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Troubled Times by Peter Hadden

chapter 7

treaty negotiations

Proponents of this general idea have one last argument. During the Treaty negotiations with Sinn Fein leaders in the autumn of 1921 Lloyd George was prepared to transfer those powers over Northern Ireland held at Westminster to a Dublin parliament. Proof that the British had not wanted partition and that they wished to relieve themselves of the burden of Ireland as a whole?

In fact what did happen demonstrates none of this. By the middle of 1921 it was clear that a policy of coercion alone was at best going to involve a long war of attrition against the national movement. The dangerous consequences of this lay in the increasing outcry in Britain, particularly from the labour movement, at the reprisals and atrocities which were becoming commonplace. Ireland was becoming an issue in every by-election and was providing a focus for opposition to the government.

While coercion could be maintained, and was also in part effective in curbing the IRA, the government, concerned at the effects of a protracted war, began to consider other options. Once again they looked for proposals which might split the Sinn Fein leadership and bring its more malleable sections over to the side of compromise.

The idea of dominion status for Ireland, or for part of Ireland, an idea previously rejected, was put forward as a possibility. Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand were already dominions, that is they enjoyed self-government but remained within the Empire and had a special relationship with Britain. The idea had been put forward in relation to India during the war.

By June Lloyd George had come round to the view that De Valera and other Sinn Fein leaders would accept a settlement short of a republic. He wrote to De Valera and to Northern Ireland's first Prime Minister, Craig, inviting them to discussions in London. In July the government offered the IRA a truce during which negotiations would take place.

For their part the IRA were militarily at a low ebb and felt in no position to refuse this offer. Their campaign based mainly on isolated acts of terror and largely divorced from the movement of the working class, was not the best or most effective method of carrying out a struggle. Its military commander, Michael Collins, wrote later to Sir Hamar Greenwood admitting:

"You had us dead beat. We could not have lasted another three weeks. When we were told of the offer of a truce we were astounded. We thought you must have gone mad." (39)

In July the British made De Valera a formal offer of dominion status. It was posed as the same status as other dominions but in reality what the British were offering was considerably less in certain aspects. Dominion status in Ireland was to be subject to conditions - guarantees for British defence including access to the Irish ports, the Irish to be responsible for a proportion of Britain's national debt, free trade to be preserved, and the Northern Ireland parliament to retain its powers except by their own consent. Of these conditions the Times accurately commented: "Broadly they represent the extreme limit of concession to which the British people is likely to allow this government, or indeed any other British government, to go." (40)

Negotiations proper between Irish and British delegations began in London in October. At one point during the discussions - and this is what modern historians seize on - Lloyd George did appear to pressure Craig to accept that Northern Ireland's subordination to Westminster become a subordination to a new all-Ireland parliament.

The reason why this came about and what actually resulted are both instructive. Both sets of negotiators were keen to be seen as occupying the high ground so as to win what both saw as the vital battle of courting public opinion in Britain. The Irish felt that they would be on weak ground if the discussion concentrated on dominion status and they were seen to be intransigent on the British offer. They tried to concentrate the discussion on partition which they felt to be the British government's weakest ground.

For their part the British were anxious that if there were to be a breakdown, it should not be over the issue of partition. Earlier Lloyd George had advised the king that if the discussions were to be concentrated and perhaps bogged down on the status of Ulster, if would have dangerous consequences, not on the Irish settlement only, but on India and elsewhere". (41)

Breakdown over partition would mean the British would have to return to a policy of coercion over what would be presented by the nationalist side as the obstinate refusal of Ulster Unionists to budge. If there was to be a return to 'war' far better and clearer, from their point of view, that it should be on the issue of Ireland remaining within the Empire. It could then be presented to the British public as a war made necessary by the obstinate refusal of Irish nationalists to accept the 'reasonable' offer of dominion status.

In order to shift the ground of the discussions Lloyd George offered that if the Irish would accept his proposals for dominion status, he would go to the unionists and try to persuade them to go under an all-Ireland parliament. A remark made by him on 25 October shows his reasoning: "If they accept all subject to unity we are in a position to go to Craig; if they don't the break is not on Ulster. My proposal is put Ulster on one side and ask Sinn Fein for their views in writing." (42)

His whole purpose was to take partition out of the discussions until such time as the Irish delegation said yea or nay to dominion status and to remaining within the Empire. A wily negotiator he approached members of the opposing delegations separately. It was when he had extracted the assurance that he wanted from Arthur Griffith and knew that at the very least the Irish delegation would split, that he wrote to Craig and made the proposal that is now being cited as proof of British neutrality in the whole matter of Ireland's internal politics.

