Lloyd George invited Éamon de Valera to Scotland for Treaty
talks, but Dev had preconditions and wasn’t about to be rushed, so
absented himself from discussions
In September 1921, British p rime m inister Lloyd George went on a long fishing holiday in a remote Scottish glen. Yet he invited the Irish to meet him for Treaty talks nearby, at Inverness. But Dev laid down conditions.
So Lloyd George convened at Inverness the first UK cabinet meeting to be held outside London. This infuriated his Tory coalition partner Austen Chamberlain. Faced with a 1,200-mile round-trip by train from London, Chamberlain told his wife: “I shall get no satisfaction as half of the cabinet are shooting or holiday-making in the Highlands. I simply splutter with rage.”
Punch magazine jokingly summed up Lloyd George’s dilemma by putting these words in his mouth: “Now here am I, a Welshman. Look you: And I haf to come on in a Highland ‘set’ and play a scene in English — all about Ireland — with a Spanish American [Dev] — and lead up to a happy ending.” Winston Churchill, at Inverness, was said to be “breathing fire and slaughter” about Ireland.
The Mackenzie mansion at which Lloyd George stayed at Gairloch was known locally by its Scots Gaelic name, Tigh Dige (Moat House) — although also called Flowerdale by the English. British ministers would not have been as conveniently at home in the Highlands as they were in London. But Dev was not to be rushed. He and Lloyd George wrangled by letter for weeks.
Lloyd George objected especially to a paragraph of a letter from Dev dated September 12. Dev wrote: “Our nation has formally declared its independence and recognises itself as a sovereign state. It is only as the representatives of that State and as its chosen guardians that we have any authority or powers to act on behalf of our people.” He seemed to demand recognition of a republic as a precondition, and to reject any continuing connection with crown or empire.
Harry Boland and Joe McGrath went to Scotland to deliver Dev’s letter in person to Lloyd George. In 1919, Boland and his friend Michael Collins had sprung Dev from Lincoln Jail. The friends would die in 1922, on opposite sides in the Irish Civil War. Joe McGrath later founded the lucrative Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake.
On that September afternoon, at Gairloch, Boland and McGrath found Lloyd George in “very good humour”. He changed when he read Dev’s letter, and said: "It won’t do, I can’t have it, why did he put in that second paragraph? De Valera said that on each occasion I saw him; he said it in public.”
The prime minister declared: “Sovereign state. NO! I can’t go into conference and treat [Ireland] as I would with France, for instance. You will get no British statesman to accept that — no British statesman dare. I have received a protest, signed by 60 of my supporters, protesting against my having gone so far.”
The British wanted any Irish state to remain bound to the Crown and Empire in some way, to be a Dominion like Canada perhaps.
Lloyd George complained to Boland and McGrath: “Since the opening up of negotiations I have given way each time against the wishes of my supporters, but he [Dev] has not moved an inch… De Valera will give nothing. I am done, done.” He told them that peace talks were off.
Each side was testing the other, posturing even as they prepared to sit down together. At Dublin’s Mansion House on September 14, 1921, Dáil Éireann went ahead and picked its representatives for future talks — should these take place. Remarkably, De Valera insisted that he would not lead the team, although Collins and WT Cosgrave among others wanted him there.
De Valera asked Dáil deputies to appoint foreign affairs minister Arthur Griffith to head the team. He proposed that Griffith along with finance minister Michael Collins, economic affairs minister Robert Barton, the Irish envoy at Rome Charles Gavan Duffy, and TD Éamonn Duggan “be ratified as their plenipotentiaries”. The Dáil ratified them.
The term “plenipotentiary” comprised two Latin words meaning “full powers”, but the extent of their powers was to prove controversial.
Collins explicitly did not want to go to London, but Dev insisted that his inclusion was “vital”. The militant ministers Austin Stack and Cathal Brugha refused to travel, yet remained in the cabinet.
Dev had gone in July to meet Lloyd George for talks about talks, so why not return now for the talks themselves? On August 23, he told the Dáil: “The one chief reason I had in going myself to these preliminary
negotiations. I saw it gave me a definite opportunity to bring Ireland’s case before the world.”
Now Dev would stay at home, “where I will be more valuable” he said. He thought that “it will be quite evident to the public the reason I do not want to be one of them is that the duties at home require my attention”. The reason for his absence was far from “quite evident” to many people.
Dev said he foresaw “proposals brought back which cannot satisfy everybody, and will not”. He added, “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.”
It seems that Dev saw himself as a sort of independent broker who — unlike prime minister Lloyd George who attended the talks — would not have to own any deal made in London, but could second-guess it.
De Valera already foresaw a split. He had told the Dáil on August 23, 1921, “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. The policy of the ministry [cabinet] will be that which they consider would be best for the country. The 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.” He said that he was keeping his mind “in a fluid state”.
His promise that “the majority would rule”, when it came to ratifying a deal, was to evaporate in his own case. For he later sided with armed men against the majority of the cabinet, and against a majority of the Dáil that voted for the Treaty.
In the Dáil on September 14 he said that he really believed “it was vital at this stage that the symbol of the republic should be kept untouched… It was not a shirking of duty [on his part], but he realised the position and how necessary it was to keep the head of the State and the symbol untouched and that was why he asked to be left out.” Just how useful to the process a symbolical Dev in Dublin was is debatable.
The war of words had to end. Lloyd George wrote from Gairloch on September 29: “His majesty’s government … cannot enter a conference upon the basis of this correspondence. Notwithstanding your personal assurance to the contrary, which they much appreciate, it might be argued in future that the acceptance of a conference on this basis had involved them in a recognition which no British government can accord. On this point they must guard themselves against any possible doubt.”
Thus the British made clear from the outset that recognition of a republic was not on the table in 1921.
Maybe Dev was playing for time, giving the Volunteers a chance to recover and regroup, and to import more arms before any breakdown of the Truce. However, on September 25, the Sunday Independent reported “another great outburst of Orange violence” and “a determined onslaught on Catholic areas” in Belfast. Northern Ireland was becoming entrenched.
Lloyd George issued a fresh invitation to a peace conference, to begin in London in early October. He wrote to Dev, “we can meet your delegates as spokesmen of the people whom you represent with a view to ascertaining how the association of Ireland with the community of nations known as the British empire may best be reconciled with Irish national aspirations”. De Valera accepted on behalf of the Irish government.
Professor Colum Kenny, DCU, is author of ‘The Enigma of Arthur Griffith: “Father of Us All”’ (Merrion Press, 2020)
The Truce to Treaty series continues on October 3: Treaty talks begin at last