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Fear and loathing (and unbridled enthusiasm) in London: How the Treaty negotiators were greeted

There was huge interest in the representatives of republican Ireland in some sections of London society, Donal Fallon writes.

Donal Fallon Historian, writer and broadcaster

THE ANGLO-IRISH Treaty may be regarded as the document that ended one war and began another.

Its influence on Irish political life was to be far reaching, shaping politics and political identities into subsequent decades.

In his memoir Against The Tide, Dr. Noël Browne recalled entering the Dáil for the first time in 1948, and being amazed by the lingering bitterness around the Civil War which had followed the Treaty, as “the raised tiers of the Dáil chamber would become filled with shouting, gesticulating, clamouring, suddenly angry men”.

By then, both the Pro and Anti-Treaty traditions had held power, and these men were aging veterans of a revolution.

A century ago, it was a very young Irish delegation who put their names to an agreement which would alter Ireland’s relationship with Britain and bring an Irish Free State into being.

In a week when British influence continues to shift, with the arrival of the world’s newest republic in Barbados, it is worth recalling the very different political atmosphere of a century ago, when the granting of concessions to nationalist Ireland was regarded as a humiliation to some.

To Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff of the Crown Forces, it amounted to a “shameful and cowardly surrender to the pistol”.

From the field of war to the table of politics

The War of Independence formally ended with a Truce on 11 July 1921, ending military hostilities and opening new channels of dialogue between representatives of the revolutionary Dáil Éireann and the British government.

There was jubilation at the opening of that dialogue, and a belief amongst large sections of the general population that, in the words of IRA leader Dan Breen, “recognition of the Republic was but a matter of time. The long nightmare period of terror was over, and in their reaction people were inclined to think that victory had already been won”.

Bonfires were lit in the hills of rural Ireland, and in the urban centres Volunteers began parading openly, something which panicked the republican leadership, more conscious of a potential return to war.

Subsequent talks between Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Éamonn de Valera, President of the Republic in the eyes of the Dáil, made little meaningful progress. Famously, Lloyd George would compare negotiating with De Valera to “trying to pick up mercury with a fork.” De Valera’s retort was to use a spoon.

The failure of these initial talks led to a heightened atmosphere of tension in political discourse. In Westminster, Lord Birkenhead – later a negotiator to the Treaty – declared that were the Irish to refuse compromise and agree a negotiated settlement, “hostilities on a scale never hitherto undertaken by this country against Ireland” would be seen. It was not the kind of language that encouraged trust.

Into this uneasy sea sailed an Irish delegation (quite literally, towards Holyhead) in October. Crucially, the negotiators did not include de Valera, who was now adamant on the need for his presence in Dublin, believing that having to refer negotiations home “added strength to the position of the negotiators”.

The Irish delegation included Arthur Griffith (Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs), Robert Barton (Secretary of State for Economic Affairs), George Gavan Duffy TD, Eamonn Dugan TD and Michael Collins (Secretary of State Finance).

Significantly, Collins was a member of the General Headquarters of the Irish Republican Army, and thus as close to a representative as the militant campaign had at the table of negotiation.

anglo-irish-treaty-1921-sinn-fein-delegates-in-london-from-left-arthur-griffith-edmund-duggan-michael-collins-at-table-robert-barton-behind-with-folder-erskine-childers-george-gavin-duffy-jo Sinn Féin delegates in London from left: Arthur Griffith, Edmund Duggan, Michael Collins (at table), Robert Barton behind with folder, Erskine Childers, George Gavin Duffy, John Chartres. Source: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Unlikely celebrities in a divided city

In London, the Irish delegation assumed primary residence at Hans Place in Knightsbridge, a fashionable garden square in the heart of the SW1 postcode.

Their presence in the city infuriated some, with the word ‘MURDERERS’ painted on the footpath outside the residence – a welcome of sorts.

Reflecting that same tension, a tricolour was snatched from the hands of a woman and trampled by a protestor who spat upon it, telling the courts that “when I spat on the flag, I did not do so out of disrespect for the Irish people, but because I have the utmost contempt for Michael Collins and the other people who are being tolerated in Downing Street”.

Yet in sections of London society there was enormous enthusiasm for the representatives of republican Ireland, not least amongst the enormous Irish population of the city.

At Euston Station, the delegation were met by the sound of a pipe band belting out The Soldiers Song, and a hopeful and optimistic crowd which the platform could not contain.

It was a curious coincidence, readers of one paper were told, “that King George stepped from a train at another platform in Euston half-an-hour before the Holyhead train, and came in for a share of the great reception. Rousing Irish airs were being played by a dozen bands as his motor car drove out of the station”.

Significantly, and reflecting his experience in guerilla warfare, Collins travelled separately from the rest of the Irish delegation, arriving a day later. Joining him in London would be numerous members of the IRA’s intelligence division, who blended into their new surroundings, providing not only protection but allowing a confidential means of dialogue with Ireland.

