In the summer of 1921, Jan Smuts, prime minister of the South African Union, a self-governing dominion of the British Empire, was in the UK on imperial business. Part of his mission was to try and persuade Eamon de Valera, President of Sinn Féin (SF) to accept dominion status for Ireland within the British Empire rather than insist on an Irish Republic.
De Valera claimed such a question was for the Irish people to decide, and Smuts tellingly responded: "The British people will never give you this choice. You are next door to them." Writing from the Savoy Hotel in London, Smuts also noted, "To you, the Republic is the true expression of national self-determination. But it is not the only expression."
De Valera's bombshell
This correspondence presaged what was to become a major controversy surrounding the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiated between a SF delegation and their British government counterparts led by Prime Minister David Lloyd George and including Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, Lord Privy Seal Austen Chamberlain and Lord Chancellor Birkenhead, from October to early December 1921.
The conference, three months after a truce that halted military conflict between the Irish Republican Army and British Crown Forces, was arranged "with a view to ascertaining how the association of nations known as the British Empire may best be reconciled with Irish national aspirations".
De Valera's bombshell at the outset, however, was that he was not going to London. He offered various explanations: that he needed to avoid compromising the Republic; or be in a position, uncontaminated by negotiations, to reopen dialogue in case of a breakdown in the negotiations; or to rally the people in the event of resistance; or to act as a kind of "final court of appeal to avert whatever Britain might attempt to pull over".
De Valera justified his selection of the SF negotiating team (or Plenipotentiaries to give them their official title) on the basis that the team he chose, especially Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, representing the Irish Republican Brotherhood and "moderates" respectively, "would form a well-balanced team".
The accusation that he was making a scapegoat of Collins persisted. But as one of Collins's biographers, Peter Hart, has pointed out, while Collins did not want to travel to the negotiations without de Valera, the notion of Collins as the military purist, loathe to grasp the art of negotiations, is not credible. He sat on the executive of his party, was Minister for Finance and a skilled administrator, and was not going to baulk at the prospect of being centre stage in the search for a solution.
De Valera continued to insist, right up to the 1960s, "There seemed to be no good reason why I should be on the delegation." This was disingenuous. There were very obvious reasons, including his experience, stature, and the fact that members of his own party wanted him there. Robert Barton, however, who was part of the SF delegation, had a different perspective:
"If negotiations should break down when he was with us that was the end but if they broke down without him there would always be a last recourse to him. It was good tactics...I entirely agreed with the original decision but thought it should have been reversed by the time we reached the final stage."
De Valera also had his own "external association" proposal, by which Ireland would be an independent country within the Commonwealth, associating with it for defence purposes, and recognising the Crown as "external" head of the Commonwealth. But he acknowledged that he knew such proposals would probably be "unacceptable to those whose political upbringing had been based on 'separatism'".
The plenipotentiaries were furnished with credentials, which, it appeared, gave them the right to "negotiate and conclude [a settlement] on behalf of Ireland", but they were also told to remain in contact with the remaining SF cabinet members in Dublin, and to supply it with a copy of any draft treaty before signing the final draft.
This was confusing: did the delegation actually have full plenipotentiary rights? Or was this sleight of hand? After all, the Dáil had agreed that the delegates would "be given a free hand in [the] negotiations and duly report to the Dáil', but the cabinet in effect privately limited their power and directed that it should have the final word on any agreement.
The negotiation of the Treaty was fascinating because of the political strategies employed by both sides and the human dilemmas the process created. The British were, in the words of Lloyd George "after a settlement – that was our objective" and its delegation included both those who had supported and rejected the third Irish Home Rule bill in 1912. They were particularly preoccupied with Empire, Crown and Defence, but there was still an ambiguity as to what dominion status meant.
The Irish delegation was, according to Michael Laffan, "badly briefed; in particular the negotiations were already under way before de Valera revealed to Griffith what his policy on the Ulster question should be".
This policy was that Ulster constituencies should be able to choose if they wanted to be ruled from Dublin and those in favour of remaining under Belfast rule could stay under the Northern Ireland parliament, formally established in June 1921, which would be subordinate to a Dublin parliament; what was regarded as "essential unity" for Ireland.
Tom Jones, secretary to the British delegation, recorded in his diary that Lloyd George feared that, if advance Irish allegiance to the Crown and membership of the Empire was not made non-negotiable, "the discussion might become entangled in the Ulster problem", and he did not feel he had a strong case in this regard: "Men will die for throne and Empire. I do not know who will die for Tyrone and Fermanagh."
