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Fatal Influence: The Impact of Ireland on British Politics, 1920-1925
Kevin Matthews
Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2004.
£39.95, xvi-317 pages, ISBN 1-904558-06-2 (hardback).
£18.95, xvi-317 pages, ISBN 1-904558-05-4 (paperback).

John P. McCarthy
Fordham University

It has been more than a decade since the IRA proclaimed a ceasefire in its violent campaign to achieve political unification of the island of Ireland. It has been more than six years since the Good Friday Agreement that established guidelines for the provincial self-governance of Northern Ireland and the replacement of political violence with democratic action. Peace and economic rejuvenation have come to the area. Prisoners convicted of violent political crimes have been released. Significant social and economic reforms have taken place. However disagreement among the parties on issues like policing and the continuation of private paramilitary groups have resulted in the suspension of the power-sharing governmental institutions and the continuation of direct rule from Westminster. Alas, a problem continues to plague Britain and Ireland that some had hoped had been solved more than eighty years ago in a treaty signed on December 6, 1921 by the British Government and plenipotentiaries espousing Irish national aspirations.

The negotiations that led to that treaty had hoped to reconcile “Irish national aspirations” with “the association of Ireland with…the British Empire.” The way in which it hoped to do so was by making Ireland a self-governing dominion, from which status Ireland was able to quickly evolve to achieve diplomatic independence, autonomy from Westminster legislation, neutrality in wartime, and ultimate withdrawal in 1949 from the British Commonwealth itself.

At the time of the treaty many were disappointed that the negotiations had not achieved an independent republican status for Ireland. That disappointment resulted in a civil war won by the defenders of the treaty. On the other hand, within a decade, the political leader of the opponents of the treaty, Eamon de Valera, became the leader of the government in Ireland by constitutional means, and the political party he formed, Fianna Fail, to this day remains the dominant political grouping in the country.

Remarkably, the problem that still besets the island—the status of the northern six counties—was not the major issue during the debate on the treaty or during the civil war. Then the issue was whether Ireland should be a republic or a dominion, rather than whether Ireland should be a single political entity. Because the treaty itself treated Ireland as a single unit, the Irish Free State, there wasn’t much concern among the nationalists about the likelihood of partition enduring. The wording of the treaty contrasted to the 1920 Government of Ireland Act that had established two separate entities, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, with their own separate parliaments. On the other hand, while treating Ireland as a single entity, the treaty did allow the parliament of Northern Ireland to opt out of the Irish Free State if it did so within one month of the parliamentary ratification of the treaty. If such happened, a boundary commission was to be formed, consisting of one member named by the Irish Free State, one by the Government of Northern Ireland, and one, who would chair, by the British Government, to determine “in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions, the boundaries between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland.”

Both sides in the debate among nationalists about the treaty, as well as in the civil war, assumed the commission award would substantially reduce the size of Northern Ireland and thereby make it unviable as a political entity and be ultimately absorbed into a single Ireland. Naturally, the unionist majority in Northern Ireland, who were not part of the treaty negotiations, were determined that they not lose an inch of territory and opposed the very idea of the commission. It remains an issue as to what the British signatories to the treaty expected the commission would do or what its mandate was.

Until the present little attention has been paid by historians to the last question, or for that matter, to the effect the Irish question had on British politics in general in the period around and after the treaty. Historians have tended to concern themselves with the political evolution of the Irish Free State from its painful birth amidst civil war through its constitutional rather than revolutionary evolution to increased autonomy and ultimately absolute separation from Britain. They have also examined the position of the Northern Irish Unionists in resisting absorption into the rest of Ireland and their harsh and inequitable treatment of the province’s disappointed nationalist minority. But few until Kevin Matthews had actually examined the impact of the Irish question, especially the boundary question, on domestic British politics. His very well written and carefully researched study suggests a great amount of duplicity on the part of the British, a remarkable hardheaded but successful positioning by the Northern Irish Unionists, and a mixture of gullibility and impracticality by the Irish Free State.

