Journeys to a truce - 1921: The Treaty debate begins
On 9 December 1921, the publicity department of Dáil Éireann issued a statement by President Éamon de Valera. He noted that to prevent misunderstanding, the public should realise that the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed by the plenipotentiaries must be ratified by Dáil Éireann and the British parliament in order to take effect.
The usual process would be for the cabinet of Dáil Éireann to introduce the Treaty agreement and sanction it. Owing to the fact that in the latter stages of the negotiations, the views of the delegation of plenipotentiaries differed from those of certain members of the cabinet, this course was not to be taken. The motion for ratification, De Valera noted, would be introduced to the wider Dáil chamber by Arthur Griffith as chairman of the Irish delegation to London.
On Wednesday 14 December 1921 at University Buildings, Earlsfort Terrace at 11am, Dáil Éireann opened its session to the public. The minutes of the meeting and those that followed are now digitised at oireachtas.ie.
There was almost a full attendance by members. After discussing details leading to the appointment of the plenipotentiaries and the powers conferred on them, De Valera asked that the session be private for the remainder of the day. He openly complained that the final text of the agreement reached in England was not submitted to Dublin before it was signed.
Michael Collins arose and said he was not in favour of a private session. He protested against what he called an unfair action on the part of the president in reading one document when he did not read another, which was equally vital - namely- the credentials signed with the president himself to the plenipotentiaries when going to England.
He then read in public a document, which declared that they were empowered, on behalf of the Irish Republic, to negotiate and conclude a Treaty or treaties with representatives of Britain.
The private session was of a very protected nature and lasted until late into the evening. The doors and rooms of the meeting rooms were strongly protected by IRA volunteers. No one was allowed within the presence of the college buildings except accredited pressman. The private session continued the following two days on 15 and 16 December.
In the meantime, the special Irish session of the British parliament opened also on 14 December. The King's speech expressed the hope that by the articles of agreement to be submitted to the house the “strife for centuries maybe ended that Ireland, as a free partner in the Commonwealth of Nations forming the British Empire”, and that Ireland would secure the fulfilment of its “national ideals”.
In the extensive debate that followed, prime minister Lloyd George spoke early in support of the Treaty.
Dáil Éireann re-opened to public session the following Monday morning on 19 December. Arthur Griffith moved the ratification of the Treaty, which was seconded by Commandant Seán McKeown. Griffith noted in an extensive speech that the task that was given to the plenipotentiaries was very difficult noting: “We faced that task. We knew whatever happened we would have our critics and we've made our minds up to do whatever was right and disregard whatever criticism might occur.
“We could have shirked the responsibility. We did not seek to go as the plenipotentiaries. Other men were asked; other men refused. We went. The responsibility is on our shoulders. We took the responsibility in London and we take the responsibility in Dublin. I signed the Treaty not as an ideal thing but fully believing what I believe now was the Treaty honourable to Ireland and safeguarding the interests of Ireland.”
In response, De Valera gave his own extensive reaction noting he was against the Treaty and that it would not end the centuries of conflict between the two nations of Great Britain and Ireland.
“We went out to affect such a reconciliation and we've got back a thing, which will not reconcile Great Britain and Ireland and will not reconcile our own people. If there is to be reconciliation, it is obvious that the parties in Ireland that typified national aspirations for centuries should be satisfied and the test of every agreement was whether the people were satisfied or not.
“Because of the conditions of war, there are many people who might approve but if they had a small election now and got a vote of the people, the Treaty would not reconcile the nations. It would mean a renewal of the contest after the act of union. They were threatened with immediate war and they were faced with a pistol at their head.”
De Valera expressed the view that the document that was signed in effect was under duress. He wanted the Treaty and the constitution that when an Irishman met an Englishman he could, as a freeman, shake him by the hand.
This document, in his opinion, made “British authority the master in Ireland”. Concluding De Valera noted “do you think that because you signed documents like this you can change the current and tradition? You cannot; some of you are relying on that ‘cannot’ when signing this Treaty but don't put a barrier in the way of future generations.You are presuming to set bounds to the onward march of a nation.”
After several hours of debates, where members put forward their opinions on the signed Treaty, and after listening carefully, Michael Collins took the floor. Responding to the threat of Britain in the negotiations, Collins noted he has not been afraid to call the bluff of the British negotiators.
“It has been suggested that the delegation had gone down before the first base of British bluff, but if they did there was a big bit of British bluff, which went on for the last two years and I did not breakdown before that bluff.”
Collins continued: “The Treaty was not signed under personal intimidation, if it had been offered under that threat the delegation would not have signed it. We know we have not vanquished the enemy, and have not driven them out of the country.
“The members do not understand the immense powers and liberties which the Treaty gives them. If the Treaty gives them security and freedom then it has satisfied their aspirations - it gives us freedom not the ultimate freedom, which all nations aspire to, but the freedom to achieve it.”
Collins maintained the disappearance of military strength from the country was proof of the achievement of national liberty. He highlighted: “Ireland was of course the weaker nation, and of course would be so for a long time, but as to certain guarantees, we are guaranteed by countries of the constitutional status of Canada, Australia and South Africa.”
To be continued in the new year…
Happy Christmas to all readers of this column.
If you missed one of the 50 other columns this year, check out the indices at Kieran’s heritage website corkheritage.ie.