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irish history

On the Brink

Martin Mansergh

The Treaty: The Gripping Story of the Negotiations that brought about Irish Independence and led to the Civil War, by Gretchen Friemann, Merrion Press, 298 pp, €16.95, ISBN 978-1783574203

It is unusual for a history book to be a page-turner, something one is tempted to continue reading regardless of other pressing matters requiring attention. Gretchen Friemann, an acclaimed journalist who has previously written for Australian newspapers but now lives in Dublin, has managed to produce such a work in conveying the compelling drama of the Treaty negotiations of 1921 and their aftermath. She follows the momentary elations, depressions, breakthroughs and breakdowns viewed from all sides that are the essence of an important negotiation, where the odds, based on previous experience, favour failure rather than success.

The Treaty is of course a subject that has been tackled many times before, either in itself or as a key moment both in the Irish revolution and in Anglo-Irish relations. Although Friemann’s book is in narrative form, it contains a great deal of analytical insight mined from multiple sources; but it also reflects good judgment and balance by an author who avoids partisan advocacy. She is not wearing any side’s jersey but shows empathy for those centrally involved and the difficulties each of them faced.

A curious feature of the decade of centenaries is the difference in temperature today regarding some of the key events between 1912 and 1923. Home Rule aroused huge political passions up till August 1914, bringing Ireland close to civil war, with some Tory politicians believing that the issue bore some similarity to the crisis that led to the “Glorious Revolution” of 1689 and warranted suspension of the (strictly speaking, non-existent) British constitution. Memory of the crisis one hundred years later evoked only detached interest from unionists and nationalists, basically because subsequent events took both parts of Ireland in a different direction. If there was pride taken, it was in the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the formation of rival groups of Volunteers, and the labour militancy of 1913.

The 1916 Rising was initially very divisive. Today, in the Republic, it is seen largely consensually as its founding moment, with attempts to discredit its lack of prior mandate gaining little traction. Ulster was intentionally excluded from the short-lived experience. Unionists had no time or occasion to stir. Some constitutional nationalists have reservations about an event seen as an important step on the road to partition. While the Proclamation ostensibly embraced the whole island, the underlying message was that the country was not going to be held back any longer, and that the minority in what would take shape as Northern Ireland would have to be addressed later.

Differences over the Treaty led to heated debate and eventually to civil war, which elected politicians found themselves powerless to prevent. While specific events continue to be commemorated, overall passions have cooled with the realisation that there was failure on both sides, exacerbated by the British demanding their pound of flesh where the crown and the empire were concerned.

Book titles, often chosen or influenced by publishers, are designed to promote sales. It could be argued that it was the combined political and military struggle as much as the Treaty negotiations that brought about, not exactly full independence, but a firm basis for it over time, in respect of the twenty-six counties. A conflict that was only sporadic in 1919 had intensified in 1920-21 and was on the brink of becoming very much worse in mid-1921. Ireland had become ungovernable, even by extra-legal methods of coercion, leaving Britain with the choice of bringing in and applying massive force (and what then?) or of negotiating a settlement, with constitutional arrangements on similar lines to those enjoyed by the hitherto relatively tame dominions. Domestic opinion was divided, as was overseas opinion, but arguably the decisive influence was opinion in the United States, to which Britain was heavily indebted as a result of the World War. Debt relief depended on Congressional approval, unlikely to be forthcoming while a war of suppression, including State terrorism, was being waged in Ireland. So Lloyd George decided to explore the possibility of a reasonable settlement from the British point of view, before resorting to drastic measures under crown colony (that is military) government.

It is important to recognise that major concessions can be given before or after negotiations. The major British concession was made in inviting the leadership of the Irish independence movement to negotiations on the basis of what they called dominion home rule. The concept, as can be seen clearly today, was actually a contradiction in terms. No one would suggest that Scottish devolution and Scottish independence are interchangeable. Back then, dominion status was fluid, and there were still dreams in London of some form of imperial federation, which would be geopolitically steered from London, bolstered perhaps by imperial preference where trade was concerned. While that fluidity held Ireland back in 1921, it later facilitated the achievement of full sovereign independence in stages up to 1949. It was conceded, mainly privately, occasionally publicly, that Britain could not prevent an overseas dominion from seceding from the empire by force. But that was not the British attitude towards the colonies before 1960, nor was it towards Ireland in 1921-22. While the empire, or the British commonwealth as it began to be called, was presented idealistically as a voluntary association of free nations, membership was to be compulsory for Ireland under the threat of the resumption of immediate and terrible war.

