One hundred years ago this week, a deal forced upon Irish negotiators under the threat of an immediate and terrible war, brought about the disastrous partition of Ireland. A historical account by Des Dalton.
One hundred years ago the ‘Articles of Agreement for a Treaty Between Great Britain and Ireland’ were signed at 2.00am on the morning of December 6, 1921.
For such a highly contested document even its title is a matter of contest. The word “Treaty” was only added afterwards at the request of the Irish side. For the ‘diehard’ unionists on the Tory back benches this was not acceptable as they viewed a ‘Treaty’ as an agreement between two sovereign nations, their argument was that this was between two parts of the United Kingdom. As a fudge, the British accepted the word “Treaty” but did not lodge it with the League of Nations as would be the norm for an international Treaty.
The dramatic events of those fateful hours of December 5/6 were recorded by Robert Barton, at the request of Arthur Griffith. During the subsequent ‘Treaty’ Dáil debate he would also briefly describe the proceedings of those two days. Griffith would also would write a short note of his recollections.
On the British side, Lloyd George wrote an account for the ‘Daily Telegraph’ of December 23, 1921. Austen Chamberlain would write an account for the same paper of March 29, 1932. Winston Churchill would devote a chapter on the those crucial hours in Anglo-Irish history in his memoir ‘The Aftermath.’
At 3pm on December 5 the last conference of the ‘Treaty’ Negotiations opened in 10 Downing St. One side were Collins, Griffith and Duggan. On the other were Lloyd George, Chamberlain, Birkenhead and Churchill. Churchill in his usual florid prose set the scene:
“After two months of futilities and rigmarole, unutterably wearied Ministers faced the Irish delegation themselves in actual desperation, and knowing well that death stood at their elbows.”
Lloyd George set December 5 as the deadline for the finalisation of an agreement on the pretext that he had given an undertaking to inform Sir James Craig, the Prime Minister of the North of Ireland Government, of the result of the Conference before the opening of its parliament the following day.
Anxious to close off any possibility of Ulster causing a break later, allowing the Irish Delegates to tell the world that a settlement had been frustrated by unionist intransigence, indulged by the British and backed by intrigue. He pushed for an Irish response to the British proposals on Ulster which had been brought to the Irish Cabinet on December 3. He did so armed with his “letter” of undertaking from Griffith of November 12, promising not to “let down” Lloyd George on the Ulster proposal containing the Boundary Commission.
Griffith, not yet aware of the predicament he was in insisted that the Irish must know what Craig’s response was to the idea of Ireland recognising the British Crown and membership of the Empire in exchange for recognition of the “essential unity of Ireland.”
The British denounced this as unacceptable and letting them down, contrary to the undertaking given by Griffith. Collins exploded, frustrated at the continued references to an undertaking that, as far as he knew, Frank Pakenham puts it, “had no relevance.” Collins argued that every Irish concession had been made on the basis of the “essential unity of Ireland”, and that if Craig now refused to come in under an All-Ireland Parliament, and refused to have anything to do with the proposed ‘Treaty’, “…the Irish position (the Republic” would have been lost, and “essential unity” not won.”
Lloyd George theatrically (he was renowned for his physical and verbal theatricality in political debate and negotiation) waved his papers in the air, declaring that the Irish were trying to manufacture “a break on Ulster” because the Irish Cabinet had refused to come “inside the Empire.” (Lloyd George was letting the Irish delegates know he was aware of the Irish Cabinet deliberations of December 3) Pakenham states that the argument became circular, with Griffith stating his adherence to his undertaking but arguing that it was not unreasonable to require a reply from Craig.
The issue of Craig’s decision opened up a possibility for a tactical Irish break on Ulster, however the British deftly defused the situation by stating that he and his colleagues would need to adjourn to consider the matter among themselves. But first issues around the Oath, Finance, Trade and Defence were discussed.
