100 years ago today, the fateful Anglo-Irish treaty negotiations began at 10 Downing Street. Read our article to learn about its many controversies, what it actually achieved, and why it sparked not only the creation of the Free Irish State, but also a civil war.
Setting the Stage
The Treaty is an incredibly controversial document for two reasons. First, it formally acknowledged partition (which was official British policy by 1921) while turning Ireland into a dominion (NOT an independent state) and required an oath to the king. Second, it triggered a civil war that took many of Ireland’s best and brightest.
While the Treaty was the spark, I would argue a split (if not a civil war) amongst the Republican forces was inevitable. As we discussed elsewhere on this blog and in my podcast, tensions were high amongst IRA forces and command, heightened by the brutality of the war and the return of Eamon DeValera from the United States.
While he was fundraising in the United States, DeValera missed most of the war and was blindsided by what awaited his return. The movement DeValera helped create was no longer recognizable to him nor did he fully understand the rules of they war they were fighting, believing that the assassinations and ambushes were detrimental to the IRA’s cause and they should fight more traditional battles. He was also dismayed to see how much power gathered by the military side and worked hard with Minister of Defense, Cathal Brugha, to reassert the Dail’s power-as well as his own.
This, seemingly, brought him onto a collision course with Michael Collins (a man who also disliked being held accountable by another-no matter how much he respected DeValera). DeValera furthered strained that relationship by trying to send Collins to America in January-a command Collins flatly refused and DeValera dropped. Yet, DeValera entered negotiations confident and seems to have believed it was his moment to solidify the fact that he, DeValera, was the leader of Ireland.
DeValera and an Irish delegation which comprised of Arthur Griffith, Austin Stack, Robert Barton, Count Plunkett, and Erskine Childers traveled to London on July 12th to begin preliminary discussions with Lloyd George. DeValera would meet with Lloyd George 4 times between July 14th and the 21st. During their first meeting, they met in a cabinet room in 10 Downing Street. Lloyd George had pinned a giant map of the British Empire on the wall, with great splotches of red to impress on DeValera the power and might of the British Empire. DeValera seems to have hardly been impressed.
After two more inconclusive meetings, Lloyd George sent his proposal to Dev for review. It offered Dominion status for Ireland but no navy, no hostile tariffs, and no coercion of Ulster. DeValera refused, staying that
“Dominion status for Ireland would never be real. Ireland’s proximity to Britain would not allow it to develop as dominions thousands of miles away could.”Eamon DeValera
Even though DeValera rejected his proposal, Lloyd George continued to honor the truce and DeValera returned to Dublin.
DeValera had a proposal of his own, known as Document No. 2 or External Associations, another point of controversy. This document proposed that Ireland would not be a dominion but it would still have associations with England. When he explained it to Erskine Childers and Robert Brennan, he drew five circles inside a large circle. The large circle was England and the other circles were the dominions it currently ruled. He then drew a circle outside of the big circle but connecting it and that was supposed to be Ireland.
Unfortunately, he was either never able to properly explain his plan to his fellow Irishmen or the British cabinet or it was simply too much for people. Many of the diehard republicans found it baffling or a betrayal and the British couldn’t see how it was different from having an alliance with an independent state (and thus unacceptable). He formally shared this document with the cabinet on July 27th, but refused to share it with Lloyd George, fearing that it would be too revealing if sent to the British in its current form. It seems that DeValera wanted to keep it as a compromise he might ultimate accept but wanted to see how far the Irish could push the British before being forced to offer a compromise of their own. He sent a formal reply to Lloyd George rejecting Dominion status with a vague description of his external association plan.
At first the British cabinet overreacted, believing this was a rejection of the entire negotiation effort. Cooler heads prevailed and after nine days of debate amongst themselves, the British sent another letter to the Dail, asking if they would be “prepared to enter a Conference to ascertain how the association of Ireland with the community of nations known as the British Empire can best be reconciled with Irish national aspiration.”
