“Think, what have I got for Ireland? Something she has wanted these past 700 years. Will anyone be satisfied at the bargain? Will anyone? I tell you this, I have signed my death warrant. I thought at the time how odd, how ridiculous —a bullet may just as well have done the job five years ago.” –Michael Collins
The Treaty brought an end to 700 years of British rule in 26 counties but opened a new and sad chapter in Ireland’s history – civil war and the battle for the remaining six in Northern Ireland. Collins of course said famously on signing ‘I tell you, I have signed my death warrant’. Despite the threat to his life Collin’s believed the Treaty would act as a stepping stone towards a united Ireland. What followed was his assassination, decades of violence and partition of the Island to this day.
Collins was off to England with his picture snapped and posted on the front of newspapers, an experience he was not accustomed to. The Treaty negotiations started on 11 October 1921. The delegations were as follows:
With them (Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins) went Robert Barton, the Minister for Economic Affairs and a former British officer bristling with all the Republican zeal of the convert; Eamon Duggan, a legal expert and a member of the Truce Committee; and George Gavan Duffy, the Dáil envoy in Rome. Erskine Childers acted as secretary to the delegation. For the (British) government there were the Prime Minister Lloyd George, Lord Birkenhead, Austen Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Sir Laming Worthington Evans (Secretary for War), and Sir Hamar Greenwood (Chief Secretary for Ireland).
Several of the British negotiators did not even want to shake hands with Collins, as he was regarded as a vile thug, so they went immediately to the bargaining table. A number of meetings and conferences took place over a two month period. Collins fully understood shortly after the negotiations started that he had been set up.
Collin’s did not have De Valera’s slippery political cunning, according to Lloyd George; ‘negotiating with Éamon de Valera was like trying to pick up mercury with a fork, he did not have that’. He walked into a trap and in the negotiations he realised that and he said to his fellow delegates when the British weren’t around, ‘That long whore has got me’ and he walked into a trap, he knew when he’d signed the Treaty, he’d signed his death warrant.
After the tedious Treaty discussions, Lloyd George and his British team offered Ireland Free State status coupled with an oath of allegiance. Collins knew this was not what he was sent for, but on 5 December, an ultimatum was issued. Lloyd George gave the Irish side until 10 pm that night to accept or reject the terms. Failure to do this would result in ‘an immediate and terrible war’. The Anglo-Irish Treaty, the first ever treaty between England and Ireland, was signed by both sides around 2 am on 6 December 1921. Collins was both disappointed and exhausted. Later he was to challenge the notion that he signed the Treaty under duress:
“I did not sign the Treaty under duress, except in the sense that the position as between Ireland and England, historically, and because of superior forces on the part of England, has always been one of duress. The element of duress was present when we agreed to the Truce, because our simple right would have been to beat the English out of Ireland. There was an element of duress in going to London to negotiate. But there was not, and could not have been, any personal duress. The threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’ did not matter overmuch to me. The position appeared to be then exactly as it appears now. The British would not, I think, have declared terrible and immediate war upon us.”
Collins stated that it provided Ireland not with ‘the ultimate freedom that all nations desire, but the freedom to achieve it’.
The Treaty brought to an end the War of Independence, though tragically led to the Civil War. The Treaty allowed for twenty-six counties of Ireland to have autonomy from Britain while remaining in the British Empire. Northern Ireland, which had been created by the 1920 Government of Ireland Act had the option to opt out of the new Irish Free State, an option it duly exercised on the 7 December.
The divisions the treaty caused within Irish republicanism had enduring consequences, the civil war waged from 1921 to 1923 and claimed the lives of over 5,000 people, including Michael Collins, who was shot dead in an ambush at Béal na mBláth, on 22 August 1922.
Arthur Griffith, head of the Treaty Delegation and founder of Sinn Féin, ironically died from a heart attack just 10 days earlier.
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