He sets the stage by discussing the remarkable “coalition” government that came to power after the 1918 general election whereby David Lloyd George, the Liberal leader, led a government most of whose massive parliamentary majority of more than 249 was Conservative. Lloyd George aspired to link in a central coalition a few Liberals inclined to be generous toward Ireland with coalition-minded Conservatives delighted to minimize “Ireland” as an issue in British politics. At the same time he did not wish to alienate a broader group of Conservatives sympathetic with a “Die-hard” view that had opposed the 1914 Home Rule Act whose implementation had been postponed for the duration of the First World War. This Die-hard attitude had been strengthened in parliament by the results of the “coupon election” and reflected resentment at the Easter Rebellion in Ireland during the Great War.

In dealing with the dilemma of having to enforce the Home Rule Act as well as contend with the outbreak of an actual insurgency in Ireland, “Lloyd George set himself the task of nothing less than a wholescale restructuring of British politics. By combining or ‘fusing’ the Coalition’s two wings, he planned to create a ‘Centre Party’ with, of course, himself as leader.” Therefore, “much of what he did with regard to Ireland is best understood” with this ambition in mind. It was the background to the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, the fourth Home Rule Act. That act called for home rule for two separate Irelands, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, with separate parliaments and governments, but with a Council of Ireland, which would to deal with matters of common concern and “serve as a springboard to a single government.” [p. 17]

The passage of the act and the preparation for the elections in May of 1921 for the respective parliaments, however, was accompanied by an intensification of the war against the IRA insurrection, which included the employment of the notorious “Black and Tans” and “Auxiliaries,” to replace the depleted Royal Irish Constabulary and the more extensive application of martial law in Ireland. When the mixture of carrot and stick was not working and rumblings of discontent within his coalition had developed, Lloyd George took the bold step of actually negotiating with the leader of the insurrection government, Eamon de Valera. The contacts led to a truce and ultimately to the negotiations that culminated in the treaty of December 1921. Associated with Lloyd George in the negotiations were Conservative centrists like Austen Chamberlain and F. E. Smith and the Conservative-turned Liberal and soon to be Conservative again, Winston Churchill.

During the negotiations, which some saw as an appeasement of the Irish, Lloyd George skillfully played on his anxiety about the Die-hard opposition to get the Irish to accept dominion status with an intimation of ultimate unification. It was assumed that the financial autonomy of the Irish Free State in contrast to the fiscal dependency of a separate Northern Ireland would enhance the attraction of unification. The Irish Free State would be master of its own finances, while Northern Ireland would be governed by the 1920 Act. Under that act most public revenue in Northern Ireland (income taxes, excise and customs, etc.) was “reserved,” that is, collected by the British Government, and would be forwarded to the Northern Irish Government for its obligatory policing and social welfare expenses only after a proportionately appropriate “imperial contribution” for foreign policy, defense, and debt, etc. was taken. That remainder, even when joined with the “transferred” revenues, like property rates, licenses, etc., over which the provincial government had control, would very quickly prove inadequate. A measure of the astuteness of James Craig, the Northern Irish Prime Minister, was his ability to get a mixture of outright special grants, such as those to meet the expenses of the highly sectarian auxiliary police force he had created. Later, in 1924 a committee chaired by Lord Colwyn gave “substantial advantages to Ulster” by recommending first that the expected imperial contribution from the reserved revenues from Northern Ireland be reduced and then be regarded as a last rather than first charge. That recommendation gave “Ulster Unionists nearly everything they wanted” [p. 103] and minimized any reason to join the Free State.

Furthermore, the very move to negotiate with Sinn Fein by Lloyd George had set “in motion a chain of events that would lead to his downfall a year and a half later” [p. 37]. It happened when the Conservatives replaced the coalition-minded Austen Chamberlain with Andrew Bonar Law, a former leader with a long history of Die-hardism, as party leader in September of 1922. Within a few days Bonar Law was Prime Minister. It was while Bonar Law was Prime Minister that the Irish Free State, still dealing with its own civil war, sought in early 1923 to have the Boundary Commission called into being.

Bonar Law, whose position was soon reinforced by a general election, did not try to undo the treaty, but his government scarcely expedited the formation of the Boundary Commission. They played on the civil war in the Free State and on a constitutional requirement that the Free State hold another election within a year of its constitution’s ratification to delay its formation. Another delaying device was calling a conference of government leaders to consider settling the boundary issue without the commission. It was only a year later, in 1924, after Bonar Law, suffering from terminal cancer, had resigned and after his Conservative successor, Stanley Baldwin, had fallen from power in a second general election in a year—after which the Labour Party was able to form its first government with the votes of the Liberals—that the Boundary Commission was formally established. But further delay ensued with the Northern Irish refusal to appoint a commissioner. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council ruled that special legislation was necessary for the British Government to appoint a commissioner for them.

