Why Britain Sought Irish Peace by Michael Collins (From The Path to Freedom)
Notes by General Michael Collins August, 1922
Her Failure to Subjugate Us: Making of the Treaty.
Peace with Ireland, or a good case for further, and what would undoubtedly have been more intensive, war, had become a necessity to the British Cabinet. Politicians of both the great historic parties in Britain had become united in the conviction that it was essential for the British to put themselves right with the world. Referring to the peace offer which Mr. Lloyd George, on behalf of his Cabinet and Parliament, had made to Mr. de Valera in July, 1921 (an offer which was not acceptable to the Irish people) Mr. Churchill said on September 24th at Dundee: `This offer is put forward, not as the offer of a party government confronted by a formidable opposition and anxious to bargain for the Irish vote, but with the united sanction of both the historic parties in the State, and, indeed, all parties. It is a national offer’. Yes. It was a national offer, representing the necessity of the British to clean their Irish slate.
The Premiers of the Free Nations of the British Commonwealth were in England fresh from their people. They were able to express the views of their people. The Washington Conference was looming ahead. Mr. Lloyd George’s Cabinet had its economic difficulties at home. Their relationships with foreign countries were growing increasingly unhappy, the recovery of world opinion was becoming – in fact, had become – indispensable. Ireland must be disposed of by means of a generous peace. If Ireland refused that settlement, we could be shown to be irreconcilables. Then, Britain would again have a free hand for whatever further actions were necessary `to restore law and order’ in a country that would not accept the responsibility of doing so for itself. This movement by the British Cabinet did not indicate any real change of heart on the part of Britain towards Ireland.
Any stirrings of conscience were felt only by a minority. This minority was largely the same minority that had been opposed to Britain’s intervention in the European War. They were the peaceful group of the English people that is averse from bloodshed on principle, no matter for what purpose, or by whom, carried out. They were opposed to the killing we had to do in selfdefence quite as much as they were opposed to the aggressive killing of our people by the various British agents sent here. These pacifists were almost without any political power and had very little popular support. Peace had become necessary. It was not because Britain repented in the very middle of her Black and Tan terror. It was not because she could not subjugate us before world conscience was awakened and was able to make itself felt. `The progress of the coercive attempts made by the Government have proved in a high degree disappointing’, said Lord Birkenhead, frankly, in the British House of Lords on August 10.
What was the position on each side? Right was on our side. World sympathy was on our side (passive sympathy, largely). We had shown a mettle that was a fair indication of what we could do again if freedom were denied us. We were united; we had taken out of the hands of the enemy a good deal of government. We knew it would be no easy matter for him to recover his lost ground in that regard. We had prevented the enemy so far from defeating us. We had not, however, succeeded in getting the government entirely into our hands, and we had not succeeded in beating the British out of Ireland, militarily. We had unquestionably seriously interfered with their government, and we had prevented them from conquering us.
That was the sum of our achievement. We had reached in July last the high-water mark of what we could do in the way of economic and military resistance. The British had a bad case. World sympathy was not with them. They had been oppressing us with murderous violence. At the same time they preached elsewhere the new world doctrine of government by consent of the governed. They, too, had reached their high-water mark. They had the power, the force, the armament, to re-conquer us, but they hesitated to exercise that power without getting a world mandate. But, though they had failed in their present attempt, their troops were still in possession of our island. At the time of the Truce they were, in fact, drafting additional and huge levies into Ireland. We had recognised our inability to beat the British out of Ireland, and we recognised what that inability meant. Writing in the weekly called The Republic of Ireland on 21st February last, Mr. Barton, a former member of the Dáil Cabinet, stated, that, before the Truce of July 11th it `had become plain that it was physically impossible to secure Ireland’s ideal of a completely isolated Republic otherwise than by driving the overwhelmingly superior British forces out of the country’. we also recognised facts in regard to North-East Ulster.We clearly recognised that our national view was not shared by the majority in the four north-eastern counties.
We knew that the majority had refused to give allegiance to an Irish Republic. Before we entered the Conference we realised these facts among ourselves. We had abandoned, for the time being, the hope of achieving the ideal of independence under the Republican form. It is clear, that the British on their side knew that unless we obtained a real, substantial freedom we would resist to the end at no matter what cost. But they also knew that they could make a generous settlement with us. They knew equally well that an offer of such a settlement would disarm the world criticism which could no longer be ignored. They knew they could do these two major things and still preserve the nations of the British Commonwealth from violent disruption.
