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Treaty Reflection by Myles Dungan

On this auspicious day, the Freeman’s Journal carried a banner headline announcing ‘Ireland’s Day of Triumph’ across its centre page. On the facing page there was a prominent image of the old Irish Parliament House on College Green and the headline ‘At Last. Our Own Again!’ All this was accompanied by drawings of, amongst others, United Irishmen Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet, Repealer Daniel O’Connell, Fenian James Stephens and Home Rulers Isaac Butt and Charles Stewart Parnell, encompassing the widest possible spectrum of an Irish nationalist polity. The Freeman’s leading editorial that day observed that ‘Yesterday the charter of Ireland’s freedom was signed.’


But the momentous event thus celebrated was not the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The Freeman’s elation dates from 19 September 1914, the day after the Home Rule Act received royal assent.


In contrast, the newspaper’s coverage on 7 December 1921 of the conclusion of the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations is comparatively restrained. Granted that this was an era when the front page of most papers was reserved for advertisements, but the first sign of life is on page 3. There is a photograph of four members of the Irish delegation with a headshot of Collins inset, under the headline ‘The five men who fought the battle at Downing Street’. Ominously missing from the shot is the secretary to the delegation, Erskine Childers. The lack of any editorial comment on page 4 might suggest that news of the signing had come too late for the leader writer. Except that on page 5 the Journal carries the full text of the Treaty.


What comes across is a palpable sense of relief rather than of any elation. The page 5 headlines read ‘Dublin’s glad surprise – Citizens resigned to war amazed by news – Story told in happy faces.’ Although immediately voided, temporarily at least, by the Suspensory Act and a global war, Home Rule, when finally achieved in September 1914, was greeted by moderate nationalists with immoderate rapture. In 1921, the conclusion of a deal in London, offering somewhat more than had been achieved byRedmond, was greeted by a weary communal sigh. The country was exhausted but it would not have taken a very sophisticated or prescient analyst to realise that the exhaustion was far from over. And so, of course, it proved.


An uneasy truce had held since noon on 11 July 1921, allowing the Irish people to become accustomed once again to a world in which vicious reprisal killings on both sides were no longer daily occurrences. Any notion that the tit-for-tat carnage preceding the truce was in any sense undisciplined or uncoordinated, was belied by the relative lack of incident once the deadline for the cessation of hostilities had passed.


The negotiations had begun on 11 October ‘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’, the diplomatic phraseology almost airbrushing the whole affair in advance. In reality, most of the reconciling needed to come about on the Irish side. For the temporary peace to be sustained, Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack would be required to adapt themselves to the fact that a republic, implying complete separation from the Crown, was non-negotiable.


De Valera’s pragmatic formula of ‘external association’ indicated his own tacit recognition (after his trying talks with Lloyd George in London in July 1921) that the republic of Tone, Stephens and Pearse was an unrealisable chimera. His decision to remain in Dublin was in large part, based on the moral certainty that he would need to reconcile the irreconcilables without himself being guilty of the crime of having sold out the infant republic. He was not culpable of the other crime of which he is often accused, namely, some sort of omniscient foreknowledge of inevitable ‘failure’ with which he did not wish to be associated.


When you examine the Treaty document closely you wonder what all the fuss was about. Why did it have to be ‘peace by ordeal?’ Why had a debilitating and vile war been an essential prerequisite to something that was not remarkably different from the rather disappointing and inadequate Home Rule Act of 1914? Asquith’s template had legislated for a form of dual monarchy. So did the Treaty. Northeast Ulster was (albeit temporarily) excluded from the operation of the 1914 Act. It was still excluded as Northern Ireland after the Treaty. It remained as excluded as ever after the Civil War. Was it for this…?


Collins described it as his ‘death warrant’ but his own fingerprints are all over it. In Article 3 Ireland would not be accommodating a Governor-General but a ‘representative of the Crown…appointed in like manner as the Governor-General of Canada’. The oath to be taken by members of the new Irish parliament swore allegiance first ‘to the Constitution of theIrish Free State’ and promised merely to be ‘faithful to H.M.King George V., his heirs and successors by law.’ Semantics perhaps and circumlocutions not sufficiently persuasive to prevent the ultimate ‘execution’ of Collins and the subsequent growth of his martyr-myth.


Was the ‘freedom to achieve freedom’ not enough to avoid the fratricide of the Civil War? Was the entire country so impatient for a republic that everything had to happen at once? For some that was clearly the case. A significant minority, if the result of the Treaty debates is to be taken as a measure of republican sentiment.


If Eamon de Valera had been offered the ‘Articles of Agreement for a Treaty Between Great Britain andIreland’ on Easter Sunday 1916, would he have accepted them? Possibly. Would Pearse have issued the countermanding order himself?


Probably not. We are talking about Pearse after all.



About the author

Myles Dungan is a broadcaster and historian. He presents The History Show on RTE Radio 1 and is the author, most recently, of The Captain and the King: William O’Shea, Parnell and Late Victorian Ireland (Dublin, 2009) and Conspiracy: Irish Political Trials (Dublin, 2009). He is the recipient of two Fulbright awards and is currently on a brief sabbatical from RTE to teach a course in Irish history at theUniversity of California, Berkeley.