DeValera called a cabinet meeting on August 22nd, 1921 and asked for their approval to continue negotiations. They agreed. Now it was time to decide who would represent Ireland-maybe one of the most controversial moments in a rather controversial process and war.
The Irish Delegation
When the Irish cabinet met on September 9th, DeValera dropped the bombshell that he would not lead the Irish delegation. We will never know why exactly he made this decision. I’ve read reasons as diverse as Dev knew the negotiations would end with dominion status for Ireland and he didn’t want to sign that treaty, he truly believed he would be of more use in Ireland-basically the boogeyman the delegation could point to to intimidate the British into accepting Irish terms, to the fact that it’s not the president’s place to be involved in negotiations. DeValera’s decision is best on his own slightly disconnected understanding of reality.
DeValera seems to be under the impression that the delegation was going to Britain to negotiate a treaty, but they wouldn’t agree to anything without the Dail’s approval first (as if the British would allow a delegation to run everything by DeValera, who wasn’t in England and not part of the negotiation team, but still wanted a say in the negotiations). He believed that the delegation could simply walk away should the negotiations fail and then Lloyd George would write back to the Dail and they could restart the process all over again. This is a slightly unrealistic expectation to have and it doesn’t seem he properly explained his reasoning to the delegation either. Similar to his Document No. 2, DeValera had solutions and understandings that he didn’t properly share with people but expected them to know about those understandings and act accordingly.
The second point of controversy was whether the goal of the negotiations was to walk away with a republic or if it was to walk away with any level of independence from Britain. Lloyd George had already made it clear that Britain would never accept a republic or full Irish independence. But where did the Irish stand? For the entirety of the war, DeValera’s title had been President of the Dail Eireann, and was changed to the President of the Irish Republic on August 26th. Was that a signal that the Republic was the goal or a formality? Members like Brugha and Mary MacSwiney were under the impression that either the British promised to recognize an Irish Republic or it was back to war. Yet, Michael Collins went on record saying that “the declaration of a Republic by the leaders of the rising was far in advance of national thought” and MacSwiney accosted Harry Boland about his and DeValera’s perceived lack of commitment to a republic, and warned him to “please leave your Dual Monarchy nonsense behind you. Our oaths are to the Republic or nothing less.” DeValera didn’t help at all by refusing to provide any sort of guidance to the delegation and it seems that, if DeValera truly believed the republic or the External Association idea was ideal for Ireland, he never told the members of the delegation.
Finally, to make matters worse, DeValera was sending the delegation as plenipotentiaries, who technically should have full powers to handle negotiations, but DeValera crippled their powers by requiring that they refer back to the cabinet for major questions and with “the complete text of the draft treaty about to be signed”. However the British assumed they were normal plenipotentiaries and could not, as Viceroy Lord FitzAlan told Lloyd George, “take advantage of De Valera’s absence to delay and refer back to him”
The cabinet protested DeValera’s proposal strenuously, with William Cosgrave leading the dissension. He believed that it made no sense to send a team to negotiation while leaving their most powerful player behind, especially since DeValera had already dealt with Lloyd George and none of the other delegation members had. Gavan Duffy supported Cosgrave’s criticism while adding his own criticism of how DeValera was crippling the negotiators with his requirement that they send everything to him for approval. Collins added his own objections, stating that he was the wrong man for the job and that the president should go instead. Dev persisted and despite all this ambiguity and disbelief that DeValera would not go to London, the cabinet approved the following appointments:
- Arthur Griffith who would be Chairman
- Michael Collins
- Robert Barton, the minister of economic affairs
- Eamonn Duggan, a lawyer and chief liaison officer for implementing the truce
- George Gavan Duffy, another lawyer and Dail’s envoy to Rome
- And Erskine Childers, Fionan Lynch, Diarmund O’Hegarty, and John Chartres as a secretaries.
