Taoiseach Enda Kenny described the current economic conditions of the country as “what is in reality a temporary, hand-me-down, financial straitjacket”.
He seemed to be suggesting that Fianna Fáil is responsible for that straitjacket, which was fair comment, but it should be pointed out that when Fianna Fáil inherited a similar economic mess in 1932, Fine Gael’s predecessor cynically used the name of Michael Collins to engage in the most reprehensible of political posturing.
After the Civil War, two aspects of the 1921 treaty remained to be implemented. Article 5 of the treaty stipulated that the Free State would “assume liability for the service of the public debt of the United Kingdom”, but also specified that “any just claims on the part of Ireland” would be taken into account.
Collins claimed the British actually owed money to Ireland as a result of over-taxation in the 19th century. A Royal Commission had already acknowledged this over-taxation.
The other outstanding issue in relation to the treaty was the establishment of a Boundary Commission to redraw the border with the North.
When the Boundary Commission met in the autumn of 1924, Lloyd George, the prime minister, had long been ousted from power, and the commission concluded that transferring the nationalist areas would not be compatible with economic conditions. It therefore concluded that only small nationalist pockets should be transferred and replaced by similar isolated unionists pockets from the Free State. This had the potential to cause enormous problems, so Dublin and Belfast agreed to leave the border as it stood, and the British agreed to release the Free State “from the obligation under Article 5” of the treaty.
But in 1926 the Free State concluded a so-called Ultimate Financial Agreement with the British in which Ernest Blythe, the finance minister, agreed to pay £5m a year to Britain in land annuities resulting from the purchase of land around the turn of the century. What would Collins have done?
He said the money was not owed. The British government had renounced the claim on the money, yet the Cumann na nGaedheal government started paying the money without ever referring the matter to the Dáil.
Collins had insisted the treaty was only a stepping-stone to the desired independence. On coming to power in 1932, Éamon de Valera promptly set about abolishing the treaty oath, but Cumann na nGaedheal fought him every inch of the way. It was ironic that it was de Valera who proved that Collins was right about the treaty, while the Big Fellow’s erstwhile followers tried to block his every move.
Members of Cumann na nGaedheal secretly pleaded with the British not to give in to de Valera.
They invoked the names of Collins and Kevin O’Higgins in a despicable way.
“In our own interests and also in loyalty to others, namely, those who, like Mr Kevin O’Higgins, have given their lives for the treaty, and those who, like Mr Cosgrave, have risked, and are still risking, their lives and political fortunes for it, we should stand absolutely by the sanctity of the treaty,” Dominions Secretary JH Thomas wrote in Feb 1932. “On this there can be no compromise: Our attitude should be clear and definite.”
De Valera quickly announced that his government would discontinue paying the land annuities to Britain, because the secret agreement to pay the money had no statutory basis. It had never been referred to the Dáil. “No minister can assign national property away by his own signature,” de Valera declared.
“This has never got statutory sanction, and every sum paid out in virtue of that agreement without collateral statutory sanction is being paid out without the proper authority.”
Although de Valera did indicate that he would submit the dispute to international arbitration, the British balked at that idea. They realised their own case was pathetically weak.
Neville Chamberlain, the chancellor of the exchequer, privately told his colleagues in Mar 1932 that de Valera had “an arguable point”, because the wording of the Boundary Commission agreement absolved the Dublin government “from liability for the service of the public debt of the United Kingdom, and that the Irish annuities form part of the public debt.”
There was “a certain risk that an arbitrator might hold that Mr de Valera is right from a purely legal and technical point of view, and it would seem most undesirable that we should expose ourselves to such a decision”, Chamberlain warned his colleagues.
Cumann na nGaedheal pleaded with the British government not to give in to de Valera. In the process, they encouraged the British to wage the Economic War.
This was as politically reprehensible as it was treasonous. The use of the name of Michael Collins then was a gross insult to his memory, and to try to link him in any way with the current mess is another cynical piece of exploitation.
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