The Truce, signed on 11th July 1921, was welcomed by a war-weary people, by the churches and the public press. It was also welcomed by the I.R.A., particularly in the Dublin area where the fighting strength of the Dublin No. 1 Brigade had been very much reduced owing to the capture of so many of its best fighters in the attack on the Customs House. At the time of the Truce, about 4,500 men were in internment and a further 1,000 were in prison. Ammunition was scarce and the I.R.A. was finding it harder to obtain both guns and ammunition. A big operation had been planned to wipe out every enemy agent in Dublin and men were in their appointed positions when, a half hour before the agreed time, an order to cancel the operation was received from the Dail Cabinet. A major ambush involving eighty officers and men was also planned for Templeglantine in Co. Limerick and the men had been in position for several days. The Truce came into effect at noon. At 11.45 a.m. the column withdrew, the British convoy arrived on the scene at 12.15 p.m. and passed some of the dispersing I.R.A. men on the road without a shot being fired.
After 11th July nothing could ever be the same. The I.R.A. men who had been on the run for years came out of hiding and were publicly identified and treated as heroes. Collins worried about the future when he said, "once a truce is agreed and we come out into the open, it is extermination for us if the truce should fail... We shall be like rabbits coming out from their holes". The truth of this statement was demonstrated when, after the Black and Tans had departed from Dunmanway Workhouse to England, the building was taken over by the I.R.A. and among the items found was a notebook of the barrack Intelligence Officer containing the most detailed description of many I.R.A. officers in the area. The description of the local company captain reads: "David Sonny Crowley, Teenagh, farmer, warts on face, 5ft 11ins, 33 years, light brown hair, grey eyes, straight nose, clean shaven, high cheek bones, was at Kilmichael ambush". Had hostilities recommenced, key men would have been immediately seized.
The Truce was not welcomed by loyalists and it caused particular tension in the Northern community where the six county statelet of Northern Ireland with its own parliament and security forces had been in operation since June, 1921. The Government of Ireland Act had been put on the Statute Book in 1920. By this Act, Lloyd George had attempted to provide Ireland with a federal system of Government - Home Rule. It had been sought in varying forms since 1874 when 60 Home Rulers were first returned to the Westminster Parliament. That democratic demand, although confirmed in every subsequent election had been refused by every British administration for 47 years. The I.R.A. under the inspired leadership of Michael Collins had at last forced the British to concede the equivalent of Home Rule but, by then,it was too little and too late to satisfy the Irish.
It had obviously become impossible to apply the Government of Ireland Act to the 26 counties, but it was welcomed by Northern Loyalists. Unionist spokesmen in Belfast have consistently insisted that it was the final political settlement. During the Truce period, British and Sinn Fein spokesmen publicly ruled out coercion of the Six Counties and agreed that their consent would be necessary in an overall arrangement.
Shortly after the Truce was signed, an Irish Delegation, headed by de Valera and including Griffith, Barton and Stack, went to London to negotiate with Lloyd George. The British team ruled out a Republic in any form and put forward proposals which essentially were a slight improvement on the Home Rule Bill of 1912. De Valera and Lloyd George did not seem to be compatible negotiators as shown by the latter's speech in the House of Commons in June 1932. De Valera, then head of the Irish Government had announced that he would not pay the financial contributions fixed in the Treaty. Lloyd George said:-
"I have had some experience of Mr. de Valera as a negotiator and frankly I have not seen anything like it. He is perfectly unique and I think this poor distracted world has a good right to feel profoundly thankful that he is unique".
It was agreed by the Dail Cabinet that the British proposals were not nearly good enough and a long memorandum which incorporated de Valera's idea of "external association" and the aspirations of the Irish people was sent as a reply. Lloyd George and de Valera subsequently exchanged a number of letters.