On arriving in the city, the most wanted man in the Empire was able to slip unnoticed into a cab, under an assumed name. In his own words, “I adopted the same principle that enabled me to conceal my whereabouts for so long in Ireland. I always watch the other fellow instead of letting him watch me”. The anonymity of Collins, despite best efforts, would be brief in London.

Visitors to the residence of the Irish delegation included the dramatist George Bernard Shaw and poet Ezra Pound, who would later recount that “one of the most illuminating hours of my life was spent in conversation with Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin”.

There was a tremendous buzz around Hans Place, where not only the negotiators themselves were to be found but a young and energetic Sinn Féin delegation, consisting of publicists, typists and more.

There was Kathleen McKenna, a typist who had worked on the underground newspaper The Irish Bulletin in Dublin during the war, which gave the republican perspective on the conflict to the press. That newspaper was delivered to the desks and hotel room doors of journalists in the city of Dublin and beyond, and ensured decent channels of communication existed with journalists, sympathetic or otherwise. Now she found herself surrounded by the British press, eager for any news or gossip from the Irish perspective.

The Great Escape: A waiting airplane

The Irish delegation enjoyed some leisure time in London, with menus surviving for lunches in fashionable restaurants on Oxford Street. Another surviving menu, recently sold at auction, showed some humour with dishes including “Peace Thick”or “Publicity Clear” soup, followed by “Minced Ulster (North East Sauce)”.

Collins made it to the Royal Court for a production of Shaw’s Heartbreak House, and the delegates were all painted by Sir John Lavery, the distinguished Belfast-born artist, who invited them into his fashionable abode at 5 Cromwell Place. Of Collins, Lavery recounted how “he walked into my studio, a tall young Hercules with a pasty face, sparkling eyes and a fascinating smile”.

Despite this, there was fear of a quick turn in atmosphere, which could result in the endangerment of the Irish delegation. Emmet Dalton, a senior figure in the Irish Republican Army and later present with Collins at the battle of Béal na Bláth, recounted a plan “formulated by me that we should purchase an airplane in London and have it standing in readiness to fly Collins and one or two others back to Dublin in the event that the negotiations broke down”.

The presence of active IRA units, not only in London but across Britain in cities like Manchester and Liverpool, was undoubtedly something that weighed on the mind of the British during the time the Dáil delegates spent in Britain.

Immediate and Terrible War?

There is so much colour in the accounts of the Irish delegation in London society, from their encounters with figures like Ezra Pound to their striking portrait paintings from the hand of Sir John Lavery, that we can almost forget the primary purpose of their visit.

Sitting opposite them at the negotiating table was a formidable and ever-changing British delegation, which included in its ranks Winston Churchill (Secretary of State for the Colonies), Sir Hamar Greenwood (Chief Secretary for Ireland) and the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. Significantly, the delegation were drawn from both the Liberal and Conservative parties of the British coalition government.

In this regard they had a strong debating advantage over the representatives of Dáil Éireann, who came from a single party parliament with no experience of inter-party debate.

While recalled on occasion as the document which partitioned Ireland, the state of Northern Ireland was already a political reality, created by the earlier Government of Ireland Act. There were questions around how a new Irish state would interact with it, but partition was already an established fact.

Key bones of contention included a symbolic head of state relationship with the British Monarch, to which representatives of an Irish Parliament would swear an oath of allegiance. The elusive Republic, a rallying cry which had bound people throughout the preceding war, was not on offer. Ireland was to become a self-governing dominion of the British Empire, a status shared by Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa. Yet in other spheres, Britain conceded much which went far beyond any Home Rule offers of the past.

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The abiding controversy around the signing of the Treaty remains the question of whether the document was signed under duress, and if the threat of “immediate and terrible war” was made by Prime Minister Lloyd George towards the Irish delegation – a ‘sign it or else’ scenario.

This threat was first recounted by Barton of the Irish delegation, who signed the document but later opposed it, and who described it as “the lesser of two outrages forced upon me and between which I had to choose”.

This account survives from the British side too, with Sir Geoffrey Shakespeare, Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, recounting how “war was a terrible word, with at least six r’s at the end, and the reverberation of the r’s and the fierce look on his face conjured up to his audience the horrors of war”.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty could be presented, as Griffith argued, as “a Treaty of peace between Ireland and Great Britain. I believe that the treaty will lay foundations of peace and friendship between the two nations”.

Similarly, Barton and others could also maintain it was a document signed under the threat of warfare, and which was imposed on Ireland.

Signing it was significant, but there was still the final hurdle for those in favour of the agreement, which was the challenge of bringing it before Dáil Éireann in Dublin.

While the Anglo-Irish Treaty was not the document that divided Ireland, it would divide parliament and pave the way for subsequent Civil War.

Donal Fallon is a historian and the presenter of the Three Castles Burning podcast, an episode of which examines the Truce which ended the War of Independence.

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About the author:

Donal Fallon  / Historian, writer and broadcaster

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