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Defence and the role of Erskine Childers in the treaty negotiations of 1921

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2016


Erskine Childers has commonly been seen as the éminence grise of hardline republicanism in the negotiations for an Anglo-Irish treaty that took place in London between October and December 1921. Lloyd George described him as ‘rigid and fanatical’ and believed that Childers had attempted to ‘wreck every endeavour to reach agreement’ Thomas Jones saw Childers as an ‘intense republican’, and it is clear that Jones, too, regarded Childers as an obstacle to an agreed solution. Childers has been portrayed as an inflexible wrangler who stood in the way of an agreement in the winter of 1921 and who was fundamentally opposed to the more conciliatory views of Arthur Griffith, in particular, and of Michael Collins. In Peace by ordeal Lord Longford has stressed the gulf that lay between Childers and Griffith and the way in which this contributed to a division in the Irish dele-g ation as a whole. On one side were the delegates who were more prepared to compromise and reach a settlement with the British negotiators; on the other were those, backed by Childers, who held out against concessions and who signed the treaty on 6 December only with the greatest reluctance.

Copyright © Irish Historical Studies Publications Ltd 1981

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1 Article in Daily Telegraph, 23 Dec. 1922.

2 Ibid., see also The political diaries of C. P Scott, 1911–1928, ed. Wilson, Trevor (London, 1970), pp 402 and 408.Google Scholar

3 Thomas Jones, Whitehall diary, ed. Middlemas, Keith, 3, Ireland, 1918–1925 (London, 1971), p. 153.Google Scholar

4 Ibid., pp 147 and 176.

5 Longford, Lord, Peace by ordeal (2nd ed., London, 1972)Google Scholar; for instance pp 85, 87 and 189–91.

6 Childers was not a cabinet minister but he attended the joint meeting of the Irish cabinet and the delegation of plenipotentiaries which discussed the treaty on 8 December 1921.

7 The framework of home rule (London, 1911).

8 Irish Press, 24 Nov 1932.

9 Childers papers, T.C.D., MS 7786/4/1.1 am indebted to the keeper of manuscripts at the library of Trinity College, Dublin, for enabling me to see the Childers papers relating to the treaty negotiations very soon after their accession. All subsequent references to Trinity College manuscripts (T.C.D. MSS) are to the Childers papers.

10 Ibid.

11 T.C.D., MS 7786/14/5. It must be noted, however, that this letter of 10 August, in which de Valera gave his reply to Lloyd George’s letter of 20 July, did not rule out some form of ‘free association’ with the British commonwealth. Although Childers’ language suggests that he was advocating an isolated republic, it seems likely that he would have accepted a republic in external association with Great Britain as a practical compromise.

12 T.C.D., MS 7786/12/1.

13 Longford, , Peace by ordeal, p. 93.Google Scholar

14 Th. 15 Dec. 1921 (Dáil Éireann: private sessions of seconddâil (Dublin, n.d.), p. 163). This source is hereafter referred to as Dáil Éireann rep., 1921–2.

15 Lionel Curtis began his memorandum on dominion status (see below, p. 258): ’For reasons which will presently appear, dominion status cannot be defined. ’ Therefore I hesitate to offer a definition here. However, it is generally taken to mean the unfettered internal self-government of a state within the British commonwealth owing allegiance to the British crown but possessing equal status with Great Britain in other respects. More precise nuances will be discussed below.

l6 In the ranks of the C.I. V., 1900; The H.A.C, in South Africa, 1903 (ed., with Basil Williams); The Times history of the war in South Africa, 1899–1902, vol. ν (ed.), 1907; War and the arme blanche, 1910; German influence on British cavalry, 1911, and one might also include The riddle of the sands, 1903.

17 T.C.D., MS 7786/14/5.

18 T.C.D., MS 7786/16/14.

19 Diary entries, 13 Nov. and 3 Dec. 1921 (T.C.D., MS 7814); Cabinet minutes, S.P.O., DE 1/3/151 and 177

20 Diary entry, 11 Oct. 1921 (T.C.D., MS 7814).

21 Childers’ conference notebook, 24 Oct. 1921 (T.C.D., MS 7800).

22 Diary entry, 22 Nov. 1921 (T.C.D., MS 7814).

23 Ibid., 21 Nov. 1921. If Childers was referring to Collins’ knowledge of the technical details of the defence question, this comment was probably unjust; on the other hand, he may have meant that Collins did not know (or did not agree with Childers’ estimation of) the real importance of defence.

