South Africa.”

The matters of common concern were to include Defence, Peace and War, Political Treaties, and “all matters now treated as of common concern among the States of the British Commonwealth, and that in these matters there shall be between Ireland and the States of the British Commonwealth such concerted action founded on consultation as the several Governments may determine.”

“That for purposes of the Association, Ireland shall recognise his Britannic Majesty as head of the Association.”[3]

In matters of defence, public debt, and compensation, the terms offered by Document No. 2 in its original form are even more liberal than those proposed by His Majesty’s Government. It is true that it underwent several amendments, and talk of “external association” entered into the proposals, but it was impossible that Mr. de Valera could have had any illusion about the chances of getting a Republic, nor does the Document itself suggest anything about a Republic, for it recognizes the King as head of the Association of States of which Ireland was to form a part. Yet in days to come, the Plenipotentiaries whom Mr. de Valera had entrusted to represent him at the Conference to which he would not go himself were to be accused in the bitterest terms for not upholding the “existing Republic,” for the maintenance of which this leader of the people declared himself ready to “wade through Irish Blood,” and to incite the Volunteers to “march over the bodies of their own brothers.”

When Michael Collins walked into the Council Chamber at Downing Street there was in Dublin Castle a reward of £10,000 on his head for capture, dead or alive. It was a tense moment for all concerned, and Mr. Churchill says that the vast room seemed electric with suppressed emotion when this youthful negotiator appeared.

On the opposite side of the table sat men whose reputation and careers likewise hung in the balance, Sir Austin Chamberlain, the Earl of Birkenhead, the Prime Minister and Mr. Winston Churchill himself, many of them strong supporters or leaders of the Unionist party, friends and helpers of Carson, now braving the furious outcry of betrayal sent up by the Southern Unionists and Ulster, and the taunts of their own supporters.

The strictest formalities were observed for the first weeks, but asperities softened as the cumbrous mass of detail was considered day by day and the Irish deputies, especially the two leaders, showed themselves, though inexperienced in diplomatic methods, men of probity and sound judgment and capable of attacking the difficult questions before them with fairness and understanding. Collins says that “from beginning to end the English Plenipotentiaries dealt candidly, fairly, sympathetically.”[4] Mr. Churchill’s opinion of Griffith and Collins had better be given in his own dramatic words.

“Mr. Griffith was a writer who had studied deeply European history and the polity of States. He was a man of great firmness of character and of high integrity. He was that unusual figure—a silent Irishman; he hardly ever said a word. But no word that ever issued from his lips did he ever unsay. Michael Collins had not enjoyed the same advantages in education as his elder colleague. But he had elemental qualities and mother wit which were in many ways remarkable. He stood far nearer to the terrible incidents of the conflict than his leader. His prestige and influence with the extreme parties in Ireland for that reason were far higher, his difficulties in his own heart and with his associates were far greater.”

And again:—

“He was an Irish patriot, true and fearless. His narrow upbringing and his whole early life had filled him with hatred of England. His hands had touched directly the springs of terrible deeds. But now he had no hatred of England. Love of Ireland still possessed his soul, but to it was added a wider comprehension. … When in future times the Irish Free State is not only the home of culture and of virtue, not only prosperous and happy, but an active, powerful, and annealing force in the British Commonwealth of Nations, regard will be paid by widening circles to his life and to his death.”[5]

Two months passed in what Mr. Churchill calls “futilities and rigmarole” before the final ultimatum was delivered on December 5.[6] The Treaty must be signed, and at once, in the form in which it had been hammered out between the Delegates, or there must be a resumption of whatever warfare they could wage with each other.

“As the Delegates left the room for their last consultation, Mr. Griffith promised that the answer should be given that night, adding that whatever decision might be taken by the others, he would personally sign the Agreement and recommend it to his countrymen. ‘Do I understand, Mr. Griffith,’ said Mr. Lloyd George, ‘that though everyone else refuses you will nevertheless agree to sign?’ ‘Yes, that is so, Mr. Prime Minister,’ replied this quiet little man of great heart and of great purpose. Michael Collins rose looking as if he was going to shoot someone, preferably himself. ‘In all my life,’ says Mr. Churchill, ‘I have never seen so much passion and suffering in restraint.’ It was long past midnight when the Delegates returned with the Agreement ready for signature and nearly three o’clock when they separated. But the Agreement was signed by all, and for the first time since the long negotiations began, the British Ministers upon a strong impulse walked round and clasped hands with the Irish Plenipotentiaries. … This was the moment, not soon to be forgotten, when the waters were parted and the streams of destiny began to flow down new valleys towards new seas.”[7]

