On December 6, 1921, the Irish delegates, under duress, pledged to recommend the deal. But the Dáil could reject it — a key distinction
The final days of the Treaty talks were chaotic. They included a mad dash back to Dublin, and a long last session with the British that stretched past midnight.
But the Irish delegates did not actually “sign the Treaty”. What they signed, in the early hours of December 6, 1921, were “articles of agreement” for a treaty. Oddly, the word “treaty” did not appear anywhere on the document then.
They bound nobody else. On that terrible night of December 5-6, 1921, the Irish delegates in London kicked for touch. They promised, under duress, to recommend the deal to Dáil Éireann. But the Dáil could reject it. It is an important distinction, glossed over by those who rejected the deal. Nothing was set in stone.
On the weekend before they signed, the delegates scrambled back to Dublin for an urgent cabinet meeting requested by Griffith. With talks on the verge of breakdown, he wanted to get things straight. De Valera still refused to lead them in London.
The delegates had an exhausting trip — overnight from London by train and boat, then an all-day cabinet meeting, and back overnight to meet the British the next day. To make matters worse, the mail boat carrying Michael Collins and Gavan Duffy collided with a schooner from Arklow, killing three men and forcing a long delay.
The meeting in Dublin on Saturday, December 3, was confused and inconclusive. Its official record is short and poor. People afterwards could not agree what had been agreed. Two of the seven cabinet ministers, Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack, had always been hostile to compromise. De Valera hedged his bets. Cosgrave kept quiet, and the three ministers who actually faced the British in London — Griffith, Collins and Barton — were left to do what they could.
Back in London on Sunday, delegates met Lloyd George that same day. They restated what had been their basic starting position, as de Valera wanted. Collins, fed up and knowing the inevitable outcome, stayed away. Instead, he wrote a depressed letter to his friend Kitty Kiernan.
Collins and Griffith had got from the British a commitment to a Boundary Commission, to redraw the border in a way they hoped would soon render Northern Ireland unviable. But de Valera had now shifted the focus back onto Ireland’s relationship with the king and Empire. Lloyd George had told Dev since the Truce in July that any new Irish state must retain a link with the Crown, such as Australia and Canada had.
The British believed that world opinion would not support the Irish if the Truce broke over a link with the Crown, but it would back Ireland if the British did not compromise on Ulster. So Lloyd George seized the opportunity when, on Dev’s behalf, Gavan Duffy again demanded a republic outside the existing Commonwealth.
Gavan Duffy said “our difficulty is coming within the Empire”. Griffith reported to Dev that: “They jumped up at this and conversation came to a close.” The British said they would announce the next day that negotiations had broken down.
Griffith was appalled. He stayed up past midnight, trying to retrieve a deal and to coax Collins to help him. Why go to London if not to compromise? They had won big changes. The British army was to leave the new state, which would be politically and economically independent. The proposed oath of allegiance of TDs to the king was replaced by an oath of faithfulness, although this still rankled many.
Griffith set up a special one-to-one meeting between Collins and Lloyd George on Monday morning (December 5). It got talks back on track, largely because Collins convinced himself that the Boundary Commission would deliver Tyrone and Fermanagh to the new Irish Free State. Later that night, the final meeting of both sides would end with an agreement signed.
Griffith’s immediate note of that meeting states: “Things were so strenuous and exhausting that the sequence of conversation is not in many cases clear in my mind today.” He added: “The conference opened with the British delegates in a bad mood. They had a full cabinet meeting previously and apparently had had a rough time.”
And Barton the following day informed de Valera that Lloyd George got excited: “He shook his papers in the air, declared that we were trying deliberately to bring about a break on Ulster because our people in Ireland had refused to come within the Empire and that Arthur Griffith was letting him down where he had promised not to do so.”
Lloyd George threw on the table part of the text of an internal British memo from early November that proposed a Boundary Commission. The text was not a “secret” document or a letter signed by Griffith, as some accounts claim. Griffith had discussed the idea of such a commission with Lloyd George and reported it to de Valera in early November. Griffith had avoided making commitments on it until a full proposal could be put to all five delegates. If Lloyd George deliberately used that text to sow confusion among the Irish, he succeeded.
Lloyd George’s stunt has been spun against Griffith ever since. Writers still refer to it without identifying the document’s origin. Yet it was quoted verbatim in a minute of the meeting Barton made next day at Griffith’s request, and the original is among Lloyd George’s papers in the UK Parliamentary Archives. It is reproduced and explained in my book Midnight in London.
Griffith described that final session as “a prolonged conference, on four occasions during which it was on the point of bursting to fragments”. Each side had held out the threat of renewed hostilities. But Lloyd George now upped the ante. The Irish would have to agree that night to a deal to put to the Dáil, or the Truce was over and war would resume.
Barton later told Dáil Éireann that: “In the struggle that ensued Arthur Griffith sought repeatedly to have the decision between war and peace on the terms of the Treaty referred back to this assembly [Dáil Éireann]. This proposal Mr Lloyd George directly negatived. He claimed that we were plenipotentiaries and that we must either accept or reject.”
Griffith, speaking for himself, said he would sign and accept Ireland remaining in the Empire or Commonwealth, “provided we came to agreement on other points”. He had not consulted the others before doing so. Whether he was playing for time or pushing his colleagues to decide as he had done, or both, is debatable.
After a long break and argument among themselves, the Irish signed just past two o’clock in the morning. Rather than walk away and risk outright war, they would propose the agreement to Dáil Éireann and let it decide if it wanted the Treaty.
Griffith declared optimistically: “What I have signed I shall stand by in the belief that the end of the conflict of centuries is at hand.” He and Collins saw the agreement as a stepping-stone to greater freedom, which it later became.
Collins has been quoted as telling a friend that when he signed the agreement he signed his own death warrant. Unfortunately, the sole source for that and certain other vivid quotations from Collins is anonymous and questionable.
In Dublin, though, de Valera was seething. Delegates had continually referred back to him — most recently at the confused cabinet meeting on Saturday. They did not revert again before signing the agreement after midnight.
For if Lloyd George was not bluffing — and the Irish delegates believed he was not — then walking out on December 6 would have meant immediate and outright war.
That was a nightmare few believed could yield Sinn Féin more than it had already won.
In fact a majority of the Irish cabinet now backed the deal. Cosgrave declared for it. De Valera could not stop it being debated in the Dáil.
The Dáil was more republican than the country at large, being dominated by a Sinn Féin party whose deputies in many constituencies had been returned unopposed — and in many had significant minorities of constituents (both nationalist and unionist) that were more conservative than Sinn Féin.
Yet even the Sinn Féin Dáil would in January approve the Treaty, proposed by their delegates in London. Deputies assessed the mood of their constituencies during Christmas 1921, and it was largely favourable.
Dr Colum Kenny is professor emeritus DCU, and author of ‘Midnight in London: The Anglo-Irish Treaty Crisis 1921’ (Eastwood Books, €9.99)
Colum Kenny’s Truce to Treaty series continues on January 2: Dáil Éireann approves the Treaty. Griffith replaces de Valera as president. Dev threatens civil war.