One hundred years ago, on 6 December 1921 a treaty was signed with the British government that was to end Ireland’s 3-year war of independence and grant a measure of autonomy to Ireland. It was to be fully implemented by March 31, 1922, and the fighting would end; it had the opposite effect! The Government of Ireland Act (GOI) of 1920 had already partitioned Ireland and called for parliaments in Belfast and Dublin. The Dublin one never materialized as Dáil Eireann was formed instead. However, a Northern Parliament was formed on May 3, 1921, with Sir James Craig as Prime Minister, even though the War of Independence for all Ireland had begun in January 1919 and was still raging. Then, after 2-1/2 years of guerilla warfare in which the Brits realized they couldn’t defeat the Irish militarily, a cease-fire was called on July 11, 1921.
Dáil President Eamon de Valera (left) was invited by British Prime Minister Lloyd George to talk treaty from July 14-21. In their meetings, under the threat of total war, George informed Dev that Dominion status would be considered, but an independent Republic was out of the question. Each side was to seat a delegation authorized to negotiate and conclude a treaty. Dev, as head of state and realizing that a Republic was not possible, chose a delegation led by Arthur Griffith, and with him were Michael Collins, Robert Barton, Erskine Childers, Eamon Duggan, and George Gavan Duffy. This inexperienced group faced such formidable British political talent as Lloyd George, Austen Chamberlain, Lord Birkenhead, and Winston Churchill. Collins even noted that he was a fighter, not a diplomat, but went as an obedient soldier. Further, they had been given no basic position to present. Dev chose them deliberately for they were not a united team. He wrote to Joe McGarrity in the United States describing the balancing act he achieved, noting lawyers Duggan and Duffy were mere legal padding and Barton and Childers, staunch republicans, were meant to offset the more logical Griffith and Collins. In the end, if the Irish Delegation couldn’t reach an agreement, de Valera would swoop in and save the day by offering "external association within the Empire" as a compromise to resolve the crisis and emerge a savior!
Under the strain of the discussions, arguments became worse; three months passed with nothing agreed on. In late November and early December, the Irish delegation returned to Dublin to consult the cabinet. Much still had to be resolved, including the form of an oath to the monarch, but it was clear that the 32-county Republic was not on offer. Griffith's dealings with Lloyd George were the key issue. Pro-Treaty authors later told of an honest and honorable man taken advantage of by the wily "Welsh Wizard," while anti-Treaty authors depict Griffith (right) as an amateur diplomat outwitted by a devious expert.
Either way, Lloyd George told Griffith that he needed a concession to prevent a diehard Unionist backlash from the Conservative Party that would not only destroy the conference but his own coalition government as well and replace it with a Conservative anti-Irish one. He said he could get Unionists to accept Sinn Fein’s idea of converting the Ulster parliament into a six-county province within an all-Ireland parliament by creating a boundary commission to later adjust the border, possibly move Tyrone and Fermanagh into the 26 and eventually bring about a united Ireland. When the boundary commission idea was first proposed, Griffith wrote to Dev that he thought it would remove two entire counties and parts of others from Northern Ireland’s six. Hearing no objections from Dublin, Griffith gave his promise to accept Dominion status if satisfied on all other issues. The men that Lloyd George needed to win over were staunch Unionists, Birkenhead and Chamberlain, and Griffith's assurance enabled him to do that.
Griffith kept Dev informed by letter, however, both suffered from the common nationalist blind-spot, that the Unionists would dance to the British tune. The Brits had been unable to bend them in 1914, 16 or 17 over accepting Home Rule and it was even less likely to happen in 1921 now that they already had an established government in Belfast.
Then, Lloyd George confided to Robert Barton in private that the man who refused to sign the treaty would be responsible for the immediate and terrible war that would follow. After the Treaty was signed, Birkenhead and Chamberlain stated openly that Fermanagh and Tyrone wanted to unite with the rest of Ireland, but the fulfillment of that promise would hinge on the Treaty approval by the 26 counties and the boundary commission established under its terms. Had it been quickly ratified by the Dáil and a new government established, the boundary commission could have met immediately and the result may have been a smaller Northern Ireland. The transfer of largely nationalist areas to the South would not only have made partition seem fairer but a 4-county province may not have economically survived on its own. Sadly, that’s not what happened.
