HomeHistoryThe Irish Civil War

The Irish Civil War


Part 2 in the series


By Seamus O’Suilleabhain                                                                            

The Irish people are now marking the centenary of the disastrous civil war which flowed from the disunity following the treaty negotiations in London. The seeds of that disaster had long been sown. The long period of the truce (11th July to 11th October 1921) allowed the conservative anti-Republican forces within Irish society three full months to soften the resolve of those whom they had openly despised during the long period of turmoil and fighting. Almost the entire media were pro-treaty, a large majority of the hierarchy and clergy wanted an end to the violence and killing which was spreading across the country, bankers and businessmen wanted a return to normality and the large majority of the population who did not take part in the war were anxious to reduce the power and influence recently accumulated by the Republicans. The British though exhausted after the Great War were adept at their old policy of ‘divide and conquer’ and had their agents well placed within the Republican movement.


Early in the discussions Lloyd George assured Griffith that Britain sought nothing in the way of military domination of Ireland, but the use of Irish ports and the right to build aerodromes were vital to Britain’s security. He also reminded him that the U.K. market was of the utmost importance to Ireland whereas the Irish market was of little significance to Great Britain. Sub-committees were appointed to deal with finance and defence while Britain was determined to fasten upon Ireland a share of the War Debt. The Irish delegation was determined that if the talks broke down it would be on the issue of partition.

The Ulster Question

The Ulster question came down during the fourth full session on Friday 14th October 1921. Lloyd George said all the Dominions had begun by being divided. Union was bound to come but it would never come if an attempt was made to force it from the first. The British Government was only behind Ulster ‘in the sense that it could not allow civil war at its doors.’ Before long Lloyd George and Chamberlain were having private meetings with Griffith and Collins, which some of their fellow delegates saw as a shrewd British manoeuvre to divide and conquer. The first reports of recognition of the crown which reached De Valera alarmed him greatly and he wrote ‘If war is the alternative, we can only face it.’

Association of Free States

The British decided to explore the Ulster question and delegated Chamberlain and Hewart, the attorney-general to meet two Irish representatives and that these should be Griffith and Collins. They met on 25th October with the Irish side insisting that homogeneous Catholic areas must not be left under Unionist rule. When this was discussed at cabinet Churchill said the British were not free agents and could not abandon the 1920 act. The future relationship of the new Irish state with the crown and the British Commonwealth came in for a lot of discussion. The Irish insisted upon the recognition of the crown only as head of the Association of Free States. On 2nd November 1921 a note on the Irish position signed by Griffith and Collins was delivered to Birkenhead who immediately tried to force them to change ‘free partnership with the British Commonwealth’ to ‘free partnership within the British Commonwealth’.  The British were pushing a proposal for a boundary commission on the border. Griffith informed De Valera ‘so as to give us the districts in which we are a majority.’

The Welsh Wizards Duplicity

On 10th November James Craig the Unionist leader who was in London with his Ulster cabinet colleagues received a long memorandum from the British cabinet which included ‘a dominant section of Irishmen have pledged themselves to projects which are in fact, fatal to the security of Great Britain and therefore to the existence of the Empire itself. Unless these projects are abandoned, Great Britain must make whatever effort which may be necessary for the re-conquest of Ireland. If statesmanship can find no other alternative this effort can and will be made’. In his reply Craig said that Northern Ireland refused emphatically to belong to an all-Ireland Parliament and they were perturbed that there should be any suggestion of a revision of the area within their jurisdiction. Lloyd George replied that ‘frontiers once established harden into permanence’. The British were introducing a Boundary Commission and Griffith reported to De Valera that while they were fighting the Ulster crowd the Irish delegation would not repudiate them. The duplicity of the Welsh Wizard had achieved an important success. By mid-November Birkenhead was assuring Empire Loyalists that a settlement which preserved the supremacy of the Crown, kept Ireland within the Empire and safeguarded Ulster’s position was within reach. The drafting of a ‘Memorandum by the Irish Representatives’ led to heated exchanges between Griffith and Childers, the secretary of the Delegation who thought that too many concessions had been made.

Unionist Intransigence

The talks were at a critical stage and seemed to be faltering when Tom Jones, Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet and one of the Conference secretaries came to see Griffith with whom he had a good relationship. Though a friend of Ireland’s, during these negotiations he was a true Empire Loyalist and manipulated Griffith in the interest of his political masters. In discussions with Griffith and Collins he suggested changes to the Irish document. Negotiations were about to be broken off unless the British could be sure that Ireland would come into the Empire and there would be no agreement on the Ulster question. Some historians think Griffith and Jones held things together. A ***document which dealt with the enrolment of ‘Class C’ specials into regular military units emerged in Belfast and caused much tension within the Irish delegation. Craig had been pressing the cabinet to place the pre-war Ulster Volunteer Force on an official footing to defend Ulster against the IRA. Michael Collins claimed the Irish delegation were being fooled. The prime-minister said the document was not valid and used the Unionist intransigence to support his own position. As the negotiations drew to a close Craig told his Ulster Commons that the rights of Ulster would be in no way compromised. He said the Southern Irish had one week to give a definite answer.

The Main Stumbling Blocks

In the end the British demand for recognition of the King and entry into the Empire were the main stumbling blocks. Fully aware that Griffith was a ‘King, Lords and Commons’ man they found the leader of the Irish delegation more malleable than his colleagues some of whom were now condemning the exclusion of a majority of the Irish delegation from discussing the key issues. Lloyd George told the Irish Plenipotentiaries that he had to communicate with Sir James Craig that night. He had prepared two alternative letters which he produced, one enclosing the Articles of Agreement between the parties and the other telling Craig that the Irish had refused allegiance and to come into the Empire. If I send this letter he said it is war and war within three days. Which one I send you must decide. Griffith accompanied by Collins and Barton called at 10 Downing Street at 11.15 p.m. on 6th December 1921 and agreed to sign the document and recommend it to the Dáil. The newly retyped Articles of Agreement were signed at 2.10 a.m. that night.



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