The Treaty Negotiations, October-December 1921
This is well worth a read especially for students studying the Treaty as a document question for the 2014/2015 Leaving Certificate.
accept the bona fides of de Valera, Collins and the like. This was particularly true of the doctrinaire Tory element within the Government coalition at that time. On the other hand certain factors facilitated peace moves. Notable amongst these was the view of senior British military leaders that the alternative to a truce was a deployment of men and material on a scale, which dwarfed existing arrangements. The financial and political cost of such a line of action was simply too great to follow without a full investigation of other options.
As a result of such deliberations, several unofficial contacts were made and emissaries despatched to Ireland during May and June. None produced any immediate results although they did open a line of communication between Dublin and London hitherto unthinkable. It seems that the principal impetus to the calling of the ceasefire was the opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament on 22 June. While most attention has focussed on the precise words used by the King on this occasion, which were far more accommodating than recent statements of British politicians, it was the partition of the island itself which the formal opening of the Parliament symbolised that was more significant. The establishment of this Unionist-dominated entity undermined, as far as the British were concerned, the claim of the Sinn Féin leadership to speak for all of the Irish people. This was to prove a useful tool in the negotiations over the course of summer months and left an indelible mark on the final form of the Treaty itself.
Lloyd George lost no time in following the King’s conciliatory speech with an invitation to de Valera and his nominees to attend a conference in London. De Valera, for his part, turned down the invitation after consultations with a range of interested figures that included Sir James Craig, the new Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. De Valera argued forcefully that such negotiations could only succeed if preceded by a cessation of active military operations. After due deliberation and notwithstanding the dangers inherent in such a step, which came at a time when British forces were starting to gain the upper hand in certain areas, the British Cabinet reluctantly agreed to this proposal.
The result was the truce of July 11th. Although no one could appreciate the fact at the time this saw the ending of armed hostilities between Irish and British forces. The cease-fire came under strain over the following months as both sides sought to use the peace to prepare for any possible resumption of the conflict. On several occasions, indeed it was close to collapse as British and Irish representatives alleged bad faith on the part of their opposite numbers. The peace held however, and created the breathing space for the much sought-anticipated political negotiations to proceed.
This deadlock was, however, even more unsatisfactory than the failed talks in London and led to the exchange of a series of letters between the two men over the following six weeks, the aim of which was to provide a satisfactory basis for comprehensive political talks. The obsession with semantics evident in the correspondence conveyed the concern of both men not to concede ground before a full conference opened; their desire to ensure that such talks took place in the most favourable context for their side; and their awareness of the likely military consequences should the process falter. In the event it was not until 30 September that de Valera signalled his acceptance of an invitation to London for comprehensive talks.
Two key issues now confronted the Dáil Cabinet: who should conduct these negotiations and what would be the most desirable outcome? It is striking in light of subsequent controversies that de Valera, while taking a passionate interest in the second question, decided that he himself would not be part of the negotiating team. This decision, which has ever since been the object of intense discussion, was made known to the Cabinet even before the conclusion of the correspondence with Lloyd George. In arriving at this position, de Valera seems to have been influenced by a variety of factors. His stated reasons—the desire to keep the office of President untainted by any unguarded concessions, and the advantage of referring proposals back to Dublin for detailed consideration—were sound in themselves but were not the only considerations which influenced his decision. Two other factors also played a part. On the one hand, he already had experience of the challenges arising from that face-to-face negotiations with such a wily opponent as Lloyd George (he was known as the “Welsh Wizard”), challenges that could only multiply as other senior British figures got involved.
Having been hurt by the personalised nature of the criticism he received while in America it is no surprise that he would have feared the outcome of any negotiations in which he was involved which did not meet popular, inflated expectations. In addition, the personal rift between Collins and himself had significantly widened since his return from America to the point where there was open competition between the two men for public acclamation as the authoritative voice of Irish republicanism. The inclusion of Collins (who, to his reported chagrin, had not been part of the July delegation to London) in the negotiating team removed a respected voice from the leading counsels in Dublin and thereby rendered easier the task of achieving a domestic consensus favourable to de Valera. At the same time, however, it meant that the perspective of the representatives in London differed in important respects from their counterparts in Dublin, differences that were to fester over coming months.
