| 11.3°C Dublin

Truce to Treaty Part 3: Pragmatic Dev views partition as inevitable

Éamon de Valera surprised republicans in 1921 by recognising how dangerous it would be to try to force Northern unionists into a united Ireland 

Close

Meeting of the 2nd Dáil, at Dublin’s Mansion House, August 1921. Many members of the public attended. Picture courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Meeting of the 2nd Dáil, at Dublin’s Mansion House, August 1921. Many members of the public attended. Picture courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Michael Collins stands and addresses Dáil Éireann, at Dublin’s Mansion House, August 26, 1921. Seated in armchairs to his left are Arthur Griffith and Éamon de Valera. Facing him is the Dáil’s Speaker Eoin MacNeill, elected for Co. Londonderry. The public sits behind a rope. Picture courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Michael Collins stands and addresses Dáil Éireann, at Dublin’s Mansion House, August 26, 1921. Seated in armchairs to his left are Arthur Griffith and Éamon de Valera. Facing him is the Dáil’s Speaker Eoin MacNeill, elected for Co. Londonderry. The public sits behind a rope. Picture courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

“Bruree Worker’s Soviet”, published Irish Independent September 7, 1921. Picture courtesy of John Harrold.

“Bruree Worker’s Soviet”, published Irish Independent September 7, 1921. Picture courtesy of John Harrold.

Sunday Independent, August 21, 1921.

Sunday Independent, August 21, 1921.

/

Meeting of the 2nd Dáil, at Dublin’s Mansion House, August 1921. Many members of the public attended. Picture courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

It was, wrote one reporter, “the most memorable gathering that has been held in Dublin in our recent history”. The post-Truce Dáil met for the first time on August 16, 1921, in Dublin’s Mansion House. In a “pitiless downpour”, members of the public queued to be admitted and many had to be turned away. Inside a crowded Round Room, the new TDs stood up. They recited together an oath to “support and defend the Irish Republic”.

But when the Dáil met again the following week there was a surprise for hardline republicans. Its president, Éamon de Valera, told TDs that, “for his part, if the Republic were recognised, he would be in favour of giving each county power to vote itself out of the Republic if it so wished. Otherwise they would be compelled to use force”.

A striking photo of a crowded Dáil that August shows Michael Collins on his feet talking as Griffith and de Valera look on.

That Dev conceded so early the right of unionist counties to opt out of an independent Ireland seems remarkable today. Many people think the later Treaty split that year was mainly about the Border. But Ireland had been partitioned by the British in 1920, and Northern Ireland already had a working parliament. During 1921, Dev saw how dangerous it was to try to force unionists into a united Ireland. 

De Valera still hoped to extract a high price for partition in terms of the symbols of an independent republic. The split, when it came, would be about an oath of “faithfulness” to the king as ultimate head of the Irish Free State and about the Irish Free State’s membership of the British Empire or “Commonwealth”. If the state could not be 32 counties then Dev demanded it be a republic outside the Empire. 

In one Dáil debate that August, held behind closed doors, de Valera bluntly told deputies that “they had not the power, and some of them had not the inclination, to use force with Ulster. He did not think that policy would be successful. They would be making the same mistake with that section as England had made with Ireland”.

Dev made it clear that day that “he would not be responsible for such a policy. Ulster’s present position was that she claimed the Six Counties as a constitutional right given to her constitutionally through the Realm and did not want to be under the domination of the rest of Ireland whose sentiments, ideals and religion were different”.

His speech has implications for Ireland today as unionists insist on their separate identity even as they may become a minority in Northern Ireland. Dev said then: “Ulster would say she was as devotedly attached to the Empire as they were to their independence and that she would fight for one as much as they would do for the other. In case of coercion she would get sympathy and help from her friends all over the world.”

Dev had seen the future reality when he met British prime minister David Lloyd George alone four times in London in July 1921. 

The Irish struggle for independence was driven by two general elections when, in 1918 and May 1921, Sinn Féin swept the board in Ireland outside Ulster. There was a strong and irresistible democratic mandate for change. The electorate had more than doubled in 1918, when women and poorer people got the vote.