24 Ibid., 8 Dec.

25 Correspondence relating to the proposals of his majesty’s government for an Irish settlement, pp 2–4 [Cmd 1470], H.L. 1921, xxix, 401.

26 T.C.D., MS 7786/14/3. This is from a memorandum most probably drafted at the beginning of Sept. 1921.

27 Ibid.

28 T.C.D., MS 7786/7/2.

29 T.C.D., MS 7786/14/7.

30 T.C.D.,MS 7786/14/4.

31 T.C.D., MS 7786/16/14–19.

32 T.C.D., MS 7786/14/4–5.

33 Ibid.

34 T.C.D., MS 7786/14/5–7.

35 Ibid.

36 T.C.D., MS 7786/14/7

37 Ibid.

38 ‘Nothing in our defence proposals should expressly or by implication place us in a position lower than the British dominions’ (memorandum on ‘Foreign relations, in connection with defence’, dated 20 Nov. 1921, T.C.D., MS 7786/17/3).

39 From the summary of‘Law and fact in Canada’, a memorandum in which Childers sought to illustrate the distinction with examples (T.C.D., MS 7786/21/14–27).

40 T.C.D., MS 7786/14/5.

41 House of commons debates, 30 Mar. 1920 (Hansard 5 (commons), cxxvii, col. 1124).

42 For Childers’ understanding of dominion status, see T.C.D., MS 7786/3/5 and 7786/14/5–6.

43 Childers, Framework of home rule, p. 324.

44 S.F.C. 13, T.C.D., MS 7783/1/1–20.

45 T.C.D., MS 7786/10/1–10.

46 T.C.D., MS 7786/16/19.

47 T.C.D., MS 7786/16/18.

48 Attendance: Churchill, Beatty; Collins, Childers, Commandant Dalton.

49 T.C.D., MS 7781/49/1 et seq. (Childers’ notes) and 7781/49/10-11 (Dalton’s report).

50 T.C.D., MS 7781/49/3, 8 and 11.

51 Diary entry, 13 Oct. 1921 (T.C.D., MS 7814).

52 C.P 3409, T.C.D., MS 7783/5/5–6.

53 This was held at 2 Whitehall Gardens; attendance: Churchill, Sir L. Worthington-Evans, Capt. F E. Guest, Sir Hugh Trenchard, Vice-Admiral Sir Osmond de Beauvoir Brock, Capt. B. E. Domvile; Collins, Childers, Dalton, Commandant Duffy, Commandant O’Connell; secretaries: Jones, Curtis; Ρ S. O’Hegarty.

54 T.C.D., MS 7783/5/6.

55 T.C.D., MS 7783/5/6.

56 T.C.D., MS 7781/50/22.

57 T.C.D., MS 7781/50/26.

58 T.C.D., MS 7781/51/28.

59 Ibid.

60 At the Colonial Office; attendance: Churchill, Worthington-Evans, Guest, Trenchard, Brock, Domvile, Air-Commodore J. M. Steele, Lt. Col. G. S. Stanley; Collins, Childers, Duffy, Dalton, O’Connell; secretaries as before.

