The Anglo-Irish Treaty
Above, Collins defending the Anglo-Irish Treaty to crowds of Irish voters.
In 1921, Eamon DeValera suggested that Michael Collins travel to America to take advantage of a new President coming into office. He believed that Collins could rouse Americans to support the idea of Ireland joining the League of Nations if the U.S. itself would join. DeValera thought that membership in the League would provide financial, political, and military advantages to Ireland and would make Ireland and America closer than ever. He attempted to cajole Collins into going by inflating his ego. It did not work as he had planned.
"Despite all the protestations and flattery, Collins felt that DeValera was just trying to get him out of the way. He was indeed more moderate than was generally realised, but it was unlikely that anyone had ever before accused him of being overly modest (as DeValera did in trying to win him over on the idea of going to America). 'That long whore won't get rid of me as easy as that,' Collins remarked bitterly" (T. Ryle Dwyer).
British Prime Minister David Lloyd George knew the importance of solving the Irish problems as soon as possible. DeValera and Lloyd George had engaged in a series of informal talks and a truce to the fighting was called on July 11, 1921. DeValera, Arthur Griffith, and a small group of delegates went to London a month later to commence with additional negotiations. DeValera was not pleased with what had been said in those meetings and applied pressure to Collins to go as a delegate in his place. DeValera realized that the British were not prepared to offer the Irish total independence. The British side proposed partioning the country into two parts: a section in the north to be governed by Protestants and in the south, the Irish Free State governed predominately by Nationalists. To a man whose future was wrapped in political ambition, bringing home such an agreement could mean career suicide. DeValera started cajoling Collins again, this time to be part of Treaty negotiations. There are a number of possible reasons in addition to the obvious one why DeValera thought Collins could make negotiations work. For starters, Collins had an amazing talent for making things happen. Tom Barry again recalls another time when Collins left him astounded:
"At first I thought it was odd that all those men should have had interviews with an officer who nominally held the rank of D/I (Director of Intelligence) about matters which were no concern of [the] Intelligence Department. That was before I realised that Michael Collins was virtually Commander-in-Chief in fact, if not in name, of the Army of the Irish Republic. Before meeting Collins, I had often heard officers from the Southern Units remark that the only way to get G.H.Q. (General Headquarters) to do things was to 'See Mick' about it. There was a unanimous feeling amongst the Field Officers that 'Mick' would back them to the hilt and that of all the people in Dublin he was the practical go-getter."
Second, Collins was not a country bumpkin. His knowledge of politics went beyond what most people realized.
"Collins' statesmanlike qualities were later to be shown by his shrewd analysis of the Treaty and his assessment of what could be gained under it. History has proved Collins correct and his detractors wrong" (Ulick O'Connor).
Moreover, it is important to remember that Collins had been a successful businessman and financier. Kathleen Clarke, Tom Clarke's widow, had been so impressed with the young Collins that she labeled him as possessing a "forceful personality," "wonderful magnetism," and great "organizing ability" (Terry Golway). It has also been suggested that DeValera thought Collins could accomplish more because of his reputation for mayhem. In any case, Collins had his own ideas. Michael knew that going to negotiate with the British would bring an element he had struggled to avoid at all costs: he would lose his anonymity.
"Negotiation only began several months after a truce was called. By that time, Collins' secret, underground, guerrilla army, the I.R.A. of its day, was a secret no more. In Collins' own words, once a ceasefire was declared, the I.R.A. men were: 'Like rabbits coming out of their holes.' Their main weapon, secrecy, was gone" (T. P. Coogan).
Collins’s close friend and colleague in the pursuit of independence, Emmet Dalton, and many other members of the IRA, were upset at the prospect of Michael leaving to negotiate anything with the British. The British had been in the dark for so long regarding what Collins even looked like that the possibility of Michael revealing himself in London seemed incredibly perilous. However reluctantly, Michael agreed to go and thus to follow the chain of command.