‘negotiate and conclude … a treaty or treaties of settlement, association and accommodation between Ireland and the community of nations known as the British Commonwealth.’
In a move that was to prove highly controversial de Valera also issued written instructions to the delegates that were intended to clarify, but in practice qualified, their powers as Envoys Plenipotentiary. Crucial among these instructions was the direction that reference had to be made to the Cabinet in Dublin before decisions either on ‘a main question’ or ‘the complete text of the draft treaty about to be signed’. This limitation, which would inevitably prove vexatious given the difficulties of communication between London and Dublin, does not appear to have been the subject of much debate at the time as the prospect of reaching an agreement still seemed remote given the stated positions of both sides. Time was to prove, however, that it would add yet another layer of tension between the Irish representatives in London and their colleagues back in Dublin.
The location of the talks compounded the problems faced by the Irish delegates. Located as they were in London the plenipotentiaries were inevitably isolated from shifts in Irish public opinion, albeit that Collins in particular made strenuous efforts to ensure that he was kept up to date with issues involving the cease-fire and other military matters. The rudimentary nature of the direct communications between Dublin and London—which remained dependent on the telegraph—meant that delegates were frequently obliged to travel in person to Dublin to brief the Cabinet on the latest situation or to receive instructions. Under such conditions, it is not surprising that the negotiations imposed a heavy physical burden on the delegation, particularly towards the end of November when the cumulative effects of several intensive weeks of negotiating and travelling combined with an intensification of British pressure to produce an almost unbearable situation, emotionally and physically.
The possibility that the negotiations might collapse was ever-present and the Irish side had devised an ‘escape plan’ in anticipation of such a development. It was agreed that, from a tactical perspective, such a break would be better if it came on the Ulster question rather than on the issue of the precise status of the independent state. In such an event, the delegates upon their return to Ireland could not be accused of compromising ‘essential unity’ and any mooted concessions on the status of an Irish state could be dismissed as mere negotiating tactics. It appeared to be quite a cunning strategy but it assumed two things. Firstly, that the negotiators, when the crisis came, would follow such an edict; and, secondly, that the British would be incapable of devising their own stratagems to ward off such an eventuality. As the negotiations progressed, it became evident that the Ulster question would not be the principal stumbling block and the Irish delegates were forced increasingly to consider the inevitability of British demands for limitations on full independence.
At this stage, the most serious, but still hardly fatal, obstacles to the negotiations came not from the substantive issues under discussion but from external matters. The most frequent, but ultimately least serious of these were complaints by both sides as to the military activities of the other. The terms of the ceasefire agreement left room for both sides to consolidate their existing forces. It is not surprising that both sides sought to use the lull in fighting to rest, re-train and re-equip in anticipation of any possible resumption in hostilities. The precise manner in which these processes were carried out created the scope for accusations of aggressive and provocative behaviour, most particularly within the fetid atmosphere of Ulster. Fortunately, for the negotiators these were never sufficiently grave as to threaten the progress of the talks although they certainly hindered their momentum.
The other source of division came from autonomous political developments, the most serious of which was an exchange of telegram’s between King George V and Pope Benedict XV wherein it appeared, to Republicans at least, that the claims of the Crown to the loyalty of the Irish people was being asserted in a surreptitious manner. De Valera’s reply, in the form of a personal telegram to the Pope, which explicitly repudiated such a claim, was badly received by the British Government. It furthermore placed the Irish delegates on the defensive precisely at the time that the exchanges between the two sides were moving away from general principles and on to specific proposals. The incident had no lasting impact upon the talks, but the unfavourable response to de Valera’s intervention on the part of the Irish plenipotentiaries did serve to indicate the problems that would inevitably arise because of de Valera’s absence.
