The Treaty debates of 1922-1923

At 2.15am on the morning of 6 December 1921 the representatives of Dáil Eireann, and those of the British Empire, finally came to terms. Their negotiations had been dramatic. Lloyd George had tried to impose a deadline on proceedings by waving around two notes with instructions for James Craig, the leader of Ulster Unionism, one announcing agreement had been reached, the other telling him to prepare for war. Was the British Government bluffing? Did Churchill’s contingency plan to reoccupy Ireland with 100,000 troops have any substance to it? And how strong was the military position of the Republicans?

Lloyd George
David Lloyd George (1863-1945) British Liberal politician

The point around which the negotiations revolved, often hinted at, but rarely spoken, was an assessment of the respective military balance of forces. Here, the Irish delegation were not on firm ground, because they had a pessimistic view of what would happen if the war against the Empire continued.

The negotiations had been hard on the Irish delegation. Unwilling to seriously contemplate a return to the war with the Empire, they had gradually been wrestled into accepting a Treaty that fell far short of their own personal aspirations, let alone of those who had been fighting the British authorities for nearly three years. But having signed their names, the leaders of the Irish side, notably, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, came back to Ireland knowing they had crossed the Rubicon. There was no turning back for them; they had to make the Treaty work.

The Treaty placed serious restrictions on the emerging Irish nation. The country was to be partitioned; remain in the British Empire; host a crown representative with a veto over Irish legislation; take an oath to the King; allow Britain to maintain naval facilities and service the British public debt.

For Arthur Griffith these fetters were unpalatable, but overall the Treaty was not a qualitatively different political direction to that he had taken ever since founding Sinn Féin in 1905. His vision of an independent Ireland had always been relatively conservative, including, rather hypocritically, the idea that Ireland should have colonies of its own. As the voice of aspirant Irish small business, Sinn Féin under Griffith had opposed the trade unionism of James Larkin. The party advocated tariffs behind which native industry could prosper and its method of political struggle was to buy Irish.

From 1918, however, Sinn Fein had been taken over by more radical activists, for whom the Treaty was a much more serious compromise. For those who has actually organised Ireland’s guerrilla campaign against the Empire, the Treaty could only be justified as a temporary truce, whose terms were to be subverted later: the famous ‘stepping stone’ idea, articulated by Michael Collins.

Michael Collins had been the key figure in organising a Republican intelligence system that had proved more than a match for that of the British administration. His was a much more painful position than that of Griffith; the Treaty represented much more of a climbdown for him. Why then, did he sign it? The contrast between the ruthless guerrilla fighter and the leader of the forces of law and order in the Civil War, the rebel who turned on his former comrades in arms, has demanded explanation ever since.

Of all the immense amount of biographical and analytical material on the subject of Michael Collins only a short passing comment by D. R. O’Connor Lysaught really captures the political dynamics of Collins’ situation at the time of the Treaty. In an article, ‘September 1921’, O’Connor Lysaught made the very astute observation that Collins was in the position of a Bonapartist.

There is a famous passage by Karl Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte in which, having explained that the state in any society was the instrument of the ruling class, he pointed out that there were sometimes exceptions: ‘periods occur in which the warring classes balance each other so nearly that the state power, as ostensible mediator, acquires for the moment a certain degree of independence of both. Such was the absolute monarchy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which held the balance between the nobility and the class of burghers; such was the Bonapartism of the First [Napoleon I] and still more of the Second French Empire [Louis Bonaparte], which played off the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie against the proletariat.’

Later, Marx applied this idea to Louis Kossuth, and Simon Bolívar, leaders of national independence movements in Hungary and South America respectively. In an observation that strikes at Michael Collins as much as Simon Bolívar, Marx noted that by their being willing to champion popular aspirations, certain figures with a base in the middle or upper classes were able to create the myth of the ‘great man’, the man of the people. But insofar as the independence movements made genuinely revolutionary advances, they occurred at those moments when the popular movement escaped the control of the great leader.

By 1922, Michael Collins had become a Bonapartist figure in this sense: he had a great deal of support among the population as a whole, but particularly among the core milieu for a new state, the republican soldiers and embryonic police force. Believing that military opposition to the Empire could not continue successfully, Collins brought these supporters into line with the political outlook of the upper class nationalists. He was not of that class, nor ever really spoke their language. For their part, the conservatives did not trust him, but they needed him.
The upper classes in Ireland had traditionally accepted their subordinate position within the Empire, even where they had experienced discrimination or, worse, difficulty expanding their businesses. Those, like William Martin Murphy, the great magnate, owner of hotels, trams and newspapers, who advocated an increased independence for Ireland, did so in a proper, respectable and orderly manner. Up until 1918 they had been the backbone of the old Irish Parliamentary Party, led by the recently deceased John Redmond.