It has been repeatedly said by the Republican party that the Treaty was signed “under duress.” Barton, especially, was obsessed by the idea that it was obtained “under the threat of immediate and terrible war.” It is evident that in all agreements between two parties there must be some element of pressure, some realization of the consequences if the agreement is rejected. But Collins was emphatic in contradicting the idea that threats were held over the heads of the Delegates, though he knew and did not hesitate to say that the Republican belief that the “Terror” had secured the passing of the Treaty, was an exaggeration of the facts.[8] But though England had not been “frightened into submission,” England as well as Ireland was weary of the existing condition of things; on both sides it was an instinct of self-preservation that brought about the compact.

Many factors contributed to the offer of Dominion Home Rule to Ireland. Since the days of Joseph Chamberlain, a new conception had arisen with regard to the position of England towards the great overseas States that were bound together, under the King, in the British Empire. It was beginning to be realized, slowly but surely, by the British people that these expanding and powerful States could not be permanently regarded as Dependencies held by superior power; they must become Self-governing Dominions, bound together in a friendly union and held by ties of mutual advantage to each other and to the old country. Their help, voluntarily offered in the Great War, stimulated this feeling; their appearance as separate entities appointed by their own countries at the Peace Conference consolidated it.

The old name, Colonies of the Empire, gradually dropped, and the idea and title of Self-governing Dominions took its place. Ireland was among the first to benefit by this change of political outlook, and it was with this liberal policy in view that the Treaty came into existence. A no less definite deciding cause was the pressure that was being brought to bear upon British statesmen for a settlement of the Irish question by America and by the Dominions. The Allies, too, showed sympathy with the cause of Irish self-government; all alike desired to see the existing unsatisfactory state of affairs put an end to. In all parts of the world, a persistent and extensive propaganda was being carried on, and in America, especially, feeling ran strongly in favour of a speedy settlement. This was an important factor in the situation. England had to put herself right with the world at large.

The Treaty, signed late on the night of December 6, 1921, made Ireland, in the opinion of Collins, a fully constituted State.

“It gave us the freedom we fought to win, freedom from British interference and domination. We have the constitutional status of Canada, and the status being one of freedom and equality, we are free to take advantage of that status. In fact, England has renounced all right to govern Ireland, and the withdrawal of her forces is the proof of this. With the evacuation, secured by the Treaty, has come the end of British rule in Ireland.”

“Under the Treaty,” he argued, “Ireland is about to become a fully constituted nation. … Our Government will have complete control of our army, our schools, and our trade. Our soldiers, our judges, our ministers, will be the soldiers, judges and ministers of the Irish Free State. We have complete freedom for all our purposes. We shall be rid completely of British interference and British rule. We can establish in its place our own rule and exactly what kind of rule we like. We can restore our Gaelic life in exactly what form we like. We can keep what we have gained and make it secure and strong. The little we have not gained we can go ahead and gain.”[9] “It is now only fratricidal strife which can prevent us from making the Gaelic Ireland which is our goal.”[10]

This was the message which Collins and his fellow Delegates brought to Ireland when they landed with the signed Treaty on a grey, chill December morning, with a sense prophetic of what was to follow through the bitter recriminations during the coming sessions of the Dáil. They had been sent off from London with the jubilant cheers of the Gaels in the metropolis, made happy by the satisfactory termination to the anxious weeks of discussion in Downing Street. But in Dublin there were no scenes of jubilation. No one hurried to the station to greet the returning envoys. Suddenly it appeared that the people with whom they had worked as colleagues in the fight for Irish freedom had become their relentless enemies. Cries of “traitor” and “betrayal” were freely bandied about, and though a Republic had never received the country’s sanction, “the maintenance of the existing Republic” became the Sinn Féin watchword.

In the Dáil, of which Mr. de Valera was President, the Delegates were faced with the open hostility of a large part of the members. Out of the 121 members, 112 were old fighters in the war, and most of them had spent a term in English prisons, some of them having been arrested three or even five times. Many of them were in prison when they were elected and they had been liberated in order to attend. Most of them had taken an oath of allegiance to the “Republic,” and it naturally went hard with them to disavow it. After an adjourned debate, the Treaty was brought into being by a narrow majority of seven; Mr. de Valera and his Cabinet resigned; Mr. Arthur Griffith was elected President, and a Provisional Government was formed. The election which followed in June, 1922, returned 128 Deputies, 94 of whom supported the Treaty, while Mr. de Valera had 34 Anti-Treaty followers.[11]