The formula for a conference agreed, de Valera had to nominate the Delegation. Brugha and Stack refused to go to London. Both Griffith and Collins agreed to go, albeit with reluctance, and Griffith is reported to have said to de Valera: "You are my Chief and, if you tell me to go, I'll go, but I know and you know that I can't bring back the Republic". De Valera insisted on Collins going and told the Dail that Collins was vital to the delegation. De Valera stayed in Ireland as "a symbol of the Republic", although Griffith, Collins and Cosgrave argued strongly that he should lead the Delegation.
On Tuesday,11th October, excited crowds cheered the Irish Delegation, consisting of Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, Gavin Duffy, Eamonn Duggan, Robert Barton, and its Secretary Erskine Childers, when they went to meet the British team of negotiators - Lloyd George, Austin Chamberlain, Lord Birkenhead, Winston Churchill, Sir George Howart, Sir Lamington Evans and Sir Hamar Greenwood -in conference at 10 Downing Street, "with a view to ascertaining how the association of Ireland with the community of nations known as the British Empire may best be reconciled with Irish national aspirations".
The main issues to be determined in the negotiations were the status of the new Irish policy, the question as to whether Ireland was to be united or remain partitioned and the requirements of British security. The English team was a powerful one, the big four were David Lloyd George - a Welsh-speaking Celt - Lord Birkenhead, Austin Chamberlain and Winston Churchill. Alongside them were the Attorney General, the Secretary for War and the Chief Secretary for Ireland. The brilliant public servants, Tom Jones and Lionel Curtis, were also to play a large part in the negotiations. By any standard, it was a formidable negotiating team with great experience and Lloyd George was regarded as a negotiating genius.
The Irish Delegation facing them was headed by Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, a journalist, who had devoted all his life to seeking self-government for Ireland, now approaching fifty years of age and in declining health. In a dossier supplied by the British Civil Service to each of their team, Griffith was seen as the person with real power, while Collins was thought to be "impetuous and rather excitable" but also the strongest personality and one whose influence would be exercised on the side of moderation. Barton was described as having no outstanding ability. Duggan and Duffy were both lawyers: the former was acknowledged to be under the influence of Collins, while the latter was thought to be vain and to like to hear himself talk.
Collins viewed the British negotiators as "a nest of singing birds" and thought that Lloyd George was aptly named "the Welsh Wizard" who would sell his nearest and dearest for political gain. He regarded Birkenhead as "the best of them" and with the greatest capacity for clear thinking.
Churchill was particularly attracted by Collins and they became close friends. William Manchester, who wrote Churchill's biography, The Last Lion, wrote: "He and Winston were in fact alike in many ways; fearless, charismatic, fiercely patriotic, ready to sacrifice everything for principles. Both had cherubic features but bulldog expressions, and they shared a ready wit. Their friendship grew and after a day of exhausting deliberations, Winston would take his recent enemy home and sit up late, talking, arguing, drinking, even singing". The friendship that Collins built up with Churchill, the Colonial Secretary, was to be of tremendous value to Collins during the following year when Churchill had to defend the Treaty against powerful opposition in the House of Commons. It is also recorded that Lloyd George thought that Collins was "a considerable person".
The difficult negotiations continued through November. The security problem did not become a major issue since the Irish delegated accepted the necessity of conceding the Irish naval bases as a necessary requirement of British security. As the negotiations proceeded, it became obvious that Northern Ireland and allegiance to the King could be the major stumbling blocks to agreement.
Lloyd George summoned Sir James Craig to a meeting in London on 5 November and suggested that the only way to reconcile Ireland to the Crown was to secure Irish unity and that this could be achieved if an autonomous Ulster parliament was subordinate to Dublin instead of to Westminster. Craig said that he had no objection to a settlement between Britain and the South but refused to cooperate in any arrangement involving a united Ireland. As far as Craig was concerned, the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 was the final settlement, not an inch more would he concede in the discussion.
