The first steps towards Irish independence

The Anglo-Irish Treaty was the subject of much debate, even among the Irish delegation, writes Ryle Dwyer

THE Treaty was first signed shortly after 2am on December 6, 1921. For the Irish side, Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and Robert Barton signed at the time. George Gavan Duffy signed it later that day.

The British wished to publish a photograph of the historic signatures that day, but Eamonn Duggan had already left for Dublin with the Treaty. They got Duggan’s signature from a dinner menu that he had autographed.

George Gavan Duffy added the final signature to the historic document for the photograph published around the world. It was a measure of the confusion in the last hectic hours of the negotiations.

President Éamon de Valera had refused to be part of the delegation despite the pleas of Griffith, Collins and WT Cosgrave. Instead, he selected Griffith and Collins, even though he knew they were more favourable to the likely British terms than himself. He also selected Robert Barton, whom he hoped would be influenced by his older cousin Erskine Childers, the chief secretary to the delegation.

Childers and Barton were double first cousins, as Barton’s father and Childers’ mother were brother and sister, and Barton’s mother and Childers’ father were also brother and sister. As Childers’ parents died when he was quite young, Barton’s parents took over his upbringing.

The big issue in the final days of the talks was the form of Ireland’s relationship with the British Commonwealth. De Valera had suggested they propose external association, in which Ireland would not be a Commonwealth member but would have the responsibilities of the British dominions.

In theory, Canada and the other dominions were subservient to the British monarch, who had the same right to veto legislation as in Britain. In reality the king had no right of veto, but de Valera feared that unless Ireland had some different form of association, the British would invoke the theoretical right of veto in Ireland’s case.

External association would be a means for Ireland to assume all the responsibilities of a dominion while ensuring Ireland had the same practical freedom. The British countered that they would insert a clause in the Treaty to insure that Ireland would have the full status of Canada “in law, practice and constitutional usage”. In that case it would be illegal for Britain to interfere in Irish affairs.

With this offer, Griffith wrote, the British knocked out the argument for external association. When the cabinet discussed the British draft Treaty in Dublin on December 3, no member of the delegation even mentioned external association. The talks concentrated on the oath that Dáil members would take to swear allegiance “to the King as head of the State and of the Empire”.

De Valera proposed several forms for the oath. As the meeting ended, Childers asked if de Valera thought they should again press for external association.

De Valera replied: “Yes.”

Collins had not heard the exchange, but Griffith confirmed the story. This would be an issue of contention on the Irish side, yet it was covered by a mere monosyllabic reply as they were wrapping up over eight hours of discussion.

Collins was furious. He refused to present the counter-proposals.

Tom Jones, the British cabinet secretary, enlisted Griffith’s help to arrange a meeting between Collins and British Prime Minister Lloyd George next day. Collins explained that the oath was his big problem. Collins had already proposed an oath in which the Irish would “solemnly swear to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State as by law established and that I will be faithful to His Majesty King George in acknowledgment of the Association of Ireland in a common citizenship with Great Britain and the group of nations known as the British Commonwealth”.

This was possibly drawn up in consultation with Lord Birkenhead of the British delegation, with whom Collins got on personally. Collins got the IRB approval for the oath while in Dublin with the draft Treaty. He now presented it again to Lloyd George, who accepted it with minor verbal changes.

When Lloyd George delivered the ultimatum to the Irish delegation to sign the Treaty later that day, he knew that Griffith and Collins were in favour of it. The ultimatum was directed at Barton, who realised it.

Back at the Irish headquarters, Barton did look to Childers, as de Valera had anticipated.

“He asked me to speak to him outside,” Childers wrote. When they were alone, Barton asked what Childers thought he should do.

“I said I believed he should stick to principle,” Childers wrote to his wife. “I said I had called for your voice and it said the same.”

Childers and Barton discussed the issue.

“Molly [his wife] will be with us,” said Childers.

“Well, I suppose I must sign,” said Barton.

“At least say you only do it duress. We went in and he began with this which was contested by others,” Childers continued. “Then he hesitated and finally said he would sign ‘sans phrase’.” In other words, Barton would sign unconditionally.

Barton later told Childers that the “allusion to Molly’s support for refusal to sign last night” was “the deciding element” in his decision.

“Strange reason!” Childers exclaimed.

The remark reminded Barton that Irishwomen were not being considered. If he did not sign, the women would have no say. So he signed.

* Ryle Dwyer is author of “I Signed My Death Warrant”: Michael Collins & The Treaty, published by Mercier Press.

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