But, with Ireland already partitioned, he also had to deal with the obduracy of the prime minister of the new Northern Ireland, James Craig, who was determined, in Ronan Fanning's words, "to sit on Ulster like a rock" and give nothing away. Lloyd-George, suggests Fanning, "devoted as much energy to soothing the Ulster Unionists" as he did to negotiating with SF's plenipotentiaries, and the contentions "we are committed to the six county area" and that Ulster could not be "forced in" to a unitary Ireland remained steadfast.
The Irish delegation also had to contend with internal divisions. It was revealing, for example, that Erskine Childers was reporting back independently to de Valera and was distrusted by the British side to the extent they sought to set up separate meetings that would exclude him.
Robert Barton, chosen as SF's economic expert, was considered by the British government to be the head of the de Valera–Childers faction and he too was sidelined; this animosity towards him came to be shared by Griffith, exposing a dangerous split among the Irish delegation.
Barton was also there to push the "external association" idea but Griffith criticised Barton and another SF negotiator, George Gavan Duffy, for "being too emphatic and creating the wrong atmosphere" in talks concerning trade and neutrality.
Peace by ordeal
In 1935, writer and politician Frank Pakenham produced a quality account of the Treaty negotiations, Peace by Ordeal, which has retained its status. He had the advantage of being able to talk to key participants on both sides.
Pakenham underlined the consequences of the tensions and distance between the Irish negotiators in London and their colleagues who remained in Dublin, and the extent to which the Irish delegation was outmanoeuvred by the British in relation to a boundary commission clause in the Treaty which they were led to believe would result in an alteration to the border, making the state of Northern Ireland unviable.
The Irish Free State
They were sold a pup on that issue, but overall, the Irish delegates negotiated a measure of independence that some more than others believed was substantial; a dominion under the title Irish Free State (Saorstát). The contentious issues that came up for discussion during the negotiations included recognition of the right of Northern Ireland to self-government, British military presence in Ireland and the oath of allegiance to the British Crown to be taken by members of an Irish parliament.
De Valera, staying at home and yet wanting to fully participate, was eventually to frustrate members of the Irish delegation, as they pointed out in no uncertain terms to de Valera on 26 October 1921, in a letter in which they berated him for tying their hands in discussion and raising doubts about their powers:
"We strongly resent, in the position in which we are placed, the interference with our powers. The responsibility, if this interference breaks the very slight possibility there is of settlement, will not and must not rest on the plenipotentiaries".
De Valera in the dark
Griffith and Collins kept de Valera in the dark about their secret dealings with Lloyd George and Tom Jones who wrote of the "private discussions and bargaining" that went on. Barton later recalled,
"possibly Lloyd George felt that he could make more progress with Griffith and Collins than he had made with a full delegation...It was not until later that Gavan Duffy, Childers and I realised that Griffith and Collins were prepared to settle for less than we thought it possible to obtain.
We had trusted them fully. We had complete confidence in them up to that time. Griffith fought magnificent actions during the full conference. We had no reason to suppose at the time that he would agree in private to anything which he had not been agreeing to with five of us present...It was decided that one of us must go to Dublin to acquaint the Cabinet and de Valera that we were not at all sure that the reports given us of what transpired at private conferences were comprehensive."
By the middle of November a few things were clear: dominion status within the Empire was on offer, with British bases in Ireland to guarantee security and defence and a provision to allow Ulster unionists one year to opt out of the new Irish state. If done, this would make the unionists subject to the 1920 Government of Ireland Act that had created the new state of Northern Ireland, and a boundary commission to examine the future of Irish partition.
A fraught meeting
The delegates travelled back to Dublin on 2 December for a fraught and inconclusive meeting of the SF cabinet in Dublin. On 5 December Jones recorded the degree to which events were taking their toll on Griffith: "he was labouring under a deep sense of the crisis...one was bound to feel that to break with him would be infinitely tragic."
The Irish delegation gained some final concessions on the wording of the oath of allegiance (prescribing allegiance in the first instance to the constitution of the Irish Free State) and financial autonomy, a matter of considerable importance to Griffith as the architect of SF's protectionist economic plans.
But as recorded by Jones, there was more drama, with Lloyd-George insisting he would not countenance any more cross channel hopping: "The Irish had to sign and disregard whatever their Sinn Féin mandate said, or, if they believed the Prime Minister, face the accumulated might of the British forces...Griffith undertook, whatever the reply, to sign the Treaty himself...but this was not enough for the Prime Minister who wanted the same assurances from Collins and Barton".
Lloyd George threatened war within three days if the answer was no; he had cornered the delegation who were not in a strong position to call his bluff.
After a tortured meeting at their headquarters, the Irish delegation signed the eighteen-article treaty at ten minutes past two on the morning of 6 December and in doing so not only formally reached a historic Anglo-Irish compromise, but also set the scene for a fatal division of the Irish republican movement.
This article is part of the War of Independence 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.