Lord Birkenhead told Griffith and Collins in early November that the British Government would tackle Craig and, if Ulster proved difficult, the Cabinet would resign rather than renew the war against Sinn Fein on that issue. Craig saw Lloyd George twice on the 5th and 6th November and the former refused to move from his position. He would have nothing to do with a Dublin Parliament nor would he accept an adjustment of the border; what Ulster had it would hold. The position taken by Craig was reinforced by the support of Bonar Law, the Conservative leader, who had come out strongly in favour of the Unionist position.
On 10th November, Lloyd George wrote to Craig again, urging him to transfer his legislative subordination from Westminister to an all-Ireland parliament in Dublin which would respect the powers recently devolved to Belfast. A refusal to comply, according to Lloyd George, would lead to a damaging border customs barrier and a missed opportunity to pay considerably lower income tax. The latter was a bribe to the hard-headed northern businessmen, since an all-Ireland dominion would escape a compulsory contribution for imperial services. In contrast, if Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom and was represented at Westminster, it would continue to pay, through income tax, a proportional share of the imperial burden.
An embittered Craig, after consultation with his colleagues, replied on the following day and rejected an all-Ireland parliament under any circumstances other than those envisaged in the 1920 Act, namely through free discussion of both parliaments, North and South. Lloyd George finally recognised that he could get nowhere against Craig's hard line and that he could not coerce Ulster further. He determined to resurrect the idea of a Boundary Commission which he had first mentioned to the Irish Delegation on 7th November.
Lloyd George then determined to put the major problem of Northern Ireland into cold storage, while he tried to resolve the allegiance problem through negotiation. The Irish Delegation appears to have gone along with this, intending to break, if at all, on Ulster.
On 12th November Griffith met Lloyd George alone at Park Lane where the British Premier explained that he was going to offer Ulster two alternatives - an all-Ireland Parliament, which they had already refused, or a Boundary Commission to adjust the Ulster boundary as closely as possible in accordance with the wishes of the population. If they refused both, he would proceed with the second. All he wanted, Lloyd George explained, was an assurance that "he [Griffith] would not let Lloyd George down" before the Unionists' Conference in Liverpool on 17th November.
Next day, Tom Jones, Secretary of the British Delegation, showed Griffith a record of what he had agreed to, and he assented to its terms. It seems that, even then Griffith thought the matter of so little importance that he did not mention it to the other delegates. Griffith thought he had agreed to a tactical manoeuvre to help Lloyd George in "fighting the Ulster crowd", but later, on 5th December, Lloyd George would use Griffith's promise and his signed document to persuade Griffith that he was precluded by a solemn promise, given on 12th November, from bringing about the break on Ulster but had agreed to accept, as part of a general settlement, a proposal that did not guarantee unity.
It is now known that the Chairman of the Liverpool Unionist Conference, Sir Archibald Salvidge, was secretly visited by Lord Birkenhead who assured him that whatever settlement was reached it would not be prejudicial to Ulster and he was able to guide the Conference away from a revolt against the Government and to speak in favour of a peaceful settlement in Ireland.
On 17th November the British delivered a draft of the terms that they were offering. This draft contained a reference to the Boundary Commission and proposed that Ireland was to have the status of a self-governing Dominion. On 20th November Craig wrote to Lloyd George stating that he wished the correspondence between him and Lloyd George published before the Parliament assembled in Belfast on the 28th. He wanted the public to know that it was not Ulster's fault that a settlement had not been reached and that Sinn Fein's insistence on a subordinate status for the Ulster Parliament was unacceptable.
In a written letter from Dublin on 17th November, de Valera advised the Irish Delegation to submit fresh proposals, "as far as possible our final word". The Memorandum drafted by Erskine Childers angered Griffith and raised an argument between them, but nevertheless was submitted by the Irish Delegation on 22nd November. The Memorandum made no mention of a Boundary Commission, the essential unity of Ireland was a prerequisite and Ireland agreed to associate itself with the Commonwealth and to recognise the Crown "as the symbol and accepted head of the Association". Concessions were made on defence also in this memorandum.
