This month marks the 90th anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6 1921. It was renamed the ‘Treaty of Surrender’ by faithful Irish Republicans because its terms subverted the All-Ireland Republic established according to the democratic will of the people of All-Ireland as expressed in the historic 1918 General Election – the last occasion in which the people of Ireland have been allowed to vote as one unit. That election led to the convening of the First 32-County Dáil Éireann on January 21 1919 and the setting up of a functioning Irish Republic.
The All-Ireland Republic quickly established active government departments and maintained a standing army in the field - the Irish Republican Army. Through its Department of Local Government it secured the allegiance of the vast majority of the county, town and city councils and other layers of local administration throughout Ireland. It also established its own policing and court system while internationally envoys and diplomatic missions were set-up.
The British Government’s response to this democratic expression of self-determination by the Irish people was to intensify its repression by introducing martial law in large swathes of Ireland including the entire province of Munster. From England it recruited extra RIC divisions, the notorious Black-and-Tans as well as the Auxiliaries.
This sets the backdrop to the negotiation of a Treaty, which would overturn the democratic will of the people of Ireland as well as partitioning the historic Irish nation. In his authoritive history of the Civil War or Counter-Revolution Green Against Green the historian Michael Hopkinson said of the Treaty: “No document could have more effectively brought out into the open divisions in the philosophy and leadership of the Sinn Féin movement. If it had offered a little more or a little less, it may well have unified opinion for or against it.”
Realising they could not defeat the Republic militarily, the British Government showing all the darks arts of intrigue and manipulation sharpened over centuries of empire building decided on a strategy of division and subversion from within.
Following the calling of a Truce on July 11 the British Government opened a dialogue with the Government of the All-Ireland Republic leading ultimately to the opening of formal negotiations on October 11 1921. The delegates chosen by the Government of the Republic were led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins and also included Eamonn Duggan, George Gavin Duffy and Robert Barton. According to Liam Mellows speaking during the Dáil’s Treaty debates, they had clear instructions as to any proposed treaty. Item three of the instructions given to the delegates quoted by Mellows stated: “It is also understood that the complete text of the draft Treaty about to be signed will be similarly submitted to Dublin's and a reply awaited.”. This was disputed by Collins and Griffith who claimed they had full plenipotentiary powers to negotiate and sign.
Within the negotiations themselves the British played their hand well dividing the Irish delegates up and concentrating in particular on Collins and Griffith. Thus they ensured that whilst their decisions and actions were tightly coordinated and carefully though out the Irish delegation was in disarray. Duggan, Barton and Gavin Duffy were in the dark regarding much of Collins’ and Griffith’s secret talks with Winston Churchill and British Prime Minister Lloyd George. In the introduction to the Whitehall Diary of Deputy Secretary to the British Cabinet Thomas Jones historian Nicholas Mansergh wrote that the negotiations involved: “concessions wrung by devices, some of which can be described at best as devious…”The care taken by the British in the negotiation is illustrated by a comment by Thomas Jones, in his diary: “….every word used and every nuance was so important.” When the leadership of the Republican Movement were about to engage in talks with the British Government in 1972 for the first time since the Treaty negotiations of 1921 they turned to Seán MacBride for advice as he had been part of the staff attached to the Irish delegation during the Treaty negotiations. His most important piece of advice was not to allow their delegation to be separated.
These were the circumstances in which the hard fought for and fully functioning All-Ireland Republic was undermined. The past 90 years of war and conflict in Ireland has flowed from the decisions made in those fateful months of late 1921 and early 1922. Speaking in the Dáil debate on the Treaty on January 4 Liam Mellows prophetically set out the consequences of abandoning the Republic and setting up a 26-County Free State: “The Government of the Free State will, with those who support it now liking it or not, eventually occupy the same relationship towards the people of Ireland as Dublin Castle does to-day, because, it will be the barrier government between the British and the Irish people. And the Irish people before they can struggle on will have to do something to remove that Free State Government. That, I think, has been the history of this country most of the time, as it is the history of most countries that go the way now urged by those who support the Free State. If the Free State is accepted and put into operation it will provide the means for the British Government to get its hold back again.”
The conspiratorial “internal methods” used to coerce and cajole deputies into voting for the Treaty in the Dáil as well as within the army of the Republic –the IRA – by the Irish Republican Brotherhood would be adopted by others in the years ahead to similarly divert the Republican Movement away from the path to the full freedom of Ireland.
Its legacy was a vicious civil war or more accurately counter-revolution, which robbed Ireland of some of its brightest and best political leaders. It poisoned politics in Ireland dividing families as well as territory. And in buying the pup of the Boundary Commission which in 1925 copper-fastened partition those who supported the Treaty condemned the nationalists population of the Six Counties to decades of sectarian Unionist domination and discrimination and British rule. It is a legacy that we remain burdened with today.
Its is best to leave the final word to Brian Murphy in his excellent book Patrick Pearse and the Lost Republican Ideal: “The Treaty, hailed by those who accepted it as a victory for democracy, has to be accessed in the knowledge that those who advocated it, be they from the ranks of the IRB or the Catholic clergy, were influenced by secret manoeuvres which were hardly compatible with the democratic process. If the Treaty was a victory for anyone, it was for the policy of the British administration.”
References: Brian P. Murphy: Patrick Pearse and the Lost Republican Ideal.
Thomas Jones: Whitehall Diary.Dáil Éireann: Official Report of the debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland