To sign or not to sign, that was the question. On the evening of December 5, 1921, five Dáil Éireann TDs gathered at 22 Hans Place in West London to decide whether to accept the proposed Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland.
Two months earlier Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, Robert Barton, George Gavan Duffy, and Eamonn Duggan had arrived at 10 Downing Street to negotiate Ireland’s constitutional relationship with the British Empire.
The stakes could not have been higher: war or peace in Ireland. Colum Kenny’s indispensable Midnight in London portrays in vivid detail the final days, hours, and minutes of those historic negotiations.
Studiously researched and beautifully written, Midnight in London captures the atmosphere of the negotiations.
The book provides snapshots of the plenipotentiaries’ lives in London — protracted negotiations at Downing Street, evening visits from unexpected visitors at Hans Place (George Bernard Shaw), and the occasional social engagement with John (and Hazel) Lavery at Cromwell Place.
The memoirs of Kathleen Napoli McKenna, private secretary to Arthur Griffith, are used to illustrative effect. Kenny brings the reader behind the scenes at 10 Downing Street, profiling the British negotiating team, from the mesmeric British Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George, to the monacled Conservative Party leader Austen Chamberlain.
Three substantive issues occupied the minds of the opposing negotiating teams: Ireland’s constitutional link to the Empire, an oath of allegiance to the British monarchy, and partition.
Kenny’s study focuses heavily on the latter, mapping out the alternatives to the extant six-county Northern Ireland discussed in London — local plebiscites, county option, boundary commission.
More, perhaps, could have been written on the opposing symbols of ‘Republic’ and ‘Empire’.
De Valera’s mathematical formulation (“external association”), submitted from Dublin, sought to square the circle — an independent Irish Republic would voluntarily associate itself with the British Empire. Like Banquo’s ghost, de Valera’s presence was felt by all in the negotiations.
The ‘final’ British proposals, presented on December 1, offered Irish nationalists a self-governing dominion within the British Empire — the Irish Free State.
Members of the Free State parliament would be required to swear an “oath of fidelity” to King George V and his successors. Northern Ireland would be allowed to “opt out” of the Irish Free State within one month of its establishment, at which point a Boundary Commission would be created to determine the territorial border between north and south.
Midnight in London’s account of the final days of the negotiations is its signature achievement. Through meticulous reading of the (often conflicting) first-hand accounts, Kenny recreates the tempestuous eight-hour Dáil cabinet meeting of December 3, during which the British terms were assessed.
The patent ambiguity of de Valera’s response to the British proposal, Kenny suggests, marked his refusal to countenance anything short of his own peace terms. Exhausted by de Valera’s intransigence, Griffith and Collins returned to London to agree a settlement.
The novella-style narrative places the plenipotentiaries at 10 Downing Street once more, wherein the dramatic events of December 5 threatened to collapse the peace talks.
Kenny’s study is highly sympathetic to Griffith’s skilful leadership, even in the face of Lloyd George’s ultimatum to accept the British proposals or “war within three days”.
Walking through west London on the centenary of the Treaty negotiations, I was reminded of Michael Collins’ evocative letter to Kitty Kiernan from his own residence at Cadogan Gardens on December 4, 1921: “The outlook now is not inviting — through smoky, grimy windows, to a drab Square. Very, very unpleasant indeed — different from our own places, but then there’s a job to be done, and for the moment here is the place.”
Twenty-four hours later, Collins would brave the dense winter fog and the secret service agents stalking the gardens of Hans Place, to join the rest of the Irish delegation in deciding that momentous question: to sign or not to sign.
Kenny’s book records with remarkable acuity the turmoil, tragedy, and terrible human toll exacted on the plenipotentiaries in those final hours of December 5.
Dr Darragh Gannon is lecturer in Irish Studies at University College Dublin. His next book, ‘Conflict, Diaspora and Empire: Irish Nationalism in Great Britain, 1912-1922’, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.