These conservative nationalists were a body that included owners of large farms and ranches, railways, breweries, diaries, banks and the heads of the Catholic Church in Ireland. For them, the most horrifying aspect of the sudden acceleration of events since the 1916 Easter Rising and the outbreak of war with Britain, from 1919 to 1921, was that they had lost all political leverage. The Irish Parliamentary Party was in ruins, abandoned by the population in favour of the more radical Sinn Féin.

Mass movement
The mass, popular, movement against the British authorities was in the hands of young people, mostly in their 20s, who were from a different social background. Overwhelmingly the IRA was made up of young men from the lower middle class. As Oliver Coogan’s close survey of the movement in Meath summarised, ‘in the rural areas most Volunteers were the sons of small farmers or were farm labourers, or worked on the roads.’ In the urban centres, the Catholic middle class dominated Sinn Féin. The breakdown of the background of the victorious Sinn Féin deputies from the 1918 election gives the picture: 9 journalists; 7 teachers; 15 other professional careers; 10 shopkeepers, 8 others in commerce; 5 full-time officials of national organisations; 2 local government workers and 2 solicitors’ clerks.

For the old ruling class the Treaty was essential. Irrespective of how limited it was with regard to the Empire, in Ireland the Treaty meant their way back into political power. As Countess Markiewicz put it when she explained her own opposition to the Treaty, it was ‘a deliberate attempt to set up a privileged class.’ The nationalist upper class were completely in favour of the Treaty, and their control of the media and the pulpits gave them a disproportionately loud voice in favour of it.

The new darling of the right was Michael Collins; especially when, having drawn key militants into serving the new structures of an Irish state, he managed to get himself killed on 22 August 1923. A potential wild card in life, he was enthusiastically worshipped in death, for having left nothing behind but the political program of the conservatives. As D. R. O’Connor Lysaught put it, after the death of Collins ‘the elite groups were united as never before … bourgeoisie and bureaucrat united with the blessing of the hierarchy, to attack Republicans and anti-capitalist agitators.’

De Valera’s opposition
The nationalist middle class was, by contrast, deeply divided. Those weary of the war and those who had been personally bound to Collins were prepared to give the Treaty a chance. The more farsighted, such as de Valera, urged rejection.

De Valera’s opposition to the Treaty was articulated in his ‘Document No. 2’. This document is interesting in what it does not focus upon, namely the North. It drew attention to the difficulties the Treaty would cause for the development of Irish capitalism. De Valera pointed out that the Treaty would lead to a prohibitive drain on the Irish exchequer, through the payments to Britain, it did not grant Ireland the right to form an independent foreign policy and the Free State could not erect tariff barriers against British goods, to allow Irish business to catch up.

De Valera had another reason for lining up against the Treaty; he had always been careful to attune himself to the voices of the poor in Ireland, and he understood that those who had fought the hardest against the Empire were going to feel bitterly betrayed. If Michael Collins acted as a bridge bringing sections of the middle class into support for the policy of the upper class, then Éamon de Valera drew the working class towards the policy of the anti-Treaty section of the middle class.

Those organisations with the strongest roots in the lower middle class were opposed to the Treaty, albeit with splits. At their conference of February 1922, Cumman na mBan rejected the Treaty by 419 votes to 63. Some eighty percent of the IRA defied Richard Mulcahy, Minister of Defence, by attending an army convention that opposed the Treaty, and indeed, encouraged the formation of an anti-Treaty government.
What was the attitude to the Treaty in the Irish working class? It might have been expected that workers would have been solidly against the Treaty. Not only since their bitter enemies from the days of the lockout were for it, but also because of the political tradition established by James Connolly.

James Connolly had predicted that the establishment of partition would result in a ‘carnival of reaction’. His concern was that a consolidation of a green and orange state structures in Ireland would drive deep divisions into the working class movement, setting back civil rights for decades as well as leading to a severe decline in material living standards for workers, both north and south of the border.

