A new documentary, Taking Sides, explores how former enemies worked together to establish Irish independence. As Fearghal McGarry explains, it reveals Britain's far from impartial role in Ireland’s Civil War.

Speaking at Westminster in February 1922, Winston Churchill predicted Ireland’s descent into civil war: 'The Irish have a genius for conspiracy rather than government.’ The limited capacity of the Irish for self-government might be considered a convenient explanation for the events that followed given that Britain remained the dominant force in Ireland throughout this destructive year. The Civil War was fought between Irish people but over a Treaty whose red lines – on Empire, Crown, and partition – were determined by British power.

How did Britain respond to Ireland’s Civil War? How important was the relationship between former enemies, such as Michael Collins and Churchill, who found their political fortunes tied to a settlement that generated little enthusiasm on either side of the Irish Sea? These are the questions explored by Taking Sides, the final instalment in Michael Portillo’s documentary series, which draws on archival documents to trace Britain’s role in Ireland’s Revolution.

Black and white photo of Winston Churchill
Churchill in the early 1920s. Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images

Intense negotiations

The Treaty negotiations that ran throughout the autumn of 1921 were intense and occasionally acrimonious. Notoriously, the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had threatened ‘immediate and terrible war’ should the Irish plenipotentiaries refuse to sign the Treaty. ‘Michael Collins rose looking as though he was going to shoot someone’, Winston Churchill later recalled.

But the negotiations also led to mutual understanding as both sides sought to agree a settlement that each could sell to their own supporters. The hothouse atmosphere at Downing Street, and fraternisation facilitated by the Irish-American society hostess Lady Hazel Lavery, also engendered a degree of intimacy. By the conclusion of the talks, there was probably greater trust – and certainly less animosity – between the two delegations than between the Irish negotiators and their republican critics at home.

Black and white photo of Hazel Lavery, elegantly dressed dark haired white woman in 1920s garb.Photo by Emil Otto Hoppe/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Hazel Lavery in 1924. Photo by Emil Otto Hoppe/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Bitter arguments

The bitter arguments in the Dáil that culminated in the fateful Treaty split of 7 January 1922 focused more on symbols than substance. Emotions such as love, honour, loyalty and betrayal were invoked, while deputies wept openly when the Treaty was narrowly ratified. Such passions were not confined to Ireland. There was a marked symmetry between hard-line responses in Dublin and London. Mirroring anti-Treaty rhetoric, imperialists such as Lord Edward Carson spoke of their humiliation and shame at the formal recognition of Britain’s military defeat by a republican ‘murder gang’. In a striking inversion of the anti-Treaty fear that the settlement would permanently bind Ireland to Empire, they forecast the beginning of the end of Empire. Only time would tell which side was right.

Edward Carson, who was appalled at the formal recognition of Britain's defeat

The first half of 1922, rather than the Civil War that followed, marked the high-water mark of Anglo-Irish tensions as a series of initiatives by Collins to subvert the Treaty, including collaboration with the anti-Treaty IRA in support of northern Catholics, threatened to collapse the settlement. Following the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson by IRA men in London on 22 June, the British cabinet instructed a full-scale assault on the anti-Treaty forces at the Four Courts. The commander of British forces in Ireland, General Macready, delayed this reckless order which would have destroyed the Irish settlement. The standoff was ultimately resolved by the Provisional Government’s attack on the Four Courts on 28 June.

After the Treaty

Within two months, Griffith and Collins were dead. Tory critics of the Treaty enacted a ruthless – if less lethal – vengeance at a meeting of the Carlton Club several weeks later, terminating David Lloyd George’s reign as prime minster. By 1937, the Treaty settlement had effectively been scrapped. Ironically, this was due to the Irish Free State’s cooperation with other ‘restless dominions’ to assert their autonomy within the Commonwealth. Poignantly, the split that led to the Civil War had hinged on this question of whether the Treaty would permit a gradual evolution to full independence.

David Lloyd George British Prime Minister circa 1920. (Photo by Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
David Lloyd George circa 1920. The Treaty contributed to the end of his premiership. Photo by Mirrorpix via Getty Images

The intimate relationship between the frenemies who negotiated Irish independence prompted some unlikely public displays of affection, even if these partly reflected a self-interested desire to fashion political legacies. In his memoirs Winston Churchill fondly remembered Collins as ‘an Irish patriot, true and fearless’. He recounted how, shortly before the death of Collins, he had received a ‘valedictory message’ sent through their mutual friend Hazel Lavery: ‘Tell Winston we could never had done anything without him.’

You can watch Taking Sides on RTÉ Player here.