An element of comedy was introduced to a day already laden with an air of tragedy and some farce. When the British Ministers met to discuss the Irish position, Lloyd George expressed his bewilderment at Griffith’s tenacity in pushing the Ulster question. It was then discovered that the infamous memorandum drawn up following his meeting with Griffith on November 12 could not be found. Downing St was searched high and low, Lloyd George’s old clothes were even searched until eventually a pocket yielded up the elusive note.
Armed with this note, Lloyd George set out to “smash Griffith’s attempt to break on Ulster.”
Both Barton and Collins were mystified by this “letter” now brandished by Lloyd George. Sensing this Lloyd George asked “Do you mean to tell me Mr Collins, that you never learnt of this document from Mr Griffith?” Collins remained impassive, giving no sign one way or the other.
Pakenham contends that Lloyd George, knowing Griffith’s sense of personal integrity , coupled with his profound commitment to upholding the honour and reputation of an Irish Government in its first foray onto a world stage, would not allow a break on the question of partition even if the memorandum contained no explicit promise from Griffith.
Lloyd George was correct in his assessment of Griffith, in one of the many dramatic and emotionally charged moments of the day angerly rebutted any charge he was acting in bad faith and pledged that he “had never let a man down in my whole life and I never will.”
With the possibility of a break on the Ulster question now put to bed, the discussion resumed on the other issues of Allegiance, Crown, Defence and Trade.
Eventually Lloyd George steered the talks to a simple proposition. Would the new Irish State enter to Empire or face war? The British refused attempt to put back a final decision for a week or even a number of days to allow consultation with Dublin.
Eventually Griffith said he would be prepared to “accept inclusion in the Empire on the basis of the Free State,” provide agreement was reached on other points. He then said the Irish Delegation would give their answer at 9 that night. In what was a critical and decisive juncture, he then pledged to sign the ‘Treaty’ regardless of the decision of the rest of the Delegation. Griffith argued that his position was different to that of his colleagues as they were not bound by any undertaking he had given.
Lloyd George refused to accept this and said he had always assumed that Griffith spoke for all of his delegation as Plenipotentaries (Notably this was the first time Lloyd George had used the word Plenipotentaries to describe the Irish Delegates). This was now a question of peace or war and each man must now give his decision on that basis. Lloyd George knew all to well whom among the delegates were most recalcitrant and so addressed himself directly to Barton. He told Barton that those who refused to sign must take full responsibility for the war that would immediately follow a failure to sign.
Again falling back on the promise to inform Craig on the following day, Lloyd George refused the Irish Delegation demands to consult with the Cabinet and Dáil.
At 8pm the meeting broke with a promise to return at 10pm. Among themselves the British, according to Churchill thought it unlikely, with the exception of Griffith, that any of the Irish Delegation would sign.
Pakenham argues that up to this point the British had never treated them as Plenipotentiaries. If the Irish had produced the instructions given them in October and confirmed at the Cabinet meeting on December 3, with an “insistence that before signature ‘any draft Treaty must be submitted to Dublin and reply awaited’”, how could the British realistically have refused to let them refer back to Dublin?
The Irish returned to Hans Place where hours of intense argument and high emotion ensued as the future of their country hung in the balance.
From the beginning Collins, Griffith and Duggan made clear their intention to sign. The onus ultimately fell to Barton, as without him it was unlikely Gavan Duffy would stand alone, whereas the reveres was thought unlikely to influence Barton. Collins and Barton did not mince their words in telling him that future generations would lay the blame on him, for “every drop of Irish blood shed” would be his responsibility.
Barton conferred with his cousin Erskine Childers as he agonised over his decision. He regarded his oath to the Republic as “the most sacred bond on earth.” Eventually Barton was swung by a breakdown by Duggan who recalled with horror his time Kilmainham and Mountjoy prisons and the conversations he had with men who faced execution. Under intense emotional and psychological strain himself, they touched a chord with Barton. Duggan’s plea had been “unsophisticated and from the heart”, had raised “claims of living humanity”, over those of “abstract nationhood.” Barton agreed to sign.