Leading the struggle were three men: Éamon de Valera, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. They were an unholy trinity in which Griffith was the father figure. “Hasn’t he made us all?” asked his later opponent Harry Boland. Collins was the miracle-worker or saviour. There were even wild rumours he was born with a cross on his back. Dev was guardian of the symbols. Between them there were strains. Griffith was pragmatic, Collins decisive and de Valera cerebral.

Griffith founded their movement, Sinn Féin. He was president-substitute in the Dáil while Dev was in America between June 1919 and December 1920. He played a key role in urging advanced nationalist ideas. He approved necessary military action during the War of Independence but distrusted political violence.

Daily Digest Newsletter

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan's exclusive take on the day's news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

Collins was the military strategist who ran rings around Crown forces as they tried to capture him. He killed their spies and earned a reputation as daredevil and hero. But he was also a serious administrator and the revolutionary Dáil’s minister for finance.

De Valera, president of the Dáil, was now prime mover of whatever would happen next. He used the Dáil as a platform to put pressure on Lloyd George.

From London’s perspective, Lloyd George had been generous to the Irish when he met de Valera in July. Just weeks earlier the English had been jailing or trying to kill many Sinn Féin leaders and to suppress by force the democratic wishes of the Irish people.

Now Lloyd George’s Liberal-Tory coalition was offering Ireland Dominion status almost on a par with that of Canada. Ireland would have financial and legal autonomy, as well as its own police and local defence forces.

But there were catches, and there was no provision yet to alter the new Northern Ireland border in line with the wishes of the people living near it. The British also point blank ruled out a full republic.

De Valera was to spend August and September jockeying for position with Lloyd George, with a string of letters exchanged between Dublin and London. It was a dangerous game of brinkmanship as extremists in England and Ireland were ready to fill the void. 

A reminder of the living conditions of Irish people during this period of turmoil was the dispute at Bruree, Co Limerick, where in late August 1921 members of the Transport Union briefly occupied Cleeve’s bakery and mills and hoisted a red flag.

Emigration was continuing to drain Ireland, and hardship was widespread.

Promising to sell bread cheaper, the occupying workers painted a slogan on the mills, declaring: “We make bread not profits.” 

An Irish Independent reporter who visited the “Bruree Workers’ Soviet Mills” found that the workers “did an unusually large retail trade, consequent upon a cut in the prices”. Those carrying on the business had given themselves a raise in wages of seven shillings and sixpence all round.

The same reporter found that the workers’ action “was viewed generally around Bruree with unconcerned humour”. But a Sinn Féin government struggling to assert its authority was not laughing.

Just as Griffith and Collins would have to face hard decisions when anti-Treaty forces occupied the Four Courts in 1922, de Valera in 1921 faced challenges to his government’s authority.

It was said that Sinn Féin’s minister for labour Constance Markievicz threatened to send IRA volunteers to evict occupying bakery workers if they did not accept arbitration. By September 7 the owners were again in control. 

Meanwhile, in Ulster the new government of Northern Ireland was consolidating its position. On August 23, 1921, the cabinet in Belfast agreed to purchase Stormont Estate as the site for a new parliament building. The unionists were literally digging in.

On August 29 fierce fighting broke out in Belfast, lasting for more than 10 hours and leaving two dead and 10 wounded. Rifles, revolvers and bombs were used.

In London the Daily News, which had been founded by Charles Dickens in 1846, told readers that “large parts of Tyrone and Fermanagh, not to mention Derry City, are preparing to rebel against ‘the Government of Northern Ireland’”.

The paper added this ominous line: ‘They intend to give the Protestants of the North-East a taste of their own 1914 medicine”. This was a reference to loyalist gun-running and resistance to Home Rule by the UVF in 1914.

In late August, the Westminster Gazette urged people to “concentrate on the common will to peace rather than on the difficulties that lie in the way”. But for de Valera and Lloyd George that was proving to be easier said than done. 

Professor Colum Kenny, of DCU, is author of ‘The Enigma of Arthur Griffith: Father of Us All’ 

The Truce to Treaty series continues on September 5: British cabinet tensions; Harry Boland sees Lloyd George in Scotland.


Most Watched





Privacy