There was fear that the legislation might be blocked by a Conservative veto in the House of Lords. Such did not come about as Baldwin calculated “that his party’s interests would not be served by picking a fight over the Irish boundary,” in view of another impending general election [p. 196]. His calculations were correct as the Conservatives gained a massive victory in the third election in as many years. However, signals were given to the Die-hards and the Ulster Unionists that the boundary revisions, if any, would be of a very limited nature. One was the publication in September 1924 of a 1922 letter from Lord Birkenhead to Arthur Balfour, which was called “’conclusive and irrefutable proof’ that there never had been any intention to dismember Northern Ireland.” Other letters from Birkenhead to Austen Chamberlain that were not then released were not as open and shut about the thought behind the agreement to sign the treaty, and Matthews suggests that the version of the 1922 letter that was published “may have been materially altered” [pp. 170-71].

The Free State Vice President and Minister for Justice, Kevin O’Higgins, quickly sensed the implications of much of the Tory rhetoric about the limited mandate of the Commission. However, the President, William T. Cosgrave, advised by the Attorney-General, Hugh Kennedy, rejected O’Higgins’ suggestion that the terms of reference for the commission be negotiated before it went into operation. Instead, the commission acted uninstructed and the pace of its proceedings was determined by its chairman, Richard Feetham, a South African jurist, who was very probably influenced by the commission’s secretary, F. B. Bourdillon, in taking a narrow view of the mandate.

The outcome of the commission’s work was a report—possibly leaked to the press by the Northern Irish member named by the British J. R. Fisher—which called for relatively minor territorial transfer from Northern Ireland, as well as some from the Irish Free State. During subsequent negotiations between the Free State and the British, Baldwin argued to the Irish Free State leaders that had the commission reward been more favorable to the nationalist position they would have expected the British to enforce it against the Northern Irish. However, the implications of Matthews’ book suggest that the British understanding of the mandate of the commission made such a ruling unlikely from the beginning.

At any rate, the negotiations resulted in acceptance of the status quo in return for the Free State being freed from its treaty obligation to contribute a proportionate share of the imperial debt at the date of the treaty, a sum that was to have been determined by arbitrators. But the British could afford to be generous on the imperial debt matter since the absence of any concession would likely have seen a Sinn Fein takeover of the Free State, in which case a contribution to the imperial debt would have been academic.

A fascinating point Matthews notes is the refusal of Eamon de Valera and the more politically inclined figures in Sinn Fein in late 1925 to take their seats in Dail Eireann, even if it meant taking the despised oath to the King. Had they done so, the Labour Party would have joined them in being able to vote no-confidence in the Cosgrave Government and force them from power six years earlier than they did. Alas, as “Cosgrave had earlier predicted, this proved to be the Free Staters’ ‘one safeguard—de Valera’s lack of political foresight,’” as he apparently regarded taking the oath, and “crossing the threshold of Leinster House,” as a step too far for the cause of Irish unity at the time, if it would mean a breakdown of Sinn Fein party unity [p. 236]. Less than two years later, threatened legislation that would deprive his followers of the seats to which they had been elected would force de Valera to move quickly into constitutional politics and overcome his scruples about the oath.

Matthews suggests that had both Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins survived, they, as actual participants in the treaty negotiations, would have been better able to counter the tactics of minimizing the commission’s mandate than Cosgrave. On the other hand, might Collins’ disposition as a revolutionary warrior have made him inclined to return to the gun, which situation would only have solidified Die-hard views on Ireland and have given them greater credibility?

Finally, there remained the reality of the distinct Northern Irish Unionist consciousness. Their leaders were shrewd and unyielding bargainers who got separation from the rest of Ireland, but also virtual political autonomy to run their own show for another half century, while at the same time reaping the generosity of the British exchequer. But a forced unification of the island, or a resumption of armed conflict in pursuit of such, might well have resulted in a clash within the island of rival authoritarianism—a pattern occurring in those years in many other European countries in which parties had irredentist claims.



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