Ar 1am they arrived at 10 Downing St and following some minor alterations and redrafting they signed at 2.am.
The magnitude of what had occurred hung heavily on them as they returned to Hans Place and Cadagon Gardens in the early hours of December 6. Kathleen McKenna, a member of the Irish Secretariat vividly describes the scene as the Irish Delegation, with the exception of Collins, retuned to Hans Place after signing the ‘Treaty’: Childers, somewhat impatiently, took the document (The ‘Treaty’) and rolled it up. I can still see his exhausted, pain-filled eyes and haggard cheeks as he stood an instant, sideways, as if apologising to me for his abruptness, then, followed immediately by Barton, he went upstairs. Nobody talked. One by one, sleepy, exhausted, slowly, they went to their rooms.”
Michael Hopkinson in his history of the Irish Civil War, ‘Green Against Green’ had this to say of the ‘Treaty’:
“The Treaty’s signing was the decisive event which led to the Civil War. 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.”
As the Irish Delegation prepared to return to Ireland they were facing into an uncertain future. The “Four Glorious Years” of national resurgence and unity around a common cause were at an end.
DE VALERA DECEIVED
Éamon de Valera spent the night of December 5/6 at the home of Stephen O’Mara in Limerick. As he was leaving that morning with Cathal Brugha and Richard Mulcahy a phone call came from Dublin to inform them the ‘Treaty’ had been signed.
Initially De Valera was almost euphoric as he believed that based on Griffith’s undertaking given to the Cabinet on December 3 that he would not sign a ‘Treaty’’ containing an Oath of Allegiance to the British King or that allowed for the Six-County Parliament to opt out of the new state. De Valera would later write “I didn’t think they (the British) would give in so soon.’
That evening De Valera was due to preside at a celebration in the Mansion House of the 600th Anniversary of the Death of Dante (this had been organised by the new Minister for Fine Arts, Count Plunkett)
Awaiting him was Austin Stack with copies of the evening papers containing details of the ‘Treaty’. Although the negotiators had agreed not to release the text of the’Treaty’ until 8pm that evening, it was inevitable that details would leak out. From London the Central News Agency reported: “It is learned officially that the agreement makes allegiance and association within the British Empire certain.”
Soon Éamonn Duggan and Desmond Fitzgerald arrived bearing a copy of the ‘Treaty’. Duggan proffered an envelope containing the ‘Treaty’ to De Valera, which he ignored. When pressed he asked why he should read it. Duggan replied that it was due to be published at 8pm and it was near that time. “What, to be published whether I have seen it or not?” De Valera replied.
By this stage the press in both Britain and Ireland were celebrating the ‘Treaty’ as were world leaders. De Valera would have to act quickly if he were to prevent an unstoppable momentum build behind the ‘Treaty’.
He summoned a meeting of the available members of the Cabinet. Cathal Brugha, Austin Stack, W.T. Cosgrave and Kevin O’Higgins assembled to hear De Valera propose that statement be issued repudiating the ‘Treaty’ and dismissing “those Ministers who had violated their pledges to the Cabinet and signed the ‘Treaty’.”
Cosgrave dissuaded him from taking this action, suggesting that the signatories be allowed to give an explanation before being sacked. In what would be a serious miscalculation he agreed. De Valera regarded Cosgrave as an ally, not realising he could no longer rely on his vote. Cosgrave was now the crucial swing vote in a seven member Cabinet.
Following the meeting a statement was issued:
“In view of the nature of the proposed Treaty with Great Britain, President de Valera has sent an urgent summons to the Members of the Cabinet in London to report at once so that a full Cabinet decision 211 may be taken.”
The reaction on the ground was mixed. While some had reservations about the Oath, Allegiance and Ulster, they took their took Collins’ line that the ‘Treaty’ gave “the freedom to achieve freedom. For others it was a betrayal of all that had been fought and sacrificed for, it was a betrayal of the Republic.