DeValera dismissed Duggan and Duffy as mere legal padding, but hoped that Barton would be stubborn enough to limit the amount of compromises the Irish would have to make and trusted Childers to serve as a source of strength for Barton. DeValera seems to have ignored the fact that Griffith despised Childers
Their instructions were to negotiate and conclude a treaty of treaties of settlement, association, and accommodation between Ireland and the community of nations known as the British Commonwealth.
The Irish delegation arrived in London on October 8th (Collins would arrive on October 10th) and took residence at 22 Hans Place and 15 Cadogan Gardens in Kensington. The Irish representatives had accreditations that said they were negotiating on the behalf of an Irish Republic, but the British never asked to see them and Griffith never offered them, so Britain never knew it had indirectly recognize the Republic’s existence.
The first meeting took place on October 11th, at 10 Downing Street. The Irish were facing the likes of
- David Lloyd George
- Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for the Colonies
- Lord Birkenhead, Lord Chancellor
- Austen Chamberlain, Lord of the House of Commons
- Sir Laming Worthington-Evans BT, Secretary of State for War
- Sir Gordon Hewart, Attorney General
- And Sir Hamar Greenwood, chief Secretary for Ireland
It cannot be denied the British team was more experienced and were better prepared than the Irish. They also had the benefit of being in agreement that a republic was out of the question and the goal was to get the Irish to agree to a Dominion status. And they had a document all written up outlying their proposal whereas the Irish had DeValera’s vague external association document and his unconnected thoughts about Ulster’s future. Yet despite their formidable reputation and skills, all were not cozy in the British delegation. For one thing, it was missing a very important player in British politics at the time: Bonar Law, the man who nearly pushed the Conservatives to civil war during the 1912 crisis and the man who would lead the Tory revolt against this very treaty that ended Lloyd George’s career. Lloyd George was also feeling the extreme pressure from Ulster not to give an inch when it came to the Ulster exception.
The delegation would meet seven times between October 11th and 24th while also breaking out into three different committees: the Committee on Naval and Air Defense, the Committee on Financial Relations and the Committee on the Observance of the Truce, which consisted of members from both delegations. These committees would meet between October 12th to November 10th.
After October 24th, the negotiations would be conducted through sub-conference, which met 24 times in various locations until the signing of the treaty on December 6th.
Because of the complex nature of the Irish-British relationship, a lot of time would be spent trying to figure out Irish fiscal autonomy. However the two points that caused the most trouble between the negotiating parties was Ireland’s unity and allegiance to the Crown.
The Ulster Question
In regards to Ulster, Lloyd George had already promised James Craig and Edward Carson that Ulster would not be coerced. This meant Ulster had to choose to be part of the Irish state. It could not be guaranteed a place by treaty i.e. partition. The Irish delegation suggested an Irish Parliament that would allow for a six country parliament in Northern Ireland, but that parliament would be subordinate to the larger Irish parliament. This brought new attacks on Lloyd George from Ulster and Conservatives in his own party and he struggled controlling his increasingly rebellious party while also explaining his political fraught situation to the Irish.
With Craig and Carson refusing to budge an inch, Lloyd George went back to Collins and Griffith and suggested a Ulster parliament and a boundary commission to determine the borders. What this meant was that the 26 county Irish republic would have power over its own boundaries and would be presented the ability to limit Ulster’s reach into the rest of Ireland by helping to set its own borders (or at least that’s how the British sold it to the Irish). Collins didn’t like it, since it was partition, but he and Griffith were forced to accept because otherwise it meant Lloyd George’s resignation and a Bonar Law party-one even more opposed to Irish interest than Lloyd George’s party. Eventually, they agreed to creating an Irish Parliament that Ulster could withdraw from after 12 months. This would be known as the Boundary Commission and it would finalize partition and set the borders of the two states.