Lloyd George met with Craig on 5th and 7th November. By the end of the first meeting Craig was in broad agreement with the latest government proposals but with certain important provisions. One was that responsibility for security would immediately be transferred from Westminster to the Northern Ireland parliament. This was done with effect from 22nd November. Further discussions between Craig and security chiefs ended with the Ulster Special Constabulary being given an extra 20,000 rifles and 5,000,000 rounds of ammunition.

Craig was also assured that, relieved of the imperial contribution, the North's tax burden would be lighter under an all Ireland parliament. The way to get a Presbyterian, Lloyd George assured his secretary, is through his pocketbook. Craig seemed to be on the verge of accepting the whole proposal, yet two days later at the second meeting, he flatly refused Lloyd George's offer.

Bonar Law

This abrupt about face came about it seems through the intervention of Bonar Law. A few months earlier in March, Bonar Law had resigned from the government as 'ill health grounds'. His place as Tory leader was taken by Neville Chamberlain.

By the time of Lloyd George's meetings with Craig he had returned from a period on 'recuperation' in the South of France, his political ambitions sufficiently refreshed to consider a challenge for the Tory leadership. Once again Ireland seemed to offer him a convenient vehicle. He spoke out against any weakening of Ulster's position and threatened to lead a revolt from within the Tory party. Bolstered by such a powerful ally, Craig felt confident enough to reject Lloyd George's proposal.

That was as far as the proposal got. An alternative suggestion was put to the Irish to entice them to settle. Dominion status would mean the setting up of a Free State. The northern area would be included but the northern parliament would have the right to vote itself out within one month. If they did so a Boundary Commission would be set up to 'revise' the border between the two states "in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants". (43)

This was sold to Griffith as a ploy to deceive the unionists. The Northern state, suggested the British, would lose so much territory that it would not be able to survive. In fact the Boundary Commission when it was established was deliberately biased towards the unionists and transferred no territory to the South.

Once again the pro-Unionist challenge of Bonar Law became a factor in the negotiations. On 12 November Lloyd George suggested to Griffith that Bonar Law was about to lead a challenge at a Conservative conference in Liverpool which might unseat Chamberlain and so upset the whole process of negotiations. He claimed that the existing Tory leadership were planning to ward off this challenge by announcing their support for the idea of a boundary commission - but that to be able to do so successfully, they would need to be able to say that it would not be opposed by the Irish delegation.

The conference was to be held on 17 November giving Griffith only a few days to ruminate on the issue. In the end he gave way and declared his acceptance of this proposal. The threat from Bonar Law, which Lloyd George conveniently exaggerated, came to little at the Tory conference -but by this stage Griffith had given his assent and the issue of partition was effectively taken out of the negotiations.

Lloyd George's device to switch discussion to the fundamental issue of dominion status, worked and worked well. Although the idea of an all-Ireland parliament was gone, Griffith's acceptance that Ireland would stay within the Empire was there on record. The Irish delegation was split and the way was opened to agreement. On December 6th a treaty was signed.

This is the real explanation of Lloyd George's offer of an all-Ireland parliament. That it was made in no way negates the idea that British imperialism partitioned Ireland for the reasons we have so far mentioned many times. By the time Lloyd George met Craig with this proposal partition had already served its purpose. It had helped forestall the prospect of socialist revolution. It had also helped disorientate the independence struggle.

British interests protected

When Griffith capitulated to what were to be the terms of the Treaty regarding dominion status, the idea of independence had been abandoned. British imperialism had not started out with the intention of granting dominion status. But dominion status plus the key limiting conditions meant that their strategic economic and military interests were protected.

On this basis Lloyd George's suggestion of an all-Ireland parliament would have been accepted by a section of the ruling class. The guarantee of free trade meant that the northern industries would not be cut off from the rest of the British capitalist economy. The military safeguards spelt out in the eventual Treaty allowed the British imperial forces access to "such harbours and other facilities" (53) as the governments would agree in times of peace and the British would 'require' in times of war.

The job of partition in bringing the national and social revolution in Ireland to heel was accomplished when these terms were accepted. The only worry was that dominion status would be merely the first step; that an Irish government would use its self-governing powers to move towards independence at a later stage. From this point of view there was some advantage in the idea of adding into the state a powerful minority which could be relied on to firmly oppose any and every such move. Lloyd George's proposal may have been nothing more than a ruse on his part but it was still a quite forward-looking notion, too forward looking to be acceptable to Bonar Law, to many Tories or probably to the bulk of the British establishment at that time.

It has been necessary to deal with the new arguments about partition at length and in detail. At first glance this might seem like an indulgence but it is not. Without clarity on this question it would be quite impossible to go on to work out a programme on the central aspect of the national issue which confronts us today, that is the continued existence of the border.