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Truce to Treaty Part 5: Irish cheer talks, optimism in London

A century ago this month Sinn Féin’s Arthur Griffith and his fellow delegates made their way to Downing Street to negotiate the Anglo-Irish Treaty

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The Irish team, at 22 Hans Place: Back row, left to right: Diarmuid O’Hegarty, John Smith Chartres, George Gavan Duffy (delegate), Robert Barton (delegate), Éamonn Duggan (delegate), Arthur Griffith (chairman and delegate), Erskine Childers and (stooping) Fionán Lynch. Seated left are Joe McGrath (in bowtie) and an unidentified man. Seated front, left to right: Lily Brennan, Ellie Lyons, May Duggan, Brighid Lynch, Kathleen McKenna and Alice Lyons. Michael Collins is absent. Courtesy National Library of Ireland.

The Irish team, at 22 Hans Place: Back row, left to right: Diarmuid O’Hegarty, John Smith Chartres, George Gavan Duffy (delegate), Robert Barton (delegate), Éamonn Duggan (delegate), Arthur Griffith (chairman and delegate), Erskine Childers and (stooping) Fionán Lynch. Seated left are Joe McGrath (in bowtie) and an unidentified man. Seated front, left to right: Lily Brennan, Ellie Lyons, May Duggan, Brighid Lynch, Kathleen McKenna and Alice Lyons. Michael Collins is absent. Courtesy National Library of Ireland.

October 11, 1921: Griffith at Downing Street. Courtesy National Library of Ireland.

October 11, 1921: Griffith at Downing Street. Courtesy National Library of Ireland.

The Irish base in London: 22 Hans Place.

The Irish base in London: 22 Hans Place.

Sunday Independent, 9 Oct. 1921.

Sunday Independent, 9 Oct. 1921.

'Punch magazine', October 12, 1921

'Punch magazine', October 12, 1921

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The Irish team, at 22 Hans Place: Back row, left to right: Diarmuid O’Hegarty, John Smith Chartres, George Gavan Duffy (delegate), Robert Barton (delegate), Éamonn Duggan (delegate), Arthur Griffith (chairman and delegate), Erskine Childers and (stooping) Fionán Lynch. Seated left are Joe McGrath (in bowtie) and an unidentified man. Seated front, left to right: Lily Brennan, Ellie Lyons, May Duggan, Brighid Lynch, Kathleen McKenna and Alice Lyons. Michael Collins is absent. Courtesy National Library of Ireland.

Thousands of Irish emigrants thronged Euston railway station in London. They came to support negotiators arriving by train from Holyhead. Bands played The Soldier’s Song and marched behind cars carrying Treaty delegates through cheering Irish crowds.

As talks opened on October 11, 1921, photographers snapped a determined Arthur Griffith arriving at Downing Street. It was a moment of pride for Sinn Féin, the movement he had founded 16 years earlier.

The Treaty could not unite an already partitioned island yet it marked the limits of British coercion. As Punch magazine joked, a new Irish independent state might not be all harp (a republic) but it could be harp and crown (as a dominion sharing the king, as Canada was).

It is a mistake to think the Treaty partitioned Ireland. The six counties of Northern Ireland were already a constitutional entity under the UK Government of Ireland Act 1920 when Dev met Lloyd George in London in July 1921 to talk about peace talks. Northern Ireland had its own parliament, which had met even before a truce in the War of Independence was agreed. Dev himself, in August 1921, rejected “force with Ulster” as unlikely to succeed.

“Get the best price you can for the cow,” de Valera is said to have bid Arthur Griffith as the Treaty team left for London in October. But he also warned, according to Griffith, that there might have to be scapegoats.

Until November the British leaned on Northern Ireland to come into some kind of all-Ireland arrangement. Between the rock of Northern premier James Craig’s Ulster inflexibility and the hard place of de Valera’s political absolutism, that option soon perished. Matters were not helped in October by reports of a long telegram from Dev to Pope Benedict XV, briefing him contentiously on Anglo-Irish politics.

When Northern Ireland refused point blank to be part of any new all-Ireland dominion, even with an internal Irish border and its own local parliament, an Article was inserted in the proposed Treaty providing for a boundary commission to delimit or redraw the existing border instead.  

Griffith led Michael Collins and the three other Irish delegates (Robert Barton, George Gavan Duffy and Éamonn Duggan) into No.10 Downing Street. As captain of the team Griffith sensed victory. Collins surely laughed at his own position. Just months earlier the British had been trying to kill him. Now British prime minister Lloyd George welcomed him.