Sitting in the Divisional HQ of the IRA’s Second Southern Division, Divisional OC Ernie O’Malley was scathing in his assessment of what had been signed: “I cursed loud and long. So this what we had been fighting for, what we had worn ourselves out for during the truce.(...) A numbness followed my first outburst of rage. I became suddenly very tired. I say down near the table. I felt like a man who tried to cover his head to escape blows showered on him from every side.”
Mary MacSwiney wrote to each of the signatories exhorting them to reject the ‘Treaty’ and reminding them of their first allegiance. “Your Oath to the Republic is a prior claim and more binding than any word given to the enemies of your country.”
Cumann na mBan activist Maire Comerford questioned the motives of the Republican leadership, “Were all the sacrifices, I wondered, Barry, MacSwiney and the rest, just looked upon by the leadership as necessary propaganda towards a lesser goal? The Volunteers were not told that, and a tight rein was bring kept upon them.”
In London Thomas Jones records in his diary a feeling of satisfaction at a job completed being the prevailing mood in Whitehall with congratulatory telegrams poring in to Lloyd George and Jones himself. The British Cabinet met that morning and set December 14 to begin a week’s sitting of Parliament to discuss and vote on a resolution approving “The Articles of Agreement.”
At a Cabinet meeting the same day attention was already turning to imperial concerns further afield as Winston Churchill expressed the hope that “...the Holy Land would afford shelter for the Auxiliaries.” (Large numbers of Black and Tans and Auxiliaries would go on to serve in the British mandated Palestine Police Force)
Meanwhile Collins, Griffith, Barton and Gavan Duffy were enroute to Dublin and a fateful meeting of the Cabinet.
On December 8, 1921, the Irish Cabinet gathered in Dublin’s Mansion House to hear from the Plenipotentiaries their reasons for signing the ‘Treaty’ in London two days previously.
The Plenipotentiaries faced recriminations at the meeting. Erskine Childers recalled walking into the room and seeing de Valera with his head in his hands “reproaching Collins.”
Éamon de Valera began the meeting with a complaint that the Delegation had broken the instructions given to it on December 3, by not consulting the Cabinet.
Barton, Gavin Duffy and Collins all replied that they hadn’t thought of it. De Valera also pointed out that draft documents were supposed to be sent back to Dublin before signing them.
The Delegates replied that the Cabinet had discussed the British draft on December 3. De Valera rightly answered that the ‘Treaty’ that had been signed had not been seen by the Cabinet.
De Valera then reprimanded Arthur Griffith for breaking his promise not to sign. Griffith retorted that the alternative was war. He in turn reproached De Valera for not traveling to London. De Valera snapped back that he would have gone but for Griffith’s promise not to sign with referring back to Dublin. He added that he would have told Lloyd George Go to the devil; I will not sign.”
Robert Barton, who previously had supported de Valera’s decision not to travel to London, now criticised him for not doing so. He blamed to the crisis on de Valera’s “vacillations” from the begining.
Speaking at “great length”, de Valera said he had striven from the beginning for an association that the “Brugha party could just accept and which would not give up the Republic. Now all thrown away without an effort and without permission of cabinet or even consultation.”
Michael Collins said that they were simply recommending the ‘Treaty’ to the Dáil. De Valera replied it was much more than that. A glance at that day’s newspapers would bear him out.
Austin Stack records that during the meeting he implored Collins to simply put the ‘Treaty’ before the Dáil “You have signed and undertaken to recommend the document to the Dáil. Well, recommend it. Your duty stops there. You are not supposed to throw all your influence into the scale. “ Stack put it to Collins that if the Dáil rejected the ‘Treaty’ it would place Ireland in a better position with England only having only “made a trap for herself.” Stack said that Collins replied in a manner “that seemed unworthy of him”, simply replying “where would I be then?’
