Mick Clifford: Who fears to speak of a forgotten independence day?

Having three Cabinet members photographed looking at a digitised version of history is about as serious as the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty gets
Mick Clifford: Who fears to speak of a forgotten independence day?

Members of the Irish delegation at the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6, 1921.  Picture: Getty Images

Monday is the 100th anniversary of one of the most momentous days in Irish history.

On December 6, 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in Downing Street. It provided a degree of freedom to this country that could not even have been imagined as recently as six years earlier.

For a small, long colonised people, at a time when empire and might still ruled, it was a huge achievement that laid the foundations for the state as we know it today.

Yet, precious little is being done to mark the anniversary itself. A spokesperson for President Michael D Higgins pointed out that he had recently completed his series of Machnach 100 seminars on events of a century ago, which included reflections on the Treaty. 

On Monday, his main engagement will be to host a judicial appointment ceremony.

“The President is also planning to host a reception for descendants of the Irish men and women who represented Dáil Éireann at the Treaty negotiations. This is tentatively planned for January 2022,” the spokesperson said.

At executive level, the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, and arts minister will examine the archives from that era on Monday. 

Having three Cabinet members photographed looking at a digitised version of history is about as serious as this anniversary gets.

The political firmament as it is now constituted may have something to do with this. We have three main parties in today’s Dáil Éireann.

Fine Gael claims direct lineage to the Treaty negotiators, principally Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. Yet, arguably neither man would have felt at home in the party which was formed over a decade after the Treaty was signed.

Fianna Fáil was founded by Éamon de Valera, whose opposition to the Treaty has long cast him as one of the main culprits for the Civil War that ensued.

And then there is Sinn Féin, which, when it suits, traces its lineage back to the Sinn Féin of the day, but when it doesn’t suit, disowns the Sinn Féiners who negotiated the Treaty, including party founder Griffith. 

Today’s iteration of Sinn Féin came into being nearly 50 years after the Treaty was signed.

As a result of tenuous direct links to the signatories, there is little emotional connection to the Treaty in the way that there is, for instance, to Easter 1916. 

The anniversary in 2016 was marked in a tasteful, yet extensive, manner by the State. 

But that was easy. There was glorious sacrifice, the elevation of the leaders into a pantheon of mythology and exposure of the brutal nature of the coloniser. 

The good guys and bad guys were easily identifiable and the good guys died pure before ever being tainted by the requirements for compromise or the messy business of governing.

The men and women of 1916 also left an impossibly high barrier for their successors to reach in the form of the proclamation. 

A republic as set out in that document was never going to be achievable at the time, and when it didn’t materialise from the Treaty, further bloodshed was the result.

Down through the decades many who justifiably criticised aspects of the country that evolved often mused that if the leaders of 1916 had lived it would have been a different story.  

This is pure hokum. 

The proclamation signatories were brave beyond reason, having knowingly offered up their lives to spark an awakening in the Irish people. 

But there isn’t a scintilla of evidence to suggest that they would have shaped a different democracy, dominated by the Catholic Church, when the guns fell silent. 

The only one among them who may have strayed in that regard was James Connolly, but would the Ireland of the day ever have voted Connolly into power?

The disputes that arose from the Treaty were largely down to the acceptance of dominion status within the empire, which included swearing allegiance to the crown, and the inevitable partition of the island. 

Ironically, it was the former issue that dominated debate on the Treaty inside and outside the Dáil.

Partition, which had de facto been introduced the previous year in the Government of Ireland Act, was considered by many to be a temporary arrangement. 

Shedding all tentative connections of a dominion proved to be relatively easy over the decades that followed. 

Collins argued in the aftermath of the signing that the Treaty provided “the freedom to achieve freedom”. 

He and Griffith were both dead by the following August, but his assertion proved to be prescient.

Partition, by contrast, turned into a running sore with the creation of a sectarian state and the understandable feeling among the minority in the north that they had been abandoned.

But in 1921 was there really any alternative to partition?

The State that grew out of the Anglo-Irish Treaty was indeed conservative to a fault, but again, was it ever going to be any different? 

The Ireland of the day was dominated by the Church, as laid out by Mr Higgins in his recent seminar. 

The south of the island, outside the unionist dominated north-east, was, he asserted, “a state that was, and had become, more clericalist and conservative by the day since 1829 and the achievement of Catholic Emancipation, that by the 1930s would have profile that could be evaluated as indeed contradicting the individual principles of conscience, not only as might be perceived in the North but by any citizen dreaming of the values of a republic”.

So it was inevitable that any democracy that grew out of the revolutionary period was going to be clericalist and conservative. 

Tragically, that was an Ireland in which many who did not fit the public image of a Catholic society were to find their lives devalued in a callous and brutal manner.

But again, was there an alternative way of doing things in the environment that existed at the time? Other countries from the period reacted to conservatism and inequality with further violence that ushered in communist and fascist regimes. Did things turn out any better in those societies?

On the day the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, an editorial published in the Cork Examiner spoke for many.

“It is too soon for the shouting,” the editorial began. 

“But it is not too soon to thank God for a great achievement. Whatever may happen now as the outcome of that momentous meeting at Downing Street that lasted into the early hours of this morning, this one great thing has been done which nothing can undo — Ireland’s claim to independence has been admitted.”

It was momentous but the killing was not yet over. 

Despite that, and the divisions that opened up, the Treaty was the foundation stone for the State that evolved. 

All the more surprising then that its centenary anniversary appears to be passing with a national shrug of the shoulders.

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