Ireland’s Wars: The Treaty Negotiations

The Anglo-Irish Treaty is a document of supreme importance to Irish history. It cannot be understated the pivotal impact it has played on Irish identity, politics and military matters since it was first negotiated, with the impact of its implementation still felt to this very day in numerous different ways. It is a text whose history, terms and debates deserves some special attention all of their own, though, as per this series’ modus operandi, I will attempt to consistently frame that attention through the lens of military matters. We begin with the situation in mid-September 1921, with an agreement between de Valera and Lloyd George on the holding of a more formal conference between representatives of the Dail and of the British government, but no agreement yet on who exactly those representatives were going to be.

It was a critical choice. In the days where telegrams and letters remained the primary modes of communication over long distances, the delegates would be largely on their own in the agreed location of London, and while they would be expected to keep the cabinet updated and to take instruction, they would still be the primary arbiters in determining what agreement was going to come back. In what can be considered one of the most controversial decisions in Irish history, de Valera determined that he would not take the obvious course, and decided to stay at home. He reasoned that this would allow the delegation the space to have to refer decisions back to him, so no rushed agreement would be signed, and that he was needed to help herd extremists back at home. As the President of the Republic, he also argued that he could only meet with the King as a fellow Head of State. It is commonly believed that, while there was a certain logic in de Valera’s reasoning, he may well have been seeking to avoid having his name directly attached to an agreement that would not fulfill the desire for a Republic. In essence, “Dev” didn’t want his name attached to a compromise.

The cabinet divided neatly over de Valera’s decision. Men like Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack supported him, while Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith were opposed. Eventually, it was agreed that the delegation would be chaired by Griffith, and would include Collins, Robert Barton, Eamon Duggan and George Gavin Duffy, with four secretaries, among those Erskine Childers (an odd choice in many ways, as he and Griffith hated each other). The team was picked largely to satisfy various strands of the larger movement – Griffith the constitutionalists, Collins the army (andd the IRB) for example – and not because it was thought they would work together effectively. Collins was extremely unhappy about the situation, though he accepted it: in private correspondence, he would indicate his belief that he was being set-up as a scapegoat. Certainly Collins was a strange choice to send, as exposing him to the highest echelons of the British government would make him less effective in his IRA role should the war have re-started. But in this, Collins reputation may have worked against his desires: while Griffith may have been the chair, Collins was the most high-profile delegate, whose mystique it might have been hoped would have an effect on the British. Those left behind from the cabinet were mostly of the die-hard sort and only one, W.T. Cosgrave, would support the Treaty when it was signed: a coincidence that gives one pause.

On the other side the British delegation was headed by Lloyd George, and included names like Winston Churchill and Hamar Greenwood. There’s was an easier task in many ways: to get Dominion status, and partition, agreed to, and to split the moderates from the radicals in Ireland. They had a key advantage in that they knew exactly what they wanted out of the negotiations, while the Irish were still figuring that out. But they also had pressures of their own to deal with, with Lloyd George’s coalition increasingly clinging to power the further the country got from the World War that had brought it into existence. A good deal that ended the British entanglement in Ireland honourably would go a long way to shoring up support.

For the Irish the critical question came down to what powers the delegates were going to have exactly. De Valera considered them “plenipotentiaries”, official representatives of the Irish Republic granted such status by that nation’s head of state. While people with such status generally have authorisation to handle diplomatic negotiations as they see fit, and to sign what they agreed, de Valera sought to limit that power, giving them copies of draft treaties he had worked up, and sending them with instructions that they were to refer back to him and the cabinet about the “main question” – the acceptance or rejection of the Republic – and before any treaty agreed was signed. There was also an caveat that whatever the negotiators came up with, or signed, would have to subsequently be approved by the Dail. Griffith accepted the status as it was approved by the Dail, and with the understanding that de Valera’s instructions were non-binding guidelines. It was a critical point, in terms of the later debate. The British, for their part, held to the line that they were meeting the Irish delegation as “chosen spokesmen” of the Irish people, and not as the plenipotentiaries of a sovereign state. They never asked for, nor were shown, de Valera’s documents designating them as such.

The negotiations proceeded for the better part of two months, from mid-October through to early December, with the two delegations breaking up into smaller sub-committees to discuss various points that would be part of the final agreement; these often focused exclusively on Griffith and Collins, with the other Irish delegates left out, to their frustration. Collins himself stayed apart from the others in London, and was surrounded by a cadre of IRB loyalists. The topics included, but were far from limited to, the exact nature of the proposed Irish state and to what geographical extent it would reach; how a partitioned border between north and south would be arrived at; an oath of allegiance to the British monarchy for Irish lawmakers to take; what, if any, military resources the British would be allowed to maintain control of in Ireland; and what, if any, portion of Britain financial debt the new Irish state would be responsible for.

