"A Republican Peace":
My Thesis on the Northern Question
It is worth noting that I wrote this piece for an American audience. More specifically, I wrote it for Americans with little or no working knowledge of Irish history/Irish politics whatsoever. Thus if you are already well-versed in those subjects, the first two sections will likely repeat many facts you know. But if you are new to this subject, this thesis does not presume knowledge on your part and I think would make a great introduction. Although some of the formatting visible on paper will be lacking in this layout, this text is the original writing I turned in to receive my degree (completed around March or April of 2003). Note that this thesis is copyrighted material. If you steal it, I do have legal recourse and I will use it so please let my work remain my work. With that, I hope you enjoy it and if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me.
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“A Republican Peace”:
Broaching the Northern Question through the Lessons of the Easter Rising and the Anglo-Irish Treaty
Senior Project 2003
(I have chosen to omit the university's name.)
Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts
Table of Contents
3. Section One: The Easter Rising
Historic Brutality at the Hands of the British
Preparations for Battle
Monday, April 24, 1916
Conclusion: “All changed, changed utterly . . .”
4. Section Two: The Anglo-Irish Treaty
“Will anyone be satisfied at the bargain?”
Conclusion: Compromise or Capitulation?
5. Section Three: The Northern Question
Anything to Get British Attention
Weapons or Diplomacy?
Conclusion: An Irish Northern Ireland
8. Works Cited
Understanding the political turmoil in a nation requires an examination of its history. Historians have tried forever it seems to justify their existence by pointing to cause-and-effect relationships and recurring patterns. Regrettably, there are still politicians and commentators who ignore history and run the great risk of producing more problems than they solve. Moreover, the broad generalizations themselves can cause danger, especially when history is oversimplified into a record of good versus evil or the conquerors versus the vanquished. The logistics of a rebellion and the semantics of a treaty are not as sensational as the tabloid-esque news stories begging for American attention each night. But overlooking the importance of the Easter Rising and the Anglo-Irish Treaty is, and has been, disastrous.
Thus this project examines the Easter Rising of 1916 and the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and relates these events to the current situation in Northern Ireland. More specifically, the historical lessons gleaned from the Rising and the Treaty provide a solid answer to the Northern question: to wit, should Northern Ireland stay with Great Britain or rejoin the Republic of Ireland? This project reveals that history supports the latter.
Sir Charles Gavan Duffy once wrote, “Many men refrain from reading Irish history . . . But it is a branch of knowledge as indispensable to the statesman or publicist as morbid anatomy is to the surgeon” (Duff, Six Days to Shake an Empire 10). Irish history remains, particularly to American minds, esoteric and irrelevant; this is exceptionally shameful given the millions of Americans who claim Irish ancestry. This project does not and cannot illuminate every key event or each amazing life found in the rich history of the Emerald Isle. Neither does it offer a manifesto for any one political party, nor does it represent any one ideology. It is not designed to generalize the conflict in Northern Ireland, but instead to rectify the gross oversimplifications propagated by the American media.
Any study delving into Irish history and Northern Irish politics must take a moment to define certain terms and articulate the perspective from which it operates, e.g. a more traditional, Anglicized outlook or the somewhat ignored Irish viewpoint. The introduction to this project addresses such issues.
Section One discusses the Easter Rising by exploring the mechanics of the event itself, with a focus on the Irish experience over the course of English colonization. It is imperative to consider the factors that motivated such an extreme measure as well as the amount of careful planning that went into the Rising. Equally vital is to relate how the punishment of its leaders reshaped public opinion.
Section Two surveys the Anglo-Irish Treaty, especially in respect to the succession of events between 1916 and 1921. It considers the motives held by the British and Irish administrations and documents the actual terms of the Treaty. Additionally, it refutes the misconception that the Irish delegates were tricked by a more intelligent team of British diplomats.
Section Three tackles the Northern question and how it can be approached through the aforementioned events in Irish history. It draws necessary comparisons and contrasts between republicans and loyalists of the past and those of the modern political arena. It seeks to dispel popular myths and to offer evidence supporting the claim that Northern Ireland does indeed belong to the Republic of Ireland.
The glue holding this project together is best summarized with one question: “Why is this relevant?” In its relation to the cyclical nature of Irish history, the latest fracture in Northern Irish peace talks further illustrates the lasting significance of the Easter Rising and the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The recent hope that peace was at last brokered in Northern Ireland has been dashed and this project explains that respecting history’s lessons offers a fresh start.
The most prominent leader of the Easter Rising, Padraig Pearse, offered an admonition at the funeral of a fallen comrade and it has been plastered throughout Northern Ireland in crude graffiti. His warning is crucial:
Life springs from death and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations. The Defenders of this Realm (the British) have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools—they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace. (Small 70)
Use in vandalism notwithstanding, its relevance to this project should not be disregarded. Pearse’s words have become a self-fulfilling prophesy, haunting Irish politics ever since he gave the speech in 1915.
The adage about the victors of war writing history to suit themselves carries much truth and this phenomenon has certainly colored Irish history. Accounts are usually told from a distinctly British standpoint and, subsequently, the Irish are locked out of describing their own culture. Author Charles Duff candidly comments on this trend: “[English] rulers were rarely sufficiently well-informed to have any clear view of the Irish other than that they were the sort of people who had to be kept in subjection if England was to benefit from her conquest” (14). This project attempts to explore Irish history in a more realistic manner and aims toward a decidedly Irish perspective. To do this, it draws on the writings, experiences, documentaries, and biographies of Irish authors, poets, revolutionaries, and politicians rather than relying solely on English “scholarly” texts.
Certain terms used frequently within the context of Irish history have connotations that may differ outside this setting. To be sure the proper meaning is ascribed within this project, it is necessary to clearly define these terms at this time. The specific words and phrases are “doctrinaire republicanism,” “intestacy,” “partition,” “provisional IRA,” and “the Troubles.”
A doctrinaire republican is someone who will only be satisfied by a united Ireland with a republic as its form of government. Put into the contemporary situation in Northern Ireland, a doctrinaire republican thus becomes someone who adamantly wants the country to rejoin the Republic of Ireland, period.
Generally speaking, intestacy refers to dying without an official will. Within the structure of Irish history, it represents a bit more. Historian John Regan provides a useful illustration: “In political terms Michael Collins died intestate. While he bequeathed strong democratic institutions like the Garda Síochána (the Irish police force) he also left a legacy of conspiratorial politics and revolutionary institutions in what aspired to be a constitutional democracy . . . Michael Collins died as he lived, an enigma” (“Michael Collins: The Legacy and the Intestacy”126). If a leader dies intestate, it means that s/he has left no clear, legitimate political legacy on which followers can reasonably build.
The term partition, which some authors choose to capitalize and others do not, is the division of Ireland into separate countries. Although the British toyed with the idea of dividing Ireland for some time, it became official with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6, 1921.The twenty-six predominantly Catholic counties in the south became the Republic of Ireland and the six counties in the north, mostly Protestant in the 1920s, became Northern Ireland.
It is easy to confuse the IRA of the past with the IRA of the present; however, to do so is a mistake. The IRA has changed and split several times, especially over the past forty years. The IRA as it operated during the early 1900s was republican in nature (as its name explicitly states) and was normally united in its goals. During the 1930s, many republicans felt the violent maneuvers of the IRA were no longer necessary and their focus shifted to bolstering the power of the IRA-affiliated political party, Sinn Féin. Over the twenty years that followed, Irish politics were defined by the conflicts and compromises of the burgeoning parties fighting for control of the government. The 1950s marked a return to the IRA’s emphasis on force as a bargaining tool and in the 1960s the IRA’s political leanings went socialist.
The IRA splintered in 1969; one group favored traditional democratic policy while the other group upheld Marxist ideals. The socialist wing evolved into the Provisional IRA, sometimes abbreviated PIRA, and whose members are nicknamed Provos[i] (Cronin, Irish Nationalism 3-4). In 1997, the Provisional IRA experienced a split of its own. The Real IRA, or RIRA, broke away from the PIRA on the grounds that there should be no peace talks, compromises, or ceasefires (Karmon). Another group, the Continuity IRA, or CIRA, is also uncompromising and it separated from the PIRA because dissatisfied members believed the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was a sell out and they wanted no part of it (Kerr). Hence it is critical neither to paint the IRA with a broad brush nor to assume it is unchanged.
The broader definition of the Troubles is the overall, long-lived conflict between the Irish and the English. If used more specifically, the Troubles can refer to the brief but devastating period of civil war in the Republic of Ireland shortly after the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed. Most often, however, the Troubles allude to the modern battle between Northern Ireland and England (Melaugh). David Ervine, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, briefly discusses the impact of the Troubles in an interview on London Weekend Television’s program, The South Bank Show: “There are (Irish) songs about the hatred for the British and about imperialist rule, but there are very few songs ever publicly sung about the civil war (the Troubles). So homogenous Ireland now has elevated its common enemy to, if you like, paper over its own divisions.” Finding people willing to speak openly of the Troubles can be difficult both because it is a painful subject and because they fear that reprisals may result from their comments.
The conflict between the Irish and English has continued in various forms since Ireland was made an English colony in the twelfth century. Regardless of how many attempted rebellions the English squelched, the Irish drive for independence never faltered and it lives on in Northern Ireland. An answer to the Northern Question can be initiated by studying the Easter Rising and the Anglo-Irish Treaty and applying their examples to contemporary Northern Ireland. Indeed, it seems that Padraig Pearse was correct when he said that a British-controlled Ireland would never be at peace and this project intends to demonstrate that a tenable solution for lasting peace is more than possible—it is absolutely necessary.
The Easter Rising
William Butler Yeats is often thought of as the resident poet-in-chief of modern revolutionary movements in Ireland. Realistically, this assumption is part fact and part embellishment. For all that Yeats admired in the fight for independence, there were plenty of injustices that turned his stomach. He initially denounced the Easter Rising, “but soon found in it the appeal of ‘the glorious failure,’ immortalizing in ‘Easter 1916’ heretofore ordinary souls . . .” (Reilly, “Easter 1916” and Other Poems v).Another such politically-inspired poem is “The Rose Tree,” which recounts an imagined conversation between two leaders of the Easter Rising, James Connolly and Padraig Pearse:
“O words are lightly spoken,”/ Said Pearse to Connolly,/ “Maybe a breath of politic words/ Has withered our Rose Tree;/ Or maybe but a wind that blows/ Across the bitter sea.”/ “It needs to be but watered,”/ James Connolly replied,/ “To make the green come out again/ And spread on every side,/ And shake the blossom from the bud/ To be the garden’s pride.”/ “But where can we draw water,”/ Said Pearse to Connolly,/ “When all the wells are parched away?/ O plain as plain can be/ There’s nothing but our own red blood/ Can make a right Rose Tree.” (1-18)
Clearly, Pearse, Connolly, and the soldiers who fought beside them were willing to use their own blood to ensure the resurrection of an Ireland governed by the Irish. The idea of rebels staging a revolt they were guaranteed to lose seems irrational and extreme. To understand why the Easter Rising happened as it did, it is necessary to examine the cycle of Ireland’s past rebellions.