At 2 a.m., on the morning of December 6, 1921, the Irish delegation, weary from weeks of negotiations and arguments and facing a deadline, signed a document that promised an end to the fighting that had engulfed their country for the past 3 years. They hoped that Ireland would accept it as a step toward independence. After all, it was more than they had ever hoped for with Home Rule, and, under the circumstances, it represented the best possible solution Ireland could have achieved. The Irish representatives had plenipotentiary status, empowering them to sign a treaty on behalf of the Irish Republic without reference back to their superiors; a document signed by de Valera giving them that power is on display at The Little Museum of Dublin. However, the British government declined to recognize that status and insisted on an election to ratify approval. DeValera called a cabinet meeting on 8 December, where he came out against the treaty! The cabinet decided by four votes to three to put the treaty to a vote of the Dáil.
On December 14, Dev submitted an alternate treaty to a secret session of the Dáil. His document, later publicized in January 1922 as Document 2, still included dominion status, acceptance of partition subject to veto by the Belfast parliament, and the status of the King as sovereign. Dev objected to the oath of allegiance in the Treaty which read: I do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State ... and that I will be faithful to King George V, his heirs and successors by law, in virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland and Great Britain and her membership of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Dev’s proposed oath read: I do swear to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of Ireland and the treaty of association of Ireland with the British Commonwealth of Nations and to recognize the King of Great Britain as head of the Associated States. Dev maintained it was not allegiance to the king, but to the association of which the King was the head (potato-potahto)!
The late patriot and GPO veteran, Sam O’Reilly, told this author that Dev’s real objection was the clause in the treaty calling for an election because he was unsure of retaining his Presidency over Griffith who was now the man of the hour. Sam told me that Dev said if they kept all the Dáil officers the same, he would accept the treaty. I have never found any confirmation of that in writing, but Sam was there in his position as an officer of the Dublin Brigade. As a result of his ambiguous objection to the oath, Dev rallied to his support those who were unaware that the Republican forces could not sustain a continued struggle. As for Dev’s alternative treaty, called Document No. 2, it is now available in a side-by-side clause comparison with the Treaty in the 1924 publication which was recently added to the internet; just google: The Anglo-Irish Treaty and Mr. de Valera's alternative. It is quite eye-opening!
Lloyd George insisted that acceptance be made by the Southern Parliament set up by the Government of Ireland Act which had adjourned sin die and not in a meeting of the ‘illegal’ Dáil. So, after Dáil voted to accept the Treaty by a vote of 64 to 57, a meeting was called for the dead Parliament to satisfy the Brits. There the Treaty was unanimously accepted since the anti-treaty faction refused to attend. The general election took place in Southern Ireland on 16 June 1922, under the provisions of the Treaty to elect a constituent assembly paving the way for the formal establishment of the Irish Free State and Griffith was elected President!. In Irish history, it is considered the election of the Third Dáil and officially replaced the parliament of Southern Ireland. When the Free State was established on 6 December 1922, it was the Dáil Éireann of the Irish Free State. With all parties participating, the vote was pro-Treaty: 486,275 and anti-Treaty: 135,310. DeValera and his supporters walked out of the Dáil and into a Civil War that lasted from February 1922 to a November 1924 general amnesty causing the deaths of more than 1200 citizens from both sides including some of her most talented leaders, notably: Michael Collins, Cathal Brugha, Erskine Childers, Arthur Griffith and many more. When the Free State finally emerged victorious, it was led by second-string politicians. Now that the Boundary Commission could finally meet, things changed. The Free State dropped its claim to Fermanagh and Tyrone in exchange for forgiveness of the £50 million debt owed to the Crown as a result of the War of Independence since the Free State now had a budget deficit of more than £4 million because of the Civil War. The Commission report wasn’t published until 1969!
In March 1926, Dev resigned from Sinn Fein and formed a new party called Fianna Fáil. Faced with taking the oath to enter the Dáil, Dev and his TDs agreed to take the Oath noting it was an Oath of Allegiance to the Free State with a secondary promise of fidelity to the King in his role in the Treaty. Wasn’t that exactly what Collins, Griffith, and the Treaty signers tried to convince him of before the Civil War? DeValera then described the Oath as an empty political formula and the elected Fianna Fail TDs senselessly covered the oath wording as they signed the document that allowed them to take their seats in the Dáil! -- Mike McCormack, New York Ancient Order of Hibernians Historian Emeritus