In January 1921, at his first Dáil meeting after his return to a country gripped by the War of Independence, de Valera introduced a motion calling on the IRA to desist from ambushes and other tactics that were allowing the British to successfully portray it as a terrorist group, and to take on the British forces with conventional military methods. This they strongly opposed, and de Valera relented, issuing a statement expressing support for the IRA, and claimed it was fully under the control of the Dáil. He then, along with Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack, brought pressure to bear on Michael Collins to undertake a journey to the U.S. himself, on the pretext that only he could take up where de Valera had left off. Collins successfully resisted this move, and stayed in Ireland.
The British government’s proposal of a Truce and negotiations over Ireland’s future was a result of both domestic and international factors. The British had been unable to defeat the Irish struggle for independence and there was a danger that the longer it continued the more radicalised it was becoming. In March 1921 Southern Unionist leader Lord Midleton also pointed to the strengthening of the independence movement, telling Lloyd George and Hamar Greenwood that the resistance was now three times stronger than in July 1920. The following month Greenwood himself was talking of pacification taking years rather than months. British government policy in Ireland was also creating problems for it both internationally (especially in the United States) and in Britain itself. At the same time Britain was facing growing independence struggles in Egypt and India. It also faced an increasingly difficult financial situation. British foreign trade suffered a substantial collapse in 1921: in twelve months its exports fell by 48 percent, its imports dropped by 44 percent and unemployment rapidly increased. The Economist described 1921 as one of the worst years of depression since the industrial revolution began.
There was a substantial debate in the British Cabinet about whether or not to proceed along these lines. An example of this is the 12 May 1921 Cabinet meeting. Greenwood appears to have revised his view about how long pacification would take; he was opposed to the Truce proposal at this stage, feeling that the republicans were being worn down. Health Minister Christopher Addison disagreed and favoured a truce. Churchill, who had been in favour of the substantial escalation of coercion, now supported a truce partly because things were getting “very unpleasant as regards the interests of this country all over the world; we are getting an odious reputation; poisoning our relations with the United States…” Herbert Fisher, who was an historian and head of the Board of Education as well as a politician, also worried, “the present situation is degrading to the moral life of the whole country; a truce would mean a clear moral and political gain” and that if the IRA accepted the truce it would be hard for them to start up again, it would also “create a big rift in SF ranks, the moderate SF would have to come out into the open.” This meeting rejected the idea of a truce. In June, however, a memorandum from Macready stated that beating the republicans would require coercion being carried out to the maximum and if this was done the cabinet would have to stand by 100 executions a week. Such a policy was a political impossibility.
In this situation, Lloyd George proposed an Anglo-Irish conference and negotiations.
Photo: First Meeting of Dáil Éireann, 1919