The negotiations were often difficult. Griffith suffered bouts of illness that left Collins as the de facto head of the delegation; he had less experience than others when it came to such procedure, and Lloyd George’s performance in such matters is one of the reasons he is sometimes dubbed the “Welsh Wizard”. Aside from two times when the delegation returned to Dublin to consult with the Dail cabinet, they spent the time in London, away from their homes and families, while mass prayer vigils sometimes took place outside the buildings where the negotiations were being held. British figures routinely threatened, in the negotiations and in public meetings at the time, to prosecute a much higher intensity war in Ireland if their terms were not agreed to, and largely dictated the exact outline of how the talks proceeded. Which is not to give the impression that the Irish delegation were entirely hoodwinked either: but it must be recognised that they had a very difficult job.

It became very apparent, very quickly that a 32 county republic was impossible for the British to agree to, and this was something de Valera and the cabinet were fully aware of during the negotiations (de Valera himself had refused the requests of some republican hardliners, like Mary McSwiney, to be part of the delegation). They asked the delegation to instead press for what de Valera dubbed “external association”: the idea that Ireland could be a self-governing state that had some manner of connection to the British Commonwealth while not being a part of of it officially. It was de Valera’s hope that this could be a compromise that would appease the British refusal to recognise a republic, and republican desires for a more complete separation than the proffered Dominion status. The British rejected the idea when it was presented (as would many republicans, in time), insisting that a future Irish state must have a closer relationship to the crown, offering an equivalence to that of Canada: control of most fiscal matters, their own army, their own foreign affairs (to an extent), but with the King as the acknowledged head of state. Griffith was of a mind to compromise on the issue, believing that it was a matter of coming to an acceptable form of words for the proposed Oath of Allegiance. Griffith, and increasingly Collins, was happy to accept self-government over complete sovereignty, if it gave Ireland more options, peaceful options, for gaining greater independence in the future.

And then there was Ulster. The British wanted partition maintained to appease unionist thinking – James Craig was constantly on the mind of Lloyd George -, the Irish nominally wanted a 32 county solution, albeit with some system of devolution. In reality much of the delegation, the cabinet and the Dail were happy to compromise on this issue: as we will see, discussions on Ulster were not at the top of the agenda when the final treaty came to the Dail. Still, the Irish delegation maintained an impressive front of making Ulster a priority, and in the event that the talks became deadlocked had been instructed to break down the negotiations on the specific issue of Ulster. In an effort to smooth the way for the acceptance of partition, the British would propose a commission to fix a more permanent border between north and south, something Griffith accepted early enough, going as far as to secretly promise not to end the negotiations for that reason. Supporters of this policy may well have believed that a gutting of Northern Ireland’s territory would result in the state being nonviable long-term, essentially an elongated way of ending partition. The entire back-and-forth over Ulster was a long string of repetitive discussions, letters bouncing from Dublin to London to Belfast, and political maneuvering, that an entire book could be written about: it suffices to say that everyone understood some measure of partition would have to be part of the final settlement, even if one side resisted to an extent.

More to the point of this series, there were military matters at the heart of the negotiations, with Collins and Churchill some of the main movers on that side of things. The British wanted to maintain control of several key ports in Ireland for the use of the Royal Navy, while agreeing to withdraw all army personnel from the territory of the new state: The ports were Berehaven and Queenstown (Cobh) in Cork, and Lough Swilly in Donegal. There were additional ones in Ulster, but as stated it was believed this would not be a factor once partition became an agreed reality. Griffith was struck enough by British thoughts on the matter that he said “they believe it is vital for their lives”. Certainly, the British were fixated to a point on insuring that Ireland not become a place that could cause them to suffer in a future war. There was division on some specific details of this, but no major resistance: Collins did draft a policy of strict Irish neutrality as a possible alternative, but Churchill wasn’t interested, deeming it unfeasible and not to Britain’s benefit in many ways. The topic of paying compensation to RIC out of a job when the future Free State came into being was also a critical one, and here there was compromise, with reserve and auxiliary units of the RIC to remain the domain of the British. On the other hand, the British were satisfied to allow the Irish state to have its own armed forces, but with restrictions. Throughout the talks there were complaints about truce breaking and IRA levies, but it was never enough to cause things to break down.