The British believed (and still believe) that they need not, and could not, acquiesce in secession by us, that they need not, and could not, acquiesce in the establishment of a Republican government so close to their own shores. This would be regarded by them as a challenge – a defiance which would be a danger to the very safety of England herself. It would be presented in this light to the people of England. It would be represented as a disruption of the British Empire and would form a headline for other places. South Africa would be the first to follow our example and Britain’s security and prestige would be gone. The British spokesmen believed they dared not agree to such a forcible breaking away. It would show not only their Empire to be intolerable, but themselves feeble and futile. Looking forward through the operation of world forces to the development of freedom, it is certain that at some time acquiescence in the ultimate separation of the units will come.
The American colonies of Britain got their freedom by a successful war. Canada, South Africa, and the other States of the British Commonwealth are approaching the same end by peaceful growth. In this Britain acquiesces. Separation by peaceful stages of evolution does not expose her and does not endanger her. In judging the merits, in examining the details, of the peace we brought back these factors must be taken into consideration.
Before accepting the invitation sent by Mr. Lloyd George, on behalf of his Cabinet, to a Conference, we endeavoured to get an unfettered basis for that Conference. We did not succeed. It is true we reasserted our claim that our Plenipotentiaries could only enter such a Conference as the spokesmen of an independent Sovereign State. It is equally true that this claim was tacitly admitted by Britain in inviting us to negotiate at all, but the final phase was that we accepted the invitation `to ascertain how the association of Ireland with the group of nations known as the British Commonwealth may best be reconciled with Irish national aspirations’. The invitation opened up the questions, What is the position of the nations forming the British Commonwealth, and how could our national aspirations best be reconciled with associations with those nations? Legally and obsoletely the nations of the Commonwealth are in a position of subservience to Britain. Constitutionally they occupy to- day a position of freedom and of equality with their mother country.
Sir Robert Borden, in the Peace Treaty debate in the Canadian House on September 2nd, 1919, claimed for Canada a `complete sovereignty’. This claim has never been challenged by Britain. It has, in fact, been allowed by Mr. Bonar Law. General Smuts, in a debate on the same subject in the Union House on September 10th, 1919, said: `We have secured a position of absolute equality and freedom, not only among the other States of the Empire, but among the other nations of the world’.
In other words, the former dependent Dominions of the British Commonwealth are now free and secure in their freedom. That position of freedom, and of freedom from interference, we have secured in the Treaty. The Irish Plenipotentiaries forced from the British Plenipotentiaries the admission that our status in association with the British nations would be the constitutional status of Canada. The definition of that status is the bedrock of the Treaty. It is the recognition of our right to freedom, and a freedom which shall not be challenged. No arrangements afterwards mentioned in the Treaty, mutual arrangements agreed upon between our nation and the British nation, can interfere with or derogate from the position which the mention of that status gives us. The Treaty is but the expression of the terms upon which the British were willing to evacuate – the written recognition of the freedom which such evacuation in itself secures. We got in the Treaty the strongest guarantees of freedom and security that we could have got on paper, the strongest guarantees that we could have got in a Treaty between Great Britain and ourselves. The most realistic demonstration of the amount of real practical freedom acquired was the evacuation of the British troops and the demobilisation of the military police force.
In place of the British troops we have our own army. In place of the Royal Irish Constabulary we are organising our own Civic Guard – our own People’s Police Force. These things are the things of substance; these things are the safe and genuine proof that the status secured by the Treaty is what we claim it to be. They are the plainest definition of our independence; they are the clearest recognition of our national rights. They give us the surest power to maintain both our independence and rights. It is the evacuation by the British which gives us our freedom. The Treaty is the guarantee that that freedom shall not be violated. The States of the British Commonwealth have the advantage over us of distance. They have the security which that distance gives. They have their freedom. Whatever their nominal position in relation to Britain may be, they can maintain their freedom aided by their distance. We have not the advantage of distance. Our nearness would be a disadvantage to us under whatever form, and in whatever circumstances, we had obtained our freedom (in case of a feeling of hostility between the two countries, the nearness is, of course, more than a disadvantage to us – it is a standing danger).
It was the task of the Plenipotentiaries to overcome this geographical condition in so far as any written arrangement could overcome it. We succeeded in securing a written recognition of our status. The Treaty clauses covering this constitute a pledge that we shall be as safe from interference as Canada is safe owing to the fact of her four thousand miles of geographical separation.