Lloyd George examined the Memorandum and stated that the Irish proposals were a "complete let-down" and said that "to say that the King was not King for everything was to say that he was not King". At a subsequent meeting, Irish constitutional experts explained to their British opposite numbers that what was meant by Association was that within Ireland the Crown should have no significance while Griffith explained that the arrangement would reserve the honour and interests of both people, and satisfy the pride of both.
Collins and the other delegates made regular visits (by train and boat) back to Dublin during the negotiations. On the weekend of 25th November the delegates returned to Dublin and submitted a British document described as "Initiative Suggestions for a Treaty" to the Dail Cabinet. In this document, Ireland was to have the status of a Dominion, and if Ulster opted out of the new State and retained its position, "a Commission shall be appointed to determine, in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, the boundaries between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland".
The Dail Cabinet decided that Ireland should recognise the British Crown for the purpose of association and that an annual sum be voluntarily voted to the civil list. Neither of these decisions were of any great help to the delegates since at all stages in the negotiations, the British ministers had made it clear that Ireland had to remain within the Empire.
From Collins's point of view, the important matter of that weekend was a motion concerning the allegiance of the Volunteers which Brugha, the Minister for Defence, had before the Dail Cabinet. Brugha, an ex-I.R.B. member, was suspicious of Collins's motives, was aware that some Volunteer members had sworn an oath of allegiance to the I.R.B. and knew that Collins in his capacity as President of the I.R.B. was, according to that organisation's constitution, President of the Republic. Brugha referred to the Dail decision of August 1919 whereby all Volunteers were obliged to swear allegiance to the Republic and the Dail. In the previous September, unknown to Brugha, the I.R.B. had amended its constitution. The effect of that amendment was to delete from the Constitution the claim that the President of the I.R.B. was, in fact, President of the Irish Republic, and to bring all its members under the control of Dail Eireann. Brugha was thus frustrated in his attempt to embarrass Collins but de Valera obtained agreement at the Cabinet meeting that new commissions should be issued to all officers of the army and an oath administered to all ranks.
Brugha, as Minister for Defence, issued a letter indicating that as and from 25th November, 1921 a new army was being set up but, when the Dublin H.Q. staff of R. Mulcahy, J.J. O'Connell and E. O'Duffy heard of the proposal, they objected so strongly that the proposals were not proceeded with. Brugha's motion, however, revealed the continuing division within the Dail Cabinet.
Collins travelled to Cork on the weekend of 25th November for a meeting of I.R.B. officers in Parnell Place. In a private discussion with Liam Lynch and Liam Deasy, before the meeting, Collins told them that some modification would have to be made in the demand for a Republic by the Delegation and that there would have to be some compromise. Lynch advised Collins not to mention this at the meeting or else the audience would blow-up. It was always a matter of regret with Deasy that Collins took Lynch's advice and Deasy felt that it would have been better in the long run if Collins had put his cards on the table and tempered the hopes and dreams of those present.
On 28th November Griffith and Duggan met Lloyd George and Birkenhead at Chequers and were assured that, in practice, the Crown would function exactly as in Canada or in the other Dominions. On 30th November the Articles of Agreement were redrafted and delivered to the Irish Delegation. On the first weekend of December, the Irish Delegation returned to Dublin and put the Draft Agreement before Dail Eireann.
In the ensuing meeting a good deal of tension surfaced. The President, de Valera, gave his opinion that the Treaty could not be accepted in its present form. Griffith spoke strongly in favour of acceptance while Barton thought that improved terms could be obtained. Collins and Duggan agreed with Griffith that this was England's last word. Brugha and Stack were very critical of Griffith and Collins and Brugha made the statement "that the British Government selected its men" when they were told that Messrs Griffith and Collins did most of the negotiations. On the motion of Griffith, this remark was withdrawn.
The meeting continued in the afternoon and Barton appealed to de Valera to join the Delegation in London. A discussion on the Oath took up a considerable time and after de Valera had again reiterated the principle of External Association, he agreed that a simple oath which would allow the British to swallow the Treaty would be no harm. Griffith agreed not to sign a document but to state that it was a matter for the Dail, and, if there was a break, to bring it about on Ulster. Without a fully agreed tactical plan, the delegates had to rush for the boat to London. In the words of Michael Collins "We
went away with a document which none of us would sign. It must have been obvious that in the meantime, a document arose which we thought we could sign".