Historic Brutality at the Hands of the British
From the time King Henry II claimed Ireland for England (with the blessing of the only English pope, Hadrian IV), dissidents in every generation fought against colonization. The conflict had its flashes of intensity and its lulls of relative calm, but it never seemed to completely disappear. While Henry II is a villain for starting this terrible mess, it is the actions of Oliver Cromwell that are nothing short of diabolical. In the 1600s, many English believed Cromwell was precisely the type of leader who could whip an unwieldy Ireland into submission. He traveled to Drogheda (an area approximately thirty miles north of Dublin) and stormed the town. Once his troops succeeded in taking Drogheda, Cromwell was merciless:
Cromwell then gave the order (“in the heat of battle,” he afterwards explained) for the general massacre that followed, lasting several days
. . . For five days the indiscriminate slaughter of the defenceless civil population of Irish continued: old people, youths, women, and children were cut to pieces and not many others were able to escape. Friars and priests were “knocked on the head” as soon as seen. (Duff 48)
The survivors of Cromwell’s killing spree were miserable. He systematically impoverished Irish families and forcibly relocated the most destitute. The phrase “to hell or to Connacht” remains burned into the Irish psyche even now. Connacht was sparse and desolate and the Irish found it extremely arduous to survive there. Cromwell also exchanged the displaced Irish population with Protestants who whole-heartedly supported England. The combination of such awful grievances created a nightmarish existence for the Irish.
The next crucible came when James II, a Catholic with Irish sympathies, was defeated by the Protestant William of Orange at the Battle of Boyne in 1690.[ii] William promised equality between Catholics and Protestants and drew up a peace treaty in hopes of pacifying the Irish. But the document was easily manipulated by the English and turned out to be little more than a sham. The Penal Laws were passed by the British government in the 1700s to destroy the few rights retained by Irish Catholics. The laws forbade Catholics from a number of activities, including voting, teaching, publishing a newspaper, marrying a Protestant, taking a mortgage, and owning a horse valued at more than five pounds. Not surprisingly, “[the] Irish have long regarded the Penal Laws as most Jews regard the persecutions of their people by Hitler” (Duff 58-9). Effectively, the Irish had been completely disenfranchised.
The latter part of the century saw greater stirrings of dissatisfaction. Jonathan Swift, a Protestant minister and writer, saw the depressing conditions in Ireland and wrote his noted satire, “A Modest Proposal.” His voice did not go unheard; “[the] effects of Swift’s propaganda were to bring about the beginning and growth of a Protestant nationalism throughout Ireland. This in turn was to bring together ‘united Irishmen’—Protestants and Catholics . . .” (Duff 63). Falling into this category is one of Ireland’s most legendary martyrs, Theobald Wolfe Tone.
Wolfe Tone was a well-educated lawyer who hoped to duplicate America’s achievement of freedom from England. He persuaded France to send troops for a rebellion he put together in 1798. The soldiers arrived and the uprising took place, but little was accomplished. The English had the rebels vastly outnumbered and outmaneuvered. Wolfe Tone was sentenced to die by hanging rather than by firing squad, which was the traditional death prescribed for captured soldiers (Boylan). Instead of dying at the hands of the enemy, Wolfe Tone slit his throat with a penknife in his holding cell.
The 1800s ushered in more pain and anguish for the Irish, including the terrible potato famine that starved an estimated one million and forced another million to emigrate for survival. Political chaos reigned in the midst of this. Robert Emmet, an orator and Irish revolutionary, hoped to stage a coup, but a turncoat posing as his friend gave the British advanced notice and Emmet was caught. He was found guilty of treason and on the eve of his execution, he delivered a compelling, poignant speech:
Let no man write my epitaph: for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them. Let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me repose in obscurity and peace and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character; when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. (Kelly)
On September 20, 1803, Emmet was killed, “then beheaded and drawn and quartered by the British” at the young age of twenty-five (Philbin, The Irish 100 29-31). The overwhelming gruesomeness of Emmet’s death united the Irish in grief.
Daniel O’Connell is another key figure of the nineteenth century. Unlike some of his contemporaries, O’Connell was committed to non-violent strategies for change in Ireland. He is best known for spearheading Catholic emancipation and though he did not achieve all of the reforms he sought, O’Connell motivated many downtrodden Irish to take a more active role in politics (Small 16). He likely would have done more for the Irish but he died in 1847, squarely in the middle of the devastating famine.
Undoubtedly, the leading Irish politico of the 1800s was Charles Stewart Parnell. Parnell was given charge of Ireland’s Home Rule Party, which, as its name suggests, favored rule of Ireland by the Irish. He was also in control of the Land League, an organization devoted to ridding Ireland of the British-imposed, feudalistic landlord system. Though the English were not immediately won over, Parnell was a convincing statesman. The Land Act of 1881 allowed tenant farmers to own their land and it revolutionized the Irish agricultural system. Parnell was seen as a hero by the Irish until the newspapers exposed his personal life. He was having an affair with a married woman, Kitty O’Shea, and had fathered three of her children. Believing him immoral, the public turned against Parnell and his career was destroyed. Parnell’s health went downhill and he died on October 6, 1891 (Philbin 11-2). His death opened the door for a new breed of Irish revolutionaries to carry the torch of liberty and the world of Irish politics was ripe for a shake-up.
Preparations for Battle
A secret, grassroots organization called the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was formed in the late 1850s with a single objective: Irish independence. The IRB conducted fundraisers for its work (much of which was clandestine) and found recruiting new members an easy task. Other clubs like the Gaelic Athletic Association[iii] provided the IRB with young, enthusiastic men ready to fight for their country (Duff 71-78). But IRB aside, Ireland at the turn of the last century was again in a state of political confusion. The loss of the charismatic Parnell left many revolutionaries wondering what to do next. Led by Sir Edward Carson,[iv] Protestants in Ulster worked against the concept of home rule with great zeal. In addition to unrest in the north, the Irish faced a major labor dispute in Dublin. Blue collar workers were often mistreated and most struggled to survive in dreadful surroundings. In 1913, an eight month labor lockout occurred and from this the Irish Citizen Army was born (Small 64). The workers’ strike convinced citizens that even the poorest member of society could force change by tapping into the power of refusal.
In 1914, a number of powerful, history-shaping events took place in Ireland. Besides the formation of the Irish Citizen Army, a special group convened to plan a new fate for Ireland. Several men who had met each other through the IRB and the Irish Volunteers, a similar patriotic group, chose to act on their fireside chats and dinner conversations. Seven leaders emerged: Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Thomas Clarke, Eamonn Ceannt, Séan MacDiarmada, Thomas MacDonagh, and Joseph Plunkett (Golway, For the Cause of Liberty 213-6). These men became weighty figures not only in the Rising, but in the pantheon of Irish history itself.
Preparation for the Easter Rising probably commenced in 1914, but most of the intricate details were sketched out in 1915 and the months that preceded April. Simply put, these rebels wanted their revolt to be as efficient as possible even though they realized defeat was inevitable. On Good Friday, ironically enough, the well-laid plans hit a devastating snag. Sir Roger Casement, a leader in the Irish Volunteers, traveled to Germany to obtain additional weapons for the Rising from republican sympathizers. This fact astonished the British because Casement came from a family of Protestants and had once been a British Consul. The Royal Irish Constabulary arrested Casement on April 19, acting on a tip that he would be docking a U-Boat filled with guns (Duff 90-1). Frederick Smith, the Earl of Birkenhead, a future English delegate in the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiation and a great jurist of his time, recalls Casement’s capture: “Casement came by arrangement with the Germans, accompanied by a shipload of munitions of war. At Easter, the Irish rebellion broke out in Dublin, and it is easy to picture what might have happened had Casement’s scheme not gone awry” (Famous Trials of History 260-1). Many soldiers were unwavering though it was clear the Irish faced a weapons shortage and the imprisonment of a key organizer. A few others, however, had doubts. As is a familiar occurrence in Irish history, the Irish Volunteers split based on whether or not the Rising should transpire after all.[v] Padraig Pearse was unwilling to let go of his dream and he led the pro-Rising faction (Duff 91). He chose to carry out the rebellion on Monday, scarcity of armed men be damned.
Monday, April 24, 1916
Around noon on April 24, Pearse and Connolly took their historic places on the front steps of Dublin’s General Post Office (GPO). Pearse read aloud the text of the Poblacht Na h Éireann, an Irish declaration of independence that they signed with Plunkett, Clarke, Ceannt, MacDonagh, and MacDiarmada. In hindsight this is momentous, but on that Monday, most spectators laughed, jeered, or ignored Pearse as they looked around to see if the police were coming to silence such an unusual and pretentious display. After their announcement, the men made sure the GPO was clear and they commandeered the building to use as headquarters. Meanwhile, other parts of Dublin were filling with rebels. These posts included the Four Courts, which was the seat of Ireland’s judiciary, Dublin Castle, the former core of British rule in Ireland, Dublin City Hall, numerous railway stations, Boland’s Mill and Bakery, and St. Stephen’s Green and the College of Surgeons (Duff 113-6). The rebels sought to occupy important centers of government along with small businesses around the city. At the outset, the situation was hopeful:
By Monday evening, British rule in Dublin had been brought to a standstill and was all but paralysed. Among other facts which brought this home to the citizens, was that no letters were delivered, people had to go without milk, food became difficult to obtain or altogether unobtainable in some parts. The city was cut off from the outside world in regard to communications. Apart altogether from the fighting areas, Dublin suddenly became an extremely uncomfortable place in which to live. (Duff 141)
By the close of Monday, the Volunteers successfully conquered the major buildings they wanted.
On Tuesday, British soldiers most certainly took note of what was happening in Dublin and wild rumors were flying that a mass rebellion must be taking place all over Ireland. The day went well and the rebels still had an apparent advantage. This illusion was shattered on Wednesday; morale dropped and weapons were in short supply. The British saw this, of course, and ordered some of its toughest military experts to suppress the insurrection (Duff 142-161). The government did not expect a long standoff and its anticipation was correct.
On Thursday, the rebels faced heavy fire. While walking to Middle Abbey Street to supervise a nearby garrison, James Connolly was wounded by a ricocheted bullet. It struck his leg, crushing his ankle and causing him to lose a great deal of blood (Duff 167). Parts of the GPO were set on fire and, aside from damaging the post, it made the conditions inside hot and agonizing. The best the Volunteers accomplished by Friday was a stalemate. Their loss was imminent though Pearse tried to prolong the battle a few hours longer. Saturday afternoon brought an end to the revolt and Dublin was a city in shambles. At a quarter to four, Pearse took an official letter of surrender to the British (Duff 174-186). By Sunday evening, the city was again calm—but also forever altered.
Those who died were buried, with little or no ceremonial rites, and the wounded were given medical treatment. The lesser participants were sent to prison for varying lengths of time; the seven leaders of the Rising were killed. Padraig Pearse, Thomas Clarke, and Thomas MacDonagh were executed by a firing squad on May 3. Joseph Plunkett was executed on May 4 and Eamonn Ceannt on May 8. On May 12, the final executions claimed Séan MacDiarmada and James Connolly, who was still writhing from his wounded ankle and could not stand on his own. To fix this problem, the British shooters tethered Connolly to a chair before he faced them (Duff 190-2). The British then interred the leaders’ remains in the limestone of Kilmainham Jail.
