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Taoiseach says Treaty negotiators were 'great people' but declines to say if De Valera should have been among them

Éamonn De Valera, the founder of Martin’s Fianna Fáil party, famously did not travel to London for the Treaty negotiations in 1921.

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TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has said the people who negotiated The Treaty were “great people, irrespective of what position they took”, as he denied that the centenary of the event has been a low-key affair. 

An Taoiseach was joined by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Culture Minister Catherine Martin at the opening of a new exhibition in Dublin Castle which focuses on the 1921 truce between Irish and British forces and the Treaty negotiations that followed. 

The exhibition includes, for the first time ever, a public presentation of both the Irish and British copies of the Treaty document.

The Treaty was signed in Downing Street on 6 December 1921 and outlined the proposed Irish Free State as a dominion within the British Commonwealth.

The Treaty was passed by a narrow margin of just seven votes in Dáil Éireann in January 1922. Instead of leading to peace on the island it marked the beginning of the Civil War. 

The bitterness of the Civil War persisted for decades and the two parties formed in the aftermath of the Civil War, Fianna Fáil and Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael, had never governed in the same government until Martin and Varadkar’s parties agreed to enter into coalition for the first time last year. 

This coalition was much remarked upon in early 2020 but the Covid-19 pandemic has prevented Treaty commemorations on the scale of those seen for Easter Rising.

Speaking today, An Taoiseach said the two events are not comparable as The Treaty was “more prosaic” that the Easter Rising. 

“1916 is one kind of moment in our history, the sort of foundational event, a rebellion in all its glory and all of that. You’re now into a more prosaic, exciting nonetheless process of negotiation, the establishment of nationhood and all of that, which actually we will be dealing with for the next number of years,” he said. 

287100th Treaty Anniversary Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Culture MInister Catherine Martin. Source: RollingNews.ie

Asked by The Journal was he disappointed that the Treaty commemorations have not sparked a similar national conversation as was seen during the Easter Rising commemorations, An Taoiseach pointed to a recent seminar by President Michael D Higgins and what he said was “substantial academic output”.

He said that the exhibition he was attending was “much more substantive” than, for example, an Air Corps flyover as seen to commemorate 1916.   

“Binging to the public for the very first time, the actual minutes and records of the time. I mean, that’s a far greater substance than one flyover on a given day, and this will be year-long, one of many events that will be held to remember and reflect on both Treaty and and events after the Treaty as well,” he said. 

Varadkar also pointed to other events that will follow in the coming months and said that there will be “a State occasion” to mark the centenary of the handover over Dublin Castle. 

“This is the centenary of the signing of the Treaty, a really important historical event, but of course the democratic event, which was the decision of the Dáil to agree to the Treaty and the Treaty election afterwards, are different centeneraries,” Varadkar said.

But the most important one in many ways is going to be centenary in January, which is the centenary of the handover of this place, Dublin Castle, by the British forces to Michael Collins and the Provisional Government and there will be a State occasion around that.

The narrow vote in favour of The Treaty in the Dáil followed a series of debates of increasing bitterness, with both Martin and Varadkar suggesting that more time could have been provided to emerge in the period of December 1921 and January 1922. 

276100th Treaty Anniversary Source: RollingNews.ie

Varadkar said that one of the things that has struck him about the Treaty debates is how Northern Ireland “was not really a major issue”.

“Partition had already happened, Northern Ireland had already been established, and both Collins and De Valera agreed to that coercing Ulster was never going to work, that it would have to be done by consent and by persuasion and interestingly it took others much longer to come around to that view,” he said. 

Speaking about the Civil War that followed, Martin said it should be looked at “in a European context” and that other nations also fought longer civil wars.

“I think we should always look at our own history in a European context, sometimes we don’t do that and we tend to be too insular. Actually, it was a great tragedy what subsequently happened after the Treaty, but in relative terms to other European countries it was a short civil war, but a terrible, bloody civil war and a very unfortunate one from that perspective,” he said. 

In a statement today, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the Treaty, “led to a sectarian state in the six counties and a deeply conservative state in the 26 counties.” 

McDonald added: “We can right the wrongs of the Treaty by building a new and united Ireland, a home to all of our people regardless of background or identity.”

Asked today about McDonald’s comments and whether the Irish government should be  working towards Irish unity, An Taoiseach said past events should not be used for current political purposes. 

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“My appeal, to politicians of all descriptions, is don’t use the Treaty, don’t use past events for your own current day political objectives. That is doing history a total disservice,” he said. 

Martin added that all those who negotiated the Treaty were “great people”.

“These were in my view great people, irrespective of what position they took. It’s extraordinary to see young people of a fledgling state go in there with some of the most experienced negotiators of long-standing from the biggest empire in the world at the time and they did it with honour, dignity and integrity,” he said. 

Éamonn De Valera, the founder of Martin’s Fianna Fáil party, famously did not attend the Treaty negotiations in 1921 despite being President of the Republic in the eyes of the Dáil. 

Asked today does he believe De Valera should have travelled, Martin laughed and said he would “leave that to the judgement of history”. 

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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