In the Treaty negotiations and for some decades afterwards, two different views of Ireland’s place in the world clashed. The British wanted an Ireland tied into the empire, ideally united if that were possible, that would effectively be a tame dominion, or, given the geographical proximity, a British satellite. Lloyd George and Churchill in particular were convinced, mainly for strategic reasons, that a sovereign independent Irish state would be a danger to Britain and could not be tolerated. The Irish people on the other hand, outside of northeast Ulster, had voted for national self-determination, the principle of which was proclaimed as a war aim by US president Woodrow Wilson and specifically designed to liberate small nations. Even if Wilson did not intend it to apply to Ireland, the principle was recognised or confirmed under the Versailles Treaty in the countries freed from four collapsed empires, Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman. The problem confronting Irish leaders entering negotiation with the British was to try to find some way of reconciling those very different ambitions and avoiding a return to war.

Reasonableness, unfortunately, had nothing to do with it. Historians have universally ignored the telegram Andy Cope, one of the main architects of the Truce in Dublin Castle, sent to Tom Jones, assistant secretary of the Cabinet. His advice was, first, to tell Ulster Unionists publicly they would lose Fermanagh and Tyrone if they did not come in. Secondly, the Dáil should be challenged to state what they would do to safeguard British interests if they were allowed to become a republic. Cope was right in his assessment that people in a revolutionary condition could not give up both symbols: “If you give them independence, they may give up unity; if you give them unity they may give up independence but they must have one of the other.” His advice was not listened to.

Lloyd George was prime minister, despite heading only a minority party in the ruling coalition, and he was entirely dependent on continued support from the Tories, who could and eventually did form a government on their own. Their leading figure, Andrew Bonar Law, had a deep commitment to Ulster, as well as family connections, but did not care so much what happened to the rest of Ireland. The integrity of Ulster (six counties) and the future Free State’s continued membership of the British empire were red lines that could not be crossed. In addition to the mainstream, there was a Tory diehard faction (similar in scale to today’s hardline Brexiteers), who objected to the government’s “surrender to Sinn Féin”, as they saw it. One of the merits of Friemann’s book is that she brings the diehards more into focus, as a constraint on Lloyd George’s freedom of manoeuvre ‑ even though he was able to outwit them.

Lloyd George had previously explained in correspondence with de Valera prior to negotiations that “the principle of government by consent” did not mean an acceptance of an interpretation of that which would commit the British government to accepting demands that might be made, for example, for setting up a republic and repudiating the crown. Across the table in Downing Street, he told Griffith in October, specifically in relation to coercing Ulster: “The politician who thinks he can deal out abstract justice does not know how to govern.”

De Valera had an ingenious solution to the problem of an independent Irish republic’s relationship with the empire/commonwealth: external association. This did not either fly either with the British or carry conviction with the Irish delegation (bar Childers), and later it was bluntly repudiated by many in the Anti-Treaty IRA. Decades later, as Friemann notes, it came into its own as a basis for continued membership of the commonwealth by countries determined to become republics, beginning with India, with the king as head of the commonwealth being symbol of the association. As Nicholas Mansergh (my father), a Commonwealth professor at Chatham House who post-war expounded on the concept to an audience of Asian diplomats and British decision-makers, later commented: “a further acknowledgement to Mr. de Valera for his pioneering of the way would not have been inappropriate”. In 1948, the British slipped up badly with its postwar indifference to Ireland’s departure from the commonwealth, simply because it had decided formally to complete the process of becoming a republic. One hundred years on from the Treaty negotiations, one can only marvel at the effusive gratitude of the Prince of Wales, present when Barbados recently became a republic, at its decision to remain a member of the commonwealth. For Barbados, present-day pragmatic self-interest mainly related to tourism from Britain was balanced against the case for cutting all ties with the country responsible for filling its plantation estates with transported slaves.

Friemann discusses dispassionately the reasons why de Valera stayed behind instead of leading the delegation, in particular to advocate his own esoteric policy of external association. There was in his absence an imbalance between the two negotiating teams and an unresolved contradiction between being plenipotentiaries and having to refer back before concluding an agreement. If de Valera hoped to be in a position of final arbiter, or if he thought that staying at home would help preserve the unity of the movement, or if he was counting on majority control of the cabinet, none of these calculations proved correct. He also mistook the odds of right prevailing against might. Independence movements tend to split as success looms, and there follows a contest for legitimacy. It is evident that a majority of the people cared more for peace and some return to normality than for principle, which for the time being lacked the force to prevail.

The instruction to the delegation was to try and break on Ulster. If the British side wanted to disguise the fact that they had opened the door to eventual full independence, the Irish side wanted to disguise the fact that they were agreeing to partition. The Irish Parliamentary Party had been denounced in July 1916 for doing just that, as the price of an unsuccessful attempt to fasttrack a twenty-six-county Home Rule parliament. Lip-service was paid to the essential unity of Ireland, at the very time that partition was being set up and solidified. The Boundary Commission represented a face-saving mirage. If Collins had any real as opposed to a professed faith in it, he would never have embarked upon a covert campaign to destabilise it that had no government sanction.