On Sunday, 4th December the Irish met the British Delegation at 10 Downing Street and Griffith proposed certain amendments which the British said constituted a refusal to enter the Empire and when Gavan Duffy interjected that "our difficulty is coming into the Empire", Chamberlain jumped up. "That ends it!" he cried. The negotiations seemed to be at an end. The Irish promised to send a formal rejection and prepared to return to Dublin; on the journey back to Hans Place, Gavan Duffy was severely censured by Griffith for his ill-timed intervention.
Late that night, at 10 p.m., Tom Jones saw Griffith and begged him to persuade Collins to see Lloyd George alone. In the early hours of the morning Collins was contacted and reluctantly agreed to the meeting. Collins had his points set out under four headings:
1."Essential Unity" of Ireland - an answer from Craig.
2. Oath of Allegiance.
3. Defence; coastal defence especially.
4. Trade - restrictions on fiscal autonomy.
Collins wrote a memorandum on the interview immediately on his return to Hans Place. This record shows that "Mr. Lloyd George remarked that I myself pointed out on a previous occasion that the North would be forced economically to come in". Collins also said to Lloyd George, apparently without contradiction, that after the Boundary Commission had done its work the Free State i.e. the twenty-six counties, would gain two counties and parts of three others.
Collins had also conceived the theory that the British Empire was evolving and on 28th November, presented a prophetic memorandum "On the Wider International Aspects of an Anglo-Irish Settlement". It read: "A new era is dawning, not for Ireland alone, but for the whole world. .. The problem of associating autonomous communities can be solved by recognising the complete independence of the several countries associated". Ten years later in the House of Commons the Statute of Westminister of 1931 decreed that The Dominions were autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to each other in any aspect of their domestic or foreign policy, though united by a common bond to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.
Collins agreed to a full meeting of the Delegations for 5th December and left Downing Street convinced in his own mind that the consequences of the Boundary Commission would be major gains of the Catholic areas in the North and that in a short time Ulster would be forced, for economic reasons, to join the South. This, he thought, would make national unity safe.
At three o'clock the last Conference began. There was an air of desperation in the Cabinet room of No. 10 Downing Street. It was the room where for centuries the British had formed their Irish policies. Everyone present was aware that on their deliberations that evening hung war or peace between both peoples. Arguments flowed back and forth.
Griffith raised the alternative form of the Oath of Allegiance. Birkenhead intervened and said that Mr. Collins had handed in that morning a form of Oath that he, Mr. Collins, had been working on. He himself had made some alterations to it and he now produced the amended document. The document which Collins had given to Birkenhead was one which Collins had done some work on. The Oath in the previous Treaty draft had been objected to by the Dail Cabinet. It read: "I .... do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the constitution of the Irish Free State, the British Commonwealth and the King as head of the State and Empire". The Oath in the concluded Treaty is: ".. true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State as by law established and I will be faithful to H.M. King George V, his heirs and successors by law, in virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland with Great Britain and her adherence to, and membership of, the group of nations forming the British Commonwealth of Nations". That modified Oath, in the fullness of time, facilitated Ireland's path to independence. Collins had taken the precaution of discussing the form of Oath proposed for the Treaty with his colleagues in the Supreme Council of the I.R.B. the previous weekend, when in Dublin, and got their approval.
The Ulster question had to be faced. Griffith sought to secure a break on Ulster but Lloyd George produced the note that Griffith had innocently signed on 12th November and of which he had told no one. The note ran as follows:
"If Ulster did not see her way to accept immediately the principle of a Parliament of all Ireland ... it would be necessary to revise the boundary of Northern Ireland. This might be done by a Boundary Commission which could be directed to adjust the line both by inclusion and exclusion so as to make the boundary conform as closely as possible to the wishes of the population."
