The centenary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 passed without any major official recognition. This is perhaps understandable given that the main consequence of it was to lead to a civil war between supporters and opponents of the Treaty.
The fact that the two main parties to emerge from that conflict are in coalition for the first time probably dictates that it is an issue neither really wishes to revisit. Nonetheless, when Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar were asked about the Treaty when visiting an exhibition in Dublin Castle on Monday, some of their remarks might be considered a bit odd.
Varadkar repeated the received wisdom that Partition was not really an issue in the negotiations, which rests heavily on the historical view that the representatives of the Republic had already accepted the parameters of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act which had established two separate Irish states.
Some nationalist historians have even argued that this had taken place when Dáil Éireann recognised the new constituencies established under the GOI Act to elect two separate Houses of Commons; one for a 26 county state, and one for Northern Ireland. In fact, in May 1921, Dáil Éireann voted to take part in the elections but to use it as the basis for electing the Second All Ireland Dáil.
Collins himself, of course, continued to deploy the northern IRA against the six-county state right up until his death. Partition was by no means considered, even by the pro-Treaty side, as a fait accompli. The army mutiny of Collins loyalists in Dublin in 1924 was to some extent motivated by frustration at the lack of push by the new state on the issue.
More ahistorical was Martin’s reference to the signatories having been “internationalists. They weren’t narrow nationalists.” Even leaving aside the fact that Martin is using both terms in the sense as those who support mass immigration in the interests of corporate capitalism, both are absurd formulations when applied to the Irish revolutionaries of that period.
Those who were engaged in the fight for freedom were indeed highly aware of the global context in which Ireland was striving to achieve its independence and sovereignty, and sympathetic to nations such as India which were engaged in a similar struggle, but even James Connolly – who described himself as a Marxist – clearly placed the interests of the Irish people before those of any imagined international community based on class.
Doctrinaire Marxists have long been critical of Connolly on a whole range of issues including his rejection of liberal dogma on religion and the family, but above all of their positing of that class-based solidarity which has never on any key issue trumped the identity of workers with their own country.
As indeed Connolly understood only too well, being one of a minority of European socialists who did not support their own states in World War I. Of course, Connolly’s position was made all the easier in that “his” government was an administration that ruled Ireland in the interests of England.
It was that which brought Connolly into the alliance with the “narrow nationalists” who organised the Easter Rising in 1916. Connolly himself realised that he had committed heresy in the eyes of his internationalist comrades who he declared as he awaited execution would never understand why he had come to be in the GPO.
The Irish left has avoided those inconvenient facts because it needs Connolly as an icon with which to associate itself with Ireland’s revolutionary tradition – an association that has always been tenuous. And, indeed, its an intellectual hoax that is again exposed today by the alignment of the former nationalist Sinn Féin party with those forces that seek to undermine all vestiges of national sovereignty.
One of the signatories of the Treaty, Arthur Griffith, was completely dismissive of what he described as “universalism, cosmopolitanism or any other ism than nationalism.” The notion that Irish nationalists were, or are, tempted by some new type of supra-national entity be it a centralised European Union or some socialist equivalent similar to the former Soviet Union is absurd.
As for the consequences of the Treaty itself, while it may have been the best deal that was available in the face of British threats of renewed terror, it did represent the setting aside of the Republic as ratified in the 1918 election in which Sinn Féin had won a majority and a mandate for independence.
Incorporating the Protestant unionist population into an all-Ireland state would no doubt have proven to be difficult, but the persistence of the “Ulster problem” surely demonstrates that Partition has not provided a solution. It could certainly be argued that the revolutionary Dáil might have taken a more imaginative approach to it – for instance by proposing a federal administration for the Republic – but the key issue of even the sovereignty of the 26-county state was not resolved in 1921.
It is futile and indeed spurious to attempt to associate contemporary political parties or figures with those of the past. However, the signing of the Treaty and the events that led to it, and which ensued from it, are worthy of ongoing study and consideration in the light of the fact that the fundamental relationships on the island and between Ireland and England have not been finally resolved as was supposed they would be.