The Treaty debate



A historical account of the parliamentary debate on the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, 100 years ago this week which presaged the outbreak of the Irish Civil War, by Des Dalton.


The Dáil sat in public session on Saturday, January 7, 1922 to complete the debate on the ‘Treaty’, following which the assembled Deputies would be called on to register their vote for or against the ‘Treaty’.

The session was marked in particular by the attack on Michael Collins by Cathal Brugha, which was the public culmination of a long running feud between the two. Brugha had long resisted and protested at the ongoing influence and interference by the secret oath bound IRB in the army and other departments of the government of the Republic.

Coupled with this, he believed that Collins had been elevated both by the pro-Treaty party, backed by the press as “the man who won the war” and was using this position to influence TDs and key army officers to support the ‘Treaty’.

His speech, which was the closing one on the Anti-Treaty side, was one of the most controversial of the entire debate. However ill- judged, the speech reflected the frustration felt by Brugha and others on the Anti-Treaty side at the untrammelled press campaign which involved vicious and personal attacks on leading Anti-Treaty leaders.

Harry Boland opened the debate. Boland argued that to accept the ‘Treaty’ in order to later break it, as argued by some on the pro-Treaty side, would lose Ireland the moral high ground it occupied in the eyes of the world.

Boland said that in asking Ireland’s representatives to support the ‘Treaty’ “we are asked to annihilate the Irish nation.” Citing the long history of resistance to English rule in Ireland, Boland declared “if that document is rejected - come weak, come woe - this nation must survive; it can only be killed by the vote of its own representatives.”

Joseph McGrath disputed that the Republic was functioning and capable of meeting the social and economic needs of the people. Quoting the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, he said “Under this Treaty every single thing in this Democratic Programme can be put into force.”

Count Patrick O’Byrne said on conscience he had to vote against the ‘Treaty’. Referencing the “stepping stone” argument of the Pro-Treaty side he said “when you get on that stepping stone you must drop fundamental principals; I cannot follow them, never more so than when that involves the sovereign independence of my country.”

Liam Hayes accused some on the Anti-Treaty side “who have never heard the bark of an angry rifle”, of seeking a resumption of war “merely to alter a few words in the ‘Treaty’.

Seán Nolan said that the debate had been framed as “this Treaty or terrible and immediate war (...) people have been intimidated by threats of war, or attempts have been made to intimidate them.”

Patrick O’Keefe claimed that to reject the ‘Treaty’ would see Ireland “thrown into the wilderness for a hundred years.”

Seamus Lennon declared that in rejecting the ‘Treaty’ he was standing on the principles that he had stood on as a candidate in the elections of 1918 and 1921. “I hold the Republic is not dead; and I say that when the Republic sent plenipotentiaries over to London the Republic was, undoubtedly, not dead.”

Dan O’Rourke said that before the Christmas break he had been convinced in his opposition to the ‘Treaty’, however, on returning to his constituency he met with “the people who had been with me in the fight, the people whose opinion I valued”, he said that “unanimously they said to me that there was no alternative but to accept the Treaty.”

Joseph O’Doherty in opposing the ‘Treaty’ admitted that s majority of his constituency in North Donegal would accept the ‘Treaty’, but in his opinion this was not based on any perceived merits of the ‘Treaty’, “they are accepting it under duress and at the point of the bayonet.”

Seán Hales rose to say he had nothing to add to what he had said in the Private Session, but that he did not want it said he had not the “courage of my convictions, I now state publicly that I am going to vote for this Treaty.”

Cathal Brugha then rose to close the Anti-Treaty case. He said that because “several people are biased in favour of this proposed Treaty” he felt it was of “great importance that an authoritative statement be made (a) defining the real position Mr. Michael Collins held in the army, (b) telling what fights he has taken an active part in, provided this can be done without injustice to himself or danger to the country; or can it be authoritatively stated that he ever fired a shot at any enemy of Ireland ?”

