On January 7, 1922, the Dáil passed the Anglo-Irish Treaty by a vote of 64 to 57. As a result Saorstát Éireann, the Irish Free State, was born.
What should have been a cause for celebration was anything but. There was finger pointing and recriminations on both sides of the debate. The country was split—Republic versus Free State—and it would remain that way for the rest of the century.
The two dominating personalities—Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins—would, in this period, cast their politics in concrete. They had cautiously been circling each other since the Truce was called in July and they would continue their dance of suspicion. To fully comprehend what had happened in Irish politics in the six months between July 1921 and January 1922, and then on through June 1922, it is helpful to look at the historical time frame:
July 11, 1921—a truce between the warring Irish and British forces is brokered by King George V. Almost immediately Eamon de Valera and Arthur Griffith go to London to meet with British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. De Valera and Lloyd George went one-on-one and de Valera was told in no uncertain terms that he would not be bringing a 32-county Republic back with him to Dublin. This placed de Valera in a very tough, all-or-nothing conundrum. Full negotiations were set for the fall and de Valera—sans Eamon de Valera—was forced to field a team to go head-to-head with the likes of Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Lord Birkenhead. It is the first indication that the infant country is already showing cracks in its new foundation.
October 11-December 6, 1921—the Irish delegation, already fractured, arrives in London for the negotiations. Arthur Griffith and the other plenipotentiaries—Robert Barton, Eamonn Duggan, and George Gavan Duffy—come as a group and live and work in the same townhouse. Michael Collins, however, arrives by himself, rents a separate townhouse, and brings his own staff from Dublin, many of them veterans of his intelligence-gathering operation in Crow Street.
Collins was paranoid and he had a right to be. By right Eamon de Valera, as the President of Dáil Éireann, should be leading the delegation. But de Valera found himself, politics wise, between a rock and a hard place. He knew from his conversations with Lloyd George during the summer that a 32-county Republic was impossible, so he had to walk the fine line between the hardcore Republicans and those in London trying to negotiate a Treaty. De Valera made every excuse he could to avoid leading the delegation—thus avoiding taking the blame for the establishment of a Free State and not a Republic.
It’s interesting to see Collins’ take on Dev’s excuses. In Michael Collins Own Story by Hayden Talbot—which is believed to be Collins’ unfinished autobiography—Collins talked about the reasons for de Valera’s absence: “De Valera would not head the delegation that went to London. Every member of the Cabinet and every Teachtae [TD] of Dáil Éireann wanted him to conduct the Treaty negotiations, and many of us pleaded with him not to remain behind. But he was immovable. The reason he gave was twofold. First, he said, it was beneath his dignity, as President of the Irish Republic, to leave his country; and, second, he could not afford to put himself in a position in which he might do his nation irreparable harm by a chance word across the conference table. He insisted his value to the Irish people would be greatest by remaining in Dublin, and from that distance guiding us in our task.”
Also on Collins’ paranoid mind were his suspicions that Erskine Childers, the secretary of the delegation, was a de Valera spy—if not a British double-agent—and also something de Valera muttered before packing the delegates off to London: “We must have scapegoats.” So, the Irish delegation, now led by Collins and an ailing Griffith, went to work, all the time being second-guessed back in Dublin by de Valera and his supporters, people like Cathal Brugha and the Countess Markievicz.
January 7, 1922—During the debate de Valera, the crafty politician he was, tried every parliamentary trick in the book to forestall passage of the Treaty, clearly frustrating the Big Fellow: “We’ll have no Tammany Hall methods here,” shouted Collins. “Whether you are for the Treaty or whether you’re against it, fight without Tammany Hall methods. We will not have them.”
The sticking point de Valera and his supporters decided to make their stand on was the provision that there be a Loyalty Oath to the King. Without taking the Oath, a deputy could not take his seat in the Dáil. This stand apparently caught Collins by surprise, forcing him to state in his autobiography that “…No one but a factionist, looking for means of making mischief, would have thought it worthwhile to have risked wrecking the Treaty for.”
But de Valera saw his chance and he took it. Unfortunately for him, he did not have the votes. In a country sickened by war and violence, the Treaty was approved by a vote of 64-57. De Valera and his cohorts immediately resigned from the Dáil. This action provoked Collins to call out on the floor of the Dáil: “Deserters all to the Irish nation in her hour of trial! We will stand by her!”
The Treaty debate as seen in Michael Collins between Collins (Liam Neeson), Arthur Griffith (Owen Roe), Cathal Brugha (Gerald McSorley) and Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman):
January 16, 1922—The British hand over Dublin Castle to the new Irish Free State, represented by Michael Collins. There are many versions of what happened at this event. The most popular scenario is that Collins showed up late and was reprimanded by the Lord Lieutenant Viceroy, a man named FitzAlan: “You are seven minutes late Mr. Collins,” he said. “We’ve been waiting over 700 years,” snapped Collins, “you can have the extra seven minutes.” Some insist this exchange never happened. The Irish, as usual, when the legend haunts the facts, embraced the legend.
Liam Neeson as Michael Collins, accepting the turnover of Dublin Castle in the film Michael Collins:
Four Courts and the Collins-De Valera Pact—The Four Courts were taken over by anti-Treaty forces in April led by Rory O’Connor. Accompanying O’Connor in the garrison were some great anti-Treaty Republicans, including Seán Lemass, a future Taoiseach, writer Ernie O’Malley, and Liam Mellows. Collins did not force the issue for two months, hoping for a negotiated settlement with many of his old friends. This led to a pact between Collins and de Valera in which the campaign in the upcoming general election would be fought jointly by both the pro- and anti-Treaty forces and when the people had made their decision a coalition government would be established.
June 16, 1922—The Anglo-Irish Treaty approved by a vote of 75% of the Irish people. The anti-Treaty forces renege on their promise to form a coalition government.
June 22, 1922—Sir Henry Wilson, a great proponent of the pogrom against Catholics in Northern Ireland, is gunned down on his doorstep in London by two IRA men. This assassination—thought by many to have been orchestrated by Michael Collins himself—alarms the British and Churchill turns his focus to the Four Courts occupation.
June 28, 1922—Using guns supplied by the British—and being urged on by Churchill—Collins’ National Army blasts the rebels out of the Four Courts. The Civil War begins.
Postscript—Arthur Griffith would die of a cerebral hemorrhage on August 12, 1922 and ten days later Collins would be killed in an ambush. W.T. Cosgrave would become the new President of the Dáil and a brutal military campaign would be fought throughout the country until the following spring when the anti-Treaty forces laid down arms. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Eamon de Valera would go on to form his own political party, Fianna Fáil. Unfortunately, he could not enter the Dáil until he took the Oath of Allegiance to the King, which, in one of the great political hypocrisies of all time, he did on August 11, 1927. For nearly the next fifty years he would be either Taoiseach or President of Ireland. He would die on August 29, 1975, a full 53 years after the deaths of his two greatest opponents, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins.
* Dermot McEvoy is the author of the The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family, Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising and Our Lady of Greenwich Village, now available in paperback from Skyhorse Publishing. He may be reached at [email protected] Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook at www.facebook.com/13thApostleMcEvoy.