The nature of Ireland’s relations to the crown was a thornier problem since the Irish wanted complete legal sovereignty and the British demanded an oath of loyalty. For the British the oath represented a desperate symbol of control (one that they knew would be tenuous) as they lost a part of their empire. For the Irish the oath was a literal vow of subjugation. Griffith was quick to understand that symbols were meaningless if Ireland could be guaranteed real power over her own destiny. So he was the first to accept the oath as nothing more than lip service to an ancient empire and focused on effectively governing power. It must be remembered the Griffith’s original model for Ireland was the dual monarchist state similar to the Austro-Hungarian model.
Collins, at first, didn’t seem to have a preconceived opinion on forms of government before the negotiations. However, once he was in London, he did his best to learn about constitutional politics and found out he agreed with Griffith. What did symbols mean if they could free Ireland from British occupation, penetration, and laws? He seemed to believe that England was turning into a league of free nations and that the treaty was a stepping stone to further independence for Ireland. Put another way, what power would Britain truly have over Ireland if Ireland had an Irish government, Irish police force, Irish Army, and Irish courts.
The Negotiations On the Verge of Breaking Down
The negotiations weren’t always smooth and during the sixth and seventh conference meetings the British complained about how the IRA in Ireland were breaking the terms of the treaty. And while, eventually Collins and Griffith would agree or give in to terms on Ulster and the Oath, they did not give in quietly or quickly and risked prematurely ending the negotiations frequently when their obstinance met British thick-headedness. Things became dire for Lloyd George as the negotiations dragged on and he started to experience resistance from other Tories. When the British tried to impress upon Collins and Griffith all that Lloyd George was “doing for them” and he had a right to expect some help, Collins replied
“I know nothing about your politics. I have only to think of Ireland.”Michael Collins
The British in an attempt to divide and conquer the Irish (and maybe because they sensed they could get somewhere with only Collins and Griffith) suggested they meet in sub-conferences from October 24th to when the treaty was signed. Collins attended all of them, Griffith most, and the rest of the Irish delegation occasionally attending. Members such as Childers and Duggan would complain about being ‘forced’ out and further poisoned relationships between the Irish delegations, spelling disaster for Collins and Griffith when they returned to Ireland.
From November 22nd to December 6th, the two delegations would send proposals and counter-proposals to each other, meeting in between, and arguing over terms until Lloyd George, completely fed up, sents an ultimatum to the Irish delegates: either they sign the treaty as it stands or refuse to sign and resume the war.
The Irish delegation was badly split. Griffith, Collins, and Duggan were in favor of the treaty while Barton and Gavan Duffy were against the treaty. Lloyd George pressured the Irish delegation, claiming that he was preparing to tell Craig, his cabinet, and parliament that the negotiations had broken down. For their part, the Irish delegation was in constant communication with DeValera, insisting he come to London now and help them, but he refused.
Signing the Treaty
Griffith, in a moment of political naivety and maybe sheer exhaustion, told Lloyd George that the Irish wanted peace and to talk to Collins about changes to the oath, some financial matters, and the ever-lasting sticking point-Ulster. Collins, when he received Lloyd George’s communication, thought the prime minister actually wanted to see him instead of the meeting being set up by Griffith, and acknowledged in the meeting that he was pretty much on the same page as Griffith in terms of how acceptable the treaty was. Lloyd George then tightened the screws by calling Griffith and Collins into another meeting, where he claimed that Griffith had promised to do all he could to pass the treaty, agreeing to the Ulster clause, but was now breaking his word by being stubborn about Ulster. Griffith, flustered, said he would sign the treaty no matter what, although the other members of his delegation would have to follow their own conscience. This was all Lloyd George needed. If Griffith signed, then the rest of the Irish delegation had to either follow his example or break apart in front of the British. The Irish delegation returned to 10 Downing Street and signed the treaty at 2:10 am on December 6th.
What exactly did they sign? In the end the treaty promised nothing that wasn’t part of the proposal prepared in July. It’s main causes were as follows:
- Crown forces would withdraw from most of Ireland.
