When Ireland Became Divided

Garret FitzGerald

  • Documents on Irish Foreign Policy. Vol. I: 1919-22 edited by Ronan Fanning
    Royal Irish Academy and Department of Foreign Affairs, 548 pp, £30.00, October 1998, ISBN 1 874045 63 1

At the outbreak of World War One, the British Government decided to postpone Home Rule for Ireland, which had just been enacted. Despite this, many Nationalists as well as Unionists enlisted in the British Army. Some radical Nationalists came to believe that action was needed to revive national sentiment. The Easter Rising of 1916 failed, but the execution of most of its leaders, followed two years later by an attempt to impose conscription on Ireland, led to a radicalisation of Nationalist opinion. Rallying under the banner of the Sinn Féin party – founded earlier in the century by the non-violent Nationalist Arthur Griffith but from 1917 led by the senior survivor of 1916, Eamon de Valera – this new radical movement won 73 of the 105 Irish seats at Westminster in the December 1918 General Election. Assembling in Dublin on 19 January 1919, those elected members not in prison or ‘on the run’ met as Dáil Éireann – the Parliament of Ireland – declared Irish Independence and established a government, to the Presidency of which de Valera was elected in April 1919, after escaping from prison in England. Between mid-1919 and the end of 1920, however, de Valera was in the United States, seeking recognition for the Irish state and raising funds. In his absence, Griffith led the Government, which was forced to go underground after Dáil Éireann was proscribed in September 1919. In the subsequent guerrilla warfare of 1919-21 Michael Collins, the Minister for Finance and Director of Intelligence of the Volunteers or Irish Republican Army, rose to prominence.

In 1920 Britain established Home Rule states – one substantive, comprising the six Unionist-majority north-eastern counties, and one notional, made up of the 26 remaining counties which had Nationalist majorities. Following de Valera’s return at the end of 1920, and various peace feelers, a truce was called from 11 July 1921 and, after preliminary discussions between de Valera and Lloyd George, negotiations took place in London between 11 October and 6 December of that year. De Valera remained in Dublin, however; the negotiating team was made up of Griffith, its leader, Collins and three others. The delegates were appointed plenipotentiaries, but with instructions to consult before signing an agreement. Nevertheless, faced with a threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’, they signed the Articles of Agreement, commonly known as ‘the Treaty’, which gave the 26-county unit Dominion status in the Commonwealth.

De Valera rejected the Treaty but was defeated in the Dáil on 7 January 1922, whereupon he resigned, and was replaced by Griffith as President of the Dáil Government. A week later a Provisional Government of the Irish Free State was established under the Treaty and elected by the Southern Home Rule Parliament, under the Chairmanship of Michael Collins. This was to operate in parallel with the Dáil Government until the new state was formally established (as it was on 6 December 1922). In the months that followed, Republican elements within the Volunteers rejected the authority of the Dáil Government, and a state of near anarchy developed, culminating in the outbreak of civil war on 30 June 1922. Griffith died of a stroke on 12 August, and his successor as President of the Dáil Government, Collins, was killed in an ambush ten days later. W.T. Cosgrave then succeeded to the leadership. The Civil War ended in May 1923 with the defeat of the Republicans. Three years later de Valera split from the Republicans and formed his own party, Fianna Fail, which entered the Dáil in 1927 and was elected to government in 1932.

That the Dáil Government, operating underground between mid-1919 and mid-1921, generated and passed on copious documentation relating to its activities at home and abroad is remarkable. This volume concerns only foreign policy. Although in many cases the original documents were captured or lost, the editors have filled gaps by drawing on carbon copies. My surprise at the range of material in existence is the greater because during my own period as Minister for Foreign Affairs a quarter of a century ago I understood that the only surviving material from the first 25 years of the Department’s existence consisted of the files that fitted into a single safe in the departmental secretary’s office. So little had survived, it was said, because most of the early records had been burnt early in the Second World War, in case they fell into the hands of German invaders. It turns out that many other old files had been stored in the basement. I don’t know whether any were burnt but if they were it would have been out of fear of revealing to the Nazis the extent of Irish secret co-operation with Britain in the immediate prewar and early wartime period, and thus, in the event of a German occupation, of putting at risk the lives of some officials and members of the de Valera Government.

The files on which the editors have principally drawn – those of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Dáil Éireann Secretariat and the Department of the President – are lodged in and available through the National Archive, which as Taoiseach I established 13 years ago. The volume also includes material from the extensive personal collections of papers of political figures, including my parents, held in the archives of University College Dublin. My father, Desmond FitzGerald, was Director, later Minister for Publicity, for most of the period and during the last few months of 1922 was minister in charge of the combined Foreign Affairs and Publicity Departments, under the new description ‘External Affairs’. The Irish practice with regard to release of archival material is a liberal one: the criteria for withholding it are strictly defined, and tightly controlled, and there is minimal culling of files of the kind that is thought to happen elsewhere. A similar approach has been adopted by the editors of this series: ‘nothing was omitted that might conceal or gloss over defects in policy-making and policy execution.’

Those who were seeking between 1919 and 1922 to establish an independent Irish state had three major concerns: to publicise abroad the struggle for Independence, to seek official recognition from other states and to raise finance, mainly in the United States.

