Unionism & The Treaty
The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 led to civil war in Ireland as those for and against descended into bitter conflict. But what of Northern Ireland, established in May 1921? There were plans to include Ulster politicians in an all-Ireland parliament in early drafts, which came close to fruition. The author of a new book on the treaty describes the negotiations leading up to the signing.
Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, the pugnacious former stockbroker Sir James Craig, had intended to have nothing to do with the peace negotiations that culminated in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in the early hours of December 6th, 1921. Having won devolutionary powers for the Six Counties a year earlier, he wanted no part in a discussion that might dilute those gains.
But Ulster unionists’ relations with the Conservative Party were not what they once were. Before the First World War, the Tories had torpedoed the Liberal Party’s efforts to settle the Irish question. At the end of October 1921, however, when the treaty talks were well under way, Conservative MPs gave David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister and the Liberal Party leader of a coalition government, their overwhelming support for the search of a settlement with the south.
Lloyd George sprang into action. Emboldened by his victory in the House of Commons, he summoned Craig to London, hoping that he could persuade this most trenchant of unionists to accept devolution under an all-Ireland parliament in Dublin.
A political contest with Lloyd George was always a risky venture. But the premier of Northern Ireland was determined to beat the ‘Welsh Wizard’ at his own game. At midday on November 5th, Craig strode into Downing Street for what was to be his first meeting with the Prime Minister since the talks began. He and his wife, Cecil Mary, had arrived early that morning at Euston station, where waiting reporters were told his business in London was personal. No political engagements were envisaged, just outings with his sons, who were in school at Eton.
Weeks later, during a rousing speech to Northern Ireland’s Parliament, Craig described what happened that day as ‘Black Saturday … for it will always stand out in my memory as one of the darkest days that I have had to deal with since I have been associated with the Ulster question’.
With his imposing frame and ruddy complexion, the Northern Ireland premier had always invited caricature — either as the straight-talking Ulsterman or the bull-necked epitome of unionist intransigence. For once, however, he appeared to momentarily lose his footing. Despite his public insistence that the London trip was long planned, he knew a summons from Downing Street was imminent and, when it came, he barrelled in, determined to hold the Prime Minister to account on the transfer of services to Belfast, without which Northern Ireland’s Parliament would remain a lame duck.
Craig distrusted Lloyd George. In July, when he and de Valera were in London and spoke to the Prime Minister separately, he had been amazed, according to Beaverbrook’s account, by de Valera’s willingness to meet Lloyd George alone, remarking, ‘Are you mad? Take a witness.’ Now, he braced for some last-minute chicanery, convinced the Prime Minister would use the lure of local autonomy to ‘manoeuvre us into a different position’.
But instead, all was cheerful compliance. ‘His Majesty’s ministers wholeheartedly and energetically set to work to see that we were met in our just demands,’ he recalled. When they reconvened for a second meeting later in the afternoon, relief turned to rage as Lloyd George laid bare plans for Ulster to join an all-Ireland parliament. Incandescent, Craig insisted that ‘such a thing was utterly impossible’ and, when he recounted this tale of defiance to a crowded sitting of the Northern Ireland Parliament at the end of November, the echo chamber that was the Belfast assembly resounded with thunderous applause.
The reality, however, was considerably more complex. As Frances Stevenson’s diary makes clear, Craig had at first signalled his agreement to the terms he would later denounce as an egregious outrage. Observing that Lloyd George anticipated nothing but obduracy from the Northern Ireland premier, she wrote: ‘However, he talked to Craig on and off all day and by the evening … had extorted from him considerable concessions, the most important being an all-Ireland parliament’. The situation was reversed the following day, Monday, November 7th, after Ulster loyalists in Whitehall and Westminster’s upper echelons closed ranks, unwilling to countenance a capitulation on ‘everything for which they [had] been fighting for 35 years,’ as Bonar Law put it a week later.
Among Ulster unionists’ doughtiest supporters was Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, whose relationship with Lloyd George had been on the slide for some time. It was now close to breaking point. So, when Craig and Wilfred Spender, secretary to the new northern Cabinet, arrived at a meeting at the War Office with Wilson and Worthington-Evans, they could be certain of a warm reception. Spender, an architect of the Larne gun-running incident, was also the former commander of the Ulster Special Constabulary, a civil defence force established by Craig’s government in 1920. Billed as a supplement to the RIC, which the province’s unionists regarded as too heavily infiltrated by Catholics, it was essentially a reconstituted Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).
Once unleashed, the notoriously ill-disciplined ‘B Specials’ proved every bit as violent and brutal as the Black and Tans. By aggressively targeting Catholic ‘suspects’, they inflamed communal rivalries and stoked the fires of sectarianism. As far as nationalists were concerned, the B Specials were the UVF in ‘state uniforms’. The British government had turned a deaf ear to warnings about the dangers of this situation from the most senior ranks of its Irish administration. In 1920, both General Macready and John Anderson described the decision to deploy the B Specials as ‘madness’ and tantamount to arming ‘one side and not the other in civil war’.
No such concerns troubled Wilson, or Worthington-Evans. At the Monday afternoon meeting at the War Office, which lasted from 3.30pm to 5pm, they listened sympathetically to Craig and Spender’s security concerns and agreed that Northern Ireland’s executive could use its new powers to employ both the B Specials and the RIC. In other words, Spender’s ad hoc constabulary was to be regularised. An emboldened Craig dashed back to Downing Street to reject Lloyd George’s all-Ireland parliament proposal.
The Northern Ireland premier had every reason to feel bullish. Not only had he the backing of the War Office and the government’s chief adviser on military matters, he also carried with him the full weight of Bonar Law’s support. Craig went to see the Ulster loyalist after the November 5th conferences at Downing Street and, although no records of their discussion exist, it is not difficult, as one historian noted, to ‘surmise the tenor of the conversation.’ At any rate, from now on, Craig resolved not to ‘budge one inch.’
By the end of that month obduracy was matched by a creeping triumphalism. In a lengthy address to Northern Ireland’s parliament, he predicted that the talks would collapse by December 6th, forcing Lloyd George ‘to send me new proposals for the consideration of the Cabinet.’ Having ruled out any participation in the Irish Conference until the British government abandoned its pursuit of an all-Ireland parliament – or the ‘Sinn Fein surrender terms’, as The Morning Post put it – Craig declared that, whatever the outcome, ‘the rights of Ulster will be in no way sacrificed or compromised’. He hinted, too, at renewed warfare in the South, proclaiming that every ‘inch of ground in the Six Counties was sacred, and must be a harbour of refuge for those who might be driven over the borders in search of safety of life and limb.’
Prolonged cheers greeted this hour-long speech, and the next day The Morning Post reported with satisfaction that Craig’s delivery had been characteristically ‘blunt and straightforward.’ But in the days ahead the Northern Ireland premier would need all the granite-like resolve he could muster. On December 5th, it seemed as if his strategy to stand coldly aloof from the conference had paid off after a letter from his brother C.C. Craig, the Ulster Unionist MP for South Antrim, confirmed the talks with Sinn Fein were in disarray. Yet hours later, in a dramatic reversal of fortune, he found himself confronted with a fait accompli that threatened Northern Ireland’s survival. The inclusion of a Boundary Commission in the Treaty raised the prospect of large-scale territorial changes to the six counties, while the settlement’s financial measures pressured Belfast to accept jurisdiction from Dublin. Faced with a struggle he thought he had won, Craig soon retaliated with his familiar battle cry of ‘not an inch’.
Gretchen Friemann is the author of The Treaty: the Gripping Story of the Negotiations that brought about Irish Independence and led to the Civil War, published by Merrion Press.
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