By refusing to accept the Dáil vote, de Valera inflamed anti-Treaty military action
On January 7, 1922, Dáil Éireann approved the Anglo-Irish Treaty, by 64 votes to 57. On June 16, 1922, voters, in a general election in the 26 counties, firmly endorsed its decision.
This was democracy in action — the same politics that had let Sinn Féin win its first national victory in 1918 and establish Dáil Éireann in 1919. That victory, under a recent UK reform that greatly increased the number of people entitled to vote, meant there was no going back for Ireland.
The Treaty debates in Dáil Éireann were bitter. The character of principal players was reflected in their choice of transport to the Dáil: “Mr de Valera drove up in a somewhat old-fashioned car; Mr Michael Collins lolled back in a Rolls-Royce [the brand that Treaty delegates first used in London to look statesmanlike]; Mr Arthur Griffith balanced himself on the side of a jaunting car; Mr Cathal Brugha laboriously pedalled along on a bicycle,” wrote one reporter.
Things might have turned out better had de Valera accepted the Dáil vote. He could have curtailed or even prevented civil war, and helped to maximise the promise of the Treaty’s Boundary Commission that Collins and Griffith believed would greatly reduce the extent of partition imposed by Britain in 1920.
All five Irish negotiators signed the Treaty in London, and then proposed it to Dáil Éireann, and voted for it in January 1922. They felt there was nothing more that could be won at that point.
This is clear from contributions to the Dáil of the two most militant (if also most socially privileged) Treaty delegates, George Gavan Duffy and Robert Barton. Gavan Duffy said on December 21, 1921: “I am going to recommend this Treaty to you very reluctantly, but very sincerely, because I see no alternative.”
Barton said he signed the agreement in London “because I judged that violation to be the lesser of alternative outrages forced upon me, and between which I was compelled to choose”.
The greater outrage was a return to worse war with Britain and possible military defeat and devastation. Barton in the end had pleaded in vain with de Valera to come to London in December.
The Treaty was real politics as the art of the possible. The chairman of the Treaty team, Arthur Griffith, did his best.
When Griffith founded Sinn Féin in 1905, he had conceived it as a broad movement. Within it advanced nationalists of various shades shared one ultimate objective: independence. Its aims were more radical than Home Rule. The Irish Free State would now resemble Canada politically.
Major achievements of the Treaty were in plain sight, yet later became obscured by controversy over compromises felt to be necessary then.
Firstly, the British army was leaving most of Ireland. This was a stunning achievement set against centuries of failed efforts to drive English military forces off the island.
Secondly, there was now an independent Irish parliament, one with equal rights for Catholics and non-Catholics. Thirdly, Ireland would enjoy a level of economic or fiscal autonomy unimaginable when Griffith founded Sinn Féin.
Most Dáil deputies regarded the Irish concessions of an oath of fidelity to the king, membership of the Commonwealth and temporary British use of some Irish ports as distasteful — but worth the deal.
The moral force of the democratic mandate of 1918, and the physical force of republican Volunteers in the War of Independence which Dáil Éireann sanctioned against British repression of that mandate, had compelled London to compromise.
But British imperial realities and the strong sentiment of armed Ulster unionists meant that Sinn Féin must compromise too. And, as Prime Minister Lloyd George told Michael Collins in London, “no compromise is logically defensible”.
Within months Griffith and Collins would be dead. And the top UK negotiators — Liberal Lloyd George and his Tory coalition partner Austen Chamberlain — were soon driven from office.
Lloyd George’s British foes saw him as an appeaser, who let Griffith lead Sinn Féin rebels through the front door in Downing Street and conceded more than he should have. He would later be criticised when, in 1936, he met Adolf Hitler in Bavaria and listed his “achievements”. But some Irish republicans found him not appeasing enough as regards their ultimate demands.
Winston Churchill later wrote: “The Irish Treaty and its circumstances were unforgivable by the most tenacious elements in the Conservative Party. Even among those who steadfastly supported it there were many who said, ‘It must needs be that offences come, but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh.’” His biblical quotation (Matthew 18:7) was apt for both the British and Irish negotiators.
When Dev lost the Treaty vote he resigned as Dáil president, and Griffith replaced him. In early 1922 the New York Times published a striking image of Griffith as “Head of the Irish Free State”.
He looked happy and confident. Yet he would collapse and die in August, during a civil war that broke his heart. A week later, Michael Collins was killed.
Griffith had hoped de Valera would not split. There were grounds for his optimism. For, in 1921, de Valera had forecast the creation of an active Dáil opposition when he outlined what might happen if Sinn Féin members disagreed about the result of Treaty negotiations.
On August 23, 1921, he told the Dáil: “It is obvious that whenever there are negotiations, unless you are able to dictate terms you will have differences. Therefore it is obvious you will have sharp differences.”
He added: “The [Dáil’s] Ministry itself may not be able to agree and in such a case the majority would rule. Those who would disagree with me would resign.”
Clearly, from these words, Dev never thought that he himself would be in the minority, outvoted by a majority of his own cabinet and the Dáil.
In that remarkable 1921 speech, Dev also said: “I am looking at the worst possible thing that could happen, that if the plenipotentiaries go to negotiate a treaty or a peace, seeing that we are not in the position that we can dictate the terms, we will, therefore, have proposals brought back which cannot satisfy everybody, and will not, and my position is that when such a time comes I will be in a position, having discussed the matter with the Cabinet, to come forward with such proposals as we think wise and right.
"It will be then for you either to accept the recommendations of the Ministry or reject them. If you reject them you then elect a new Ministry. You would then be creating a definite active opposition.”
How many of the Irish public knew that de Valera had said this in 1921?
How many were aware that he also told the Dáil then that he had not the inclination to use force against Ulster, that it would not work, and that Ulster counties should have the right to vote themselves out of any republic?
During the Treaty debates, in a private session, de Valera floated his “Document No. 2”. This was an alternative treaty proposal that he himself could have argued in London during negotiations in late 1921, instead of staying at home as a hurler on the ditch.
It reiterated rejected demands that the Irish should remain outside the Commonwealth and not swear fidelity to the king.
But de Valera knew, from his four private sessions of talks about peace talks with Lloyd George in London in July 1921, that this was where London drew the line.
By March 1922 newspapers were reporting that Dev was warning voters that if they chose pro-Treaty candidates in the forthcoming general election then anti-Treaty forces would have to “wade through Irish blood”, and “perhaps through that of some of the members of the Irish Government”.
He did not lead anti-Treaty military action, but he inflamed it.
So it was not only Lloyd George who threatened the Irish with bloody warfare. In de Valera’s case, the threats were soon to become a reality.
Four years earlier, when militants had pushed Griffith aside to make de Valera president of Sinn Féin, Dev claimed “moral instincts and common sense” meant he would “never act contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church as I have always known it”.
In 1922 his moral instincts led him to attack the emerging Irish Free State.
Dr Colum Kenny, professor emeritus DCU, is author of ‘The Enigma of Arthur Griffith: “Father of Us All”’ (Merrion Press, 2020) and ‘Midnight in London: The Anglo-Irish Treaty Crisis 1921’ (Eastwood Books)