Upon hearing the fate of each organizer, the anger of the Irish public deepened. The British chose to execute even secondary contributors—men like Edward Daly, Michael O’Hanrahan, William Pearse (Padraig’s younger brother), John McBride, et al.—and this seemed unjustified and unnecessarily cruel. Connolly’s execution was especially barbaric and the Irish no longer felt mocking its rebels was appropriate; supporting them was a better option. Moreover, because these men had been ordinary people in ordinary careers living otherwise ordinary lives, the average Irish citizen could form a strong connection. James Stephens, an eyewitness to the Easter Rising, penned his version of the event in The Insurrection in Dublin. Of the leaders he writes:
Those of the leaders I knew were not great men, nor brilliant—that is they were more scholars than thinkers, and more thinkers than men of action and I believe that in no capacity could they have attained what is called eminence, nor do I consider they coveted any such public distinction as is noted in that word. But in my definition they were good men—men, that is, who willed no evil, and whose movements of body or brain were unselfish and healthy. (90-1)
The Irish, chiefly those who watched the Rising directly, grew increasingly angry at the British. Some who once felt political apathy embraced the independence movement and decided it was time for the English to leave (Fry and Fry 295). What the Rising could not accomplish with a week of armed rebellion, it later achieved with the shocking deaths of its leaders at the hands of an insulted British administration.
Conclusion: “All changed, changed utterly . . .”
The Easter Rising is a paradox; it represents the failure to achieve Irish freedom from Britain and yet it was precisely the inspiration needed to fuel the independence movement. While citizens mocked the Irish Volunteers that Monday, they later recognized the gravity of the Easter Rising. Ernie O’Malley, a student who went from tepid dissenter to ardent Sinn Féiner after the Rising, notes the climate in Ireland during late 1916:
The executions had caused bitter feeling, and the arrests and the strict enforcement of martial law helped to intensify it. The people as a whole land had not changed; but the new spirit was working slowly, half-afraid, yet determined. The leaders had been shot, the fighting men arrested, and the allied Irish organizations disrupted . . . Now was the lyrical stage, blood sang and pulsed, a strange love was born that for some reason was never to die till they lay stiff on the hillside or in quicklime near a barrack wall. (Duff 233)
With the keen insight one would expect from a poet, William Butler Yeats also perfectly describes post-Rising Ireland in “Easter, 1916”: “All changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born” (15-16). The slow-growing but firm spirit of which O’Malley and Yeats speak transformed Ireland completely over the decade that followed. Though nearly ninety years have passed since that fateful week in Dublin, the Irish still honor each April 24.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty
When World War I broke out in 1914, the Irish knew it was only a matter of time before they faced English conscription. A slogan sometimes used by the Irish Volunteers read, “We serve neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland” and, after the Easter Rising, Irish republicans propagandized the fear of forced enlistment to their benefit (Small 78). In the summer of 1916, Sir Roger Casement, who had been arrested for smuggling arms, was tried and executed, fanning the flames again.
Hoping to appease the Irish, newly-elected British Prime Minister David Lloyd George offered Home Rule. But many who were sent to prison for involvement in the Easter Rising were getting out of jail in the latter part of the year and rebel organizations rebuilt quickly. These men were committed to ideological purity, i.e. a kind of hardliner logic that Irish rebels did not die and prisoners did not serve time just so others could capitulate to the British in a hasty compromise. Moreover, Sinn Féin’s credibility as a party was greatly bolstered and this proved an upset for the political status quo in Ireland:
The constitution of Sinn Féin was changed to make an independent republic the new goal instead of an Irish parliament under a joint monarch. . . . While all [the political changes were] happening, the attempts of Prime Minister Lloyd George to find a negotiated solution to the implementation of Home Rule had floundered. (Small 78)
Each political step forward for the Irish was perceived as a loss by the British. In light of his unsuccessful attempt to pass Home Rule, Lloyd George felt increasingly desperate to keep the upper hand.
When studying the political chaos in Ireland during the years that followed the Easter Rising, it seems impossible to believe that in 1921, the British called a truce. How did the clear underdog in this battle win not only a ceasefire from those in charge of Great Britain, but also the opportunity to create the first treaty ever negotiated between England and Ireland? Though it sounds incredible, the brave men and women of the independence movement proved that sometimes the smaller competitor emerges victorious. Making sense of this apparent incongruity requires a look at one of Ireland’s most tumultuous times: late 1916 to the summer of 1921.
The May executions of those who led the Easter Rising prompted John Blake Dillon, a prominent Irish journalist, to write a foreboding warning to the troubled Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith. Dillon intuitively noted, “You (the British) are letting loose a river of blood . . . between two races who, after three hundred years of hatred and strife, we had nearly succeeded in bringing together” (Norman, A History of Modern Ireland 263). “River of blood” is a fair description of the disorder that followed. Those who were sent to prison after the Rising used every spare minute to plot out new strategies. These detainees were sent to a variety of jails throughout the British Isles in an effort to subvert such reorganization. But it was no use: the prisoners found ways to write to one another and smuggle in forbidden messages. Likewise, just as the inmates were talking, so too were their friends and family members on the outside:
For every prisoner detained rightly or wrongly, there were wives, parents, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, friends and other relatives, to whom the brutality of the police, military and officialdom in general in the aftermath of the Rising would bring about a hardening of attitudes, on a scale unparalleled in any of the earlier insurrections. (MacKay, Michael Collins: A Life 65)
Most of those jailed for participation in the Rising were freed around Christmas and they felt 1917 could bring change to the fundamental structure of Irish politics. Their passion was justified.
That year, zealous republicans felt it was better to die in Ireland for Ireland than in a foreign land for the Crown. World War I was still underway and young Irishmen wondered if they would survive their times. An Irish folk song called “The Foggy Dew” had been rewritten from the pleasant story of a young man traveling to visit his betrothed to a memorial poem for those who died in the Easter Rising. Its lyrics serve as the perfect expression of this shared anxiety in Ireland: “Right proudly high over Dublin town,/ they hung out a flag of war. / ‘Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky/ than at Suvla or Sud el Bar./ And from the plains of Royal Meath/ strong men came hurrying through;/ While Britannia’s sons with their long-range guns/ sailed in from the foggy dew” (9-16). These words made a strong impression because battalions of young Irishmen were sent to the frontlines in Suvla and Sedd el Bahr (“Sud el Bar” is likely an Irish language rendering) to die en masse. Some Irish soldiers were shot to death by machine guns and some drowned. Only a few of the men who took part in the Gallipoli Landing survived (BBC, “Irish Regiments at Gallipoli Landing”). This massacre on the Turkish front was so bad that the Aegean Sea is said to have turned red with Irish blood.
The tragic death of major republican leader Thomas Ashe added to the trauma. He was sent to Mountjoy Jail for delivering seditious speeches against the British. Ashe felt that because he was jailed for political reasons he ought to be treated as a political prisoner rather than a common criminal.[vi] Ashe inspired nearly forty others to join him on a hunger strike. After six days, the jailers decided the protest should end. Ashe was forcibly fed, but the procedure was carried out incorrectly and he died from his injuries (Stewart, Michael Collins: The Secret File 17). His funeral was used as a massive propaganda performance and the mourners numbered more than 30,000. The Irish Volunteers arrived in uniform and there was a great outpouring of grief from the community. The ceremony was simple, but highly effective: “Three volleys were fired and the Volunteer commander, a big fellow with the insignia of a vice-commandant, gave a brief valediction in Irish and English. ‘Nothing additional remains to be said,’ he declared. ‘The volley which we have just heard is the only speech which it is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian’” (Fry and Fry 297). Michael Collins, the man who delivered this message, was already hard at work to deliver Ireland from the hands of the British.
Although 1917 may sound like a terrible year, important changes were afoot and the strength of republicanism was intense. Michael Collins revitalized Ireland’s National Aid and Volunteers’ Dependants Fund, making it possible for the widows and orphans of dead republicans to receive assistance and stay afloat in tough times. Collins contributed to the reorganization of the Irish Volunteers, the IRB, and an Irish republican society in America called Clan na Gael. Also in this period, Sinn Féin won a record number of electoral seats (Stewart 13). The popularity of the republican movement was growing undeniably.
In 1918, Collins laid the foundation for the Irish Republican Army and used his post of adjutant-general in the Irish Volunteers to its full potential. The people of Ireland resisted conscription now more than ever and the dominant Irish attitude was firmly anti-Britain. Lloyd George realized this, perhaps a bit too late, and decided it was time to take serious action. He appointed Field Marshal Lord French as lord lieutenant of Dublin because he thought French’s military background would help him overpower any revolts (Fry and Fry 299). That spring, the British arrested nearly every key member of Sinn Féin and any other well-known Irish citizen believed to be against conscription for the war. They submitted willingly, believing that a public protest would rattle the British so deeply that they would be freed shortly. Collins flatly disagreed and went into hiding until the arrests concluded. The Irish people were angry when they learned of the incident and “[the British] government found it had pushed the people into the arms of Sinn Féin, removed the moderate leadership and left the extremists in control” (Fry and Fry 301). What the British administration continually failed to realize was that its despotic attitude and ill-planned actions drove the Irish farther away.
In an effort to control the Irish, Lloyd George tried to use the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). DORA had been passed several years earlier, more or less as a wartime effort to suppress dissent. It was applied harshly to Ireland and under this law, citizens could be imprisoned for speaking Irish Gaelic, singing anti-English songs, and/or joining the outlawed Sinn Féin, Irish Volunteers, and Gaelic League. But, as would be expected, the Irish refused to accept these laws without a fight. They sang their songs, spoke their language, joined any organization they pleased, and decided they would rather go to prison than submit to the British (Fry and Fry 301). Even though the war ended and with it the fear of conscription, Irish loathing of the British government remained.
The first official legislative session of the Dáil[vii] commenced in January of 1919. Meanwhile, two police officers were killed in Tipperary by the Irish Volunteers and Lord French saw this as precisely the reason to start a bitter battle in Ireland. Naturally, the British were appalled by the apparent callousness of the crime and it has been said that the war between England and Ireland officially “started” on that day—January 21, 1919 (Stewart 29). Keeping close tabs on Irish revolutionaries was imperative, though the British were not proficient at such a task. Eamon de Valera, an Easter Rising veteran and the resident statesman of the independence movement, was arrested in May of 1918 and sent to Lincoln Jail in England. De Valera had so crucial a role in Irish politics that Collins, ever resourceful, felt it was time to rewrite his résumé to include jailbreaks. Using hot candles from the altar of the prison’s chapel, de Valera made wax impressions of the jailer’s key and mailed them to Collins, who made copies. Michael and his best friend, a Dublin tailor named Harry Boland, traveled to England to retrieve de Valera. Through an almost comical episode of trial and error (and Michael’s swearing), the bust was successful and de Valera returned to Ireland (O’Connor, F., The Big Fellow 59-60). His homecoming would mark a time of tremendous productivity for the Irish government.
