End of Empire, Enter the Commonwealth?

There has been a great deal of excitement this week about the National Archives publication of images of selected documents on the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921; the full text of most of those documents has been available online for many years as part of the CELT collection at UCC. The online exhibit is good, and will draw attention to the original sources, but personally I find the transcriptions more useful. To my mind, taken together the entire range of documents shows DeValera in a fairly poor light – it highlights that he must have known that he would not get his fanciful dream of “External Association”.

Many people are familiar with the exchange of correspondance between DeValera and Lloyd George which preceeded the negotiations and showed a clear gap between what DeValera hoped for and on what basis Lloyd George was willing to negotiate.  Most texts which make use of this correspondence oinly refer ot the final exchanges of 29th Sept, in which Lloyd George insisted: “Notwithstanding your personal assurance to the contrary, which they much appreciate, it might be argued in future that the acceptance of a conference on this basis had involved them in a recognition which no British Government can accord. On this point they must guard themselves against any possible doubt. There is no purpose to be served by any further interchange of explanatory and argumentative communications upon this subject. The position taken up by His Majesty’s Government is fundamental to the existence of the British Empire and they cannot alter it. ” This seems clear enough to most readers, but in his last sentence, the Welshman offered what DeValera must have seen as an opening when he offered “a fresh invitation to a conference in London on October 11th, where we can meet your delegates as spokesmen of the people whom you represent with a view to ascertaining how the association of Ireland with the community of nations known as the British Empire may best be reconciled with Irish national aspirations.” This reflected DeValera’s words, and must have aroused some hope of achieving DeValera’s goal of some form of external association.  Throughout the correspondence, Lloyd George had stuck firmly on the question of Empire – Did DeValera interpret this last line as an opening to the possibility that the British position might shift during face to face talks in a way which Lloyd George had not been willing to concede in correspondence?  It is hard to say, but the full correspondence merits reading.

The CELT archive includes several drafts of the developing agreement – Draft A, representing the initial Irish offer, the Irish memoranda of 24th October and 27th November and the British draft of  1st December.  That was the text which was brought back to Dublin for consideration by the Cabinet in Dublin on 3rd December.  In that draft, the proposed oath was :

I [gap: blank to be filled/extent: 2/3 words]solemnly swear to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State; to the Community of Nations known as the British Empire; and to the King as Head of the State and of the Empire. (see text on CELT website)

and this was apparently rejected by the Cabinent, leading to a counter offer on 4th December of an alternative wording:

I do swear to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of Ireland and to the Treaty of Association of Ireland with the British commonwealth of Nations, and to recognise the King of Great Britain as Head of the Associated States. (text here)

The final wording, which the delegation signed on 6th December, was

I [gap: blank to be filled/extent: 2/3 words] do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State as by law established and that I will be faithful to H. M. King George V, his heirs and successors by law, in virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland with Great Britain and her adherence to and membership of the group of nations forming the British Commonwealth of Nations. (text here)

There is a world of difference between what the British proposed on 1st December and what Griffith offered as an alternative on the 4th.  As we know, DeValera and the hard-liners refused the version signed on the 6th.  The cabinet minutes of the 3rd, (page images on the National Archives site) appear to make it clear that the delegates were expected to reject any oath that fell short of external association.  However, the Cabinet took no vote on 3rd December, a point DeValera argued during the Treaty Debates, insisting that there was no agreed position out of that meeting. Indeed, DeValera admitted that “We were in agreement up to a certain point. A definite question had then to be decided and we did not agree.” Several times during the Dail debates, he insisted that the Cabinet had made no final decision, and resisted bringing the outcome of that meeting to public session.  In fact, a rough head count of opinions noted in those Cabinet minutes suggests that if DeValera had forced a vote on 3rd December, he might  have lost.  It is hard to avoid concluding that DeValera was not only in a minority, but knew he was, and desperately hoped to string the debates along, trying to avoid any final vote in cabinet or the Dail in a Micawer like hope that something would turn up.  In one of the  essays on the National Archives website which adds context to the documents (read them all – they are well worth the time.)  Myles Dungan argues :

“De Valera’s pragmatic formula of ‘external association’ indicated his own tacit recognition (after his trying talks with Lloyd George in London in July 1921) that the republic of Tone, Stephens and Pearse was an unrealisable chimera. His decision to remain in Dublin was in large part, based on the moral certainty that he would need to reconcile the irreconcilables without himself being guilty of the crime of having sold out the infant republic. He was not culpable of the other crime of which he is often accused, namely, some sort of omniscient foreknowledge of inevitable ‘failure’ with which he did not wish to be associated.

That is a point of view with which I am afraid I disagree – it takes a deep ability to avoid reality for DeValera not to have foreseen the problem which came to a head during the Treaty Debates, and his position, clinging to the hope of a set of words, did contribute, even if it was not his intent, the making the split worse.  Even before the Treaty was signed, Griffith’s letter reporting on his meeting with the British on 4th December made it clear that a break on the question of the oath was close. (although the online images do not show when that letter was received in Dublin.)

What is missed by almost everyone between the 1st December Draft and the 6th December agreement, is the replacment of the Empire by Commonwealth – I am not an expert in Commonwealth history, but I think it is significant that in the haggling over words in the last days before the treaty was signed, the British Empire , which was so critical even as late a the 4th December, disappeared within 48 hours from what was to be a major treaty, and was replaced by the ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’ That alteration was not in place when Collins let Lloyd George about 9.30 on the 5th December.  which means it appeared in the last 36 hours before the Treaty was signed.  Who proposed it? how long had it been held ready by the British Delegation? How significant was it in swinging the Irish Delegation to signing?

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