Alistair Lexden: On this day – a century ago. How the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty unfolded.

6 Dec

Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.

“Lock it up carefully”, Lloyd George said to his mistress and secretary, Frances Stevenson, in her room at No 10, as he handed her the British copy of the historic Anglo-Irish Treaty just before 3am on December 6 1921.

Under its terms the Union of Great Britain and Ireland, as created by Pitt the Younger 120 years earlier, came to an end. Only the six counties of the newly formed Northern Ireland were to be permitted to remain within the United Kingdom. Their devolved Parliament, which had been opened by King George V the previous June, was given the power to vote them out of the all-Ireland settlement, based on dominion status, which the Treaty embodied.

The document that was locked away in Downing Street bore the signatures of four members of the British delegation who had negotiated it. They formed a column headed by Lloyd George himself; the others, drawn from his Liberal/ Unionist coalition cabinet, were Austen Chamberlain (son of the great Joe and leader of the Unionist Party, the name then generally preferred by Conservatives), F.E.Smith, Lord Birkenhead (the Unionist Lord Chancellor), and Winston Churchill (who at this point in his career was a Liberal).

Another column listed the signatures of three of their Irish counterparts, headed by Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein in 1905, and followed by the charismatic Michael Collins, the chief organiser of the IRA’s terrorist campaign against Britain, waged from 1919 until July 1921 when a truce was agreed between the two sides. The third Irish signatory, Robert Barton, a Unionist landowner turned Republican and an intimate friend of Collins, was the Sinn Fein delegation’s economic adviser. (Other members of the two delegations, absent from the final discussions, signed later, except for one member of the Irish team whose signature was cut off a menu card and stuck on to the document.)

Never before had British and Irish representatives put their names to a formal agreement of this kind as complete equals. After the signing, which took place at 2.10am, the two sides shook hands for the first time. Trust had replaced the deep suspicion with which they had first regarded each other. Irish leaders, who a few months earlier had been denounced as rebels and murderers, had come to enjoy the respect of the British delegation. Michael Collins had undergone an astonishing transformation from terrorist leader to statesman, gaining the admiration of two prominent members of the British team, Churchill and Birkenhead.

Final agreement on the terms of the Treaty had been reached in two intense negotiating sessions in the Cabinet Room at No 10, which ended two months of wrangling. The first session, which lasted over five hours, began at 3pm on December 5. Lloyd George employed all his formidable political skills to secure a breakthrough in all but one of the key areas that had hitherto defied resolution.

The Irish gained the full fiscal and financial autonomy they craved. The British got what they wanted on defence: the use “in time of war or of strained relations with a foreign power[ of ]such harbour and other facilities as the British Government may require”, combined with the permanent retention of what came to be known as the Treaty Ports (Berehaven, Queenstown and Lough Swilly), major strategic assets which Neville Chamberlain (Austen’s half-brother) was to abandon in a further Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1938 to Churchill’s fury. (Belfast Lough was also included among the Ports, reflecting Republican hopes of winning over Northern Ireland.)

Since the start of negotiations in October, the words of an oath of allegiance which Irish elected representatives would in future be required to swear had been through endless drafts. It was at last settled with a suitably convoluted rigmarole to spare the Irish Republican conscience as much strain as possible: “I will be faithful to His Majesty King George V, his Heirs and Successors by law, in virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland and Great Britain, and her adherence to and membership of the group of nations forming the British Commonwealth of Nations.” This was the first time on which the customary reference to Empire was dropped from an official document.

There remained just one make-or-break issue: Northern Ireland, with its devolved powers over local matters entrusted to it by Westminster earlier in 1921. Sinn Fein were determined to get it into their independent state. Lloyd George was happy to give them all the help he could. In November, he had piled pressure on Sir James Craig, the Northern Ireland Prime Minister. In letters and conversations he tried, with all his accustomed craftiness, to get Craig to accept that he had a patriotic duty to remove the last barrier to peace in Ireland by joining a sovereign all-Ireland Parliament in place of Westminster, while retaining all the devolved powers that Westminster had provided.