Collins was off to England with his picture snapped and posted on the front of newspapers, an experience he was not adjusted to enjoying. The Treaty negotiations started on October 11, 1921. The delegations were as follows:
"With them (Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins) went Robert Barton, the Minister for Economic Affairs and a former British officer bristling with all the Republican zeal of the convert; Eamon Duggan, a legal expert and a member of the Truce Committee; and George Gavan Duffy, the Dáil envoy in Rome. Erskine Childers acted as secretary to the delegation. For the (British) government there were the Prime Minister, Lord Birkenhead, Austen Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Sir Laming Worthington Evans (Secretary for War), and Sir Hamar Greenwood (Chief Secretary for Ireland)" (Ronan Fanning, "Michael Collins: An Overview" Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State).
Several of the British negotiators did not even want to shake hands with Collins so they went immediately to the bargaining table. A number of meetings and conferences took place over a two-month period. Collins fully understood shortly after the negotiations started that he had been set up. Tom Paulin, critic, playwright and poet, discussed Collins's frustration during his interview on The South Bank Show :
"He did not have DeValera's slippery political cunning―Lloyd George famously said negotiating with Eamon DeValera was like trying to pick up mercury with a fork. He did not have that. He walked into a trap and in the negotiations he realized that and he used to say to his fellow delegates when the British weren't around, you know, 'That long whore has got me.' And he walked into a trap, he knew when he'd signed the Treaty as he said in the famous letter, he'd signed his death warrant."
Though Collins was initially regarded as a vile thug by some members of the British negotiating team, Lord Birkenhead actually warmed to him. Birkenhead was a prized legal mind of his time and, according to Ulick O'Connor, "was one of the great jurists in history." He was stunned that Collins could have allied his skill for mayhem with an astute knowledge of political affairs. The two became friends and Birkenhead reflected to Churchill in a letter how impressed he was with Collins.
Left to right- David Lloyd George, Lord Birkenhead and Winston Churchill during the time of the Treaty negotiations.
After the tedious Treaty discussions, Lloyd George and his British team offered Ireland Free State status coupled with an oath of allegiance. Collins knew this was not what he was sent for, but on December 5, an ultimatum was issued. Lloyd George gave the Irish side until 10 p.m. that night to accept or reject the terms. Failure to do this would result in "an immediate and terrible war." The Anglo-Irish Treaty, the first ever treaty between England and Ireland, was signed by both sides around 2 a.m. on December 6, 1921. Collins was both disappointed and exhausted. Later he was to challenge the notion that he signed the Treaty under duress:
"I did not sign the Treaty under duress, except in the sense that the position as between Ireland and England, historically, and because of superior forces on the part of England, has always been one of duress. The element of duress was present when we agreed to the Truce, because our simple right would have been to beat the English out of Ireland. There was an element of duress in going to London to negotiate. But there was not, and could not have been, any personal duress. The threat of 'immediate and terrible war' did not matter overmuch to me. The position appeared to be then exactly as it appears now. The British would not, I think, have declared terrible and immediate war upon us."
Although Collins firmly denied that he signed the Treaty to avoid the threats hurled by Lloyd George, there are still questions to consider regarding his decision to go in the first place and his subsequent actions once he arrived in London:
"But sharp differences exist concerning the quality of his political judgement, above all during the Treaty negotiations and the post-Treaty period. Should he have gone to London at all, or like Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack, refused the poisoned chalice—or at least refused unless De Valera supped from it as well? Was he first out-maneuvered by De Valera in Dublin, and then by Lloyd George in London? Was he a novice in the hands of these allegedly more astute operators? Was he right to sign the Treaty? Did he subsequently, as Chairman of the Provisional Government, ‘try to do too much’ to avoid the Civil War, in contrast to De Valera’s ‘too little,’ in the lapidary formation of Desmond Williams?" (J.J. Lee, "The Challenge of a Collins Biography" Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State).
Generally, however, the words that surround Collins' role in the Treaty negotiations are those contained in his self-fulfilling prophesy: "Think, what have I got for Ireland? Something she has wanted these past 700 years. Will anyone be satisfied at the bargain? Will anyone? I tell you this, I have signed my death warrant."