Lloyd George said that Griffith was breaking faith, to which he replied "I have never let a man down in my whole life and I never will". Thus, Lloyd George deprived Griffith of the opportunity to base any ultimate break in the negotiations on Ulster.
The discussions resumed. Full fiscal autonomy was then granted to Ireland - a major gain. Lloyd George, deciding to conclude the negotiations, then stated bluntly "The British could concede no more and debate no further. The Irish delegates must settle now; They must sign the agreement for a treaty or else quit, and both sides would be free to resume whatever warfare they could wage against each other". In a dramatic moment Lloyd George then held up two letters, one of which was to be sent immediately to Craig. One contained notification of the acceptance of the terms of the articles of Agreement, the other notification of its rejection. The Delegation were told that in the event of the rejection letter being sent, "It is war, and war within three days which letter am I to send".
The Delegation were given about two hours to decide. They argued bitterly among themselves but by this time Griffith and Collins, fearing the alternative of war, had concluded that what was on offer was as much as they would get and that the settlement would receive public support in Ireland. At 2.30 a.m. on 6th December, 1921 Griffith and Collins signed the Agreement and then the others signed.
After the signing, Lord Birkenhead, who was conscious of the political risk that he ran by signing what could very well be an unpopular agreement in English eyes, said "I may have signed my political death warrant tonight" to which Collins softly replied "I may have signed my actual death warrant". There was a moment's silence and those present realised that Collins meant what he said.
A tired Irish Delegation returned to Hans Place and slept. When he woke, Collins wrote a letter to his friend, John O'Kane, which gives an idea of what he had gone through and his fears for the future. The letter reads:
"When you have sweated, toiled, had mad dreams, hopeless nightmares, you find yourself in London's streets. Cold and dark in the night air. Think - what I have got for Ireland? Something which she has wanted these past seven hundred years. Will anyone be satisfied with the bargain? Will anyone? I tell you this - early this morning I signed my death warrant. I thought at the time how odd, ridiculous - a bullet might just as well have done the job five years ago. These signatures are the first real step for Ireland. If people will only remember that, the first real step".
Collins was obviously worried that the bargain which he had agreed to would not be acceptable to his opponents, Brugha and Stack, and thought that de Valera, by refusing to go himself to London, would leave him to take responsibility for accepting the Crown and a divided Ireland.
Perhaps a warning of the dangers to come in implementing the Treaty could be seen from Sir James Craig's statement on 4th December that "he would not acquiesce to the setting up of a Boundary Commission", but these worries were reduced when, in a heated debate in the House of Commons on 15th December, Lloyd George stated: "There is no doubt, certainly since the Act of 1920, that the majority of the people in the two counties (Fermanagh and Tyrone) would prefer being with their southern neighbours to being in the Northern Parliament .. Although I advised against coercion of Ulster I do not believe in Ulster coercing other units".
The Treaty was debated at Westminister from December 14th to the 16th, inspiring some of the bitterest invective ever heard in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords and much abuse was levelled at those who signed it. The newly-ennobled Edward Carson denounced his former Government colleagues for their surrender to the murder gang and for their betrayal of the Ulster people.
The British Government released all unsentenced political I.R.A. prisoners on 8th December and made obvious preparations for evacuation of its army personnel. These British actions seemed likely to produce a favourable climate for acceptance of the Treaty in Southern Ireland.
Sectarian hatred and intimidation had inflamed Northern Ireland particularly after the signing of the Truce. The die-hard Unionist element was triumphant when the Northern Ireland Government, on 22nd November, took over from the Imperial Government the Royal Irish Constabulary, the Ulster Special Constabulary and responsibility for law and order within its jurisdiction. On the week of 19th-22nd November, 27 people were killed and 92 injured in the Six Counties. Further sectarian clashes in December brought the total killed in the Six Counties to over 100 people in that year. It was an ominous sign of the future and the calamity of partition was beginning.