The British may have formally handed over power in January 1922, but the subsequent creation of a new government was a complex business. Helene O'Keeffe explains what happened.
Technically, there were three governments in Ireland in January 1922: James Craig’s new Northern Ireland government; the republican Second Dáil under the presidency of Arthur Griffith and the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State headed by Michael Collins.
Intended as a temporary measure but prolonged by the outbreak of civil war, the constitutionally ambiguous system of dual authority in the twenty-six counties remained in place until the Third Dáil, elected in June 1922, finally met in September 1922.
On 14 January 1922 sixty-five men gathered in the wood-panelled Oak Room of Dublin’s Mansion House. All but four were pro-Treaty Sinn Féin TDs, but this was not Dáil Eireann. It was the first and final meeting of the members elected to the Parliament of Southern Ireland, one of two polities created under the Government of Ireland Act 1920.
Elections to the Home Rule parliaments of Northern and Southern Ireland were held in May 1921 during the final stages of the War of Independence. One-hundred-and-twenty-four Sinn Féin candidates were returned unopposed in the South but, refusing to recognise the new political entity of Southern Ireland, the party used the election as the basis for forming the Second Dáil.
The Mansion House gathering in January 1922, which included the four Unionist MPs for Trinity College, was distasteful to many in Sinn Féin, but necessary to begin implementing the terms of the Treaty. Under Articles 17 and 18, the members elected to the House of Commons of Southern Ireland in 1921– and not Dáil Eireann, which the British still refused to recognise - were required to approve the Treaty.
It was also their job to appoint a 'provisional government’ to which the British would formally hand over ‘the powers and machinery requisite for the discharge of its duties’.
This interim government would operate until a new parliament, elected by the people, enacted the Constitution of the Free State, set to come into official existence on 6 December 1922. Dáil Eireann would continue to exist as a parallel parliament until the Republic was dissolved by a general election.
Boycotted by anti-Treaty Sinn Féin TDs, the business-like meeting lasted barely an hour, providing a stark contrast to the turbulent and protracted Treaty debates. Four days earlier, Griffith defeated de Valera in a vote on the presidency of Dáil Eireann, and the anti-Treaty TDs had strenuously objected to the new President simultaneously occupying the role of Chairman of the Provisional Government – upholding and, at the same time, subverting the Republic.
A 'very heavy' task
As a concession to the anti-Treaty stance, Griffith abstained from membership of the new executive which comprised Michael Collins as Chairman, William T. Cosgrave, Éamon Duggan, Patrick Hogan, Fionán Lynch, Joseph McGrath, Eoin McNeill and Kevin O'Higgins. At the close of the session, Griffith called on ‘every good Irishman’ to put aside old differences and support the Provisional Government, predicting that its task would be ‘very heavy.’
And indeed it was. After the symbolic handover of Dublin Castle to the Provisional Government on 16 January, the real business of transition commenced in a volatile context described memorably by Kevin O'Higgins:
The Provisional Government was simply eight young men in the City Hall standing amidst the ruins of one administration with the foundations of another not yet laid, and with wild men screaming through the keyhole. No police force was functioning through the country, no system of justice was operating, the wheels of administration hung idle battered out of recognition by the clash of rival jurisdictions.
As demonstrated by the Provisional Government’s first decree on 16 January, stability, for the moment, was paramount. It directed that all services of the State, including the courts and civil service, should proceed quietly with their normal business, and any destruction of Dublin Castle records was prohibited. The unionist Irish Times was quick to point out the irony of such a notice being issued by the architects of the Customs Home fire in May 1921.
In the months that followed, the Castle civil service was diluted with new recruits from Dáil departments and dispersed throughout the administration. Collins also halted the transfer of civil servants to Belfast, provided for by the 1920 ‘Partition Act’, as part of a concerted campaign to destabilise the new Northern Ireland Government. Any real structural change, however, would have to wait until the electorate gave a mandate for a new government.
‘The situation is preposterous’, declared the Irish Times on 13 February. ‘The existence of a Provisional Government is an administrative necessity; but, at a time when it is confronted with the gravest problems, it has no roots in the soil, no authority from the people, no material forces for the execution of its decrees.’
Collins and his cabinet took up temporary residence in Dublin's City Hall while Dáil Eireann ministers continued to conduct business from the Mansion House. The lines between the parallel pro-Treaty cabinets were deliberately blurred. Six Provisional Government ministers - Collins, O’Higgins, Cosgrave, Duggan, Hogan and McGrath - held identical portfolios in the Dáil ministry, and the pro-Treaty leaders bolstered their legitimacy during the transitional phase by acting in the name of both.
