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David McCullagh: 'The vote on the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922 was tense to say the least'

The RTÉ journalist looks at the events of 7 January 1922 which are analysed in a TV special tonight.

David McCullagh RTÉ journalist

Updated Jan 7th 2022, 7:00 PM

IT WAS ONE of the most consequential votes ever taken in the Dáil. And also, because nobody was sure in advance how it would go, one of the most dramatic.

At stake were fundamental issues: dominion or republic; de Valera or Collins; and most importantly, peace or war.

The vote would have profound effects: within months, a civil war; within years, greater independence as the Commonwealth evolved; and for a century, the fundamental cleavage in the Irish party system.

Voting on the Treaty

The vote on whether to accept or reject the Anglo-Irish Treaty was taken on 7 January 1922, in the Council Chamber of UCD, then at Earlsfort Terrace (now the National Concert Hall). The usual venue for meetings of Dáil Éireann, the Round Room of the Mansion House was not available: it had been booked for the annual Aonach, or Christmas fair.

Apart from being available, the room in Earlsfort Terrace had little to recommend it. The ceiling was low, making it almost impossible to hear the speeches clearly. The room was also very long, and very narrow, so it was difficult for observers even to see who was speaking.

But it was to be the scene of one of the most important debates in Irish history. For eight days in December, between the 14th and the 22nd, and then another five days in January, from the 3rd to the 7th, the arguments raged.

Many speakers were passionate. Some were humorous (W.T. Cosgrave), some bitter (Cathal Brugha), some extraordinarily long-winded (one of Mary MacSwiney’s speeches lasted over two and a half hours). But all were fully aware that their decision was of profound importance to the future of the country.

The sticking points

The main point of disagreement concerned the constitutional status of the new state which would come into being if the Treaty was accepted.

The Irish Free State was to have a great deal of independence, but it would still form part of the British Empire (or, to use the new term which first appeared in the Treaty, the Commonwealth).

Members of the Dáil would be required to recognise the British monarch by swearing an Oath of allegiance to the constitution of the Free State, and of fidelity to the King (this was an improvement on previous drafts which demanded allegiance directly to the King, though such a subtle change cut little ice in the debates).

For supporters of the Treaty, this was an honourable compromise that could be improved in the future. It gave, in the words of Michael Collins, “the freedom to achieve freedom”.

But opponents regarded it as a betrayal of the Republic declared in 1916, and of all those who had died to defend it. They believed the Treaty would be the last word on the issue and would trap Ireland forever in the orbit of the Crown.

Surprisingly little attention was paid in the debate to Northern Ireland, which had got its own parliament the previous year.

Both sides of the Dáil assumed that the Boundary Commission (proposed in the Treaty to redraw the Border in line with the wishes of the inhabitants) would transfer so much territory to the Free State that Northern Ireland would become unviable.

The Treaty passes

At around half-past eight on 7 January, Ceann Comhairle Eoin McNeill rose to tell deputies what the crowds outside had already worked out (and greeted with cheers which could be heard inside the hall):

“The result of the poll is 64 for approval and 57 against. That is a majority of seven in favour of approval of the Treaty.”

We, of course, know that; and we know what the consequences were to be. The establishment of the Irish Free State.

The gradual loosening of the bonds to Empire which had provoked so much opposition – loosened to the extent that 15 years later Éamon de Valera was able to introduce a constitution which made Ireland a Republic in all but name.

And the party cleavage that was to dominate Irish politics for a century, between supporters and opponents of the Treaty. Most of all, of course, we know that the bitter rhetoric of the Treaty Debates was to lead, within a matter of months, to Civil War.

But at the time, none of this could be foreseen. And, of course, nobody on 7 January could be sure what the result of the Dáil vote would be – most observers at the time said it was simply too close to call.

David McCullagh & Sinead O'Carroll McCullagh and Sinead O'Carroll of The Journal will appear in the Treaty special tonight. Source: RTE

So how can we do justice to the drama of the evening, for the benefit of today’s viewers? How do we recapture the uncertainty of the moment? We’ve tried to do that before, in a 2018 programme called Election ’18. Cormac Hargaden of Loosehorse Productions came up with the idea of presenting the 1918 election as if it was a present-day results programme.

It turned into a very engaging way of telling an important story; it was also a lot of fun to work on. So when Cormac decided to put the band back together for tonight, I was on board in an instant.

We’re very lucky to have Sinead O’Carroll (usually to be found here at The Journal) back with us again to give the low-down on key topics: exactly how many people died in the War of Independence; how are the votes shaping up in the Dáil; what are the implications of a border on the island of Ireland; and how will the Treaty affect the wider British Empire.

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And we have on-location “reporters” – giving us “live” updates from Earlsfort Terrace; at the scene of a confrontation between Cork TDs Mary MacSwiney (anti-Treaty) and Liam de Roiste (pro-Treaty); getting the views of the man and woman in the street in London; or grabbing a live interview with Sir James Craig, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. All of these scripted pieces were researched and written by Hugh Travers, who played a huge part in bringing the whole idea to life.

And we have expert analysis of what’s going on – and what it means – from historians Niamh Gallagher (Cambridge University), Diarmaid Ferriter (UCD), Mark Duncan (Century Ireland), and Jyoti Atwal (Jawaharlal Nehru University), political scientist Gary Murphy (DCU), and journalist Freya McClements (The Irish Times).

So come 7 o’clock, take the chance to experience one of the most important decisions in Irish history, as it happens, on Treaty Live on RTÉ One.

David McCullagh is a journalist and broadcaster with RTÉ, presenting the Six One. He is also an author.

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About the author:

David McCullagh  / RTÉ journalist

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