The Unionist members of the British delegation did not demur. Not for the last time, Ulster Unionists found that they could not rely on their English Unionist allies in high places (the Party at large was much more vigorous in their defence). Austen Chamberlain said that separate arrangements for six of the nine Ulster counties were “illogical and indefensible.” He thought “ the greatest moral pressure” should be put on Northern Ireland to bring it into a settlement that was “ vital to the Empire”. His Party Chairman, Sir George Younger (later Viscount Younger of Leckie), believed “ Ulster should take some risks and forget some of the past arguments against unity in Ireland.”

These Unionist calls for compromise (surrender would be more accurate) were made against the background of a sustained press campaign, led by The Times, criticising Ulster Unionists for their intransigence. “Ulster blocks the way to peace” was the newspapers’ regular refrain.  Craig described it as “ a press campaign against Ulster without parallel in the history of Great Britain.”

But the Northern Ireland premier was unmoved. He told Lloyd George that a single parliament for Ireland was “ precisely what Ulster has for many years resisted by all the means at her disposal.”

Lloyd George tried another tack in November, concentrating his cunning this time on the leader of the Irish delegation, Arthur Griffith. Here he had much greater success than in his attempts to manoeuvre Craig into an all-Ireland parliament. At a private meeting with Griffith on 13 November, he got the leader of the Irish delegation  to give a personal written pledge that, if Northern Ireland refused to accept an all- Ireland settlement, it would remain under the British Parliament, “ but in this case, it would be necessary to revise the boundary of Northern Ireland. This might be done by a Boundary Commission…to make the boundary conform as closely as possible to the wishes of the people.”

What went unrecorded in the paper was the clear impression given by Lloyd George that Northern Ireland would lose so much territory that it could not survive as a separate entity and a united independent Ireland would as a result come into existence.

During the course of the long afternoon session in Downing Street on December 5, Lloyd George reminded Griffith of what they had agreed. Proof was needed. A frantic search was made of the Prime Minister’s wardrobe, and “eventually an insignificant pocket cast up an envelope and a piece of paper.” On the strength of this written undertaking to establish a Boundary Commission which (as Griffith understood its purpose) would undermine Northern Ireland, the leader of the Irish delegation agreed to sign the Treaty himself, but said that he could not commit his colleagues.

At this, Lloyd George assumed a magnificently melodramatic air. He had told Craig in Belfast to expect news of the outcome of the discussions in Downing Street the following day. That could of course have been done by telephone, but Lloyd George now conjured up an elaborate plan to send the news in writing  to Belfast in an attempt to force a decision out of the other two Irish  delegates.

“Here are the alternative letters which I have prepared, one enclosing Articles of Agreement reached by His Majesty’s Government and yourselves, and the other saying that the Sinn Fein representatives refuse to come within the Empire. If I send this letter it is war, and war within three days. Which letter am I to send? Whichever letter you choose travels by special train to Holyhead, and by destroyer to Belfast. The train is waiting with steam up at Euston…to reach Sir James in time we must know your answer by ten p.m tonight. You can have until then, but no longer, to decide whether you will give peace or war to your country.”

With these impassioned words ringing in their ears, the Irish delegates returned to their Knightsbridge hotel for anguished discussions amongst themselves, but promised to be back in Downing Street by the 10pm deadline. In fact, it was nearly 11.30pm when they returned.

Nothing more was heard about the special train waiting at Euston. Griffith announced calmly, “ Prime Minister, the Delegation is willing to sign the agreements, but there are a few points of drafting which perhaps it would be convenient if I mentioned at once.” The most important concerned the Boundary Commission; redrafting increased (in Irish eyes) the likelihood that Northern Ireland would collapse. At 1am on December 6, an agreed text was handed to the Downing Street typists.

In England, reaction to the Treaty was ecstatic. The Times led the way: “ These are fitting peace terms to mark the close of an age of discontent and distrust, and the beginning of a new era of happiness and mutual understanding.” In Ireland, discontent intensified and took a new form: the long quarrel with Britain was replaced by distrust and division within Sinn Fein, which led to a bitter civil war the following year. In Northern Ireland, IRA terrorism increased, generating sectarian strife; in 1922 parts of Belfast came to resemble the battlefields of the First World War. The Boundary Commission recommended only minor changes, and its report was shelved.

Englishmen looked away. “ The country”, said Austen Chamberlain, “wants peace and is tired of Ireland and Ulster.” English politicians hoped they would never have to think seriously about Irish affairs again. For nearly 50 years they had their wish—which meant that that they were fatally handicapped by ignorance when the Ulster crisis of 1969 erupted.