THE debate on whether the Irish representatives should have signed the articles of agreement that came to be described in nationalist Ireland as the Treaty has suffered because insufficient attention has been given to the options open to the British if the negotiations had broken down. There has also been a reluctance to sever the question of whether the Irish delegation should have signed the Treaty from the question of whether it was justifiable to oppose its acceptance by armed force.
It is well known that the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had secured the signature of the Irish delegation by threats of all-out war against the rebels. What is less well known is that the testimony of Geoffrey Shakespeare (the official who carried tidings of the agreement to James Craig in Belfast) shows that the British delegation was surprised when the Irish representatives signed up.
They knew that Lloyd George's threat was empty and that an all-out war would solve nothing. They would still have been faced with the task of governing Ireland. There had been an outcry in Britain against the behaviour of the Black and Tans and a general consensus that Ireland had to be left to govern itself internally. A predominantly Conservative government had enacted the Government of Ireland, 1920, which provided for this.
In the wake of the threatened all-out war, if it had ever happened, the British government would have had to find a government to govern the Southern Ireland created by that Act.
Its parliament elected in 1921 was composed almost entirely of Sinn Feiners. A new election would not change this. So, unless the British could get representatives of Sinn Fein to play ball, Southern Ireland was ungovernable. They would be driven back to direct rule, which was the last thing they wanted -- and only to be considered if the Irish representatives proved obdurate on an issue on which the British could not concede.
The first issue on which concession was impossible was the forcible integration of Northern Ireland against the will of its people into a self-governing Irish state. To have attempted this would have been to replace one war with another and involved the use of force against a population that had proved its loyalty so spectacularly at the Somme and elsewhere during the First World War.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Irish side knew that this was a non-runner but were anxious to park the issue yet avoid being saddled with responsibility for the permanent partition of Ireland.
The camouflage used to park the issue was a boundary commission that would report some time later on the adjustment of the boundary established by the Government of Ireland Act. It was of a piece with John Redmond's agreement in 1914 and 1916 to temporary exclusion of Ulster counties as the price of home rule for the rest of the island.
Far from being, in Dermot Ferriter's words, "sold a pup" on the issue, the reality was that the Irish delegation at the Treaty negotiations welcomed the pup as a face-saver on an issue where they knew success was impossible.
There is evidence from the pre-Treaty period that De Valera and other Sinn Fein leaders were preparing the ground for concession on this issue. Significantly, partition was scarcely mentioned in the debates on the Treaty.
The second non-negotiable issue on the British side was the defence of the United Kingdom against invasion. The retention of certain ports and a commitment to assist in time of war dealt with this to the satisfaction of the British.
The third issue presented as non-negotiable on the British side was that the independent Irish state should remain within the Empire and Irish ministers and parliamentarians would have to swear allegiance to the monarch as King of Ireland.
It was the inclusion of this in the Treaty that split Sinn Fein down the middle and led to the Civil War.
De Valera, as Sinn Fein leader, must be credited with foreseeing this. His proposal for an association with the Empire having the King as the symbol of that association was an ingenious compromise that would probably have kept on board the bulk of Sinn Fein and the IRA while offering a face-saver to the British on what was really a symbolic issue.
The signature of the Treaty without De Valera's consent had the consequence that his clear-sighted strategy based on a sure insight into what it was possible for the British to concede was never put to the test. Viewed from the viewpoint of the options open to the British, it must have had a good prospect of success.
All this is not to justify the armed resistance of the republican minority to the will of the majority that the Treaty should be accepted. De Valera was tarnished by his participation in this, although it has emerged subsequently that he was not in control and sought to exercise a restraining role. Ultimately he steered opposition to the Treaty into constitutional channels and by 1936 had achieved all he had proposed in 1921.
If we are to believe his official biographer Lord Longford, the Civil War was the one episode in de Valera's political life about which he felt unease. But drawing an important part of his political support from those who took up arms against the Treaty, he was never in a position to admit this publicly.
Disapproval of De Valera's behaviour in the Civil War and of his subsequent attitude to it should not prevent us from concluding that he was probably correct in his judgement that the Irish delegation should not have signed the Treaty in the small hours of that December morning 90 years ago last week.