- Ireland would become a self-governing dominion of the British Empire
- As with the other dominions, the King would be the Head of State of the Irish Free State and would be represented by a Governor General
- Members of the new free state’s parliament would be required to take an Oath of Allegiance to the Irish Free State and the King.
- Northern Ireland would have the option of withdrawing from the Irish Free State within one month of the Treaty coming into effect.
- If Northern Ireland chose to withdraw, a Boundary Commission would be constituted to draw the boundary between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland.
- Britain, for its own security, would continue to control a limited number of ports, known as the Treaty Ports, for the Royal Navy.
- The Irish Free State would assume responsibility for a proportionate part of the United Kingdom’s debt, as it stood on the date of signature.
- The treaty would have superior status in Irish law, i.e., in the event of a conflict between it and the new 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State, the treaty would take precedence.
While the Treaty was celebrated in England and Lloyd George considered it a massive victory, the reaction in Ireland was quite different. DeValera, Cathal Brugha, and Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy were sitting by the fireplace while spending the night at Limerick when they received a call from Geaorid O’Sullivan, telling them that a treaty had been signed. DeValera refused to speak to O’Sullivan himself and Mulcahy must have spent a very awkward night with DeValera and Brugha before catching the train back to Dublin together, where Dev and Cathal abandoned him to sit with Kathleen Clarke instead (I’m sure Mulcahy wasn’t too upset about the arrangement). When DeValera arrived in Dublin, he didn’t seek information about the Treaty and later that night, he met Eamonn Duggan who handed him a copy of the Treaty to read. Dev asked what should I read it for and he was told that it would be published in Dublin and London within the hour. DeValera was incensed and said, “What to be published whether I have seen it or not-whether I approve it or not.”
He called a cabinet meeting on December 7th of the ministers still in Dublin-Brugha, Stack, Cosgrave, and O’Higgins-and said he intended to demand the resignation of the three who plenipotentiaries who were in the cabinet-Collins, Griffith, and Barton- but Cosgrave convinced him to hear them out first.
However, his anger festered and three weeks later he wrote to Joe McGarrity that the plenipotentiaries having signed without his approval was
“An act of disloyalty to their President and to their colleagues in the Cabinet such as is probably without parallel in history. They not merely signed the document but in order to make the fait accompli doubly secure, they published it hours before the President or their colleagues saw it.”Eamon DeValera
On December 9th, DeValera issued a public letter stating that “I feel it is my duty to inform you immediately that I cannot recommend the acceptance of this treaty.”
Todd Andrews, a member of the IRA wrote that something must be wrong with the newspaper that printed the treaty for “Collins could not have agreed to this”.
A week before the Dail debate over the treaty began, the 1st Southern Division met in Cork and resolved that the “treaty is it is drafted is not acceptable to us…and we urge its rejection by the government.”
The Dail responded swiftly with Mulcahy writing that the army was the ‘instrument of the Civil Government and must obey the decision of the Dail.”
Most of the military high command were in favor of ratifying the treaty and provided their reasoning during the private Dail debates on December 17th and 20th. Sean MacEoin reported that he had five hundred Volunteers and enough ammunition for seven minutes of fighting and that the British would wipe them out. Eoin O’Duffy agreed and Sean Hales, MacEoin, and O’Duffy pointed out that the intelligence situation had drastically changed as well. During the second meeting all the officers who made up GHQ, members of the Dail, and several who held commands in the country agreed that resuming the war would only end in disaster for the IRA.