As mentioned above the shifting focus of the negotiations was marked by two distinct but related developments: the increased use of sub-committees in place of plenary sessions, and the increasingly dominant role of Collins and Griffiths on the Irish side in such forums. Such developments inevitably increased the personal pressure on the two men, albeit that the political judgement of neither appears to have been materially affected at this stage. The development increased the likelihood of some form of agreement being reached, as it narrowed the scope for disagreements over terms within the Irish camp by excluding dissident voices. Conversely, however, it increased the danger that such an agreement might prove unacceptable to the Cabinet as a whole, for precisely the same reasons.
Some of the most crucial of these smaller meetings occurred on 2 November, which saw a series of conferences between Collins and Griffith from the Irish delegation and Lord Birkenhead, Lloyd George and Chamberlain from the British team. The context was a letter to Lloyd George which had been originally drafted by Griffith but which was ultimately sent in the name of the entire Irish delegation, and whose purpose was ostensibly to bolster Lloyd George’s position in advance of a Unionist party meeting later in the month. The original draft had promised, subject to important guarantees (of which unity was the most significant), ‘to recommend recognition of the crown’. The new letter only promised to recognise the Crown ‘as head of the proposed Association of Free States’ comprising the Commonwealth. The original phrase was satisfactory to the British, but the amendment was certainly not, raising as it did, the prospect of an Irish Free State externally associated with the Commonwealth rather than as an integral member of it—which, of course, was the original goal of the Irish negotiators. That it should have been Griffith who proposed the original, more constricting formula was no surprise but was of some significance during the rest of the discussions. He had never been a doctrinaire republican separatist and was willing to accept a symbolic connection with Britain as part of any settlement so long as it transferred key political and economic powers to an Irish government. What would be crucial was whether he could muster any support from the other Irish delegates for this position.
11. The Ulster problemGiven that the British felt that their vital concerns on the matter of the Crown and forms of association had been addressed, it is not surprising that attention began to shift towards a resolution of the Ulster issue. Interest was expressed in the possibility of a border plebiscite as the most satisfactory means of undoing one of the glaring faults of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act: the inclusion within the jurisdiction of the northern parliament of areas adjacent to the border, which had clear nationalist sympathies. It is interesting to note from this perspective that on 8 November the Irish delegation were quietly content with the overall position. Despite having made important concessions on the issue of association they believed that Lloyd George’s coalition administration had committed itself to pressurising the Northern Ireland Cabinet, under Craig, into coming under the jurisdiction of an all-Ireland Parliament, with resignation being their preferred course of action in the event that Craig refused. Had this course of events transpired, the result, the Irish delegates believed, would have been the formation under Bonar Law of a weak Conservative Government, committed to, but unable to pursue, the resumption of hostilities with republicans. The position of the northern unionists would be correspondingly weakened and ‘essential unity’ guaranteed.
Over the course of the following days, however, this optimism was rapidly undermined. The meeting between Lloyd George and Griffith on 12 November was crucial in this regard. While there is some dispute as to the precise exchanges which took place between the two men it is certain that Griffith acquiesced in written proposals, which Lloyd George interpreted as signifying that Griffith would not bring down the negotiations on the Ulster issue. Griffith seems to have interpreted this assurance merely as a tactical device to protect Lloyd George against Conservative criticisms (whose strength Griffith almost certainly exaggerated), while he sought to exert the maximum pressure on Craig to come into an all-Ireland Parliament, with the threat of an extensive revision of the border as the only, highly unpalatable, alternative. As will be seen below, however, the effect was that it allowed the British to by-pass temporarily the Ulster question, knowing that in the event of a crisis in the talks Griffith would be prevented from collapsing the negotiations on the question of unity, as had been part of the original strategy of the Irish delegates.
The next three weeks of the discussions focussed on the exchange of views regarding successive attempts to draft an agreement as a whole. As was wholly predictable these early drafts saw both sides attempting to stake their claim on a number of fronts—defence, trade, finance, association, Ulster—and, equally predictably, much of the ground that had been traversed both during and since the initial plenary sessions was gone over again. The initial British draft of 16 November was incomplete, as a result of inadvertent omissions during the drafting process so that the Irish ‘memorandum’ (the term ‘draft’ being avoided lest it suggest an unwarranted finality to the proposals) of 22 November offered the first chance to survey the discussions in their entirety. Divided into ten sections the document reiterated, with slight amendments in language, the demand for external association albeit tempered by the offer of slight concessions on matters such as trade and naval defence. Little was said about Ulster except to state that the Irish assumed any agreement would guarantee ‘essential unity’ in return for which an Irish Parliament would respect the existing privileges of the Belfast Parliament.