The labour movement would therefore have been expected to reject the Treaty and continue to organise both sides of the border. Officially Labour’s policy was that of neutrality. Their editorial in the Voice of Labour, a week after the Treaty was announced in the press, ran: ‘At this stage, and until Dáil Eireann has had an opportunity of debating the question, the Voice does not propose to intervene … The Dáil and not Labour has been entrusted and invested by the Irish people with the authority and responsibility. In that, the people may have done well or ill – it is for none of us to say now.’

The Executive followed up this approach by insisting, in the name of unity, that trade union branches should not discuss the issue, nor pass resolutions on the Treaty. This extraordinary abstention was the culmination of the strategy of orienting the Labour movement towards the nationalists, in anticipation of a central role in the new state. With the nationalists about to split, the Labour leaders were unsure how to align themselves.

The official neutrality of the Labour leaders masked a tendency to be pro-Treaty. The Labour Party intervened to try and persuade the Republicans not to take up arms against the Provisional Government. They sought representation at a Mansion House conference, called to seek reconciliation between the two sides.

When the Army Executive occupied the Four Courts, the Labour Party was desperate for peace. William O’Brien, the critical figure at the heart of the Labour and Trade Union movement visited the Four Courts twice to dissuade them from military opposition to the Treaty. Later, as a deputy in the Free State Dáil, O’Brien explained that he had been inclined to go along with the Provisional Government: ‘speaking for myself. I can say that I accepted the views of the military men who were in charge of the IRA and who believed they were not strong enough to get any better terms than were offered under the treaty.’ He was very proud of the compliment paid to Labour, that they ensured the working of the Free State Dáil: ‘I heard W.T. Cosgrave say on one occasion that we showed a good display of courage and thought that the Dáil could not have functioned if we had not been elected and gone into it.’

On 24 April 1922, the Labour leaders decided to call a general strike to avert the impending crisis. It was called ‘against militarism’ and was widely perceived as a strike against the occupation of the Four Courts. The other demands of parliamentary democracy and no civil war were sufficiently vague to ensure that workers would not be hostile to the call. The real success of the ‘strike’ lay in the enthusiastic backing it received from the employers, taking on, as it did, the character of a lockout.

Labour was utterly committed to the principle of working within conventional economic structures of society. Their whole intervention around the Treaty debates did nothing to improve the position of the workers they represented, but rather showed them to be humbly anticipating the emergence of a British-style parliament in which they could play an important role.

In The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Dan, a former tram driver, represents the working class opposition to the Treaty. In the key scene of the film, the debate among the former comrades upon learning of the Treaty, Dan says ‘the simple truth … this Treaty puts Ireland into the hands of the Murphy, Griffith and their like, who are copper-bottomed capitalists that will continue to exploit the landless, the unemployed and the poor every bit as much as their British counterparts.’ Dan then goes on to join the Republican forces.

Historically, it was indeed the case that working class militants opposed to the Treaty looked to the Republicans. And the more astute anti-Treaty nationalists, like Liam Mellowes, saw that it might be possible to co-opt them. As he wrote in his prison notes, ‘we should keep Irish Labour for the Republic; it will probably be the biggest factor on our side. Anything that would prevent Irish Labour from becoming Imperialist and respectable will help the Republic.’

Was there any alternative for anti-Treaty activists other than to support De Velara? There was, and it was best represented historically by the position of James Larkin.
Big Jim had been in New York’s Sing Sing prison from May 1920 until January 1923, on the charge of criminal anarchy. He thus missed the decisive years in the formation of the Irish state. On learning of the Treaty Larkin had written a manifesto in jail and had it sent over to Ireland. In it wrote ‘we pledge ourselves now and in the future, to destroy this plan of a nation’s destruction. We propose carrying on the fight until we make the land of Erin a land fit for men or women – A Workers’ Republic or Death.’
On his return to Dublin, 30 April 1923, the day after the Republicans laid down their arms, Larkin explained to the excited crowds that had come to meet him that there were other ways to oppose the Treaty than by arms, and that these had yet to be tried.

Naturally, given his career of unflinching militancy, Larkin intended to pursue a strategy of strikes and mass protest. But he had missed the moment. Over the course of the previous five years the Irish working class, north and south, has been involved in extraordinarily radical actions and had at times been the key driving force in the fight against the Empire, such as when general strikes shook the nation in 1918, against conscription, and 1920, to free hunger strikers.

By 1923, however, this militancy was on the wane, not least due to a severe recession. Employers everywhere were pressing for wage reductions, with the support of the troops of the Provisional Government in the event of disputes. There was to be no Larkinite attack on the Treaty and Connolly’s pessimistic prediction proved to be all too prophetic.