Inside Downing Street on that October day, Griffith’s team was ushered into the presence of some of the most powerful politicians in the world. What went through their heads as they anticipated meeting the acerbic Winston Churchill? Or Edward Carson’s unionist friend Lord Birkenhead? Or Sir Hamar Greenwood, chief secretary for Ireland, whom many blamed for the black and tans?

The British fielded a team of seven against the Irish five, an imbalance that appears not to have bothered the Irish.

Prime minister Lloyd George had already sat his delegates on one side of the conference table, and then stood alone by the door of the meeting room to greet the Irish one by one. Each Irishman was led directly to a chair on the table’s opposite side, avoiding further handshakes, and none was placed directly facing Greenwood.

When Lloyd George ended his opening statement, it was Griffith’s turn. Griffith talked in his usual quiet voice, “only just audible” according to one person present, and for five minutes at most. When he stopped, the prime minister was taken by surprise.

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As the respective chairmen, Griffith and Lloyd George had a job to do, a deal to make. Griffith set a positive tone in his opening statement: “We feel that from the days of Pitt onwards it has been the policy of this country to keep Ireland in a subordinate position. It is possible that there is a new England.” Soon they were grappling with practical matters such as free trade and tariffs.

Irish delegates and their team of advisers and administrators rented two houses near one another in Chelsea/Kensington. Michael Collins and his security detail (Volunteers) were based at 15 Cadogan Gardens. He is absent from the group photo of his colleagues with the Treaty back-up team.

Most of the Irish stayed at 22 Hans Place in a tall red-brick building where a visiting Collins was photographed alone on the balcony one day. At night, outside on the pavement, someone daubed in big red letters the word “MURDERERS”.

From these houses the Irish, including Collins, attended Mass frequently or services, and sometimes went to a theatre or restaurant. British newspapers speculated about bulges in the pockets of the Irish bodyguards. Were men who a few months ago had been trying to kill Crown forces now allowed armed on Downing Street itself? 

Robert Erskine Childers, one of the secretaries to the Irish team, attended the main meetings in Downing Street. He had been a trusted member of the British civil and military establishment but in 1919 went over to Irish republicanism. The Anglo-Irish Childers grew particularly close to de Valera in Dublin and reported to him independently during the Treaty talks. Some suspected he was a British spy.

He stands beside Griffith in the team photo at Hans Place. Griffith came to distrust Childers, who was obsessive. In an outburst during the later Treaty debate in Dáil Éireann – one that was applauded by some deputies but that Griffith’s wife later said he regretted Griffith struck the table and declared he would not reply to “any damned Englishman” in the Dáil.

The Tory leader Austin Chamberlain, in coalition government with Lloyd George and one of the British Treaty negotiators, later described Childers sitting “aloof and hostile” behind Griffith in Downing Street. Chamberlain asked: “Is it a mere trick of fancy that when I conjure up his features, his face is always in shadow as dark as the thoughts behind it?”

Various attitudes towards Childers, executed while on the anti-Treaty side in 1922 for possessing a weapon during the Civil War, reflect the bitterness and distrust that has undermined political relationships on both sides of the Irish Sea. His son Erskine became President of Ireland in 1973.

In December 1921 Childers gave the Dáil a long list of the meetings between Irish and British delegates in London. This showed just how drawn out negotiations were. Besides the meetings attended by all delegates (seven such plenary sessions in October alone), committees were formed on naval and air defence, financial relations and the observance of the truce.  

There were also 24 significant sub-conferences. These were usually attended by just Griffith and Collins on one side, and by Lloyd George and up to three British ministers on the other.

De Valera declined to end such sub-conferences when delegates Gavan Duffy and Barton found them divisive. Dev himself, after all, had met Lloyd George on his own during the talks about talks in London in July 1921, leaving even Griffith outside the door. There were now, too, special planning meetings with the UK cabinet secretary.

But talking had to stop. They had gone to do a deal. Neither Dáil Éireann nor the Volunteers (IRA) had the ability to force Northern Ireland into an all-Ireland state against its wishes. And having set up Northern Ireland a year earlier, Britain would not use force to compel it militarily to be part of a united Ireland. The Treaty did not create the divide between nationalism and unionism, and could not end it. It would reflect existing reality.

During October both sides identified issues to be settled. These included Northern Ireland’s relationship to Britain and to any new Irish state, the use of Irish facilities by British forces, the extent of Irish financial powers and the role of the Crown in an Irish Free State. Here, at least, compromises might just be possible. The line of the new border presented special problems. 

Prof Colum Kenny’s latest book ‘Midnight in London: The Anglo-Irish Treaty Crisis 1921’ (Eastwood Books, €9.99) is published this week

Next month: 
Colum Kenny’s Truce to Treaty series continues on November 7: Tensions mount over King and Empire; redrawing the Irish border


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