The Treaty: Debating and Establishing the Irish State, Liam Weeks and Michael O’Fathartaigh (eds), Irish Academic Press, 272 pp, €19.95, ISBN: 978-1788550413
In the heavy thread of the commemorative cycle, it is something of a relief to emerge from the grey mud of the trenches on the Western front and the remorselessly minute chronicling of the 1916 rising to the polychromatic culmination of the Treaty. This is a solidly informative set of essays. It has a kind of political-science bias which does not yield significant insights over historical approaches ‑ which most of the essays actually take. It affords a point of departure for an assessment of a controversy that attracted bitter and finally sanguinary conflict at the time and did a good deal to inform the party structure of Irish politics thereafter.
In the first contribution, Mel Farrell cites a passage from a speech of Deputy Sean Hales on December 17th, 1921 which succinctly summarises the pro-Treaty view that was also expressed in Collins’s “stepping stone” image:
If I thought this Treaty which has been signed was to bar our right to freedom, if it was to be the finality, I wouldn’t touch it but I took that it is to be a jumping off point to attain our alternative ends, because if it is one year or in ten years, Ireland will regain that freedom which is her destiny and no man can bar it. The only thing is that at the present moment if there is anything like a split it would be more dangerous than anything else … Posterity will judge us all yet. There is no getting away from that. When the time comes there is one thing certain. Speaking from the column which I was always with through the battlefields and willing and ready to carry on the fight but still I look upon that Treaty as the best rock from which to jump off for the final accomplishment of Irish freedom.
Hales is an emblematic figure. He was among the few ‑ if not alone ‑ of the men of west Cork to support the treaty. Liam Lynch ordered the IRA to kill deputies and senators who had supported the Public Safety Act which established military courts which could impose the death penalty. Hales was shot in Dublin on December 7th, 1922. That led the government of the Free State to order the execution of four prominent anti-treaty prisoners, including Liam Mellows and Rory O’Connor.
Perhaps the best contribution is ‘the most straightforward, that entitled “Between Two Hells”, written by Eunan O’Halpin and Mary Staines, who analyse the backgrounds and motivations of the 121 voting deputies of January 1922 by reference to the figures of the pro-treaty Michael Staines (Mary Staines’s grandfather) and the anti-treaty PJ Moloney (the great-grandfather of Eunan O’Halpin). The exercise they accept is “hardly definitive but it does provide a cautionary note for those who attempt to project on to the immediate treaty split clear social and economic divisions within the revolutionary elite, characterising pro-treaty TDs as essentially more bourgeois and inherently more conservative than their opponents. Their analysis rebuts the probably a priori assertion of Tom Garvin that within the Dáil “older leaders supported the Treaty more firmly than did the young”.
In “Merely Tuppence Half-Penny Looking Down on Tuppence”, Brian Hanley comes to more or less the same view, looking beyond the membership of the Dáil. Those to the fore in the revolution were concerned with the pursuit of Irish self-determination, and what compromises were legitimate to secure it. “This is not to suggest that class or class struggle were not part of the story of the revolutionary era but they were not the factors for republicans in either acceptance or rejection of the Treaty.” The choice on the treaty consistently defies facile categorisation.
This does not in my view warrant the flat assertion that “there were no differences between pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty TDs” in the most overtly pol-sci contribution, “‘More Than Words’: A Quantitative Text Analysis of the Treaty Debates”, by the editors, with Slava Jankin Mikhaylov and Alexander Herzog. Still less does it warrant the proposition that follows: “This is why Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have remained remarkably similar in the decades of party competition that have followed.” The principal legacy of the treaty in this analysis is “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” dominating the politics of independent Ireland. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are both popular and, in the probably now abandoned term, “catch-all” parties, though for decades Fianna Fáil was notably more adept at the “catch-all” business. They share the alternating practice of power in Ireland (a highly relative concept), though they now never hold office alone. For a variety of objective reasons policy options in Ireland have been and remain relatively straitened. The two parties have significant differences of attitude and approach, and to a limited degree of ideology, and these do have certain filiations to the civil war divide. It is inherently improbable that they could continue to alternate as majority partners in government if there were no differences between them. Perhaps that is an argument for another day, and another book.
In the relations between the two dominant parties, the legacy of the treaty schism and the civil war has not been entirely negative. The memory of the split has at least been conducive a qualified diffidence; to a certain respect for the other (almost never acknowledged for the seventy-five years or so that followed the civil war, but now guardedly recognised, and not always through gritted teeth), an acceptance that no party or faction has ownership the Irish state (and not just because the hint of a claim to a unique entitlement to govern brings swift and ferocious electoral retribution).
There is no cause for complacency about governance and the party system in Ireland, but Sean Hales’s jumping-off rock has held firm.
Frank Callanan is a senior counsel and a historian.