The Dáil met for its second session in April and formally named its cabinet. With a tangible government, the Irish felt they stood a real chance in winning their war against Britain. The Irish Volunteers experienced a highly significant name change; the body of fighters now called itself the Irish Republican Army. The IRA fought a particularly damaging style of warfare—modern urban guerrilla warfare—that had been developed and refined by Michael Collins. Collins’ idea, as Neil Jordan flawlessly captures in his biopic, was to strike from the crowd and return to it quickly, leaving a cold trail of anonymity. His method worked all too well:
As the year went on (1919), IRA attacks became more frequent and daring; early in September, the IRA shot up a group of soldiers on their way to church in Fermoy, killing one, wounding four more and disarming the rest, before jumping into their cars and driving away . . . The British made ludicrously high estimates of the numbers of their enemy; French reckoned that the IRA consisted of 100,000 men and his chief secretary 200,000, whereas the true figure was nearer 15,000, and, according to Collins, not more than 3,000 of those were trained and active gunmen. (Fry and Fry 303-4)
An assassination attempt on Lord French was made in December and it destroyed any sense of morale once possessed by the employees at Dublin Castle. Simultaneously, Collins had government typists working for him, one of whom was a cousin, and they were able to pass along critical, confidential information that Collins could use to keep his men alive. Collins also had several treacherous G-men working for him as veritable double agents right inside Dublin Castle (O’Connor, F. 49). Observing the turmoil around him, Yeats offered his opinion in “On Being Asked For a War Poem”: “I think it better that in times like these/ A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth/ We have no gift to set a statesman right” (1-3). There is little wonder that he penned such words in 1919.
Michael Collins put together a squad of shooters nicknamed the Twelve Apostles and their sole job was to attack when Collins gave the order. With Harry Boland in tow, Eamon de Valera pled the case for Irish independence to American audiences. As President of the Irish republic, de Valera felt he should raise money for the independence movement and he desperately hoped to meet President Wilson. De Valera believed that Wilson, who had carved a niche for himself as an anti-isolationist, would understand the plight of the Irish and accordingly, apply pressure to England. Collins was not happy about the departure of both his chief and his dearest friend, but he knew there was little point in arguing with de Valera about it. Both men were stubborn and Collins felt it was a losing battle: “Collins replied, ‘I told him so, but you know what it is to try to argue with Dev. He says he thought it all out in prison and that he feels that the one place where he can be useful to Ireland is in America’” (Coogan, Michael Collins 100-1). While de Valera prepared for his trip, Collins loaned de Valera his own office. This kind gesture rubbed de Valera’s nerves raw because when he answered the phone, callers looking for Mick would ask to speak with the Big Fella,[viii] Collins’ popular sobriquet. After several days of this, de Valera cracked and screamed, “What’s all this about a Big Fella” and at a Sinn Féin meeting shortly thereafter, he snapped at Collins. Collins pointed to a seat that had been left empty just for de Valera, but Eamon sarcastically replied, “Let the Big Fella take the Chair” (Michael Collins 102). Such tensions between de Valera and Collins would only escalate.
The effectiveness of Collins’ Twelve Apostles in 1920 left the British increasingly anxious to solve the Irish problem once and for all. Collins himself had a price of £10,000 on his head, dead or alive, but he consistently evaded capture. To combat Irish republicans, the British ordered the Black and Tans to Ireland. It was one of the most brutal steps ever taken by Lloyd George:
But in the New Year of 1920 the tortuous course of Anglo-Irish history took a new turn: the first volunteers to answer a Press advertisement for men prepared to ‘face a rough and dangerous task’ were recruited for the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) at specially opened offices in Glasgow and Liverpool. Their destination was Ireland where, three months later, they were to win a place in Irish legend and history as the ‘Black and Tans.’ (Bennett, The Black and Tans 24)
Lloyd George was willing to pay each soldier the fair price of ten shillings per day and this attracted men who were otherwise starving because of lean economic conditions in Britain. The Black and Tans got their name for two reasons. Their uniforms were a combination of khaki and dark green with black belts and this is one facet of the label. The other comes from an infamous pack of hounds that once tormented County Limerick (Bennett 37-9). The description stuck and the soldiers behaved abominably, murdering innocent citizens and burning their homes and property at will.
Without question, the heart-stopping event of 1920 came in November. Disheartened by the Black and Tan presence in Ireland and fearing for the lives of his men (as well as his own), Michael Collins knew that something must be done to destroy the entire system of British counterintelligence in Dublin Castle. The Cairo Gang, a group of talented British secret service agents rumored to have been hand-picked by Winston Churchill, were given explicit instructions to capture the infamous Collins at any cost. What they did not realize is that Collins knew every move they made:
The ‘Cairo Gang’[ix] as they became known, were given carte blanche by Wilson (Chief of Imperial General Staff in the British Army) to use any methods they might think necessary in apprehending Collins. By October 1920, a net of intelligence agents were living in lodgings in different parts of Dublin . . . While the ‘Cairo Gang’ were building up their dossiers on Collins, Collins was at the same task himself in regard to them . . . [and] Collins decided it was time to act. In selecting the names of the people who were to be dealt with, Headquarter’s (sic) staff made every effort to see that the evidence against them was irrefutable. (O’Connor, U., Michael Collins and the Troubles 176-8)
Feeling it was kill or be killed, Collins was determined to see the agents executed. Noted Collins biographer Tim Pat Coogan straightforwardly remarks on this:
He hated waste and he thought, ‘Just keep the killing to the minimum. Shoot the detectives, spare the ordinary people.’ There is evidence that he did that, but once somebody had to be killed, he was ruthless. He wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I mean the people who went out to kill the officer or the spy were more frightened of coming back to Collins with him un-shot than they were of what they had to do in risking their lives. (The South Bank Show)
Though Michael never relished the idea of murder, was careful to weigh evidence, and even sent ultimatums to his enemies, he was unwavering once his decision was made.
On Sunday morning, Collins’ team of assassins went out. They found the members of the Cairo Gang and greeted each of them with a pistol to the face. The mission was successful and within hours, the core of Britain’s counterintelligence structure in Ireland was obliterated. A football match between Dublin and Tipperary was scheduled for Sunday afternoon and Collins sent a request to the GAA that the match be cancelled for fear of reprisals. The organizers told him it was simply too late and the spectators would come, game or not (Michael Collins 160). A group of Black and Tan soldiers flipped a coin for their revenge: they would either surprise the audience at the football game in Croke Park or plunder O’Connell Street, depending on what fate decided. Shortly after the match started, the soldiers scaled the walls and descended on the 10,000 innocent bystanders. They spent several hours firing shots at random; eleven were killed and sixty were wounded (Dwyer). One boy, a teenager named John Scott, suffered truly horrific injuries. He was shot and trampled so many times by the Black and Tans that when his body was found, “they thought he had been bayoneted to death” (GAA). Such needless brutality directed at individuals not even remotely connected to Collins and his Apostles was met with total contempt by the Irish.
Quite appropriately, November 21, 1920 received the title Bloody Sunday. The distress felt by the British administration over its inability to catch Collins was characterized by the flagrant mistreatment of Irish civilians. Nearly one month before Bloody Sunday, David Lloyd George erroneously commented “that Britain had ‘murder by the throat’ in Ireland” (Golway 270). Apparently, it was Collins who had the British by the throat.
In December, the Black and Tans burned and pillaged Cork and the British leadership presented a lie to the media that the citizens of Cork vandalized their own city. Unfazed by this, the IRA kept its side of the war moving steadily. De Valera and Boland returned to Ireland from their American fund-raising trip. De Valera was tired and disappointed that Wilson neither lobbied the British for Irish independence nor gave de Valera much credibility. De Valera’s boat docked shortly before Christmas and when Tom Cullen and Batt O’Connor, two IRA men, went to pick him up, they made a dreadful mistake:
In the early hours of 23 December the ship tied up at the Custom House Quay and de Valera asked how things were going. “Great! The Big Fellow is leading us and everything us marvelous,” said Cullen with a broad grin, which vanished at de Valera’s reaction. “Big Fellow! Big Fellow!” He pounded the guard-rail with his clenched fist and spat out, “We’ll see who’s the Big Fellow. . .” (MacKay 189)
The petty jealousy between Collins and de Valera was slowly and insidiously causing a sense of division. Soon enough, this personal rift would become a chasm and the whole of Ireland would feel its effects.
“Will anyone be satisfied at the bargain?”
Early in 1921, the British proposed a series of informal talks between Eamon de Valera representing Ireland, Sir James Craig who now represented the North, and a small team of English diplomats representing British interests. De Valera assessed the British bargaining position and determined what the administration would offer the Irish if formal negotiations commenced. Though de Valera had promised his colleagues he was not a doctrinaire republican and that any form of government would be fine with him so long as it provided for an Irish Ireland, he returned from the meetings determined that the IRA would either obtain a full republic or continue the war (Fry and Fry 312-3). This decision would alter Irish history irrevocably.
Proposing that the IRA operate less like a guerrilla faction and more like a true armed force, de Valera commanded an attack on the Customs House, the seat of the British economic system in Ireland. Collins was furious and knew from the beginning that the mission would cost more in lives than it was worth. After his involvement in the Easter Rising, Collins grew weary of heroic failures and he made his opinion known. In the end, Collins relented and supported the IRA men who fought in de Valera’s exercise. The assault burned all of Britain’s revenue records and was definitely a victory in that respect, but, as Collins predicted, the serious loss of life wrecked the IRA (O’Connor, F. 147). Michael was careful, however, not to let the British know how close the organization was to collapsing. This gave de Valera a powerful strategy for negotiating with the British, who had recently put together a promising government in Ulster. Feeling both optimistic and disappointed, the British called a Truce:
At a quarter to twelve on Monday the eleventh of July 1921, a slow procession of armoured cars, tanks and patrols began to return to their barracks, while doors and windows were crowded with sight-seers. It was a brilliant day. Summer was everywhere. The barracks gates opened. Noon began to strike from the city churches. One by one the officers and men filed in in full war kit, here and there with a cheer or a last hoot of derision . . . Old men and women, remembering their childhood dreams, wept. The heavy gates closed slowly behind the British troops. In the streets of the city the people walked unmolested, joyously, incredulously, exultant in their acquired timidity . . . They had almost forgotten what an evening walk was like. Collins sat on in his office at Harcourt Terrace, working. (O’Connor, F. 152)
Things were greatly changed by this time and the British felt they could no longer ignore the mighty nation once regarded simply as a petulant child.
The British slated formal negotiations for October, 1921. Eamon de Valera, being both the President and the usual envoy of the republican movement, seemed an obvious choice to lead the Irish delegation. Much to the surprise and distress of his colleagues, de Valera refused not only to lead the delegation but declined to go altogether. De Valera tapped Michael Collins to lead instead, claiming that he wanted to stay in Ireland “to be held in reserve as a symbol of the Republic” (MacKay 213). Two others slated to leave with Collins, Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin, and William Cosgrave, a respected Irish politician, were equally unhappy with de Valera’s decision and they pushed him to reconsider. Prime Minister Lloyd George was also upset. He pegged Collins as a gun-slinging villain à la Billy the Kid and felt deep concern on whether or not the British people “would be willing to negotiate with the head of a band of murderers” (Michael Collins 220-1). But the British relented in spite of this fear on the grounds that Collins would surely not tote weapons to Downing Street.
Collins himself was deeply vexed over the whole matter. De Valera continued to apply pressure and convinced Batt O’Connor to twist Collins’ arm as well. Batt’s daughter recalls the poignant conversation between Michael and her father: “Mick didn’t think it right that he should go, because he was a soldier. De Valera should go, he kept saying. It’s not my place. He sounded terribly upset. But daddy kept arguing, ‘You’ll have to go, Mick. It’s the one chance you’ll get . . .’” (Michael Collins 228). In addition to his formal argument, de Valera offered a number of reasons why Collins should go instead. He asserted that his choice to stay in Ireland was widely supported by his comrades and not strongly contested by anyone on either side. He contended the British already knew his limits and would not believe him as formidable a foe as Collins. He proposed that his role of President made him an important symbol and as such, he should carefully avoid anything that might sully the office (Michael Collins 229). De Valera’s motives for not leading the Irish delegation are as perplexing as they are controversial.
