Confusion at the most critical hour



One of the most important meetings of an Irish Cabinet took place on December 3, 100 years ago this week, when the negotiations which led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the partition of Ireland were being discussed. A historical account by Des Dalton based on Frank Pakenham’s “Peace by Ordeal”.


Michael Collins, George Gavan Duffy, and Erskine Childers could not have had a worse preparation. At 3.30am their boat had collided with a fishing boat. Three of the crew of the fishing boat were killed. Apparently Collins, Duffy and Childers had helped reassure other passengers following the collision. Their boat had to return to Hollywood. The result was that they didn’t arrive at Dún Laoghaire until 10.15 am and had to proceed directly to the Mansion House for the meeting of the Cabinet at 11.

The meeting began at 11am and would last seven hours. Apart from the Irish Plenipotentiaries and their Secretary Erskine Childers, present were Éamon de Valera, W.T. Cosgrave, Austin Stack, Cathal Brugha, and the Assistant Minister of Local Government, Kevin O’Higgins.

There is no single reliable source for the meeting. In the absence of the Cabinet Secretary, Diarmuid O’Hegarty (described by Frank Pakenham as the “civil servant of the revolution”) in London, Colm Ó Murchadha acted as Secretary, taking notes. These were not formal minutes and do not record all of the discussion. Other accounts of the meeting were recorded by Childers in his diary, as well as by de Valera, Stack and Barton.

The meeting began by taking the views of the Delegates and their Secretary. Arthur Griffith argued strongly for acceptance, refusing to break on the question of the Crown. He asserted that these substantially were the best terms that could be “wrung from Britain.”

Robert Barton hotly disputed Griffith saying that “England’s last word had not been reached.” He argued that the British would not declare war on the question of Allegiance. He said that the British proposals did not give Dominion Status or any guarantee on the question of Ulster. He said he would vote against their acceptance.

Éamonn Duggan and to a lease degree Collins agreed with Griffith. Childers was then invited to give his opinion. As an expert on military and naval matters concentrated on the what Pakenham described as “the humiliating character of the Defence provisions.” Clause 7 would drag Ireland into every war Britain was involved in.

Trade was also discussed with Barton championing the cause of fiscal autonomy.

Griffith refused to budge on his refusal to “break on the question of the Crown.” This lead to one of the most dramatic moments of the meeting. Brugha, unable to contain himself any longer, pressed Griffith as to who was responsible for breaking up the Delegation into Sub-conferences, ensuring two of the Delegation, Collins and Griffith were attending all the meetings to the almost total exclusion of the others. When it was stated that the British Government was responsible for the arrangement with the approval of the entire Delegation, Brugha remarked that the British had “selected its men”. The meeting erupted with Griffith in particular enraged. He left his seat to confront Brugha, who agreed eventually to withdraw the remark, claiming he had been misunderstood. The divisions between what was increasingly becoming two parties was widening before the eyes of the Cabinet.

After lunch the Cabinet resumed without the presence of non-members. De Valera stated he could not support the Oath nor sign any document that would give the six counties of the North-East the power to vote itself out of the Irish State. Ha said he could understand Griffith’s willingness to compromise on independence in exchange for essential unity but that this document gave neither.

Griffith continued to argue that while he did not like the document he did not believe it was a “dishonourable” document, practically recognising the Republic. Griffith then made a point that would be much repeated during the Dáil ‘Treaty’ debate. He said if the document was rejected the people would want to know what the alternative was. He said that the country would not be willing to go to war on the question of Allegiance and the country would split. He then suggested that he would not recommend the Government accept the proposals but would say the Plenipotentiaries should sign and “leave it to the President and Dáil to reject.”

The rest of the Delegation rejoined the meeting. Refusing to budge, Griffith said he would sign. When Brugha pointed out to him that to do so would split Ireland from top to bottom. This resonated with Griffith who said he would not sign the document but rather bring it back to the Dáil and if necessary the “to the people.”

This exchange, recorded by Austin Stack, would prove a major point of contention. Brugha had pointed out to Griffith the consequences of his original course of action “...would, by dividing the leaders, split Ireland from end to end. Griffith saw the force of this and agreed, if confronted with the threat of war, to refer the document, without signature, back to the Dail, whose decision would presumably be adopted by a united Cabinet. One possibility (probability it seems to us now) was overlooked. That the right to a reference back would be denied by the British, and war threatened unless the Delegates signed then and there in London.” (Frank Pakenham)

The meeting then set about drafting amendments which it was believed might be acceptable to the British on the Oath and the Crown.

Tragically the meeting ended in the same chaotic manner as it had begun. The result was that there was confusion regarding the instructions given to the Delegation.

Colm Ó Murchadha records them as:

(1) Delegates to carry out their original instructions with same powers.

(2) Delegation to return and say that Cabinet won’t accept Oath of Allegiance if not amended, and to face the consequences assuming that England will declare war.

(3) Decided unanimously that present Oath of Allegiance could not be subscribed to.

(4) Mr. Griffith to inform Mr. Lloyd George that the document could not be signed, and to state that it was now a matter for the Dail. (He was to try and see that the break came on Ulster.)

Afterwards Griffith would contend that he had promised not to sign the document as presented to the Cabinet whereas the “Treaty” signed on December 6 with amendments was a different document. He also said that he had attempted to bring back the ‘Treaty’ unsigned but that the British, with threat of war, would not agree to this.

Again lack of clear instruction leading to confusion would undermine the Delegation at the most critical hour.

As if to underline the growing divide or emphasise the fissures that always existed Unknown to De Valera, Collins was consulting with another body on the draft British. Collins had given a copy of the document to Sean Ó Murthuile, Secretary of the IRB Supreme Council. Ó Murthuile informed Collins that the Oath was unacceptable in its current form. They drafted a new version which Collins took with him. It was this Oath, rather than that drafted by de Valera, that would end up in the ‘Treaty’.

At best Collins was guilty of serious breach of Cabinet confidentiality, at worst he regarded the views of the IRB Supreme Council as of more importance than those of the Cabinet. The fault lines that had existed within the national movement for the previous five years were about to become serious.

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