61 T.C.D., MS 7781/51/8.

62 T.C.D., MS 7781/51/9–13.

63 T.C.D., MS 7781/57/17.

64 T.C.D., MS 7781/51/27.

65 T.C.D., MS 7781/51/31.

66 T.C.D., MS 7786/15/1–3, 30 Oct. 1921, MS 7786/15/12-14, 4 Nov. 1921, and MS 7786/16/14–19, 7 Nov 1921.

67 T.C.D., MS 7786/12/1–2.

68 T.C.D., MS 7783/2/1.

69 Ibid.

70 See Longford, , Peace by ordeal, pp 140–41.Google Scholar

71 T.C.D., MS 7782/1/20. Lord Longford comments that the word ‘neutral’ had been altered to ‘free’, ‘without apparently much change in the meaning’ (p. 144). This may have been so for Collins and Griffith, but Childers did not regard it in the same light. Freedom and integrity did not rule out a defence agreement with Britain; and given the geographical position of Ireland, together with Britain’s habit of military and political dominance in Ireland, Childers believed that any such agreement would lead to continued subjection of Ireland. The phraseology of the clause implicitly recognised that Britain should have special treatment on defence matters, for if the League of Nations or America declined to become guarantors (and there was nothing to suggest that they might not) Ireland would be committed to ‘adjusting’ her naval defence after consulting Britain. Under neutrality, on the other hand, Britain would receive exactly similar treatment as all other countries, except insofar as she was to be a guarantor of Ireland’s neutrality, and real independence could be preserved.

72 Longford, , Peace by ordeal, p. 148.Google Scholar

73 T.C.D., MS 7783/3/2–3.

74 For instance T.C.D., MS 7790/47, minute by Childers of a conversation with Jones on 28 October: ‘I pointed out that there was a new condition in their memo — we to have no air force — this was not even in their July 20 proposals. He admitted that this was bad but said only air forces in connection with navy were meant.’ Jones does not mention this conversation in his diary.

75 T.C.D., MS 7782/2.

76 T.C.D.,MS 7790/51/6.

77 Diary entry, 2 Nov. 1921 (T.C.D., MS 7814).

78 T.C.D., MS 7782/3.

79 The final version ran: ‘ As to naval defence, I noted the assurance contained in your memorandum of 27 October to the effect that:— ’The objects of the British government in regard to the navy and the air force are and will remain purely defensive. None of their stipulations is intended in the smallest degree to afford either armed occupation or political control of any part of Ireland”, and I agreed consequently to recommend that the British navy should be afforded such coastal facilities as may be necessary pending an agreement similar to those made with the dominions providing for the assumption by Ireland of her own coastal defence’ (T.C.D., MS 7782/4).

80 2 Nov 1921 (T.C.D., MS 7814).

81 T.C.D., MS 7786/15/12.

82 British memorandum of 16 Nov. 1921 (T.C.D., MS 7783/1–2); Irish memorandum of 22 Nov 1921 (T.C.D., MS 7782/5). A further Irish memorandum of 28 Nov. (MS 7782/6) touched only cursorily on defence.

83 Diary entry, 19 Nov 1921 (T.C.D., MS 7814).

84 These concessions were incorporated in Article 6 of the final agreement. Childers believed that the provisions for review (originally after ten years, but reduced to five in the final draft) were ‘a fraud’ (diary entry, 1 Dec. 1921, T.C.D., MS 7814).

85 In a letter to de Valera on 15 October, Childers had written: ‘We must put up a strong fight for neutrality’; de Valera had replied to Griffith: ‘I agree that we should bid strongly for the neutrality agreement. It would make such a clean sweep of the whole business.’ (T.C.D., MS 7790/32/1 and 7791/8.)

86 Childers’ diary entry, 3 Dec. 1921 (T.C.D., MS 7814).

87 Articles of agreement for a treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, article 6.

88 The facilities were specified in detail in the annex to the agreement.

89 Article 7

90 Article 8.

91 Annex.

92 Diary entry, 8 Dec. 1921 (T.C.D., MS 7814).

93 15 Dec. 1921 (Dáil Éireann rep., 1921–2, pp 166–7).

94 T.C.D., MS 7805/2 and 25.

95 15 Dec. 1921 (Dáil Eireann rep., 1921–2, p. 166). One of the reasons why Childers finally conceded the point at this stage may have been that he was seeking at the same time to defend de Valera’s document no. 2, including its defence concession.

96 For instance 1 Dec. 1921. the Irish delegation was ‘utterly unable [to compete with] the English crooks and their skilled draughtsmen. On defence I was silenced by A[rthur] Gfriffith] today. Chartres only threw in a few words about vital matters which they do not understand.’ (T.C.D., MS 7814.)

97 It is interesting to compare the styles of Childers and Jones in this respect, and the relative influence each of them actually had.