Of all the dramatic events marking the birth of the nation a century ago, and the many commemorations now being held, one watershed milestone has been left in the shadows. The Treaty debates, when the 2nd Dáil contentiously approved the Anglo Irish agreement hammered out in London, was the catalyst for a blood drenched Civil War which set brother against brother and comrade against comrade.
That fifteen days of impassioned debate from mid-December, 1921, to the fall of the axe on January 7, 1922, have been lost in the tragedy of what came afterwards. But to revisit the debates is to gain an insight into the dilemma in which the main actors found themselves; torn between acceptance of an offer which fell short of what they had all fought for, and a rejection which, many feared, would only lead to a more crushing and hopeless war with Britain.
The Treaty debate was the showpiece confrontation between the then towering figures of Irish nationalism. Michael Collins, who had directed the London negotiations and who accepted that the ensuing Treaty provided only ‘the freedom to achieve freedom’, and Éamon de Valera, who epitomised the hard line stand that the Treaty was a betrayal of the pledge to make Ireland independent, as espoused at Easter, 1916.
Now, a hundred years later, the Treaty debates will be staged in a two-day event in December where the original debates took place in Earlsfort Terrace, now the National Concert Hall. The poet, Theo Dorgan, has been commissioned by ANU productions to condense the verbatim text of the debates into eighteen hours of theatre. The ninety two speaking parts will be played out to a rotating audience at ninety minute intervals, which will be streamed live from the venue.
With the benefit of hindsight, today’s generation will be able to assess the rights and wrongs, the arguments and counter arguments, of those who by and large spoke from the heart and made their choice, often with troubling reservation.
For those opposed to the Treaty, there were three major obstacles which simply could not be squared. The Treaty offered Ireland self governing dominion status, similar to Canada, but as part of the British Empire. It would require an oath of allegiance to the King, and the acceptance of a Governor General, who would be his majesty’s representative in Ireland. It was this latter which led to one of the more bizarre claims in the debate when Countess Markievicz, stridently anti-Treaty, claimed that Princess Mary, only daughter of King George, had called off her planned marriage and had become engaged to Michael Collins, who would be named the first Governor General.
Mary MacSwiney, sister of the martyred Lord Mayor of Cork, in a truculent, three-hour speech, accused the Irish treaty negotiators of having been duped by Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister. Lloyd George, she said, was known throughout Europe as the most unscrupulous trickster and scoundrel to have ever held high office.
But perhaps the most lasting memory of the Treaty debates was the vitriolic personal attacks on Collins by Cathal Brugha, de Valera’s right hand, who was deeply jealous of Collins’ influence and standing both at home and abroad. By unconsciously turning the debate into a vote on Collins’ popularity, Brugha actually swung the majority against his own side.
Historians agree that his bitter personal invective led to several delegates, who had intended voting against the Treaty, actually changing sides in sympathy with Collins.
And if they are right, maybe the result, which saw the Treaty approved by 64 votes to 57, might have had a different outcome.