The Dáil debate that shaped how we understand Irish history

A Sinn Féin split over the Treaty left Ireland in uncertain circumstances in early 1922

The Sinn Féin juggernaut, which had risen from political obscurity in 1916 to be the dominant voice of nationalist Ireland just a couple of years later, came to a sudden fork in the road in December 1921. This was caused by the Anglo-Irish Treaty, a provisional deal signed in London with the British government by five plenipotentiaries of Sinn Féin, including two of the party's more prominent figures, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. This deal forced Sinn Féin to choose between tearing up the agreement and taking a route into the unknown in pursuit of an undefined republic, and accepting "what was good enough for Mick [Collins]", which involved taking a clearer route to a destination that it had not sought to reach, a semi-sovereign twenty-six county Irish Free State.

The juggernaut did not so much take either route, with the Treaty, as it came to be known, splitting the Sinn Féin parliamentary party, which comprised the entire sitting second Dáil, practically down the middle, sending 57 TDs, who were against the Treaty, down route one and 64 TDs, in favour of it, down route two. This left Ireland at the beginning of 1922 in very uncertain circumstances. A majority of Sinn Féin TDs had endorsed the Treaty, and effectively triggered the secession of what would become the Irish Free State from the United Kingdom, but a significant minority of them had also rejected it, indicating that the foundation of the Free State would be strenuously resisted. Furthermore, beyond this, the dynamics of how things would play out was unclear. Specifically, how exactly would the IRA, outside the Dáil, react, and how would the people of the incoming Irish Free State react?

These debates offer some clues as to the rocky path ahead for the fledging nation-state

The Treaty was the subject of a three-week ratification debate in the Dáil over December 1921 and January 1922, during which almost 100 TDs spoke close to half a million words. Since it was during these debates that a level of factionalism and divide within Sinn Féin became publicly evident, they offer some clues as to the rocky path ahead for the fledging nation-state.

Most of the political leadership within Sinn Féin used the debates as an opportunity to set forth their vision for an Irish state. Its constitutional status proved to be the key cause for concern: that it would be a dominion of the British empire, styled as a free state, rather than a republic completely outside of Britain’s orbit. While the Treaty gave the Irish Free State substantive political independence, with effectively full powers of self-government, dominion status meant that it would continue to be subordinated, if only mostly symbolically, to Britain.


Cementing partition

Where the Treaty really trammelled Sinn Féin's aspirations for Irish nationhood was with partition. It did not create the six-county Northern Ireland as a separate self-governing jurisdiction of the UK – Westminster's Government of Ireland Act of 1920 had already done that – but it did cement partition. Contrary to what might be imagined, however, during the Treaty debates, partition and "the North" were not a major concern for the Sinn Féin TDs. "Ulster" was referenced just 113 times, unionism 38 times, the "North-East" 17 times, and "six counties" was mentioned on just 11 occasions. In contrast, "oath", referring to the oath of allegiance that TDs would have to take to the Irish Free State, and the oath of fidelity that they would have to take to King George V, was mentioned 700 times, one of the more frequent topics of discussion.

Given that partition became the long-term compromise on Irish independence, and that the qualifications on the constitutional status of the Irish state would not curtail its independence (while also being incrementally, and quite easily, removed up to 1949, when the state did become a republic), it is surprising in retrospect that partition was not a major concern. At the time, though, the Sinn Féin TDs tended to believe that a future boundary commission, the establishment of which had been provided for in the Treaty, would recommend that the Border be redrawn so as to transfer extensive nationalist-majority areas to the Irish state, so leaving the rump of Northern Ireland, and therefore partition itself, unviable. At the time, too, Sinn Féin TDs had a mandate only for the recognition of the Irish Republic, with the party’s manifesto unequivocal on this. In addition, 72 per cent of the 121 Sinn Féin TDs were members of the IRA and, as such, had taken an oath to the Republic that they were now being asked to break.

Based on the key concern during the Treaty debates, and the almost even division when Sinn Féin TDs voted on the Treaty, the scene was set in January 1922 for a year in which the very legitimacy of the new state – which was supposed to be formalised by the end of the year – would be challenged.

It was of course likely that the main challenge to the new state would come from the IRA. The high level of IRA membership in the Dáil meant that the political fallout in the parliamentary arena was likely to spill over into the paramilitary, especially with a majority of Sinn Féin TDs who were also IRA members voting against the Treaty. This not only served to undermine the legitimacy of the prospective state but also served to legitimise, and consequently empower, elements of the IRA to oppose it. This was especially the case considering that Éamon de Valera, president of the Republic up to the narrow victory for the pro-Treaty side, was opposed to the Treaty. The reaction of the IRA would mirror what happened in the Dáil; indeed, close analysis of the Sinn Féin TDs and their split provides a definite augury of the Civil War.

Public opinion

While the split in the Dáil was narrow, bitter and tempestuous, during the debates many TDs from the pro-Treaty side claimed that these divisions were not reflected in the wider population. Indeed, had it not been for the evident public desire for a peaceful resolution, it is likely that the Dáil would have rejected the Treaty outright. During the debates JJ Walsh claimed that "nine out of every 10 people in Cork city are in favour", and Seán O'Mahony of Fermanagh and Tyrone reported a constituent telling him that "80 or 90 per cent favour the ratification here".

Although there was no Brexit-style referendum on the Treaty, the Dáil elections of June 1922 confirmed the level of public support for the settlement. Candidates and parties in favour of the Treaty won about 70 per cent of the vote; Labour, running just 18 candidates, won more first preferences than de Valera's anti-Treaty Sinn Féin, which fielded 58 candidates.

While this might suggest that by the summer of 1922 the Irish people had moved on from the debate over the Treaty and wanted to live in a regular and peaceful state, many in the Dáil did not share this sentiment. The arguments that had convulsed Sinn Féin during the Treaty debates continued to be echoed, particularly by those on the anti-Treaty side. Proving that their opposition was more than just words, they formed their own parliament and government, one of a number of actions that plunged the country into civil conflict in late June 1922.

The Treaty, and the debate over its legacy, shaped the battle lines of the party system that emerged in the Irish state in the 1920s and the 1930s

Although the pro-Treaty side ultimately proved victorious a year later, the split that had first emerged in the Treaty debates did not disappear. Indeed, in contrast to other European democracies, where competition between political parties went along the lines of social conflict, in Ireland it took a political turn.

The Treaty, and the debate over its legacy, shaped the battle lines of the party system that emerged in the Irish state in the 1920s and the 1930s. The divide between pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty Sinn Féin became the main fault line of political competition, and remained so for a century. Those in favour of the Treaty voted Cumann na nGaedheal (and later Fine Gael), those against Fianna Fáil. Every single government in the state has been led by one or other (and now both) of these parties. Even the party that threatens to oust this duopoly, Sinn Féin, claims a legacy back to the Treaty era, professing to be descended from the anti-Treaty republicans who refused to follow de Valera into Fianna Fáil in 1926.

Given the lack of attention, and often lack of significance, afforded to parliamentary debates in the contemporary era, it is remarkable that so much of what we understand about Irish politics and history can be traced back to a Dáil debate from a century ago.

Mícheál Ó Fathartaigh and Liam Weeks are authors of Birth of a State: The Anglo-Irish Treaty (Irish Academic Press, 2021) and editors of The Treaty: Debating and Establishing the Irish State (Irish Academic Press, 2018)