With a remit only for the administration of domestic affairs, there was no Provisional Government counterpart for George Gavan Duffy's Department of Foreign Affairs. Neither was there a duplicate Ministry for Defence because the Provisional Government had no authority over the IRA.
From mid-February, however, Dáil Defence Minister Richard Mulcahy began to attend Provisional Government meetings and, as he told the Dáil on 1 March, arranged ‘to occupy for them all vacated military and police posts for the purpose of their maintenance and safeguarding’.
In early 1922 the Provisional Government agreed that all evacuated barracks be occupied by local IRA units, regardless of their stance on the Treaty. The result was that, by the Spring, numerous military barracks in Connacht and Munster – as well as the Four Courts in Dublin - were in the hands of the anti-Treaty IRA, unprepared to accept Mulcahy's authority or to recognise the legitimacy of the Provisional Government.
Collins and his civilian administration delayed dealing decisively with old colleagues, drawing the ire of their British sponsors, but allowing time to consolidate power, explore avenues for reconciliation and build up the new National Army, provided for under Article 8 of the Treaty and formed around a nucleus of pro-Treaty units of the IRA loyal to Collins and Mulcahy.
Speaking in the Dáil on 28 February, Griffith was confident that the departments in the parallel administrations were ‘actively functioning in harmony’ and, ‘in the interests of peace and good order’, would continue to do so until the general election.
Confusion about the duplicate ministries and their respective powers was demonstrated during the bristly exchanges that followed. Some anti-Treaty TDs were furious that the Dáil Departments were being ‘absolutely subverted’ by those of the Provisional Government, and members of the Dáil Cabinet were responding to their correspondence as ‘Ministers of the Provisional Government’.
A widening rift
The crux of the argument was the disputed source of the Provisional Government’s authority. While O’Higgins and Collins asserted that it owed responsibility to the people and not to the Dáil, de Valera was adamant that Dáil Eireann was ‘the sovereign assembly of the nation’ and any other government, provisional or otherwise, was subordinate to it.
And so there was a real ‘moment of ambiguity’ in the first months of 1922 that contributed to the widening rift between the rival sides. Confusion about precisely where government authority lay also contributed to the general disorder in the country in the wake of the British evacuation.
The question was further complicated by the fact that, even though Lloyd George’s government recognised the temporary administration, it had no legal authority until the Irish Free State (Agreement) Bill, the measure to enact the Treaty, was finally passed by the British Parliament on 31 March.
This was an anomaly, admitted Winston Churchill, ‘unprecedented in the history of the British Empire’, one which might have been exploited had Sinn Féin not been so irreconcilably divided. By late April the real administrative power of the Provisional Government was clear, the ministries had been silently merged and, as Dan Breen admitted to the Bureau of Military History, Dáil Eireann was little more than a ‘debating society’.
Several efforts to reunite the rival factions in the Spring ended in failure, meaning that, by May, all hopes of averting civil war were balanced on a precarious election pact between pro and anti-Treaty Sinn Féin and a compromise constitution.
A ten-man Constitution Committee, first convened by the Provisional Government on 24 January and nominally headed by Collins, was given the difficult task of reconciling republication aspirations with the terms of the Treaty.
'A republic in disguise'
The British predictably rejected the draft constitution which provided for, in Lloyd George’s words, a ‘republic in disguise’. A revised draft, reluctantly approved by cabinet of the Provisional Government on 12 June, was published four days later on the morning of the general election.
The June ‘pact’ election, which was intended to produce a ‘coalition’ of pro- and anti-Treaty Sinn Féin, saw a strong majority of pro-Treaty candidates elected, leading the pro-Treatyites to interpret it as an endorsement of the Treaty. Civil war broke out on 28 June and the Third Dáil, to which the Provisional Government was now responsible, was prorogued five times and did not meet until the following September.
In July, Collins handed the chairmanship of the civilian administration to W.T. Cosgrave so he could concentrate on winning the war as Commander-in-Chief of the National Army. At the heart of the Civil War was the question of government legitimacy.
'Terror with terror'
The anti-Treaty forces refused to acknowledge the government’s mandate to govern on the basis that the elections had not been a free expression of the public will. But, as Bill Kissane points out, the more they refused to submit to the authority of the Provisional Government, the more concerned it was to assert that authority.
When the Third Dáil was finally convened in Leinster House on 9 September 1922, both Collins and Griffith were dead. As President of the Dáil and Chairman of the Provisional Government, W.T. Cosgrave merged the two pro-Treaty ministries and focused on implementing the Treaty, enacting the constitution and restoring peace ‘on the basis of the supremacy of the elected government of the Irish people’, even if that meant meeting ‘terror with terror’.
Cosgrave became President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State once it was formally established under the terms of the Treaty on 6 December 1922.
This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.