Because most of the Sinn Féin members elected in the December 1918 General Election were interned by the British Government, only a minority were present at the first meeting of the Dáil Government in January 1919, but they elected a temporary cabinet of five people, the Foreign Affairs portfolio being allocated to Count George Noble Plunkett, who retained this post in the eight-member Cabinet established under Eamon de Valera’s presidency ten weeks later, in which Michael Collins was appointed Minister for Finance.

Plunkett was a wealthy builder who had been made a Papal Count. His son, Joseph, had visited Germany in 1915 to negotiate aid for the Easter Rising, and had been executed for his part in that event. In a by-election in 1917 Count Plunkett had been elected as an abstentionist Sinn Féin MP, and in the election for the Presidency of the Party in October of that year had stood down in favour of de Valera. He was a figurehead in his role as Minister of Foreign Affairs, and until February 1921 the Department operated under the distant guidance of de Valera himself and of Griffith. The actual administration was effectively undertaken during this period by Diarmuid O’Hegarty, who was Secretary to the Cabinet, a post he retained throughout the revolutionary period and, indeed, beyond it, until the defeat of the Cumann na nGaedheal Government in 1932.

The Campaign for International Recognition

The first priority of the new Dáil Government was to seek participation in the Versailles Peace Conference. De Valera and Griffith (both of whom were in prison), and Plunkett were appointed as delegates. In a memorandum of 23 January 1919, which was smuggled out of prison, Griffith admitted that they would not be allowed to attend and proposed that Irish-American substitutes be appointed, including, perhaps, a Republican and a Democratic senator, or a senator and two members of the House of Representatives, as well as Cardinal O’Connell and a judge. It was proposed that Latin American states which had had Irish liberators should be canvassed for their support, as well as European countries which had had Irish prime ministers or presidents, for example France (President MacMahon) and Spain (Prime Minister O’Donnell). Haiti and Liberia were even reminded that Ireland had never engaged in the slave trade. President Wilson should, it was thought, be treated as a sincere man ‘striving to give effect to his programme of freedom for all nations and struggling against all the forces of tyranny, imperialism and lusty world power which are seeking to dominate the Peace Conference’, and should not be accused of insincerity, which would alienate him. Poets should be mobilised to exhort Wilson to stand firm: perhaps Yeats would ‘use his muse for Ireland now’! And an article should be written comparing Wilson with Tsar Alexander I at the Congress of Vienna.

All this was very unrealistic, and illusions were quickly shattered. In the event, Ireland’s first representatives in Paris were Sean T. O’Kelly and George Gavan Duffy. O’Kelly, who had been a member of Dublin Corporation for many years, represented the Dáil Government in Paris from 1919 until his dismissal in 1922, but also spent a brief period in Rome in the summer of 1920. He was to be a member of de Valera’s Government from 1932 to 1945, when he was elected President of Ireland, a position in which he served two seven-year terms.

Duffy was the son of Young Irelander Charles Gavan Duffy, who was arrested for sedition on the eve of the 1848 Rebellion, but not convicted. In 1855, disappointed with the progress of the Tenants’ Right Party, which he had founded and represented at Westminster, Charles Gavan emigrated to Australia, where he became prime minister of Victoria, later retiring to the South of France. Two of his children became active in the National Movement for independence – Louise as a member of the GPO garrison in 1916, and George Gavan as a member or the Irish delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, and as Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1922.

O’Kelly, writing from Paris in early March, was at pains to defend his decision to ‘tackle’ Wilson ‘boldly and publicly’, a tactic that certainly secured publicity, especially in Ireland and the US, but which hardly endeared the Irish cause to the American President. He also reported that he had sent communications about the Dáil’s Declaration of Independence and its claim to representation at the Peace Conference to the 71 delegates whose names and addresses he could trace, as well as to 140 newspapers. But only one delegate, a member of the US delegation, acknowledged receipt of these documents. O’Kelly added ‘reluctantly’ that unless overwhelming pressure could be brought to bear on Wilson or some other delegations, ‘the prospects of being heard are very slight indeed.’ The split between Wilson and the Senate over the League of Nations should be exploited, he added.

Gavan Duffy, arriving in Paris in April was momentarily hopeful: ‘I believe a hearing will eventually be given, though very reluctantly, but with great effect ... not before peace is signed, and I myself believe it will not be till October or November when the League of Nations gets into working order at Geneva, though Sean T. is more optimistic on the ground that Wilson can’t go home in May without having secured something definite for us.’ Ten days later Duffy’s optimism had vanished: ‘Now expect Peace Congress which big four control will do nothing [for Ireland] if English oppose. Also expect League of Nations Scheme will exclude probability of successful appeal there.’ Another equally unrealistic hope temporarily replaced the earlier optimism about the Peace Conference – that Britain might ‘offer [the US] President as Umpire over our claim’. De Valera’s response to this some weeks later was to send to the Irish representatives in Paris a repudiation of Britain’s right to sign for Ireland which was to be submitted to the Peace Conference, together with a communication to be sent to Clemenceau as host. They were also told to ‘get into the closest possible contact with’ the Dominions and with the Egyptians and Indians.

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