Mulcahy sent out one of his many memos insisting that the army should stay out of politics and since it was an instrument of the state, it should have no opinion on public affairs. However, there were emergencies in which the State must consult with the Army heads and there were questions the army was entitled to answer. He stated that the real was purely military “it is evident that the improved power of the Army falls short of that requried for a military decision” and that “the English could not be driven into the sea, nor even expelled from their fortified centres.” He argued that the Treaty was “a quicker way to complete independence” and claimed that “Any good Irishmen, if assured that by dying he would secure for Ireland the benefits included in the Treaty would have died without hesitation”. (Townshend, pg 352)
Griffith and Collins were under no illusions of what waited for them in London. Collins even wrote on the day he signed the Treaty:
On December 8th, the cabinet met. Collins, Barton, Griffith, and Cosgrave recommended approval of the Treaty to the Dail while DeValera, Brugha, and Stacks opposed. They decided that the president would issue a press statement defining the position of the minority and that the Dail would hold public sessions on December 14th. During his statement, DeValera made it clear that he was opposed to the Treaty, starting the Dail debates on an even rockier foot and making himself the lightning rod for everyone who wanted to reject the Treaty.
The public debates broke down to two camps, the treatyites and the anti-treatyites. Those who supported the Treaty argued that the IRA had done all it could do and to continue the war would be a disaster. They argued that the goal was never to drive the British to the sea but to break down that prestige which the enemy derived from his unquestionable superior force. To believe otherwise was fantasy. Collins offered his stepping stone argument and Hales argued that this was a jumping off point, and in a year or ten, Ireland would have freedom. Collins even told Hales in private that
“the British broke the Treaty of Limerick [which ended the Jacobite war in 1691] and we’ll break this Treaty too when it suits us, when we have our own army”Michael Collin
The Anti-treatyites refused or were unable to accept the pro-treatyites’ argument. Many did not want to accept partition, remain a part of the British empire, and especially despised the oath. And there were those in the middle, who looked to their comrades for an explanation or opinion on what to do. Liam Lynch, a famous IRA fighter and key figure during the civil war, started off initially believing the treaty could be worked with, but then bitterly turned against it. He would write to Mulcahy in 1922 that he and his men
“realize that the Government, GHQ Staff and the Army in the rest of Ireland outside the Southern Divisions and the Dublin Brigade have outrageously let them down” and that “It is with deep regret that I have to acquaint you that while at all times I shall do my utmost to carry out your orders, maintain general discipline, and above all insist on Truce being maintained, I cannot carry out any order against the IRA principles…when such principles stand the danger of being given away by our unthankful Government.Liam Lynch
The problem for the anti-treatyites is that they didn’t have an alternative to offer. De Valera tried to introduce his external association idea, but it died in the water and while the anti-treatyites were full of principle, they had little else. For the treatyites it was all about accepting this limited victory in order to achieve a bigger one. As Collins put it, this Treaty didn’t give the ultimate freedom, but “the freedom to achieve that end” and Mulcahy would say it provided a “solid spot of ground on which the Irish people can put its political feet.”
The Dail took a recess during Christmas and during this time, public opinion, the press, and the Church swung towards accepting the treaty. While the anti-treatyites would ignore or dismiss how the people felt, the treatyites used it to support their cause. As Christmas passed (the first Christmas Ireland had not been at war one way or another since 1914), the Dail reconvened and the attacks became increasingly personal with the Freeman’s Journal denouncing DeValera as lacking the ‘instinct of an Irishman in his blood’ and Dev accused Griffith of crookedness, and Brugha claimed that Collins was a hack who deliberately sought notoriety and had been built up as a heroic figure which he was not.
On January 7th, the final vote was taken and the Dail approved the Treaty by 64 to 57. DeValera resigned as president of the Dail Eireann on January 9th and stood for re-election. On January 10th, DeValera was defeated in the vote for the Dail presidency by 60-58 votes. He and all anti-Treaty deputies walk out, “as a protest against the election as President of the Irish Republic of the Chairman of the delegation, who is bound by the Treaty conditions to set up a state which is to subvert the republic.”
Griffith was elected President of Dáil Éireann and the Dáil was adjourned until 11 February. On January 14th the provisional government was established with Collins as Chairman.
The stage was set for Civil War.