The Treaty Debate – Ireland’s Great Unknown

By Paddy Haughey

“World history is a battle between two forms of love: love of self to the point of destroying the world and love of others, to the point of renouncing oneself.” –  St Augustine

This truth goes a long way to explaining the tragedy, which unfolded as a consequence of the signing of the Treaty of 1921.

St Thomas Aquinas says, more pointedly, that God’s masterpiece in the physical universe, is ourselves. “It is true we have vegetative powers and animal powers but we are not animals. We live a life dramatically different from any other life. The vital principle within us, the soul, easily outraces time, eliminates distance, and pierces the wall of death. Of all the physical world, we are in control of our actions and our life, responsible for both; made to be masters, first of all of ourselves and then of the physical world, in which we live our days.”

The Dáil debate on the Treaty commenced on Wednesday, 14 December, 1921. It was adjourned to go into private session. It recommenced in public session on 19 Monday, December at 11.25am. Arthur Griffith proposed acceptance of the Treaty; Sean MacEoin gave his support, Eamon de Valera, proposed to reject it and Austin Stack supported him.

Austin Stack then continued explaining, what he saw as its chief defects – “England purports to bestow on Ireland, an ancient nation, the same constitutional status as any of the British Dominions. It was easy for countries like Australia, New Zealand and others to put up with the powers, which are bestowed on them, to put up with acknowledgments to the monarch and rule of Great Britain as head of their State.

Have they not all sprung from England? Are they not children of England? Have they not been built up by Great Britain? Have they not been protected by England and lived under England’s flag for all time? What other feeling can they have, but affection for England, which they always regard as their motherland? Ireland on the other hand, has not been a child of England’s, nor never was. England came here as an invader and for 750 years we have been resisting that conquest. Are we now, after those 750 years, to bend the knee and acknowledge that we received from England as a concession, full or half, or three-quarter Dominion powers? I say no.”

He concluded by quoting two of Russell Lowell’s lines: “Once to every man and nation comes a moment to decide, In the strife ‘twixt truth and falsehood for the good or evil side.”

Count Plunkett followed Austin Stack and finished by saying that “we have taken an oath to the Republic, and are we going to take a false oath now to King George? Under no circumstances will I sacrifice my personal honour in such a manner. I don’t believe that the men, who foolishly imagine such a thing can be done, can resist the corruption, that inevitably comes of dishonour.”

The House adjourned at 1o’clock and recommenced at 3.45.

Erskine Childers spoke: “The question which has not been so far mentioned is, can the national assembly of the people of Ireland, having declared its independence, approve of and ratify a Treaty, relinquishing deliberately and abandoning that independence? The two speeches by the leading members of the delegation have left it still obscure, about what the delegation was entitled to do, when it went to London, as compared with what it has done.”

The sole question before the nation, Dáil Éireann and the delegation was, how is it possible to effect an association with the British Commonwealth which would be honourable to the Irish nation? It ought to be understood that that object was held, before the delegation, to the last, except for the last terrible hour. It stated explicitly, that the independence of our country excludes the King of England and British authority wholly from our country and only when that was done and Ireland was absolutely free in Irish affairs, could we enter an association on free and honourable terms with Britain.

“That alas! was lost in the last terrible hour of the time, the delegation spent in London.”

Arthur Griffith claimed in his speech that the Treaty was a final settlement. Michael Collins used the phrase “a settlement that was not final” to describe it.

Erskine ended by asking the question: “Do you or do you not think, that the freedom and liberties of Ireland are inherent in the people of Ireland, derived from the people of, and can only be surrendered by the people, or do you think their liberties, their right to freedom, are derived from the act and will of the British Government?”

Robert Barton said Lloyd George gave him one hour and a half to sign, at 8.00 pm, on Monday evening, the 5 December. And he felt terrorised into signing, because of the threat of immediate war. He was personally prepared to stand behind the proposal of the delegation for external association, face war and maintain the Republic and not accept inclusion in the British Empire and take peace. As only himself and Gavan Duffy were refusing to sign, he felt he couldn’t take responsibility for British all-out war against Ireland and reluctantly agreed to sign.

Michael Collins then moved the adjournment until 11.00am the next morning.

Cathal Brugha moved that the debates be held in the Mansion House at 11.00am the next morning, so there would be room to let members of the public attend it, and so counteract the one-sided press reports. 1,000 people could have attended. De Valera opposed his motion. The Dáil Éireann public session commenced on Tuesday, 20 December at 11.35 am.

First speaker, Sean Etchingham in his speech asked the question: “Was there a coalition of pressure, of terror, between the three members of the Delegation, who were in favour of signing and the members of the British Cabinet, to get Robert Barton and Gavan Duffy to sign”?

He added, that it is a tragic story, the story of black Monday, the night the 5th and 6th December. We were unmovable on the Saturday, when the delegation came home and met the Dail and our course was undermined on the Tuesday.

11.50am, Wednesday, 21 December 21.

Gavin Duffy said, “We were sent to London as apostles of peace, and were transformed into arbiters of war; we had to make the choice within 3 hours and to make it, without reference to our Cabinet, to our Parliament, or to our people. And that monstrous iniquity, was perpetrated by the man, who had invited us under his roof in order, moryah, to make a friendly settlement.”

Professor Stockley, who spoke of what Robert Barton and Gavin Duffy related about the terror they felt, said “I can assuredly appeal to anyone’s heart here or in the world, who has a spark of generosity, and ask, if treatment meted out to Ireland in this last disgraceful act of England, is not a fitting climax and one of the worst examples of abominable treatment of this country, by England.”

(Very few people, know about the Treaty Debate. I have written about a few of the speeches, in what is a 424-page document, to whet people’s appetite. It was published for the first time in 1972 and was never re-printed. Two copies are in the National Library, semi-concealed, in the unique documents section. They are now available online on

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