There were nine names on the piece of paper. One of the men who appended his signature observed that ‘I may have signed my political death warrant’. Another responded lugubriously, ‘I may have signed my actual death warrant.’ It turned out he was right.
In Ireland we don’t have an ‘Independence Day’ as such. Easter Monday, the day on which the 1916 Proclamation was read by Patrick Pearse, outside the GPO, changes date every year. The actual date, 24 April, hardly even merits a mention, so pervasive is the Easter Week mythology.
But if we had an actual Independence Day, like 4 July in the USA or 14 July, Bastille Day, in France, then it might well be today, the 6 December. Because on this day, in 1921, five Irishmen, Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, Robert Barton, Eamon Duggan and George Gavan Duffy, signed the Treaty that ended the Anglo-Irish war and led, a few weeks later, to an independent Irish Free State. It may not have been independent enough for some, but it was recognised as such by the colonial power that had legislatively encompassed Ireland since 1801.
None of the five Irishmen who added their signatures to those of Lloyd George, Austen Chamberlain, F.E.Smith and Winston Churchill, were exactly overjoyed at what they had just done. The ‘death warrant’ remark had been made by Smith, by then trading as Lord Birkenhead. The prescient response was, famously, made by Michael Collins, who would indeed be dead within eight months.
Conspicuous by its absence was the signature of one Eamon de Valera. The President of the fledgling Irish Republic had travelled to London in July 1921 to negotiate a truce with the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, but had given responsibility for negotiating the Treaty itself to Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. The move has been debated for the better part of a century, and we still have no definitive answer to the question, ‘why did de Valera stay in Dublin?’. Was it because he knew, after his talks with the wily Welsh Prime Minister, that the negotiation of a Republic was off the table?
Would he, as head of the delegation, have compromised himself on the issue of partition, as did Arthur Griffith, when he privately agreed to a Boundary Commission? Would he have caved in to Lloyd George’s threat of total war, as did Michael Collins, a man better placed than most to evaluate the capacity of the IRA to continue the struggle against even greater odds than before?
It’s the question for which the phrase ‘what if …?’ might have been invented.
But what, precisely, did the Irish delegation agree to? As far as doctrinaire republicans, like Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack, were concerned, they had settled for a deal that was barely a whisker removed from the Home Rule solution emphatically rejected by the Irish electorate in December 1918.
But if you wanted to be Jesuitical about it, and you were a Gaeilgóir, you could argue the opposite. While, in the English language, the Treaty brought into being the Irish Free State, rather than the Irish Republic, sufficiently cherished by many of the members of Sinn Fein and the old IRA to go back to war in 1922, in Irish it brought Saorstát na hÉireann into existence. In Dáil proceedings during the War of Independence the word ‘saorstát’ had been used to mean ‘republic’.
Then there was the issue of the infamous ‘oath of allegiance’ to the King. This was repugnant to many of those who believed they had fought the British Empire to a standstill in pursuit of the ideal of complete separation from the English Crown. Now they would have to swear an oath to the King.
Or would they?
Treaties are all about semantics, and while one may dismiss the ‘republic’ and ‘saorstát’ issue as special pleading (and certainly it was not advanced as a triumphant coup by the plenipotentiaries) Collins secured a concession that he possibly believed would appeal to Dev’s inner Jesuit.
What exactly were Irish public representatives required to swear? Well, the wording was as follows … ‘I do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State as by law established and that I will be faithful to H.M. King George V, his heirs and successors by law …’ If you decided you didn’t want to go to war with your brother over a form of words then, perhaps, you might stretch a point and accept that you were being required to demonstrate mere fidelity to the British monarch rather than to swear allegiance.
In the January debate on the Treaty sixty-four Sinn Fein TDs decided they were prepared to accept that form of words, fifty-seven were not. But, technically, the plenipotentiaries had ensured that future TDs would swear ‘allegiance’ to the Irish Free State and would pledge to be faithful to the British Crown. It was a nice point, but it wasn’t enough to avoid a Civil War.