Ultimately, however, de Valera’s excuses fall flat. As President, he represented the Irish people just as much as Lloyd George presumably represented the British as Prime Minister. Moreover, de Valera was known for his amazing talent as a speaker. Outspoken and flamboyant literary critic Tom Paulin discusses de Valera’s oratorical proficiency: “Lloyd George famously said [that] negotiating with Eamon de Valera was like trying to pick up mercury with a fork” (The South Bank Show). Thus de Valera’s refusal to lead the Irish delegates is suspicious at best—and treacherous at worst. Michael, feeling the stress he was under and desperately wanting to maintain loyalty to his chief, conceded to de Valera’s demands:
In the end Michael caved in, and said that he was going to London (for negotiations) ‘as a soldier obeying his commanding officer.’ It was abundantly clear to him that he had been selected for this insidious task because he would have to make the concessions which de Valera himself, as President of the Irish Republic, could not make. (MacKay 214)
Though it was uncharacteristic of Collins to admit defeat, his devotion to de Valera outweighed his pride.
Anonymity had been Collins’ main weapon and now it was gone. Every newspaper on the island wanted his picture and once Collins arrived in England, he was given a kind of bizarre celebrity status by the British press that once condemned him. Michael led the Irish delegation, which included Arthur Griffith, Robert Barton, the Economic Affairs Minister, Eamonn Duggan, a legal commentator, and George Gavan Duffy, a lawyer. The British team consisted of David Lloyd George as its leader and an absolute powerhouse of associate diplomats: Sir Austen Chamberlain, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Birkenhead, who was one of the greatest legal minds in Britain, Sir Hamar Greenwood, Secretary for Irish Affairs, Winston Churchill, the Colonial Secretary, Sir Lamington Worthington-Evans, the War Secretary, and Sir Gordon Hewart, the British Attorney General (MacKay 214-5). By a unanimous vote in the Dáil, the Irish delegates were given “a free hand in negotiations” and were made plenipotentiaries[x] to leave for London “‘without their hands being tied in any way’” (Michael Collins 229-230). This was a major factor in allowing the Irish side to broker any type of agreement with the British: if they had no power whatsoever, there would be little point in sending them to London.
The Irish delegates entered 10 Downing Street on the morning of October 11. Lloyd George shook hands with them and introduced them to the British delegates as they were seated. Collins was ill at ease through much of the process, laughing too loudly at jokes and, in the beginning, feeling the cold shoulder from everyone on the opposing side except for Lord Birkenhead.[xi] Griffith and the rest of the delegation argued passionately and made a favorable impression on the British (O’Connor, F. 161). After a series of meetings together, the delegates from each side split into teams: one for finance, one for defense, and one for observance of the Truce. These subsections met, exchanged information, and then the entire gathering reconvened to outline their discussions.
In late November, Collins knew the most the British would grant Ireland was dominion status, similar to that of Canada. He felt this was enough progress for the Irish to have a “stepping-stone” and the “freedom to achieve . . . the ultimate freedom which all nations hope and struggle for” (Collins, The Path to Freedom 29). At the beginning of December, the British were tired and ready for a definitive answer. Lloyd George unmistakably threatened the Irish with an “immediate and terrible war” if they refused to sign the draft (Collins 26). Around two in the morning on December 6, the delegates signed the document and made history with the first treaty ever negotiated between England and Ireland. In a letter to a friend, Collins marked his feelings of doom: “When you have sweated, toiled, had mad dreams, hopeless nightmares, you find yourself in London’s streets, cold and dank in the night air. Think—what have I got for Ireland? Something she has wanted these past seven hundred years. Will anyone be satisfied at the bargain” (O’Connor, F. 170). Regrettably, his sense of impending disaster predicted the future of his country.
The Treaty was comprised of eighteen basic points, some more critical than others. The first of these was the recognition of an Irish Free State, which would be a dominion in the manner of New Zealand, Canada, and Australia. Members of the Irish Houses of Parliament would have to swear an oath to the Irish Free State and King George V. There would be a Crown representative in Ireland serving a role much the like Governor-General of Canada. The Treaty proposed that Irish ports still be open to British ships and vice versa. It gave a general framework for England and Ireland as military allies and clearly stated the provision that the Irish Parliament could not prefer one religion over another or prohibit the free exercise of religion in Ireland. Most importantly, however, the Treaty established the partition of Ireland into two countries. Northern Ireland would remain with Great Britain and no elections would be held for the northern counties to send MPs to the Irish Houses of Parliament “unless a resolution [was] passed by both Houses of the Parliament of Northern Ireland in favour of the holding of such elections” (Michael Collins 452). If, at the end of a month-long trial period, an address was given to King George V by both houses of the Northern Irish Parliament stating that Northern Ireland did not desire rule by the Irish Free State, the British government would construct a three-person body to set the boundaries of the nations. This trio would choose the borders based on the “wishes of the inhabitants” as well as the “economic and geographic conditions” and would be composed of individuals appointed by the Irish Free State, by Northern Ireland, and by the British (Michael Collins 453). Theoretically, the Boundary Commission would be acting with the best interests of their constituents in mind.
The Irish delegates had full power to negotiate on behalf of their government and to sign any agreements. The single request made to them was to recount their actions to Dublin for input from de Valera. According to a report written, delivered, and signed by de Valera himself, the five men who went were “envoys plenipotentiary from the elected government of the Republic of Ireland” (Michael Collins 235). Unfortunately, misguided historical revisionists have created the lie that the Irish delegates did not keep in touch with de Valera (or anyone else in Dublin), that they signed the Treaty sans participation by the Irish government, and treated it as irreversible. Such notions are simply not true. Erskine Childers, the official secretary to the Irish delegation, sent “regular progress reports” to the Dáil, Michael Collins returned to Ireland “every weekend,” and each delegate, at one point or another, visited Dublin for political debate on the Treaty terms (MacKay 218). Thus the idea that Collins impetuously agreed to the Treaty without even speaking to de Valera is erroneous.
Another deceptive falsehood is that the Irish delegates were not as intelligent as their British counterparts and were therefore and thereby outmaneuvered. In his article “The Challenge of a Collins Biography,” author J. J. Lee describes this attitude thoroughly:
There is a view that the Irish negotiators were out-maneuvered, out-witted, out-psyched, by more formidable and more experienced negotiators on the British side. The British were certainly more experienced. But what would more experience have achieved? The Irish delegates did, after all, achieve more than previous Irish representatives, including the vastly more experienced John Redmond between 1912 and 1918. If Sinn Féin were out-witted on the north, it had proved powerless to prevent the imposition of the Government of Ireland Act. And that wasn’t as much a question of being out-witted as of being out-gunned. The bottom line that is so easily forgotten in the welter of discussion about the diplomacy of the Treaty negotiations is that Britain carried far the bigger gun. Until 5 December it was kept more or less discreetly hidden. Then Lloyd George pulled it out, laid it on the table, and threatened to use it. (29)
This lie is additionally fueled by the argument that Michael Collins was a country bumpkin devoid of a working knowledge of politics and it leads to a number of negative, undeserved assumptions about Collins’ intellect. Though Collins did not attend college as some of his colleagues did, he was a well-read autodidact who managed to juggle four jobs—Minister for Finance in the Dáil, and, in the Irish Volunteers, Director of Intelligence, Director of Organization and Adjutant-General—with amazing efficacy (McCarthy, “Michael Collins: Minister for Finance, 1919-22” 59). Moreover, Collins’ intellectual capacity impressed the British so much that they commented on it frequently. He and Lord Birkenhead became friends, but Lloyd George, Churchill, and Chamberlain as well “were all astounded at the I.R.A. leader’s grasp of world politics and his ability to absorb facts the facts instantly and get to the point” (O’Connor, U. 190). While the British obviously had more guns than the Irish, they did not have so superior an intellectual prowess that the Irish were painted into a corner mentally. Thus it is reasonable to conclude that the Irish delegates were not ignorant incompetents who signed the Treaty simply because they lacked good judgment, solid reasoning skills, or brain power.
When the delegates left London, they were given a great celebration. It was full of well-wishers and was so rowdy that Collins “lost his trilby [hat] in the delightful hurly-burly” (Michael Collins 294). This party atmosphere would not be echoed in Dublin. De Valera had been given the day’s Evening Mail and noted that the newspapers published the terms of the Treaty without consulting him; he was livid. The following morning, he gathered as many members of the Sinn Féin cabinet as he could find on short notice and demanded that Collins, Robert Barton, and Arthur Griffith resign, even though all three men were absent. Seeing this strategy would not work, de Valera gave a statement to the press that the Dáil would reassemble the next day. The Irish delegates stood firm, articulately presenting their case to de Valera, but there was simply no pleasing the President. He requested that George Gavan Duffy, Barton, Erskine Childers, and his cronies who openly detested Collins meet with him to discuss the drafting of a document to replace the Treaty. Duffy, Barton, and Childers firmly opposed this (Michael Collins 295-7). Yet again, de Valera was determined to make his own way.
The Dáil debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty continued for a total
of thirteen days. Some meetings were public and others were closed. De Valera’s
initial strategy was to make the house believe that the delegates acted
inappropriately by not conferring with him as they should have and that they
signed the Treaty prematurely. Collins would have none of this. He “read out the
credentials which the plenipotentiaries had
received . . . He objected to going into a private session saying, ‘I have been called a traitor . . . If I am a traitor, let the Irish people decide it or not’” (Michael Collins 298-9). In other words, Collins wanted every word spoken on the subject, positive or negative, to be a matter of public record so that any Irishman or Irishwoman could have access to the whole of the debate. It was not to be: de Valera won out on the issue of private meetings. He presented to the Dáil an alternative to the Anglo-Irish Treaty called Document Number Two, which was almost identical except that it did not contain an oath of allegiance to the Crown. De Valera wanted the Dáil to ratify his plan instead and he relentlessly argued that the delegates acted without his full permission (Michael Collins 301-2). The delegates continued to refute the claim and fought the notion that Lloyd George had outfoxed them with a document that could offer nothing good for Ireland.
