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Griffith deserves greater credit for his crucial role

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Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith on December 20, 1921, after signing the treaty. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith on December 20, 1921, after signing the treaty. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith on December 20, 1921, after signing the treaty. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

Arthur Griffith died 100 years ago today, and it is sad to reflect that in our decade of centenaries, no major official state ceremony has been held to mark his extraordinary contribution to the life of the nation.

Did not Michael Collins defer to him as “the father of us all”? Not only was he Dáil Éireann’s president, he led the delegation that signed the treaty on December 6, 1921.

Like his co-signator Collins, he would be dead within the year. A heart attack was popularly believed to have killed him, caused by the stresses of the times and overwork.

In fact, the cause of death was certified as a brain haemorrhage. But there is little doubt events took their toll, and negotiating the treaty was the most thankless task in Irish history. Yet it laid the cornerstone of the foundations for the State.

A man of many talents, he nonetheless lived most of his life close to the breadline, in the struggle for Irish autonomy from Britain.

The treaty was signed in the charged atmosphere of just five months after the ending of the War of Independence. Those who stayed at home, like Éamon de Valera, comfortably avoided the burdens of responsibility and the backlash of blame. In a hugely unequal contest, Griffith pushed as hard as he could. The landmark deal led to the creation of a self-governing Irish Free State, a feat for which he would get no credit.

A decade later, Fine Gael was born.

By this time, the new party was happy to take whatever kudos might have been his due as keepers of the flame.

If the lack of grace on the part of official Ireland was because the deal did not give the negotiators the 32-county republic they so dearly desired, it is all the more egregious.

Ireland would have to remain within the British empire. But to believe there was any other choice would have been dangerously delusional.

Historians today are pretty much at one in accepting that keeping Ireland within the empire was a “red line” for the then-prime minister David Lloyd George.

The one thing for which Griffith could never be forgiven was that he had passionately promoted passive resistance as the best way to further Ireland’s cause.

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Two decades before the treaty, he had advocated that we should refuse to pay British taxes, and Irish MPs would shun Westminster. A national assembly would sit. Such steps were announced as a policy in Dublin in October 1902.

His then party, Cumann na nGaedheal, embraced the strategy under the name Sinn Féin – ourselves alone. And three years later the name would be transformed from a policy to a party.

Opposition to the treaty would, of course, lead to the Civil War.

Griffith never lived to enjoy acclaim. Indeed, he would instead have tasted bitter opprobrium.

But surely one of the founders of the State should not be disowned – he deserves a better accolade than “the forgotten man of Irish politics”.


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