A century ago this week, with tensions high on both sides, prime minister Lloyd George and Sinn Féin’s Arthur Griffith had reason to be hopeful
This week, a century ago, Lloyd George and Arthur Griffith found a way forward. Griffith and Collins thought that it would deliver an independent Irish state of 28 counties, including Tyrone and Fermanagh.
Parts of counties Derry and Down were also in play. This was one reason why Griffith and Collins were soon to agree terms for a treaty. But the events of early November 1921 have been misunderstood. And, after Griffith and Collins died in 1922, the deal that they thought they had won on redrawing the Border died too.
The five Irish Treaty delegates had been in London for a month when, on November 12, 1921, Griffith lunched with prime minister Lloyd George alone. They met following a week of developments, about which Griffith kept de Valera in Dublin informed almost daily. His letters to Dev then were unread by many who bitterly opposed the Treaty later.
At lunch Griffith gave Lloyd George an assurance. He would not reject out of hand the idea of a Boundary Commission, one that Lloyd George wished to put to the Northern Ireland government. This helped Lloyd George face a very difficult meeting with British unionists at Liverpool a few days later. The Irish would wait to see how Ulster unionists reacted. British ministers were angry at Belfast’s attitude.
Lloyd George’s government of Liberals and Tories was under great strain, due to high unemployment in Britain and to its willingness to negotiate with Sinn Féin. Tory leader Austen Chamberlain told his sister on November 13: “Sinn Féin & Ulster in front, the Diehards on my back & the National Union meeting on Thursday in Liverpool, the stronghold of Orange Toryism… I am fighting for my political life.”
There were tensions too on the Irish side, reflecting different perspectives. The most socially privileged delegates were the least inclined to compromise. One was George Gavan Duffy TD, reared at his family’s villa in the south of France. Educated at a private boarding school in England, he qualified as a solicitor there. He was part of the legal team that defended Roger Casement in London. Delegate Robert Barton TD, the Dáil’s economic affairs minister, came from a staunchly unionist family with 1,500 acres in Co Wicklow and an income from the French vineyards of Barton & Guestier. Educated at Rugby in England, Barton had served in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers before becoming a republican.
Egged on by the Anglo-Irish Erskine Childers, principal secretary to the Irish team and Barton’s close cousin, they caused Griffith problems as chairman.
Griffith, Collins and Éamonn Duggan were of humbler stock. Foreign affairs minister Griffith was a qualified printer by trade, and editor of small but influential nationalist papers. He grew up in the heart of Dublin, amid some of the worst poverty in Europe. Finance minister Collins saw his family’s farmhouse in Cork burnt down months earlier by Crown forces. Éamonn Duggan TD was a law clerk who became a solicitor aged nearly 40. He also became the IRA’s director of intelligence.
John Lavery, a leading portrait artist, painted all five Irish “plenipotentiaries” in London then. Those portraits go on display at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, Dublin, from November 24 next. He painted Lloyd George too.
November had opened with Griffith sending an official letter of assurances to Lloyd George. It focused the talks. But its drafting sparked disagreement among Irish delegates. A British source is said to have leaked part of that letter to the London Times, to make it seem that Griffith was giving in.
De Valera in Dublin cautioned Griffith to be careful, but also congratulated the team. Dev himself had already conceded partition in principle a number of times, facing its reality on the ground.
From November 8 the British briefed the Irish on a proposal for a Boundary Commission to delimit the existing Border with Northern Ireland — on the basis of local inhabitants’ wishes. The idea was modelled on a body then redrawing the border of Germany under the Treaty of
At lunch with Lloyd George, Griffith agreed not to condemn the proposal outright. But he also made clear to the British throughout November that this was Lloyd George’s idea and that Irish delegates would not consider or endorse it until Ulster unionists responded to it with commitments. The UK cabinet secretary’s diary, published only in 1970, corroborates Griffith’s letters to Dev in that respect.
Griffith and Collins would have preferred local referendums for each Northern Ireland county. But they settled in good faith for the envisaged official commission on the Border
Negotiations on the Boundary Commission were too intricate to describe in more detail here. I have done so in a new book, Midnight in London: The Anglo-Irish Treaty Crisis 1921. The book reproduces a key document that has long lain neglected in British parliamentary archives, and the significance of which has been overlooked. For it includes the text that Lloyd George dramatically flourished — and perhaps misrepresented on purpose — on the fraught last night of Treaty talks.
In his influential 1935 book Peace by Ordeal, Frank Pakenham mistook the origin of that text, composed by British officials, suggesting that it was a “secret” undertaking by Griffith. His source was the Tory leader Austen Chamberlain, who refused to let Pakenham see relevant documents. CP Scott of the Manchester Guardian similarly based his account of it on a conversation with Lloyd George.
Thus, to the idea that the Treaty created partition — although the Border was already established when the team went to London — was now added a notion that Griffith somehow sold the pass. But there is no evidence that he initialled or signed any secret document or sent any personal letter committing himself to final terms, as alleged. And there is evidence that he avoided such a commitment.
Griffith, supported by Collins who was both a senior IRA figure and Dáil Éireann’s finance minister, showed himself flexible to Lloyd George — as those trying to make deals must be if they want a result. But he did not bind his fellow delegates to any final position. His was a standard “good cop, bad cop” negotiating ploy. He appears to have used it also on trade and protectionism.
Griffith’s detractors seemed to believe the British might suddenly just yield a 32-county republic, despite armed unionist resistance and despite not conceding it during the War of Independence. If only it had been that simple.
The Irish HQ at Hans Place buzzed with activity, as dozens of back-up staff and visiting advisers — such as Professor Timothy Smiddy of Cork — helped to ground the Treaty negotiations firmly in economic and social reality. A welcome account of the vital support team is due out early in 2022. Their presence shows that the Irish meant business.
In late November the British pushed for a final deal. Griffith and Collins were invited to go to the prime minister’s country residence at Chequers on the night of Monday, November 28 (Collins was delayed in Dublin, so Duggan went).
Lloyd George received them in the Long Room. The prime minister had earlier remarked to his cabinet secretary on “the appropriateness of the chamber”, which was “very much as it was in the days of Cromwell”. It was adorned with Oliver Cromwell’s great sword and a letter from Cromwell proclaiming, after the battle of Marston Moor: “The Lord made them as stubble in our hands.” In hindsight, and in historical context given Cromwell’s role in Ireland, this was an ominous reference.
Griffith now reported to de Valera that the British intended to send Sir James Craig, the Northern Ireland premier, their final proposals for a deal: “They agreed to send us them [informally] on Thursday evening [December 1], but formally to hand them to us on Tuesday [of the following week]. It is essential a Cabinet meeting should be held. I shall return to Dublin on Friday morning and hope to see you on that evening. Please have a Cabinet meeting arranged for Saturday morning [December 3], when we shall be all there. I intend to return to London on that evening.”
Matters were coming to a head. All delegates would make the tiring round trip, by rail and ship, for that crucial Cabinet meeting in Dublin. It would not go well.
Dr Colum Kenny is professor emeritus at 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 December 5: Confusion in Dublin, drama in London, debates in the Dáil