A history of a landmark Sinn Féin Ard Fheis 100 years ago this week which still has echoes today, by Des Dalton.
February 21, 1922, was the first day of the two day extraordinary Sinn Féin Ard Fheis called to decide Sinn Féin’s position on the Treaty.
Cumann na mBan held a convention on February 5 where it had overwhelming rejected the Treaty.
The Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle met on January 12 in Dublin’s Mansion House where a new Standing Committee was elected and where the decision to hold an extraordinary Ard Fheis was made.
This meeting had gone badly for the Anti-Treaty side. Erskine Childers recorded in his diary: “We were heavily defeated.” Of the 15 members elected, 11 were Pro-Treaty, one, Fr Patrick Gaynor, CC, Birr, Co Offaly was deemed neutral.
His neutrality was disputed by Kathleen Lynn who noted in her Diary for January 12: “Ard Chomhairle, Mansion. House, 11 o’clock. Elected standing committee. 3 Republicans, 12 Free Staters. The opposition is well organised.”
Amongst the prominent Anti-Treaty candidates who failed to be elected included Robert Barton, Kathleen Clarke, Mary MacSwiney, Constance Markievicz, Margaret Pearse and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington.
As cumainn throughout the country met to select delegates for the Ard Fheis both Pro- and Anti-Treaty supporters canvassed to try ensure those supporting their respective positions were chosen. Cumann na mBan launched a campaign to ensure only anti-Treaty supporters were selected.
All of this led to charges by both sides that the Ard Fheis was being rigged.
To offset this Michael Collins proposed at a meeting of the Standing Committee on January 23, “That no members enrolled in a cumann after 31st December 1921 be entitled to vote at the meeting of the cumann summoned to select delegates for the extraordinary ardfheis (sic)”.
In his report to the meeting, Stack stated that since the last Ard Chomhairle meeting on August 23, the number of affiliated cumainn had grown from 89 to 2,485 on December 31.
Sinn Féin General Secretary, Austin Stack objected that Collins was not a member of the Standing Committee, however, Arthur Griffith, who was chairing the meeting, ruled that the resolution was in order as Collins was vice-president. Stack then proposed an amendment “That no such instruction be sent out.” The amendment was defeated by 9 votes to 3.
Stack was appointed to a sub-committee, along with Walter L.Cole, George Lyons and Paudeen O’Keefe “to go into and devise the best the best method for counting the votes on a division at the ardfheis (sic).”
As passions heated the press carried reports each day of the appointment of delegates by cumainn and how they were mandated to vote.
At a meeting of the Standing Committee on January 23, Collins reiterated his resolution and a credentials committee was appointed to determine which delegates were entitled to vote. The committee consisted of joint generals secretary Austin Stack and Harry Boland, both representing the anti-Treaty’ side and Walter L.Cole and Sean Milroy from the pro-Treaty side.
Again Stack and Collins clashed. Collins proposed that the voting be by secret ballot. Stack countered this by proposing an open vote. Again his amendment was lost.
The depth of the division within Sin Féin was illustrated on the eve of the Ard Fheis when the credentials committee could not agree on whether the delegates of the Listowel Cumann should be excluded from the Ard Fheis due to alleged irregularities based on Colins’ resolution. Eventually Stack and his fellow Anti-Treaty supporters were defeated at the Standing Committee and the Listowel Cumann delegates were excluded.
On January 18, Éamon de Valera wrote to Stack pressing on him the importance of the Ard Fheis and carefully preparing for it. Both De Valera and Stack believed that just as Sinn Féin was a unifying vehicle for nationalist Ireland from 1917, it could now provide a similar vehicle for the anti-Treaty side.
On February 21, over 3,000 delegates assembled in the Mansion House. Éamon de Valera, seconded by Stack and Fr Joe Breen proposed that Sinn Féin reaffirm its allegiance to the Republic. The resolution also stipulated that Sinn Féin would only support candidates who promised “not to take an oath of fidelity to or own allegiance to the British King.”
Arthur Griffith moved a counter motion which endorsed the Dâil’s approval of the Treaty, which it claimed was “in accordance with the aims of Sinn Féin.”
In his speech de Valera said that if the Ard Fheis couldn’t abide by its constitutional aims it would be better for the organisation to split:
“An army can only march as fast as its slowest unit. If we can get a swift moving force and a force that will not move so quickly, let us divide provided we do turn upon the other.”
Michael Collins urged the importance of unity saying they would only be weaker if they divided. De Valera said unity could only be maintained by delaying elections. Acknowledging that the pro-Treaty side represented the majority “, because of the British threat of war” he argued that the country should not be asked to vote on the Treaty until the new constitution was ready.
Máire Comerford describes a scene of high emotion in the Mansion House, where there were “urgent voices, raised arms, and heads bobbing up and down from the floor.”
The majority of delegates were anxious to preserve unity and on a proposal from Richard Mulcahy the Ard Fheis was adjourned until 11am the following day to allow the leaders of the respective sides to come to an agreement.
The extraordinary Sinn Féin Ard Fheis recovened on February 22, 1922. Éamon de Valera, Austin Stack, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins were tasked with drafting an agreement that would preserve unity within Sinn Féin.
Eventually an Agreement was presented and accepted by acclamation which proposed adjourning the Ard Fheis for three months. The election was to be postponed until the Constitution was ready; the Dáil would continue to meet, but ‘no vote in Dáil Éireann would be regarded as a party vote requiring the resignation of the President and Cabinet’; and the Officer Board (split 50-50 on the Treaty issue) was to act as a Standing Committee, in place of the pro-Treaty body elected in January.
The following is the text of the agreement:
“In order to avoid a division of the Sinn Féin organisation, to avert the danger to the country of an immediate election, to give the signatories of the London agreement an opportunity to draft a constitution, so that when the people are asked to vote at the elections to decide between the Republic and the Saorstát the constitution of the latter may be definitely before them - It is hereby agreed that:
1. This ardfheis shall stand adjourned for three months.
2. That in the meantime: (a) The officer board of the organisation shall act as a standing committee, (b) Dáil Éireann shall meet regularly (c) That in the meantime no parliamentary elections shall be held and that when held the constitution of the Saorstát in its final form shall be presented at the same time as the Articles of Agreement.
3. That this agreement shall be submitted to the ardfheis and if approved shall be binding.”
The agreement was broadly welcomed, Máire Comerford records that “great cheer” went up among the delegates when it was announced that “unity would be preserved.”
However, not all were happy. Kathleen O’Connell, ever loyal secretary to Éamon de Valera, in a rare moment of dissent from her chief questioned had republicans missed an opportunity to record a victory over the pro-Treaty side:
“The vast majority were Republicans. What a pity a division wasn’t taken. We could start a new Republican party clean. Delays are dangerous. Many may change before the Ard Fheis meets again.”