Nearing the close of the debates, it became clear to de Valera that his Document Number Two was going nowhere. In the ultimate show of ostentation, de Valera proposed resigning so that he could be reelected to “pick a new Cabinet and ‘throw out that Treaty’” (Michael Collins 304). On January 7, 1922, the debates were set to conclude so that a vote could be taken. Anyone looking to take a potshot at an enemy to settle an old score found his way to the rotunda. In one of his earlier speeches, Arthur Griffith referred to Michael Collins as “‘the man who won the war’” (Dwyer, Michael Collins 7). Cathal Brugha, a devoted sycophant to de Valera who had hated Collins for years, took the floor and lambasted Collins because of Griffith’s remark:
Defence Minister Cathal Brugha . . . questioned whether Collins “had ever fired a shot at any enemy of Ireland.” Amid cries of “Shame” and “Get on with the Treaty,” Brugha complained that Collins had originated the story that there was a price on his head[xii], and had personally sought the press publicity which built him into “a romantic figure” and “a mystical character” that he was not. Most of those present sat through the tirade in stunned silence, because there was no real stature to his wrath, just spite. (Dwyer 7)
Almost magically, Griffith knew precisely how to answer Brugha’s needless harangue:
“He referred to what I said about Michael Collins—that he was the man who won the war,” Griffith explained. “I said it, and I say it again; he was the man that made the situation; he was the man, and nobody knows better than I do how, during a year and a half he worked from six in the morning until two next morning. He was the man whose matchless energy, whose indomitable will carried Ireland through the terrible crisis; and though I have not now and never had an ambition about either political affairs or history, if my name is to go down in history I want it associated with the name of Michael Collins. Michael Collins was the man who fought the Black and Tan terror for twelve months, until England was forced to offer terms.” (Dwyer 7)
There was a thunder of applause in the Dáil after Griffith’s response, much to the chagrin of the anti-Treaty faction. De Valera feared that Griffith’s oratorical chef-d’oeuvre might be the last word on the matter and he attempted to interject a final bitter sentiment about the Treaty. Collins interrupted by saying, “‘Let the Irish nation judge us now and for future years’” (Michael Collins 306). The vote was taken and, by the narrow margin of seven, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was approved. De Valera and his followers stormed out. Arthur Griffith was immediately elected President of the Dáil and he appointed his new cabinet. Ireland was now known as Saorstat Eireann, or Irish Free State (MacKay 240-4). The business of constructing a new Irish government commenced as did the prickly matters of partitioning the six counties in the North and the building of an Irish Free State Army.
Conclusion: Compromise or Capitulation?
In June of 1922, the Treaty was accepted by the Irish in a popular vote. De Valera and the anti-Treatyites were still in a state of refusal, feeling the Treaty was a total surrender rather than a necessary, productive compromise. Thus the Troubles began later that month when a group of rebels captured several buildings near Dublin’s Four Courts. The initial revolt was suppressed within a week’s time, though several men were killed, including Cathal Brugha.[xiii] Collins was named Commander-in-Chief of the Free State Army and faced the grueling duty of fighting men he once trained in the IRA (Michael Collins 386-391). The new job of battling old comrades was terrible and Collins hated the position in which he found himself.
During the eleven month civil war in southern Ireland, a number of the country’s finest men died. Included on this list are Arthur Griffith, who collapsed from a brain hemorrhage after the stress of the Treaty, Michael Collins, who was assassinated in an ambush at Béal na Bláth, and Harry Boland, who was shot in Dublin. More than 500 troops from the Free State Army were killed and as many as 5,000 republican fighters died (MacKay 273-292). The total number of casualties is only an estimate, but it is shocking nevertheless.
With the kind of acrimony the civil war produced between families and friends and the unfathomable cruelty that took place in so brief a time, it is not difficult to understand why the Troubles are seen as a blight on the Irish conscience and are rarely spoken about publicly. While pondering the death and destruction around him during the Troubles, Michael Collins penned a sobering thought fit to describe the restless mood in Ireland: “We are losing many splendid men—many fine noble friends. I hope someone will be left to pay due tribute to their deeds and their memories—but only one tribute can repay them—the freedom of this land and in God’s good time that will rest with us” (Michael Collins 416). The effects of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the subsequent civil war are still felt in Northern Ireland today and for that reason (among many others) this tumultuous period of Irish history must be studied and thoroughly analyzed.
The Northern Question
As research for his book Rebel Hearts, author Kevin Toolis spent a decade interviewing men and women from the modern IRA in Northern Ireland. Toolis successfully uncovers the psychological motivations of those within the republican movement and his warning in the book’s preface is clear: “Ireland has too much history and no account of the past will save the Irish, Ulster Protestant or Ulster Catholic, from a destructive future of their own creation” (ix). This is very true: no single account of the many centuries Ireland has spent in English subjection can serve as a panacea. In view of the cyclical nature of Irish politics, it is also important to understand that overlooking history altogether is catastrophic. The Easter Rising remains an indelible imprint on the Irish consciousness, even as nearly a century has passed since the event. The negotiation and signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty represent the establishment of a new set of rules on how the Irish and English relate to one another as well as the physical division of the island, an action from which reverberations are still felt.
Consequently, when any diplomat travels to Northern Ireland, whether s/he is sent from Britain, the U.S., or any other nation, it is vital that s/he have some sense of and respect for Irish history. Too many mistakes have been repeated and, in spite of excellent efforts, the Northern Question[xiv] remains unanswered. Hoping to correct this, Toolis spells out his own conclusion:
The “Irish Question” has dogged English politics for four hundred years and will continue to measure out is irresolution in blood and human lives until there is peace in Ireland. And there will only be peace in Ireland through compromise, negotiations, complex political deals and a transfer of power away from the British Crown. (x)
Bearing these proposals in mind and adding to them the significance of Irish history, the purpose of this section is to describe the lasting impacts of the Easter Rising and the Anglo-Irish Treaty on contemporary Northern Irish affairs and finally to illustrate how these influences may be used to answer the Northern Question.
Anything to Get British Attention
For republicans in Northern Ireland, the Easter Rising definitely represents a sense of shared history. The Poblacht Na h Éireann is held up as the defining document of Irish freedom by republicans on both sides of the border. In fact, Tim Pat Coogan goes so far as to label the Poblacht “the Magna Carta of all Irish republicans, North or South, whether constitutionalists or not” (The IRA 16). It is not unusual for republicans to display photographs of the men killed in the Easter Rising and copies of the Poblacht as symbols of solidarity. Furthermore, the IRA continues to bury its dead under the tricolors, not the Union Jack. On one of his frequent trips to Ulster, author and minister R. Douglas Wead recalls walking into a tavern in a Catholic neighborhood. While waiting for his drink, he scanned the walls and found a huge, framed picture of James Connolly. The bartender’s demeanor, which was initially aloof, changed dramatically after Wead asked about Connolly: “The bartender wouldn’t have cared if I was sincere or not. For a moment he seemed transfixed by the portrait” (Tonight They’ll Kill a Catholic 30). Kevin Toolis observes the same type of reverence for and allegiance to the men who led the Easter Rising. He speaks of a teenaged boy who wore Pearse’s famous funeral oration to O’Donovan Rossa on his t-shirt. Toolis also helps to explain why this phenomenon occurs and why it is not likely to ever disappear:
As in the psychology of informing, this republican tenet of martyrdom is heavily influenced by the rites and liturgy of Irish Catholicism.[xv] Catholic schoolchildren are daily taught that “Christ died for our sins” and thus saved the human race. Christ’s followers, his apostles and saints, are venerated for upholding and dying for, being martyred for, the true faith. For republicans, dying for Ireland is a sacrificial act akin to those religious acts of Christian witness. Patriotism and self-sacrifice are synonymous and rooted deeply in the very fountainhead of modern republicanism, the “men of Easter Week,” the spiritual fathers of the current Irish Republic. (339)
Anyone hoping the Easter Rising will somehow vanish from the Irish republican mindset is not thinking realistically.
Additionally, the Rising sets a precedent that armed conflict works, even if such a battle appears at first to be little more than an idealistic failure. In his book On Revolt, distinguished author and political scientist J. Bowyer Bell names and characterizes the type of rebellion embodied in the Easter Rising and how it has impacted the struggle in Northern Ireland:
A second scenario depends on a discrete and violent event—the Foco Flash[xvi]—to transform objective conditions to rebel advantage. The Irish in 1916 until nearly the last minute hoped that a mass rising in Dublin, followed by risings elsewhere in the island plus some aid from Germany, would face the British Empire, deeply engaged in a world war, with quite unpleasant options . . . In essence, the Irish had first planned a detonation that would explode British authority to rebel advantage. They had settled on lighting a fuse that would do so in the future. (14)
Bell outlines another variant of the Foco Flash model, which consists of an event that sparks a violent chain reaction to defeat the authority the rebels are set against. It works when a small group motivates the general citizenry to oppose the foreign authority and stirs a sense of sympathy for any rebels punished or killed. As Bell so aptly puts it, “There would not be a single detonation, as the Irish had planned for Dublin; instead the foco would light a string of firecrackers . . . Those rebels dead in an Irish ditch . . . may well have lit long and smoldering fuses” (15). The evidence in favor of Bell’s theories is striking: guerrilla warfare continues in Northern Ireland even though the republicans are clearly outmanned and outgunned by the British Army.
Lastly, the Easter Rising symbolizes the reciprocal combat between Irish and English, republican and loyalist. The nature of this conflict is such that it will never go quietly. If republicans are unable to defeat the British militarily, they will do the one thing that comes easily: ignoring the Crown. This was the philosophy espoused by Padraig Pearse and it abides in Irish republicanism today:
Pearse’s blood sacrifice transmogrified republican political fortunes and created the state of the Irish Republic. His martyrdom was both a blind denial of the existing political reality of Crown rule in Ireland and an affirmation of the mythic republic to be . . . For Irish Republicans, martyrdom is also a means of psychologically reordering the chain of defeat, the never ending stream of rebel failures, the dead volunteers, the blunders, the apathy of the vast Irish majority and the betrayals from within, inflicted upon them. (Toolis 341)
When republicans feel the only way to make an impression on the British is to offer their lives for a united Ireland, they choose to die; in so doing, they become martyrs who inspire a new generation to revolt against the English. In addition to sacrifice, the Easter Rising shaped the concept of Irish abstentionism. This means that republicans shun British institutions and try to make Northern Ireland as unmanageable as possible so that defunct British organizations can be replaced with Irish ones. If the Irish Defence Forces, for example, can serve as an adequate military for the entire island, why is the British Army needed? Northern Irish republicans further reject British rule by stating they have never given their consent to be governed by a foreign nation and will have no part in that nation’s structure (Bell 26). The nature of the republican movement was changed so extensively by the Easter Rising that it is foolish to study Northern Irish politics without examining the revolt in 1916.
Weapons or Diplomacy?
If nothing else, the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty proved that agents from the British and Irish governments could sit together and prepare a settlement. Without the Treaty, there would be no protocol for the documents between England, Ireland, and Northern Ireland that have followed. In fact, an annual meeting called the Anglo-Irish Summit was established in 1980 by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish Taoiseach[xvii] Charles Haughey. The talks were meant to uncover “possible new institutional structures, citizenship rights, economic co-operation, and measures to encourage mutual understanding, and security” and “to relate to the ‘totality of relationships within these islands’” (Irish Council of Churches). One such conference, this time between Thatcher and a new Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, yielded the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. The core of the Agreement was that the Irish government ought to have a voice in the rule of Northern Ireland, an acknowledgment that had not been made since the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The Anglo-Irish Agreement “left no room for doubt that Northern Ireland, whatever its eventual political status might turn out to be, was as British as Finchley[xviii] no more” (McPhilemy, The Committee 7). Although this may sound insignificant, it was no minor accomplishment.