Our immunity can never be challenged without challenging the immunity of Canada. Having the same constitutional status as Canada, a violation of our freedom would be a challenge to the freedom of Canada. It gives a security which we ought not lightly to despise. No such security would have been reached by the external association aimed at in Document No. 2. The Treaty is the signed agreement between Britain and ourselves. It is the recognition of our freedom by Britain, and it is the assurance that, having withdrawn her troops, Britain will not again attempt to interferewith that freedom. The free nations of the Commonwealth are witnesses to Britain’s signature. The occupation of our ports for defensive purposes might appear to be a challenge to our security. It is not. The naval facilities are granted by us to Britain, and are accepted by her in the Treaty as by one independent nation from another by international agreement. For any purpose of interference with us these facilities cannot be used.
At the best, these facilities are, the British say, necessary for the protection of the arteries of their economic and commercial life. At the worst, they are but the expression of the fact that we are at present militarily weaker. Negotiations, therefore treaties, are the expressions of adjustments, of agreements, between two nations as to the terms on which one side will acquiesce in the proposals of the other. The arrangement provided in the Treaty in regard to North-East Ulster is also but a matter of agreement between ourselves and Britain. It is an agreement by us that we will deal with the difficulty created by Britain. It is an assurance that we will give the North-East certain facilities to enable them to take their place willingly in the Irish Nation.
The maligned Treaty Oath was a further admission wrung from Britain of the real relationship between the British nations. Canada and South Africa continue to swear allegiance to King George, his heirs, successors, etc. They give an oath in keeping with their obsolete position of independence, but out of keeping with their actual position of freedom. Mr. de Valera’s alternative oath recognised the King of England as head of the Association – a head inferring subordinates. The Treaty Oath, however, expresses faithfulness only as symbolical of that association, and is, therefore, really a declaration that each party will be faithful to the compact.
The Irish Plenipotentiaries have been described as `incompetent amateurs’. They were, it is said, cajoled and tricked by the wily and experienced British Prime Minister. By means of the fight we put up in the war, by means of the fight we put up in the negotiations, we got the British to evacuate our country. Not only to evacuate it militarily, but to evacuate it socially and economically as well. In addition, we got from the British a signed undertaking to respect the freedom which these evacuations give us.
We acquiesced, in return, to be associated with the British Commonwealth of Nations for certain international purposes. We granted to Britain certain naval facilities. There is the bargain. It is for the Irish and for our friends the world over to judge whether the `incompetent amateurs’ who formed the Irish delegation of Plenipotentiaries forgot their country in making it. If our national aspirations could only have been expressed by the full Republican ideal, then they were not, and never could be, reconciled with what was understood by `association with the group of nations known as the British Empire’.
By accepting that invitation we agreed, however some may now deceive themselves and attempt to deceive others, that we would acquiesce in some association. In return for that acquiescence we expected something tangible – evacuation, abandonment of British aggression. If we had been martially victorious over Britain there would have been no question of such acquiescence. Now, if that is so, and it is so, the surrender of some national sentiment was for the time unavoidable.
The British Empire, the British Commonwealth, or the British League of Free Nations – it does not matter what name you call it – is what it is. It is what it is, with all its trappings of feudalism, its symbols of monarchy, its feudal phraseology, its obsolete oaths of allegiance, its King a figurehead having no individual power as King, maintaining the unhealthy atmosphere of mediaeval subservience translated into modern snobbery. All this is doubly offensive to us, offensive to our Gaelic instincts of social equality which recognises only an aristocracy of the mind, and offensive from the memories of hundreds of years of tyranny carried out in the name of the British King.
Those who could not, or who would not, look these facts in the face blame us now, and more than blame us. They find fault with us that, in agreeing to some kind of association of our nation with the British nations, we were not able, by the touch of a magic wand, to get rid of all the language of Empire. That is not a fair attitude. We like that language no more, perhaps less, than do those who wish to make us responsible for its preservation. It is Britain’s affair, not ours, that she cares to preserve these prevarications. Let us look to what we have undoubtedly gained and not to what we might have gained. Let us see how the maximum value can be realised from that gain. If we would only put away dreams, and face realities, nearly all the things that count we have now for our country.
What we want is that Ireland shall be Ireland in spirit as well as in name. It is not any verbiage about sovereignty which can assure our power to shape our destinies. It is to grasp everything which is of benefit to us, to manage these things for ourselves, to get rid of the unIrish atmosphere and influence, to make our government and restore our national life on the lines which suit our national character and our national requirements best. It is now only fratricidal strife which can prevent us from making the Gaelic Ireland which is our goal. The test of the Government we want is whether it conforms with Irish tradition and national character? Whether it will suit us and enable us to live socially and prosper? Whether we can achieve something which our old free Irish democratic life would have developed into?
We have shaken off the foreign domination which prevented us from living our own life in our own way. We are now free to do this. It depends on ourselves alone whether we can do it.