The atmosphere within the meeting was described as “relatively even tempered.” Stack recorded that “strangely enough, we were not unfriendly towards each other.” Barton recounted, “I don’t think there were any insults hurled about...It was a very tense meeting, with very visible efforts at restraint.” These recollections are contradicted by Frank Gallagher who remembered that as he briefed journalists outside he had to speak loudly in order to drown out the sound of “angry voices” from the meeting room. The Dublin Lord Mayor recalled that “the fierceness of the language” could be be heard outside.
The meeting hadn’t served to change any minds. De Valera, Brugha and Stack were against. Griffith and Collins were in favour. According to Stack, Barton “thought he was bound to vote for the document, having signed it and undertaken to recommend it.”
This left W.T. Cosgrave with the casting vote. Cosgrave had observed in the past that de Valera had thought he him (Cosgrave) in his pocket. De Valera had every reason to think this. David McCullagh writes that de Valera’s diaries were “full of references to having lunch with his colleague and going to events with him.” Even more importantly, after Cosgrave had suffered a breakdown during the ‘Tan War’, de Valera had defended him when others had wanted him dismissed from the Cabinet.
De Valera believed that Cosgrave was opposed to giving allegiance and had supported de Valera’s telegram to the Pope on October 25. He had also shown independence by raising de Valera’s participation in the talks in the Dáil. Only the previous evening he had opposed de Valera’s plan to sack the Plenipotentiaries from the Cabinet. Cosgrave, a member of Sinn Féin and a follower of Griffith for over decade was probably always likely to come down on the side of Griffith and Collins.
Once Cosgrave cast his vote in favour of recommending the ‘Treaty’ to the Dâil, de Valera’s grip on the Cabinet had been broken.
To his surprise he was now in the minority.
The meeting agreed that de Valera would issue a statement setting out his as well as that of Brugha and Stack. The Dáil would meet on December 14 to begin consideration of the ‘Treaty’. In the meantime, Ministers would remain in charge of their respective departments. The regular Cabinet meeting scheduled for the next day was cancelled. As McCullagh points out “the united Sinn Féin Cabinet would never meet again.”
Éamon de Valera’s statement would be given prominence in the following day’s newspapers:
“The terms of this agreement are in violent conflict with the wishes of the majority of this nation as expressed freely in the successive elections during the last three years. I cannot recommend the acceptance of this Treaty, either to Dáil Éireann or the country. In this attitude I am supported by the Ministers of Home Affairs and Defence.”
The statement reassured the public that Ministers would continue their work despite their differences, and that army (the IRA) remained unaffected by the politcal situation. Although for how much longer remained to be seen.
The statement concluded:
“The great test of our people has come. Let us face it worthily without bitterness and above all without recriminations. There is a definite constitutional way of resolving our differences - let us not depart from it, and let the conduct of the Cabinet in this matter be an example to the whole nation.”
Todd Andrews in his autobiography, ‘Dublin Made Me’ spoke for many of the young men and women of his generation who feared that the ‘Treaty’ would do what four years of British coercion could not, when he expressed the hope “that some miracle would prevent the shattering of the monolithic unity of the ‘Four Glorious Years”.
On December 9, 1921, Arthur Griffith issued a statement setting out his reasons for supporting the ‘Treaty’:
“I have signed the Treaty of peace between Ireland and Great Britain, I believe that this treaty will lay the foundation of peace and friendship between the two nations.
“What I have signed I will stand by, in the belief that the end of the conflict of centuries is at hand.”
Seán MacBride, who was attached to IRA GHQ Staff as an organiser and who had been part of Michael Collins’ staff at Cadogan Gardens throughout most of the negotiations, writes of his reaction to news that the the ‘Treaty’ had been signed.
MacBride had returned to Dublin at this point as he was conveying messages between London and Dublin.
“I was completely opposed to the treaty”, MacBride writes, “firstly on the grounds that I had been opposed to the truce. I felt we could have got much more if we had waited. Secondly, I felt that the imposition of allegiance to the crown would never be acceptable and should never be accepted. Thirdly, the treaty would probably involve the partition of the country which again should never have been accepted.”