Similar to the split after the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Anglo-Irish Agreement led to a growing sense of isolation between the republicans and loyalists it sought to unite. Republicans saw the agreement as yet another slap in the face from a British government that did not belong in Northern Ireland anyway and watching FitzGerald work so closely with Thatcher seemed like surrender. Loyalists felt that the British government abandoned them and crowds of angry protesters set effigies of Thatcher on fire (McPhilemy 7). Some republicans saw the Anglo-Irish Agreement as a step in the right direction and begged for peace. Likewise, some loyalists believed it a fair compromise, not a sell out. What the Agreement also established was that Northern Ireland would never be part of the Republic of Ireland without a majority vote in favor of such unification (Endgame in Ireland). Predictably, the Anglo-Irish Agreement failed in its goal to end the violence in Northern Ireland. On other terms, however, the Agreement has worked, making it all the more comparable to its predecessor, the Anglo-Irish Treaty. It has helped with “co-operation between the Irish and British Governments in relation to security and legal affairs, cross-border co-operation, and political matters,” given the republicans a chance to be heard by the Republic of Ireland, and “has institutionalised Anglo-Irish relations” (Morton). What this means is that an open line of communication is expected between England, Ireland, and Northern Ireland at all times. Without the Anglo-Irish Treaty, there would have been no foundation from which Thatcher and FitzGerald could work.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty further symbolizes the idea that republicans are still fighting the British to rejoin Ireland. Many republicans feel that the counties in the south won their independence and if the counties in the north keep trying hard enough, they too will eventually see the same result. Geoffrey Hand, former law professor at the University of Birmingham and respected historical researcher, conducted the authoritative study chronicling the Boundary Commission created by the Treaty. On this topic, he notes that “[t]here can be no question of fact about the belief of the Irish signaturists that they were putting their names to an agreement which would ensure reunion with two counties and parts of three others” (O’Connor, U. 203). Ulick O’Connor elaborates on this, contending that the delegates believed the Irish Free State would be drawn to include Ulster and that, when Ireland became a full republic, the rest of the counties would be absorbed in time (203). But that has not happened. Also contributing to this republican attitude is the apparent randomness of the border itself. The Sunday Times put together a committee in the 1970s to study the appropriateness of the boundary and was not shy in its condemnation:
The border was itself the first and biggest gerrymander. Those counties it enclosed in the new province of Ulster had no point or meaning, except as the largest area which the Protestant tribe could hold against the Catholics. Protestant supremacy was the only reason why the State existed. As such, the State itself was an immoral concept. (O’Connor, U. 205)
The label “immoral concept” is an unmistakably scathing indictment and, in its relevance to answering the Northern Question, this conclusion is alarming.
Realizing that setting a boundary was not going to be as straightforward as the Irish delegation anticipated, Michael Collins negotiated with Sir James Craig, Sir Edward Carson’s successor who led Ulster. In January of 1922, Collins and Craig had a positive, amiable relationship and the two created an agreement with five major points. These points included the Irish construction of a body of elected representatives to establish a constitution for every county and the elimination of the Boundary Commission to be replaced by Craig and Collins drawing the border themselves (Michael Collins 340). There would also be provisions for Irish republicans in Northern Irish jails and civil rights provisions for Catholic workers. Unfortunately, relations between Craig and Collins deteriorated and the pact they made fizzled out before it could be properly implemented. This setback placed Collins in a precarious, deceitful position. Essentially by day, Collins met with the British government (and took their weapons as C-in-C of the Free State Army) and by night, he armed and gave respite to republicans in the North. Though this may seem like a bizarre, counterintuitive strategy, there is evidence to suggest that had Collins lived beyond August, it would have worked:
Collins’ policy towards the north was complex, secretive and inconsistent. Yet there can be little doubt about his commitment to the northern issue. His heated protests to Churchill and his renewed pledges to the northern IRA during his last days suggest that a Collins-led Free State government would have forced the boundary question and the larger issue of Irish unity to the forefront of Anglo-Irish politics in the early 1920s. (Phoenix, “Michael Collins: The Northern Question, 1916-1922” 116)
Hence, Collins’ encouragement of the Northern republicans after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty fueled the notion that they are part of a battle that has never been resolved. Understandably then, republicans in the North have continued combat with the British in the hopes of rejoining the Republic of Ireland.
Primarily though, the most recognizable modern repercussion of the Anglo-Irish Treaty is the division of Ireland itself. It is vital to recognize that “partition was already a foregone conclusion” by the time of the Treaty talks in 1921 (Small 84). The British government would have found a way, Anglo-Irish Treaty or otherwise, to separate the six counties in the north partly because of the Protestant majority. In the winter of 1920, a British-controlled parliament was constructed for the six northern counties by the Government of Ireland Act. When the British tried to assemble a parliament in Dublin, the Irish republicans rejected it and it “immediately became dead in the water, but the Ulster Unionists embraced the Belfast parliament and effectively ensured Ireland’s partition while the Anglo-Irish War was still in full swing” (Small 84). Thus the idea of partition was not new, but the official declaration of it came with the Treaty.
While the anti-Treaty faction powerfully made its case in the Dáil debates, the argument was not a fight over partition; it was instead a paltry row over the oath of allegiance to the Crown: “The heroes fought the froth of the Oath and ignored the substantive flaw in the Treaty, which is still disturbing the peace of Ireland and bedeviling Anglo-Irish relations—the enshrinement of partition” (Michael Collins 298). It is worth remembering that de Valera’s Document Number Two, his self-styled alternative to the Treaty, contained nearly identical terms regarding the division of Ireland.
Modern critics of the Treaty, who have the distinct advantage of weighing its value with decades of retrospection, contend that the Irish delegation should never have signed it, ostensibly on the misleading grounds that partition would never have otherwise occurred. During a BBC Radio Ulster program in 1996, a caller asked Gerry Adams what he thought of Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Adams’ response is tactful but frank:
I think we’re talking now about Collins with the hindsight of seventy years. I don’t really—and this isn’t through any false sense of modesty—see myself as a historical figure of that stature, neither do I see the situation now in terms of Sinn Féin of that time and dealing with the British and Sinn Féin now which is a party which has to deal with all the other parties and with two governments. Having said that—and I would never personalize, I know that people, you know, blame de Valera or blame Collins—I try to stay away from that. I certainly don’t think that I would have signed that type of treaty but who’s to know? (The South Bank Show)
Obviously, the impact of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on Northern Ireland is still relevant.
The present conflict in Northern Ireland is unquestionably different and more complicated. As Gerry Adams mentions, Sinn Féin of today must deal with two governments (three counting the Republic of Ireland) and multiple political parties. Republicans must also contend with a globalized political environment. In the 1980s, Sinn Féin attempted to court other Catholic voters by collaborating with the SDLP, the Social Democratic Labor Party. A priest served as a mediator between Gerry Adams and John Hume, leaders of Sinn Féin and the SDLP, respectively. Both men agreed upon the common goal, a united Ireland, but disagreed over how to achieve it. Although the talks collapsed, Adams and Hume continued to meet. Also in the 1980s, the plight of Irish Catholics caught the attention of Libyan ruler Colonel Gaddafi and he sent enough weapons to arm the IRA indefinitely. Simultaneously, the inflexible, hard-line attitude of the British Thatcherite government only reinforced the hopeless feeling of republicans, which led to escalating violence. The frequent use of bombs by the IRA did not deter voters from electing Sinn Féin candidates to the British and Irish Parliaments. In light of this, Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald tried to persuade Thatcher to compromise on the issue of Northern Ireland (Endgame in Ireland). But few concessions were made by the British and the 1980s was one of the most abysmal times in Northern Irish history.
In spite of the changed modern milieu, the repetitious nature of Irish history continues. In 1919, Eamon de Valera traveled to America to raise funds and promote awareness for Irish independence. Similarly, Gerry Adams and other members of Sinn Féin’s leadership made it a goal to come to the United States and state the republican case to American audiences. This was no simple undertaking. Whereas de Valera faced protests from Collins who did not want him to leave as a war was being waged, Adams and his colleagues faced American prejudices. In Belfast Diary, journalist John Conroy explains the pathology behind these misconceptions:
It has not been difficult to sell the British viewpoint to Americans, in large part, I think, because Northern Ireland is largely ignored by the American press . . . As a result, the barbarian view of the IRA prevails in the United States, and there is little protest when the Reagan administration denies visas to Sinn Fein representatives when they attempt to visit and explain their viewpoint. This limited and unrealistic coverage of the North is particularly sad, as it prevents the Americans from learning the North’s lessons, and there is much to be learned . . . (218)
The visa denials ended with Bill Clinton, who took a new position on the issue perhaps not initially realizing the ramifications. Before Clinton was elected for his first term, he promised that as President, he would approve a visa for Gerry Adams. Clinton did not consult any of his foreign policy advisors on this and at the time, he probably did not realize he had leapt headfirst into turbulent waters. After Clinton was sworn in, Adams applied and twice he was turned down. Prime Minister John Major advised Clinton against letting Adams into the country and the U.S. State Department felt it would be too dangerous. Finally, on Adams’ third request, Clinton approved his visa and it opened the door for a closer relationship between America and Northern Ireland (The IRA 472-3). Adams humorously recalls the back-and-forth visa debacle and the reaction of the American public to him: “I don’t have cloven hooves or two horns and when people see that, they are pleasantly surprised” (Endgame in Ireland). The idea of entreating the U.S. President and the American public for support is not a new concept in Irish history and it remains a key aspect of Northern Irish diplomacy.
Two other overtly recurring events in Irish history are the Bloody Sundays and the hunger strikes. The first Bloody Sunday—November 21, 1920—was engineered by Michael Collins to destroy the British counterintelligence system in Ireland. The second Bloody Sunday—January 30, 1972—occurred in Derry, Northern Ireland, when British soldiers fired shots at an unarmed group of civil rights protestors. Thirteen people were killed at the scene, another man died later from his injuries, and dozens more were wounded (The IRA 261). The behavior of British soldiers on the second Bloody Sunday bears distinct resemblance to the actions of the Black and Tans on the first Bloody Sunday when spectators at a football game were killed as a reprisal.
The hunger strikes of 1917 dealt with the treatment of Irish political prisoners. Thomas Ashe and several others started a hunger strike in Mountjoy Gaol because they were imprisoned under DORA legislation, not criminal law. After Ashe’s forcible feeding went awry, his death brought attention to the treatment of the Irish in prison (Michael Collins 73-4). Applying the same strategy, Bobby Sands and a group of fellow prisoners started a hunger strike in the H-block of Maze Prison in 1981.[xix] Sands argued that anyone imprisoned on political terms ought to be treated as a POW instead of a common criminal. In spite of the emaciated prisoners, the British were unwavering. Sands even ran for office as a Sinn Féin candidate and won. It seemed certain that Margaret Thatcher would never let a British MP die—but she did. Sands was not released from prison to take up his seat and he starved himself to death. The 1981 hunger strikes galvanized those within the republican movement and aroused the curiosity of outsiders as well (Philbin 260-3). These episodes in Irish history illustrate that, if certain issues are not solved and laid to rest permanently, tragedy will continually beset the Irish political process.
A glimmer of hope presented itself in 1998. The previous year, Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister and, because of the newfound candor between the leaders in Britain, Northern Ireland, and the U.S., the idea of peace talks became a reality. The IRA called a ceasefire and in April of 1998, political parties on both sides of the Northern Question started formal discussions (Endgame in Ireland). Both Tony Blair and President Clinton made significant efforts to get Sinn Féin involved proactively in diplomacy; this did not bode well with the Unionist parties:
Throughout the negotiations Unionists refused to engage directly with Sinn Féin . . . Reports of splits and dissension within both the IRA and Sinn Féin underlined growing nervousness among republicans. There was also dissatisfaction within David Trimble’s UUP (Ulster Unionist Party). Four of the its ten MPs made a public call for the party to leave the talks. (Darby)
Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who was already the chairman of the decommissioning body erected to facilitate disarmament in Northern Ireland, seemed an obvious choice to mediate the talks. Individuals as varied as Prime Minister Blair, British Secretary of State Mo Mowlam, Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, Social Democratic Labor Party leader John Hume, Progressive Unionist Party representative David Ervine, and Sinn Féin leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness took part in the negotiations (BBC, “The Good Friday Agreement”). Every effort was made to ensure that each major party in Northern Ireland was represented.
