100 years after the 1916 rising, we ask if Michael Collins and his comrades were naive to sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
Michael Collins and co. were shortsighted
This may be an unpopular opinion as we’re currently commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the 2016 Easter Rising. Firstly, I’m not suggesting that Ireland should have never gained independence from the United Kingdom. Hundreds of years of oppression and war meant that a free Irish state was the only fair outcome. However, I do believe that the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty was premature and ultimately proved to be a mistake.
The fact that the 1916 Rising was not supported by the vast majority of Irish citizens at the time has been conveniently omitted from history. However, the brutal backlash from the British Army and subsequent executions of the Republican leaders of the Rising did lead to a shift in public opinion. This shift was evident two years later when Sinn Fein won 75% of the seats in the general election. The march towards freedom had begun in earnest.
Michael Collins was an excellent general and realised that grave mistakes were made in the 1916 Rising. The lack of planning and organisation proved to be the movement’s downfall and Collins was determined not to make the same mistakes. He implemented a change of tactics, which involved a focus on guerilla warfare and the establishment of ‘The Squad’ who were responsible for executing anyone working for the British army. The Republican military movement began to make significant gains. During the War of Independence from 1919-1921, over 700 members of the British Forces were killed and this number exceeded the 550 losses on the Republican side.
It was clear the British Government needed a solution to the predicament and their Prime Minister, Lloyd George held initial talks with Eamon De Valera in the summer of 1921. The huge number of casualties on the British side, the cracks appearing in the British empire and the diplomatic pressure applied from the United States to end the conflict led to the softening of George’s stance.
A few months after the meeting with De Valera, it was decided that a delegation from the Republican movement would travel to London for talks aimed at resolving the crisis. Everyone expected the master negotiator, De Valera, to travel but he refused and instead recommended that Collins should travel in his place. After months of negotiation, the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed and even though De Valera had been kept updated on the progress of the talks, he stated his disgust that they had settled for an agreement less than a 32 county Republic.
The consequences of signing this treaty were felt for decades to come. In the immediate aftermath, a Civil War broke out between the supporters for the treaty and those against agreeing to a deal that was less than a 32 county Republic. Collins was executed, probably by the same men he once led, while Northern Ireland was established and this split would lead to the Troubles and thousands of deaths.
While Collins was made a scapegoat by De Valera, the treaty should have never been signed. For many reasons, the British were ready to cut a deal and even if they resisted in the short-term, a Republic would have been possible in the future. Unfortunately, the Treaty was signed and this signaled the start of another violent chapter in Irish history starting with the Civil War and leading to the bloodshed in Northern Ireland. Collins and Co. were naive and shortsighted when signing the treaty and the short-term losses that would have occurred after refusing to sign the below treaty would have been worth it in the long run.
Signing the Treaty was the best option available
The importance of this Treaty cannot be understated. After hundreds of years of British occupation, this was an opportunity to achieve a level of autonomy and freedom that once seemed completely unrealistic. Ireland had barely gotten through the 19th century with the famine decimating the population and millions choosing to emigrate. World War I had just ended and this was a major factor in the British coming to the negotiating table. Their appetite for a sustained war had decreased and a solution was now being sought to deal with the situation across the Irish Sea.
A dose of realism needs to be applied here. The British Government were never going to concede to all of the Republican’s demands during the negotiations. The possibility of the talks finishing with a 32 county Republic were slim to none. At a moments notice, the British Army could have sent thousands of additional troops in to Ireland to violently end the War of Independence.
While the change in tactics to guerilla warfare worked after the failed 1916 Rising, the deaths on both sides were nearly equal. The War of Independence made every day life extremely difficult. Resources were scarce and the public’s appetite for a sustained war was not there. The time was right for an agreement.
Both sides of this debate will probably agree that De Valera did make Collins a scapegoat. A decorated Republic fighter and accomplished general, Collins excelled on the battlefield but not in politics. Furthermore, Collins had managed to keep a relatively low profile during the War of Independence. By traveling to London with the delegation, he was giving up his anonymity. De Valera was kept up to date with developments and the final agreement was very similar to what he had discussed with the British PM a few months earlier.
If Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith and the other members of the delegation had refused to sign the contract, there would have been grave consequences. George Lloyd had informed Collins that there would be a “terrible and immediate war” if the Treaty was not signed. The Dail then debated the Treaty when the delegation had returned home. After long discussions, the Treaty was ratified by the Dail in a close vote. De Valera resigned in protest, even though he had know about the negotiations in London, and the Irish Civil War broke out. There would be consequences of course with the North being annexed and the violence that would ensue. However, Ireland came out of the Treaty as a Free State with the power to direct its own future. For the first time in centuries, Ireland was free and would go on to become a full Republic in 1949 when leaving the Commonwealth. The Treaty was the best that could be hoped for in the situation and the delegation were right to put their names to it.