In late November, things began to reach a crisis point, on the role of the crown in the new Irish state, on the proposed Oath of Allegiance, and on “the Republic”. Lloyd George was insistent on a Dominion status that included the Crown as a Head of State, and when the Irish delegation attempted, as de Valera wanted, to press for external association, Lloyd George threatened to break off the negotiations entirely. An impasse had been reached. When the delegation returned home in early December to meet with the cabinet, they were met with criticism from Brugha who felt they were allowing themselves to be given the run around by Lloyd George, while de Valera continued to insist on external association, and an oath that merely recognised the King as the head of the Commonwealth, and not an Irish state specifically. Griffith was convinced that he had gotten as much out of the British as he was likely to get, and the delegation returned to London in poor spirits, unclear on what it was exactly that de Valera wanted them to do.

The critical day was the 5th December, with the Irish delegation back in London and taking part in the last of the meetings. The talks nearly broke down when Gavin Duffy brought up the idea of Ireland staying outside the Empire again, and things got little better afterward. The majority of what would be the Treaty was agreed, notably with a late granting of greater fiscal autonomy by the Prime Minister, but there remained those points on the Crown and the oath to the same. Late that night, and into the early hours of the 6th, the point of no return was seemingly reached. By most accounts, Lloyd George was blunt, insisting that the Irish delegation must all sign the treaty then and there – with its provisions of Dominion status within the Empire and the Oath of Allegiance – or that within three days a “terrible and immediate war” would be resumed. There are reports of the Prime Minister theatrically presenting Griffith with two letters addressed to James Craig, one announcing an agreement and one declaring an end to the talks, and asking Griffith to decide which one to send.

The delegation was divided. Some, like Griffith, were satisfied with the text as was and willing to sign, as the Chair of the delegation had essentially indicated to Lloyd George much earlier: some have claimed that Griffith’s willingness to do this, in the face of having his honour impugned by Lloyd George after the Prime Minister brought up that previous indication, fatally undercut the Irish delegation’s position. Others, like Barton, were extremely reluctant, unhappy with the text and remembering the instructions they were supposedly operating on, to refer everything back to de Valera and the cabinet. Griffith had, only a few days ago, told the larger cabinet he would refer an agreement back to the Dail before signing, but now reversed course, acting, as he saw it, as a plenipotentiary with the power to sign as he wished.

How much stock should we place in Lloyd George’s threat? On the one hand it was something that he had threatened before, in his exchanges with de Valera shortly after the truce, and no terrible war had resulted. On the other, this was further along in the process, and if the negotiations had broken down at that point there did not seem much point in the way of continuing. If that was the case, a resort to military action may have been the only viable alternative for the British. Certainly it would have been hard to assuage the hawks in the administration, especially when the groundwork had been done in terms of impressing upon the media that the British terms were exceedingly generous. But the central quandary in Ireland would not have gone away: fighting a war there of the type they had been fighting was not an activity with any kind of long-term decisive victory possible, even if it would have been fought with a higher intensity. The question is impossible to answer, but I would say that it was not something that could be easily dismissed by the Irish delegation. Men like Griffith certainly did not want any more blood to be shed, especially over what some would later dub “a form of words”.

For Collins the issue was very much one of peace or war, but he came at the problem from the perspective of believing that the IRA was not in a position to continue the fighting to the required level, especially if Lloyd George made good on his threat and intensified the British effort. This might explain his overcoming of his reluctance to sign: that he viewed it not just as a choice between peace and war, but between peace and a war that his side could not win. Collins’ agreement was crucial, and helped to persuade others in the delegation: in this de Valera may have lamented his decision to send the Minister of Finance.

Could the Irish delegation have gotten more? It is hard to see. The British were implacable on the issue of Ireland remaining part of the Empire, and would only go so far when it came to partition. It seems all that they could have done would have been to call the British bluff, but I deem it highly doubtful that Lloyd George would have blinked, knowing that his own administration would probably be doomed if he conceded more. So perhaps it really was the deal presented that night or war, even if Lloyd George’s hyperbole and theatrics inflamed the situation unnecessarily.

So, the delegation signed, in the early hours of the 6th December. Can it be said that they did so under duress? Well, they certainly signed under threat, but at the end of the day they still did not have to sign. That same threat had been ignored before, and it could not be said that the delegation were themselves in some kind of physical danger when they put their names to the document. That accusation would come later though. As stated, not every delegate member was happy, but none of them attempted to contact the cabinet in Dublin that night. The people who were happy were the British: they had essentially gotten everything they had sought in the initial talks with de Valera, with some minor amendments here and there. Lloyd George’s reputation was well-earned, and it was demonstrated why that December.

The Treaty was made, and signed. What followed would be, perhaps, the most critical month in the political history of Ireland. But before we get to that, in the next entry I want to take a closer look at the Anglo-Irish Treaty, especially from a military perspective. This is apropos, as it was the document and the divide over it that brought one of the most destructive Irish wars of the last few centuries.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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12 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Treaty Negotiations

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