The British response, as conveyed to the Irish side by Lord Birkenhead in a meeting on 24 November, was firm: any settlement which did not acknowledge some form of symbolic role for the Crown within Ireland would be unacceptable to both the British people and British Government. That such symbolism was precisely the problem as far as the Irish side was concerned still does not seem to have registered with the British delegation at this time, or if it did they wilfully ignored such considerations. The Irish, it should be noted, did not press the matter and failed to pose the question as to why British sensibilities should be considered more important than Irish ones. In failing to do so, they lost perhaps the last opportunity to shift the negotiations conclusively in the direction of external association. Thereafter there could be no doubt that the Crown was to have some internal role within a future Irish state, and the only issue on this score was the form it would take.
In this respect, an apparent concession offered by the British during an after-dinner session on the evening of 28 November only served, paradoxically, to constrain still further the freedom of action of the Irish delegates. During the negotiations much had been made by the Irish side, and by Childers in particular, of the claim that the practical position of the Crown in any proposed Irish state could not be equivalent to its position within Canada or any other Dominion, by virtue of the long tradition of British involvement in Ireland and of its strategic position astride Britain’s Atlantic approaches. In a move which took the Irish side at the meeting completely by surprise Lloyd George offered to put into writing any phrase, which would copper-fasten Ireland’s equivalent status with Canada. While it was still possible to argue that such a guarantee could not ensure Britain might not intervene once more in Irish affairs if her vital national interests were threatened, this was always a possibility regardless of what form of words were agreed. The reality was that the promise would be a substantial, if not insurmountable, obstacle against such future encroachments and both Collins and Griffith knew it.
The Sinn Féin delegates could not ignore the potentially devastating impact that this impasse would have on domestic and world opinion. Still less could they discount the awful consequences of a resumption of hostilities. The result was that when Lloyd George met Collins the following morning, with a view to re-establishing contact, the latter seems to have been predisposed to accept the prospect of a powerful Boundary Commission, which would guarantee substantial transfers of territory to the south, in return for association with the Empire on British terms.
On this basis the final session began in the afternoon, and two developments dominated the following hours. First, and to the evident discomfort of the Irish delegates, Lloyd George was able to produce the agreement of 12 November to which Griffith had given his assent and which indicated the latter’s willingness to enter the Empire given an effective Boundary Commission. While circumstances had changed in the intervening period, the fact that the chair of the Irish side had indicated his assent to such an arrangement effectively debarred the Irish from further discussion on this central concern. Secondly, Lloyd George gave the delegates the explicit choice of signing the text or of bearing the responsibility for the immediate resumption of war. This offer brooked no delay, offered no chance of referring the Ulster question to Craig or of taking the text unsigned to Dublin for the consideration of the Dáil.
It was under the weight of these considerations that, after one final short break in the talks and with a few minor textual emendations, the Irish delegation agreed to sign the ‘Articles of Agreement’ just after two o’clock on the morning of 6 December. Collins later wrote to his friend John O’Kane:
“When you have sweated, toiled, had mad dreams, hopeless nightmares, you find yourself in London’s streets, cold and dank in the night air. Think—what have I got for Ireland? Something which she has wanted these past seven hundred years. Will anyone be satisfied at the bargain? Will anyone? I tell you this; early this morning I signed my death warrant. I thought at the time how odd , how ridiculous —a bullet may just as well have done the job five years ago”
Griffith’s was the first name to appear on the Irish side, followed by Collins, Barton, Duggan and Duffy, with all signatures in Irish. Lloyd George’s name appeared at the head of the British signatories, followed by Chamberlain, Birkenhead, Churchill, Worthington Evans, Greenwood and Hewart. What the future of this ‘Treaty’ would be, only time would tell.