As is customary in Irish diplomacy, the peace talks crumbled. Nevertheless, Mitchell set the deadline of April 9, 1998 for the production of a final draft of a textual agreement. The outcome was named the Good Friday Agreement and after every citizen of Northern Ireland received a copy of the document, a referendum would be held in May for final approval. The Good Friday Agreement consisted of five main points:
First, Northern Ireland’s future constitutional status was to be in the hands of its citizens. Second, if the people of Ireland, north and south, wanted a united Ireland, they could have one by voting for it. Third, Northern Ireland’s current constitutional position would remain within the United Kingdom. Fourth, Northern Ireland’s citizens would have the right to “identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both.” Fifth, the Irish state would drop its territorial claim on Northern Ireland and instead define the Irish nation in terms of people rather than land. The consent principle would be built into the Irish constitution. (Darby)
The majority of Northern Irish citizens supported the Agreement and a Nobel Peace Prize was given to John Hume and David Trimble for their significant roles in drafting it (BBC, “The Good Friday Agreement”). On the surface, it appeared that the Good Friday Agreement had answered the Northern Question with finality; the truth, however, was much more complicated.
Unionist party leaders found themselves frustrated with the results of the Good Friday Agreement and Sinn Féin stood accused of having spies infiltrate the government in Northern Ireland. Though Sinn Féin denied these charges, Unionists called for an investigation on the matter in November of 2002 (BBC, “IRA Spy Ring Inquiry Called”). Since then, there has been no restoration of the Good Friday Agreement and in many circles the once ballyhooed document has been thrown on history’s scrapheap. At the moment, efforts to repair the situation have failed and “unless some common ground can be found between the parties on how to proceed, there is no mechanism for reinstating Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive. Both the (British and Irish) governments have stressed that there will be no re-negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement” (BBC, “No Progress on Reinstating Devolution”). David Ervine has announced that the Progressive Unionist Party feels cast out of new attempts to reinstate the Agreement and thus it is likely this group will protest any restoration that occurs without its input (Richardson). Because of these difficulties, it is doubtful the Good Friday Agreement will ever create peace in Northern Ireland.
In light of the eight hundred years of turmoil over British rule in Ireland, the reciprocal quality of the fight between republicans and loyalists, and the cyclical nature of Irish history, it is fair to conclude, as Padraig Pearse suggested in 1915, that an Ireland governed by anyone other than the Irish will be violent, hostile, and chaotic. It is as dangerous to believe the ghosts of the Rising and the Treaty will cease to haunt Northern Irish politics as it is to think the republican movement will die. The harder the British fight the republicans, the more intense their resolve grows. The more desperate the republicans feel, the more willing they are to lash out with violence and in turn, the British retaliate with increased ferocity. For those who persist in thinking the problem will solve itself miraculously, John Conroy paints a vivid picture:
How long can the British wage this peace in the North? Can the citizens of England, Scotland, and Wales stomach it for four or five more decades, until Catholics, with their higher birth rate, outnumber Protestants and vote their way out? (And not all demographers believe that new majority will come to exist.) It would mean more dead cavalrymen in Hyde Park
. . . a continuing series of embarrassing political postures like internal exile or internment (they matter little, as the whole world is not watching), hundreds more dead in the North (they matter little, they’re only Irish), and a continuing drain on the British economy. Can this go on for two more generations? Yes, that seems possible. (218)
Continued fighting is more than plausible—it is a reliable assurance for as long as Northern Ireland remains a part of Great Britain.
If not a British Northern Ireland what in its place? History shows the best solution is a whole Ireland as it existed for centuries before the British descended on the island for colonization and exploitation. It should be understood that the six counties in the North belong to the Republic of Ireland, regardless of religious makeup. After his study of republican psychology, Kevin Toolis arrived at the same conclusion:
There will be peace in Ireland and it will be a republican peace. It will be a peace that will accommodate both Catholics and Protestants and hence it will be hedged by safeguards, elaborate constitutions, dual symbols and the paraphernalia of laborious bureaucracy. But it will also be a peace, absolutely, that will entail, perhaps after a decent interval, the removal of the Crown from Ireland. And then and only then can the wounds of history heal and the Crown lay to rest the ghost of an old Empire which began in the provinces of Ireland hundreds of years ago and on which the sun will have finally set. (371)
Without question, a united Republic of Ireland would have to welcome the Protestant population of Northern Ireland and provide rigorous safeguards to be sure their civil rights are not trampled. In order to better facilitate peace, the change of Northern Ireland from separate British enclave to amalgamated Ireland would have to be a gradual, measured event. Although this may sound like a colossal, unachievable task, a reunion of the thirty-two Irish counties is surely a better ending to the Irish Troubles than another eight centuries of bloodshed.
When Conservative MP Michael Portillo wrote Democratic Values and the Currency, he designed it as a treatise on Eurosceptism. Though Portillo has a degree in history and served as Defence Minister for two years, a book on economics (particularly from a Tory backbencher active in Thatcher’s government) is not a likely place to find information germane to Northern Irish politics. But Democratic Values and the Currency contains a section on why citizens revolt and it reads as though Portillo wrote it specifically with Northern Ireland in mind: “For democracy to work, people have to have more than just a vote. They need to feel a part of the institutions to which they elect representatives. They need to feel properly represented in those bodies. They need to believe that their vote can change things” (15). Many Catholics in Northern Ireland, whether they align themselves with the likes of Sinn Féin and the IRA or not, do not feel the British government is meeting Portillo’s outlined criteria for them. Accordingly, they rebel against it.
Northern Irish history is still being written of course, but it appears that relations are yet again deteriorating between Northern Ireland and England. Attempts to resurrect the Good Friday Agreement have failed and, in some cases, have been met with intense enmity. During the initial negotiations, President Clinton often acted as an arbiter for Gerry Adams and Tony Blair. One night as he was trying to persuade Adams to stay in the talks, he joked that all Adams needed to do was wait for the Catholic birth rate to change so that the Northern Irish could pass a referendum to escape Britain (Endgame in Ireland). Even though Clinton was teasing Adams, there is a kernel of truth in his comment. Whether or not the Catholic population ever overwhelms the Protestant segment of Northern Ireland, any referendum passed by the Northern Irish to rejoin the Republic of Ireland should not be contested by the British.
Section One of this project offers a look at pertinent history before the Easter Rising and an account of the Rising itself. It also outlines the importance of the Rising to Irish history. Section Two details the war leading up to the Anglo-Irish Treaty and discusses the split between Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera as it pertains to the division of the country into pro- and anti-Treaty sides. Section Three synthesizes the lessons of both events and applies them to the contemporary situation in Northern Ireland specifically to provide evidence that the Northern Question ought to be answered by returning the six counties in the North to the Republic of Ireland.
Because of the Irish Constitution and the scrupulous commitment of the Irish government to human rights, equal treatment of Protestants and Catholics within a unified Ireland is feasible and realistic. Article 40 of the Bunreacht Na h Éireann[xx] deals with personal rights and it explicitly states that all citizens will be treated equally under the law. Moreover, Article 44 tackles the issue of religion and, in addition to guaranteeing that the State will not show preference for or discriminate against any religion, it provides a safeguard for each denomination to manage itself without government interference (The Irish Constitution). While no nation is utopian on human rights, the Republic of Ireland has generally proven receptive to suggestions from watchdog groups. Amnesty International has an Irish section centered in Dublin and in January of 2002, the Irish National Teachers Organization and the Ulster Teachers Union started a joint program of human rights education called the Cross Border Initiative. The goal of the proposal is admirable:
The Cross Border Primary Human Rights Education Initiative aims to promote a basic awareness of the concept of human rights—with particular emphasis on the experience of children around the world—and a corresponding understanding of the responsibility of governments, non-governmental organisations and individuals in promoting and validating the observance of appropriate human rights standards. (Amnesty International)
There is no reason to believe such efforts would cease if Northern Ireland became part of the Republic.
In his journal of speeches and political writings, General Michael Collins, by this time Commander-in-Chief of the Free State Army, penned his thoughts on the future of Ireland. Optimistically, he writes:
The freedom, strength, and greatness of the nation will be measured by the independence, economic well-being, physical strength and intellectual greatness of the people. A new page in Irish history is beginning. We have a rich and fertile country—a sturdy and intelligent people. With peace, security and union, no one can foresee the limits of greatness and well-being to which our country may not aspire. (Collins 19)
With peace, union, and safety in Northern Ireland, there truly will be no limits to a vibrant Irish future.
i What the American media simply refers to as “the IRA” in Northern Ireland is actually the Provisional IRA.
ii To this day in Northern Ireland, each July 12 is honored by Ulster Protestants (who call themselves Orangemen) to remember and praise William’s victory.
iii The Gaelic Athletic Association, or GAA, still exists and promotes traditional Irish sports (e.g. rugby, hurling, and Gaelic-style football).
iv The Sir Edward Carson rallying Ulster Protestants to stand against Home Rule was indeed the same man who defended the Marquess of Queensbury in Oscar Wilde’s famous libel trial.
v The splitting of organizations is a sad, but recurring theme in Irish history. Ed Moloney, a respected Irish journalist and editor for The Sunday Tribune, remarks on this trend in his interview for The South Bank Show: “Well, there is a very sour joke in Irish politics that whenever an organization is set up at its very first meeting, the number one item on the agenda is the split. Unfortunately, history proves that to be all too often the case.”
vi This issue will reappear later in Irish history during Bobby Sands’ hunger strike.
vii The Irish Dáil is the lower house of parliament.
viii Collins was given this nickname not so much because of his size, but because of his daredevilry and hot-headed manner.
ix The secret agents were called the Cairo Gang because they frequented a Dublin pub called Café Cairo.
x Like many in Irish history, this issue has been hotly debated. If the Irish delegates were indeed plenipotentiaries fully representing the Irish people and government (as this project argues strongly that they were), the Treaty cannot be validly be labeled a bogus document. De Valera will later try to sidestep the Dáil vote and accuse the delegates of acting improperly by signing the Treaty.
xi It is important to remember of course that Michael was approaching his thirty-first birthday when the negotiations started and he was clearly the youngest delegate. He was never one for stodgy formality in the first place and thus the atmosphere made him uncomfortable and nervous.
xii As mentioned, there in fact was a price on Collins’ head. From A History of Ireland: “The Castle authorities offered . . . £10,000 for Collins, dead or alive” (Fry and Fry 305).
xiii He was fatally shot by a gunman manning a Free State barricade, not by Collins.
xiv The Northern Question is sometimes also called the Irish Question. The two names refer to the same idea.
xv While martyrdom surely has spiritual connotations, it is worth stating that not all of Ireland’s martyrs have been Catholic or even religious.
xvi Foco flash refers to a centralized, focused burst of action.
xvii Taoiseach is the Irish word for Prime Minister. It is pronounced “tee-sheck.”
xviii Finchley is an area of north London.
xix The Irish phrase for political protests in prison is “on the blanket” because that is the only thing guards will leave for each inmate.
xx Bunreacht Na h Éireann is the Irish Gaelic name for the Irish Constitution.
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