Brugha quoted Griffith’s claim that Collins had been “the man who won the war”. Griffith replied “Hear, hear”, while Fionán Lynch said “so he did”. Collins asked if they were there to discuss the “Treaty’, or “are we discussing the Minister of Finance?” Brugha replied “The Minister of Finance does not like what I have got to say.” Collins responded “Anything that can be said about me, say it.”

Brugha outlined the command structure of the IRA GHQ, describing Collins as “a subordinate in the Department of Defence.” Brugha said that the other members of the GHQ Staff worked “conscientiously and patriotically for Ireland without seeking notoriety, with one exception.” To cries of “shame” and “get on with the Treaty”, Brugha claimed “One member was specially selected by the Press and the people to put him into a position he never held.”

Brugha questioned if there ever had been a £10,000 bounty placed on Collins by the British.

Brugha argued that if Republicans had not reached accommodation with Arthur Griffith in redrafting the Sinn Féin constitution in 1917, Griffith would have had no place in Irish public life. According to Brugha “In that Constitution we forged the weapon by which we produced the Dáil.”

He concluded by urging Griffith and the Pro-Treaty TDs in the interests of national unity to abstain in the vote on the ‘Treaty’, saying they had fulfilled their duty in presenting the ‘Treaty’ to the Dáil and had no obligation to vote for it. “I tell him if he does this his name will live for ever.”

Arthur Griffith rejected Brugha’s proposal, saying “the man or nation that dishonours its signature is dishonoured for ever.” Griffith defended Collins saying “He was the man whose matchless energy, whose indomitable will carried Ireland through the terrible crises.” He said that if his name was to go down in history “I want it associated with the name of Michael Collins.”

Griffith said that he had told the Cabinet before he went to London that “If I go to London I can’t get a Republic; I will try for a Republic but I can’t bring it back.” Griffith contended that the ‘Treaty’ gave Irish people “a foothold in their own country. It gives them solid ground on which to stand.”

He concluded by stating “I say now to the people of Ireland that it is their right to see that this Treaty is carried into operation, when they get, for the first time in seven centuries, a chance to live their lives in their own country and take their place amongst the nations of Europe.”

The the vote was then taken on the the motion to approve the ‘Treaty’. The secretary of the Dáil, Diarmuid O’Hegarty called out in Irish the name of each Deputy in alphabetical order.

Those in favour answered “is toil”, those against “nil toil.” MacNeill would only vote in the event of a tied vote, the five TDs representing more than one constituency only had one vote.

The hall fell into a silence, broken only by the scribbling of journalists and TDs as they tallied the vote. One of those who had tallied the vote had informed the crowd outside of the result before the formal announcement was made in the Dáil itself. The cheer from the crowd outside was the first indication that many TDs had of the outcome of the vote.

The result of the vote, read by Eoin MacNeill was 64 in favour and 57 against.

There were scenes of great emotions in the immediate aftermath.

Éamon de Valera rose to speak. He said that he wanted it to “go to the world and to the world”, that the Irish Republic had been established by the Irish people, “This is simply approval of a certain resolution. The Republic can only be disestablished by the Irish people. Therefore, until such time as the Irish people in regular manner disestablish it, this Republic goes on.”

Michael Collins said he did not regard the vote as “any kind of triumph over the other side.” He pledged to “do my best in the future, as I have done in the past, for the nation.”

Mary MacSwiney described the vote as “grossest act of betrayal that Ireland ever endured.” Ruling out any idea of cooperation with the Pro-Treaty side, she declared “I tell you here there can be no union between the representatives of the Irish Republic and the so-called Free State.”

De Valera called for a meeting of “all those who voted on the side of the established Republic” for the following day.

Collins called for an understanding “to preserve the present order in the country, at any rate over the weekend.”

De Valera rose to speak for a final time: “I would like my last word here to be this: we have had a glorious record for four years; it has been four years of magnificent discipline in our nation. The world is looking at us now...” The minutes of the Dáil records “The President here breaks down.”

Cathal Brugha asserted that he would see “that discipline is kept in the army”.

The Dáil adjourned until January 9. The division of the national independence movement was now complete. The conflict would now move outside the chamber of the Dáil.

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