Ireland did better on the fiscal front, obtaining at the end of the negotiation what Griffith valued most, with full freedom over taxes and tariffs. British ministers would have been confident that in any trade conflict they would have the upper hand. As the price of ditching the Boundary Commission report, the Irish Free State was relieved of having to contribute further to the servicing of the pre-1921 British national debt. The continuation of a common currency, but under virtually total British control, was not an issue. In virtue first of commonwealth membership and the common citizenship insisted upon by the British, and then by the long informal common travel area, Irish people continued to enjoy free access to the British labour market, barring some restrictions in wartime and for security reasons during the Northern Ireland conflict.

It is a matter for debate as to whether protectionism served some purpose for a period, in creating the foundations of an industrial base and diminishing over time Ireland’s position as a captive British market, except for some key food products, where it was part of Britain’s security of supply.

The economic dimension of the Irish-Ireland philosophy, which crossed party lines and was expressed in the founding aims of Fianna Fáil, is very remote from where Ireland is today. While there was and is public support for promoting and preserving wider use of the Irish language, and while it also helped protect employment opportunities at home for Irish people, there was no public buy-in for the élite project of displacing English with Irish as the spoken language of the people, not least because it would have limited opportunities abroad. On that point, Daniel O’Connell rather than de Valera has prevailed. The Fianna Fáil aim of making Ireland “as far as possible economically self-contained and self-sufficing”, the very opposite of a globalised economy, was incapable of stemming net emigration or of generating the employment and wealth opportunities that would encourage young people to stay at home. Likewise, the aim of promoting the ruralisation of industry as opposed to its concentration in cities could only be done on a small scale.

As divisions in the Irish Convention of 1917-18 had already shown, the direction in which nationalists wanted to travel in economic terms was incompatible with the unimpeded access to markets required by heavy industry in the Belfast area. Bishop John F MacNeice, father of the poet Louis MacNeice, who had served in the diocese of Cashel and Waterford before being translated to Down and Dromore, and who worked to prevent the riots in Belfast in 1936, wrote to my father in 1938, protesting at a lecture promoting Irish unity by Frank Pakenham. He claimed he did not seem to understand that the problem was primarily economic, “that it has next to nothing to do with the Pope or King William” and that “here industries which give employment to thousands depend on free imports, & would die if the economic system of Eire were enforced, a reactionary system I think which goes against one of the things needed by the modern age, free trade, or at all events freer trade”. At the same time, a degree of self-sufficiency was essential for survival for a neutral state in the Second World War.

That war, including the lead-up to it, and its long aftermath in the division of Europe, vividly illustrated the shortcomings of the European order of smaller and vulnerable sovereign states, the independence of many of which did not survive. Ireland did politically, partly thanks to its geographical position as well as the stable democratic system that had been created, but in the 1950s the economic strategy had to change fundamentally if Ireland was to survive. The isolated republic was not sustainable, and a new configuration, supplied by EEC membership from 1973, was needed.

A new Ireland did not emerge without conflict. The question was where and between whom it would be played out. Pre-1914, there was a danger of North-South civil war. The War of Independence, while mainly between Britain and Ireland, had an element of civil war about it, being partly directed against the core indigenous element of the RIC. During the Truce prior to the Treaty, a renewed outbreak of war was widely expected. Post-Treaty, the covert attacks on the nascent Northern Ireland were an attempt perhaps to deflect looming civil war by uniting against a common foe, with a negative impact on later North-South relations. At end-June 1922, it was touch and go whether the war with Britain would be renewed or a civil war would break out. The fiasco of the Boundary Commission Report, which was suppressed, led both to the confirmation of the border in international law under the 1925 Agreement and its delegitimisation as formalised in the 1937 constitution, which was not lifted until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Partition had a much longer gestation than the Treaty negotiations. The die had been pretty well cast by July 1914. While it might have seemed that Ulster unionism had won its main objectives, a 35 per cent minority was a very big responsibility to take on, especially if the plan was to keep it out in the cold. The drawback became manifest fifty years later. Measures to mitigate partition by protecting minorities, such as PR and non-discrimination in employment and retaining a significant North-South economic dimension were ignored. Ironically, the more limited freedom initially conceded created a transition period for the small mainly Protestant ex-unionist community in the Free State, which facilitated its gradual integration and assimilation over time without further revolutionary trauma.

While the restrictions on the sovereignty of the Free State were dismantled over time, the Northern Ireland settlement required a much more fundamental revision and in effect to be substantially replaced. Because of the civil war and then the later NI conflict, the Treaty may be viewed as an important stage of national development, but at most with only tempered satisfaction. This is well reflected in Gretchen Friemann’s book. One important thread of continuity is that the possibility of Irish unity kept open in the 1920-21 settlement remains open today, even if its realisation in the short term still looks as unlikely now as it did then.


Martin Mansergh is a former adviser and politician, deputy chair of the Expert Advisory Group on Centenary Commemorations. He is writing here in a personal capacity.



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